Battle in Print: Refocusing remembrance

Ted Harrison, 7 January 2010

November is a sombre month with long dark evenings that not even the early Christmas lights quite succeed in cheering. No wonder our ancestors associated the time of year with death and dying. For the families of those who have died serving in the armed forces it is a time of sad memories. The sale of poppies and the national rituals of remembrance become a poignant reminder of their own loss and grief.

It is not just aging widows with distant memories of the 1940s who feel this way. Every time a casualty of a current conflict is announced on the news with the line that ‘members of the family have been informed’, a new widow is created, another mother loses a son and more children become fatherless. Or, it might be a young woman – a daughter, wife and mother – whose body is flown home for burial.

Forty years ago, as the veterans of the two world wars dwindled in numbers, many thought that poppy day and the observance of the two-minutes’ silence would quietly fade away. It was a time when it was very rare for a member of the British forces to die in action and honouring the dead of war meant less and less to the peacetime young. But then came the Falklands War and the Gulf Wars and today British troops are engaged in Afghanistan. So veterans wearing berets and medals continue to be a familiar sight as they stand outside supermarkets and in town centres with their collecting tins and trays of poppies. And the sale of poppies, although supported by a national advertising campaign, remains essentially a local effort involving thousands of volunteers and is the British Legion’s core money-raising activity.

The British Legion was set up after the First World War to help the thousands of soldiers, many suffering from horrendous disabilities, who had returned from war to find themselves betrayed by the political classes. They did not find the land fit for heroes that they had supposedly fought for, but one of deprivation and unemployment.

Within 20 years an even greater betrayal became evident. Far from being the war to end all wars, the politicians had so badly handled the peace that a second military conflagration engulfed Europe and spread to the rest of the world.  By 1945 a new cohort of war victims required British Legion help. The income from the sale of poppies enabled the British Legion to carry out this important work.

Sixty years on and the role of the British Legion has changed. While it continues in its charitable role, it has also become the custodian of national remembrance. It organises the poppy appeal; plays a central role at the cenotaph ceremony; members are involved at every local war memorial; and the Legion arranges the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall.

The British Legion, now with the prefix Royal, is a thoroughly establishment body which endorses the view that soldiers are heroes and those who die have sacrificed themselves so that we who are left may enjoy freedom and live in peace. When a small boy presented a poppy at the festivities in the Albert Hall this year he did so, reciting the words he was given to say, ‘to say thank you from children to those who gave their lives so that we can live and be free’.

But this view is a dangerous half-truth. It is part fiction and part propaganda designed to reassure those bereaved, traumatised or wounded in warfare that their ‘sacrifice’ had a noble purpose. While some soldiers have indeed died courageously in battle defending the innocent or protecting colleagues, huge numbers have not. They died because of incompetence, inadequate preparation, disease, and sometimes in pursuit of futile objectives. Many fought because as conscripts they had no choice; or, they joined up through peer pressure; they signed on through immature bravado; or because they had no other chance of work.

Few wars present a clear-cut moral choice. The second Gulf war divided the nation. Wars are fought to defend the economic interests of the powerful and to enable politicians to save face, or bolster their popularity, as much as to defend freedom or maintain the peace. Even well intentioned wars designed as peace-keeping operations can have unintended consequences and lead to greater loss of life than ever intended. It ought to be recalled too that some Britain’s enemies of the last 100 years have believed that they were fighting for freedom and that Britain and its allies were the aggressors.

In recent times one of the best-known soldiers from the First World War has been Private 29295 Harry Patch, whose longevity earned him a special place in national affections. He had been an ordinary Tommy and not a great hero. He had not volunteered to fight in a youthful blaze of jingoistic bravado, but had been conscripted and wore his uniform dutifully, but reluctantly. Interestingly, he considered Remembrance Day ‘just showbusiness’, and war, ‘organised murder, and nothing else’.

His memories of war had little to do with marching bands in the Royal Albert Hall and politicians stealing photo-opportunities outside Westminster Abbey, but were stark and vivid. He lost three close friends in the slaughter of one night. ‘Those chaps are always with me. I can see that damned explosion now’.

The realities of conflict, whether the pointless trench warfare of the First World War, or the ‘collateral damage’ to civilians of aerial bombing, or the bloody and terrifying consequences of a suicide bomb, or the deaths by ‘friendly fire’, bear no resemblance to the sentimental, sanitised and sugar-pilled jingoism of the Albert Hall’s annual Festival of Remembrance.

Harry Patch didn’t live to see Faryl Smith, finalist in Britain’s Got Talent appearing at the Albert Hall in 2009; neither did he see ‘B’ list celebrity Hayley Westenra on the same bill singing, ‘Every day’s a gift from heaven, welcome as a long lost friend’; but he might have watched Katherine Jenkins two years earlier standing in a pool of ethereal blue light with full schmaltzy orchestra giving voice to these words:

‘In fields of sacrifice
Heroes paid the price
Young men who died for old men’s wars
Gone to paradise.’

