Poppies Whose Roots are in Men’s Veins

Memorial day makes me uneasy. It seems like a day for cathartic communal sadness. The sadness of loss, of lives cut short, the sadness of gravestones and poignant black and white photographs. I think that today we let ourselves forget that war isn’t sad. It’s horrific.

That’s what we should remember. The horror people were forced to endure while alive, the lice and the mud, the crippling shell shock, the constant stream of butchered, nameless corpses. The soldiers shot at dawn for “cowardice” and “desertion” of various kinds. Otherwise known as PTSD, or the limits of human endurance. How do we remember those men? How do we remember those who shot them? How do we remember the meaningless, unjustifiable war that cost Europe a generation?

I agree that we can’t afford to forget the betrayal of “doomed youth” and the immense value of those lives lost.  But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the pomp and circumstance. Many of those killed in the Great War did not give their lives. They had them taken. And as Siegfried Sassoon tells us, a monument or moment’s silence doesn’t forgive that:

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, – 

These doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Here was the world’s worst wound

And here with pride. ‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.

Was ever and immolation so belied?

As these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

– Siegfried Sassoon


9 thoughts on “Poppies Whose Roots are in Men’s Veins

  1. I was buying lunch this morning in Salisbury’s. As I leant over the self-serve checkout a member of staff touched me on the shoulder: “Could you just wait a moment, we’re observing the minute’s silence.” When I turned round I saw the entire store at a standstill. They stood still and silent for the next two minutes. I found myself moved that so many ordinary people observed this simple ceremony for a fallen generation long gone. Many today seem determined that a generation betrayed in so many ways shall not be denied this last promise, that they will be remembered.

    My own memories of Rememberence day are mixed. There’s an old Northern joke, “Rememberence day: when the British Legion remembers its fallen dead and Ballymena council remembers they’re protestants.” The North has always politicised this day and the charge goes both ways. Personally, I always dreaded it’s approach. My liberal secondary school – you know the name – forgot it’s tolerance on that day and had the school assembly sing the British National Anthem. Some students pleased with the opportunity to express the nationalism that was elsewhere in school suppressed as not appropriate in a mixed school relished the chance to add Loyalist verses, the great bulk sang the normal verses with sombre dignity, and I and all the other Catholics stood silent and in receipt of odd glances from other students and our teachers. Whatever society was remembering its fallen dead I was not part of it.

    It is because of this politicised nature of the Poppy in the North that I have never worn one; but I have bought one before, and would gladly donate the price of one if asked. The idea of memory seems eminently worthy to me. The political attitude to the Poppy in the North is getting better with each passing year. There is increasing tolerance and sensitivity from both sides. The moments silence I mention today took place in Newry, the most “Catholic” City in the east of the North and a SF stronghold.

    Those are just some thoughts your piece prompted.

  2. I don’t wear a poppy because I see it very much as a British tradition, but I was more then happy to stand silence for two minutes in Oxford last year and I imagine if I lived some where it was widely worn like the UK or Canada (though probably not the North) I would wear one too.

    Remembrance day isn’t just about the soldiers who died in World War One, its about soldiers who’ve died in all wars, particular those since, that’s why the day which was slowly starting to die out in the 80’s and 90’s has started to become so much more recognised since Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Countries like the UK regularly ask young men and women to join the armed services and risk life and limb for their country, weather it be for a noble causes like WWII and often causes less so like WWI, young men and more recently women act on their nations behalf making great sacrifices as you mentioned. It would be shameful if they didn’t remember what they went though. While the military pomp that associated may not be to you’re taste and the political symbol that it represents in the North is in my view insulting, the act of normal people wearing a flower and stopping in the streets in remembrance to me seems fitting and no less then they deserve. I saw footage of people stopped in the streets across London earlier and there was something amazing about millions of people stopping in their tracts to remember the past.