At one point during the traditional Festival of Remembrance, thousands of poppies flutter down from the roof of the Albert Hall. It is a moment of riveting theatricality as young men and women in their spick and span uniforms stand to attention and let the silent flowers settle on their shoulders and on their heads. Yet, we need to be reminded how the poppy came to be adopted as such a powerful symbol.

It started with a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, back in 1915 looking at the freshly-filled graves of the scores of young men slaughtered in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and writing the poem ‘In Flanders’ Field’.

‘In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scare heard amid the guns below.’

And the poem concludes with the lines:

‘If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.’

After the war an American, Moina Michael, moved and inspired by the imagery of the poem, began to sell poppies to raise money for the war wounded.

In Britain and several other countries, the poppy icon now dominates all aspects of remembrance. It is not just in the Albert Hall that the poppy is the central symbol. At the cenotaph on the Sunday before 11 November, the Queen and the politicians lay wreaths of poppies. A temporary garden of crosses and poppies is set out at Westminster Abbey. Directives go out to newsreaders and others appearing on television that they should sport a poppy in the lapel. So, by doing all this are we keeping faith with those who died in Flanders’ Field 95 years ago?

What would the message of the victims of the trench warfare be to us today? Do the ghosts sleep of those young men lying in the newly dug graves seen by Dr McCrae? Or do they want to speak out, and if so, what do they wish to say? Do they wish to echo the words of Harry Patch and call war ‘organised murder’? ‘Too many died,’ he once told the BBC,  ‘War isn’t worth one life.’ For the sake of future generations and of peace we must be certain that the blood-red poppy as worn and displayed today serves not to glorify the war dead but to warn against the evils of war.

Sadly an element of glorification is contained in the message being given out by the traditional remembrance-tide ceremonies. The pomp and ceremony, and the showbiz element, can be seen to endorse militarism, giving it a place of honour in our society and suggesting, if only implicitly, that the use of arm force is a respectable and moral option for governments.

However, if the poppy was originally intended to act as a warning against the evils of war, then poppy day is a failure. Young men are still being sent to their deaths by the politicians, who today in Britain do not even give them adequate equipment to fight their wars. The public at large, the mass of people who do not lay down their lives abroad, still support violence as a means to settle scores and secure the nation’s economic interests. As at the time of the Falklands conflict, jingoism lies only just below the surface of the national character.

How might the traditions of remembrance tide be changed to minimise the dangers of glorifying war, while at the same time enabling those who grieve to find comfort and purpose in their sorrow? To abolish poppy day and the other rituals of the year would be a hurtful and ungrateful gesture. Changes however are long overdue. Maybe the following suggestions could be considered:

  • The tradition of the party political leaders laying wreathes at the cenotaph should be discontinued. A clear distinction should be made between those whose failures result in wars and those whose duty it is to risk being killed in conflict

  • Serving members of the armed forces should not wear ceremonial uniforms, but appear as they have to when performing their duties. Bearskins and scarlet tunics might have a role in attracting tourists, but it is specialist protective combat kit that is worn in Helmand province. This symbolic change would remind onlookers that the bearing of arms may be a necessary profession, but it should not be glamorised. Similarly members of the royal family should be advised not to appear in uniform unless currently serving in the forces.

  • There should be no formal marching and wearing of military insignia by the former service men and women who take part. They should be invited to walk solemnly past the cenotaph, not in military formation with their comrades abreast, but in the company of the civilians bereaved by war, widows and families. They might even be encouraged to invite veterans from former enemy countries to accompany them.

  • Music played should not be rousing or militaristic, but quiet and sorrowful.

  • Two new forms of observance could be introduced. Bell ringers at churches around the country could be asked to ring a half-muffled peal for at least an hour on 11 November. This is a traditional mark of respect for the dead and would be rung in memory of the civilian dead of all wars.

  • Secondly, every year a list of perhaps 1000 of those who have died in wars since 1914, should be drawn up. The personal details of each person on the list would be made available on a website and include a photograph together with a brief peacetime and wartime history. The place of their burial would be recorded and the circumstances of death. The list would represent a wide range of men, women and children; soldiers and civilians; heroes of battle, victims of the blitz; British, Americans, Russians, Argentinians, Germans. Furthermore, every poppy sold would have one of the 1000 names printed on the back. And those who buy and wear a poppy would be encouraged to go to the website and learn more about the individual with whom they have been linked.

    This would encourage more people to see warfare in terms of individual cost and not in misleading broad-brush generalisations. Indeed, the purpose of the changes taken together would be to refocus remembrance tide, which has become too stuck in an unhelpful rut. It would not dishonour anyone who has died in the service of their country, but would be a timely reminder of the true cost of war and a check against the glorifying, sanitising or sentimentalising of war. It would be a reminder of war’s true cost and a renewed warning to politicians that the use of arms should never be embarked upon lightly.


    Dr Ted Harrison is a writer, artist and theologian. He is former BBC Religious Affairs correspondent, Radio 4 presenter and independent television producer.

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