    Remembrance day keeps fresh in our mind the horrors of war, which I think is something that no society should forget both cause we owe it to those who suffered, but also because war is horrific, and its dangerous when a society forgets how difficult war is. Hopefully never again will a country rush into a major war as enthusiastically as the British public did in 1914, and remembering the people who died over 90 years ago in world war one unlike the way that that generation forgot about the massive casualties of the napoleonic wars, is probably good for Pacifism.

    Finally I think you give the whole thing a harder time then it deserves, I watched the parade and most of the ceremony in Oxford last year and was very impressed. Unlike you I quite enjoy military pomp and liked the parade that went by, and its easy to let that dominate your impression of the day, but the thing that struck me was what people said. The mayor, military, religious figures and others all spoke and many of them talked of wars gone by, many of them remembered the soldiers out sacrificing on their behalf to day and many talked the civilians disrupted and killed during war the the Muslim Imam chose to remember people who weren’t British who’d been killed in conflicts, and it came across more as an event remembering the horrors of war then one dedicated to just former British soldiers, and is crucially not the glorification of war and death that you seem to be implying.

    I hope you are well, and just curious, would you wear a white poppy?

    • The way in which it incorporates ongoing wars is one of the things that bothers me about the poppy. It is a symbol not just of the deaths of past victims of war, but of all future wars too, with an implicit understanding that there will be future victims. Before they start a war, they’ve already decided that those who die will be incorporated into the annual commemoration. Just as the way in which the prime minister and leader of the opposition reading out the names of those who have died in the service of their country in the Commons once a week can seem very formulaic; not that they shouldn’t, of course they should be acknowledged by their political leaders, but it does just become a matter of course. Focus on words like hero and sacrifice leave little chance to question the merits of these battles at all.

      What I’m getting at is that as long as “Countries like the UK regularly ask young men and women to join the armed services and risk life and limb for their country, weather it be for a noble causes like WWII and often causes less so like WWI, young men and more recently women act on their nations behalf making great sacrifices as you mentioned”, of course it is only right that they are acknowledged. But there should be far greater scrutiny of how to avoid this tragedy at all in the first place, and a genuine expression of regret that these events ever occurred.

      I’m not sure Remembrance Day does much for pacifism. Maybe this catalogue does show more wars fought in the century after the Napoleonic War than in that after the Great War. But even just after it ended, Britain sent ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD to Ireland who as the Black and Tans, accustomed to the horrors of the Western Front, committed atrocities here. In other colonial situations between then and the 1960s, the British Army seemed to learn nothing. And while the focus in recent years has included Afghanistan and Iraq, so rarely is this the time that there is a pacifist critique of these ventures. While not as big as the First World War, the government and public did rush into these two wars, and on the military and political side, with a mission far too broad and ambitious.

      I think in Ireland we should remember those who fought in the First World War as those who were fooled into taking part in one of the great European tragedies, something they needlessly shared in with so many others. Equally, we should remember those who fought in all wars, whether it be the Napoleonic Wars, the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War, those who were fighting for greater Irish independence in all decades, and those who died with the UN. And in all cases feel free to question whether there was a point to it without feeling that it in any way shows disrespect to those who were killed.

      I find military pomp distasteful, given the purpose of an army, and much as we do have an army, I’m glad of the fact that they are more modestly attired than in some countries. Even still, I could not help feeling watching President Michael D. Higgins inspect the guard after the inauguration on Friday that it was perhaps an aspect of the job he would enjoy less than others.

      • Okay I’ll say first of all that I like military pomp, but in the same way that I like most of that kind of thing, be it big religious services the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics or the less sinister River Dance I love that kinda thing. I know governments armies and churches use such things because people like me like them, and I am neither condoning or defending their use, but I do think they’re aesthetically pleasing. I would happily see them remove all the pomp, but the idea of the countries leading politicians, head of state and other important figures stopping to lay a flowers and remember I think that is important. You mentioned Michael D. in his first official duty the president went to an Anglican service on Sunday to remember the Irish war dead from both world war one and two.

        The point you make about the plans to remember the future dead is interesting and maybe your right maybe we should separate are memorial services for the future dead against those of the past conflicts..

        While I obviously agree that there should be more scrutiny of how governments enter wars, but I don’t think rememberence day stops that. I agree that people should be more critical of wars, but I don’t see how remembering the war dead stops criticism, if anything it leave two weeks a year where people are regularly reminded of war and how soldiers have died. Britain did sadly engage in lots of conflicts in the two decades after world war one, committing many atrocities both in Ireland and a broad, but if you compare the British public reaction to the run up two world war one (where young men were enthusiastic about the prospect of defending their country’s honour) and world war two where the British public seemed desperate to avoid another major war. I think its fair to say the death toll had some effect. When you site modern conflicts also two thirds of the public in the UK opposed the invasion of Iraq, and it seems increasingly more difficult for governments to convince the public of the need to engage in other countries (which is something that I think is positive)

        As an aside I really don’t like how that list names Unionists as Britain’s Allies during the troubles and both Nationalists and Republicans as being her enemy.

  3. http://ind.pn/siL2j1 just stumbled across this Fisk article it make a quite convincing case against the poppy, and might interest you. Though I still think its a nice tradition, and my impression is that many veterans find it comforting and certainly many do and did take part in the ceremony so its not fair to rest the entire veteran case on Robert Fisk’s dad.

  4. Anthony, William has responded more fluently than I was able to in this post about the fact that the wearing of the poppy and the traditions of military pomp (which you admit that you ‘enjoy’ – surely illustrates you’re not thinking all that much about horror or brutality) normalise war and the expectation that people give their lives for Queen and country, regardless of the justness of the cause. So I really don’t think I’m giving it a harder time than it deserves, in fact I was positively restrained with this piece. I think that beautiful and moving ceremonies of remembrance dangerously distort our perceptions of war, perpetuating outdated romantic notions of war and sacrifice. I believe that by encouraging those notions we trick young men and women into sacrificing their lives.

    In answer to your question, I wouldn’t wear the white poppy. I had read the Fisk article, and agree with much of what he said. I think the white poppy is as ostentatious as the red and given that overblown concepts of nationalism are often the causes of wars, I don’t think that the victims should be commemorated in the same overblown terms.

    Incidentally, I was in Stansted airport for the two minutes silence last year. While, like you, I found it aesthetically remarkable, I was particularly conscious that there had to be Muslims in that airport who faced an increased likelihood of being searched, stared at, and unpleasantly treated because of the nature of Britain’s current military efforts. In the same way that I do think this ceremony was divisive in the North, I think it currently excludes minority groups and anyone who isn’t willing to waive their usual abhorrence for killing and unjust conflict for the day.

    • I would happily see them remove the military pomp from rememberence day, and as I said in my original post, the thing that struck me about the ceremony in Oxford wasn’t the military march or pomp which I expected, it was speeches people made and what they said, the inclusive nature of the dialogue and how, large numbers of Oxford locals had come out just to pay their respects to men who had died defending their country past and present.

      Maybe its just me but I don’t see how people wearing symbols to remember the war dead normalises it, surely it forces us to engage with it and think about it.

      The Muslims in the airport probably didn’t have to face huge security increases because of rememberence day (and if they did like all increased security checks on them that’s disgraceful but possibly a sign that we should deal with bigots better). However its more likely British foreign policy that isolates people, I’m defending that foreign policy but I think that at the point they put soldiers in harms way we should remember and respect them. They make a point on rememberence day of including people from the Muslim, Jewish, seek, Hindu and other religions to make it inclusive and not to isolate people, and if they don’t do it they should.

      I still don’t see how the act of wearing a poppy on your lapel is ‘ostentatious’ I have only ever seen it as respectful.

  5. Pingback: On the battleground of modern life | Leigh Anois Go Curamach

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