Acts of Remembrance

So here we are again. Once more it’s Remembrance Sunday, an occasion to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts past and present. This is always held on the second Sunday in November in the United Kingdom, so that it is close to the date of anniversary of the armistice that formally ended the First World War, on 11th November 1918. Another way to commemorate this  is the observance of two minutes’ silence at 11am on 11th November itself. I plan to do that, this Wednesday (which is the 11th November). In fact, I shall  be in the middle of a PhD examination in Edinburgh at that time, so I hope the candidate and the internal examiner don’t object! It is, however, one of the very few things that I’m not willing to compromise about.

Another is the wearing of a poppy. The poppy appeal raises money for veterans and their families, but the wearing of these little red paper flowers is something that not everyone feels comfortable with. Some people think that to wear a poppy is to celebrate militarism or even Britain’s imperialist past. I don’t see it that way at all. If someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse, in fact.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war about this time last year, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess, it’s simply about remembering those who died. In fact, one of the main reasons the paraphernalia of  Remembrance Day observances (the poppy, the cenotaph, the tomb of the unknown soldier, and all that) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused byWorld War One. That’s why the Remembrance Day ceremonial laying of wreaths takes place in Whitehall, right at the heart of government. The ritual  was specifically intended to be a warning to the politicians who had brought the conflict about not to allow it to happen again.

As a young lefty student I grappled with the implications of the poppy appeal. The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies, as an overtly anti-war symbol of remembrance. For a time I wore a white poppy but, although I am against war, I don’t think a policy of non-violence would have helped much against the Nazis and therefore can’t really call myself an out-and-out  pacifist. One year I wore both white and red poppies, but since then I’ve decided to stick with a red one.

Of course many in the Establishment would like the poppy to turn into a symbol of obedience, a kind of alternative national flag. Some people choose not to wear it precisely for that reason. The sight of some hypocritical warmongerers wearing the poppy at the Cenotaph on these occasions sickens me, but their betrayal does not make me want to stop wearing it myself. Neither does the fact that our politicians seem content to give away the freedoms that so many died to protect.

Some poppy sellers use the slogan  Wear Your Poppy With Pride, but the original meaning  is much better expressed by the original, Lest We Forget. I’m not sure I wear mine with pride at all, in fact. What I feel is really more like shame, at the wastefulness and stupidity of armed conflict. I count myself incredibly lucky that I have never had to live through anything like that, not only because I’ve had a peaceful and comfortable life, but also because I have never been tested in the way previous generations were. I wear the poppy to acknowledge their bravery and to recognize my own good fortune.

On Friday evening I went with a bunch of  Cardiff astronomers to a pub near the department for a couple of pints, as at the end of most weeks. For a while we talked about poppies and their meaning. Some of us were wearing  them, some weren’t. Various views were aired. One view was that it they saw the poppy as supporting the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others expressed distaste for the fact that the poppy had become a kind of meaningless fashion accessory, or that wearing it had become compulsory, at least for newsreaders and other TV celebrities. Another pointed out that the last British veterans of the Great War, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham both died earlier this year, within a few days of each other, and that made the poppy irrelevant.

I respect these points of view, but don’t agree with them. I think the fact that there are no living survivors of the trenches makes it more, not less, important to remember those that died. It’s not just about the First World War anyway. Nor is it just about servicemen. When I stand for the two minutes silence I remember those all who fell fighting on all sides of all wars, and  fallen civilians too.

I didn’t support the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan and I don’t understand what the continued presence of British soldiers in such places is supposed to be achieving other than more death. But why should the dead of Helmand 2009 deserve less respect than those of Flanders 1917? I wear the poppy for them, not for the fools that sent them there.

When the newsreader Jon Snow decided not to wear a poppy on TV a few years ago, there were angry complaints. I’m sure he didn’t mean disrespect to the cause but disliked the pressure being put on him to conform. I can see his point. It has to be voluntary if it is to mean anything at all. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory. But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in today’s Observer. The picture shows a bunch of the contestants from X-factor (which is, apparently, a popular television programme) all wearing poppies.

Ferguson writes

I recall a time, it seems just – just! – about 20 years ago, presumably around the time most of these X Factor contestants were crying their first (but by no means their last) tears, that anyone handing the stroppy younger me a poppy would be met with mystification and reluctance, as if they were offering me a cormorant. Although it’s possible the group in this photograph was suitably “advised” for their very public trip to the West End premiere of A Christmas Carol, the many under-20s stopping outside London’s King’s Cross to buy poppies last week from squaddies suggests a real change of attitude. Gone are the sulky, rebellious, anti-poppy teens of old, now seeming as distant as CND marches.

The young appear not only proud to wear them, but are almost using them as accessories: here, oversized, silky, something even of a statement. Elsewhere, there’s the tasteful option of those rather fine little enamel badges. I’ve seen people take out the little green paper foliage and opt for the simple scarlet. Sarah Brown managed to attract criticism for sporting an extra large one.

Is it all healthy? Well, I don’t like pressure being put on people to conform. Orthodoxy and fear are always to be regretted and today’s society is over-condemnatory, swift to its manufactured outrage. But this change seems to have come from below, not been ordered by bullies: the daily reports of life and death in the forces, of the danger other 20-year-olds daily find themselves facing. And is the symbolism of the poppy being degraded as it is customised? No. You can’t do much to the fabulous simplicity of this symbol. And the poppy doesn’t preach: it’s not about “right” or “wrong” wars, but about brave dead soldiers. And the message was, never, Remember in the way we tell you to remember. It is, simply, Lest We Forget.

19 Responses to “Acts of Remembrance”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Nice article Peter, I agree with just about everything and would add almost nothing; thank you.
    Anton

  2. Mr Physicist Says:

    We should never forget.

  3. What a bizarre world! Those whom you regard as freedom fighters are criminals to me. The news that saddens you every day makes me happy! Perhaps on Wednesday you can spare a moment to remember the nations which were ruined by the British. And these nations are indeed large in number, larger than the Brits who have f.. fallen in the battles.

    • telescoper Says:

      On Wednesday I will “remember those all who fell fighting on all sides of all wars, and fallen civilians too”. I am no Imperialist, as any reading of this piece would make clear to anyone not blinded by hatred. That is, if they bothered to read it before commenting.

  4. Spot on Peter. Both my Grandfathers fought in WWII, with one being a prisoner of war for four years, ruining his health, and ultimately leading to an early death. It’s important to me to remember them, and to remember the countless others on all sides of all conflicts who lose their lives. As you say, one can respect them without supporting the idiots whose decisions lead to wars.

  5. It’s always about the people who die. No matter what the ideals or causes happen to be. It’s always about the people who have died, and suffered.

    I find it hard to imagine how anyone could even smile, when wearing such a symbol.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    @k Angel: Victorian historians saw the British Empire as 100% wonderful, post-1960s historians often see it is 100% terrible, buut I think it was a paradox: it was won and maintained by force or its threat (which is unjustifiable), yet it did a lot of good. Lawrence James’ outstanding history of the Empire is written out of that tension and it concludes with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I was brought up in a British school, and at the time Britain was the home of everything that was best in the world… the home of parliamentary democracy and, as people fighting against a form of tyrrany in this country, we look upon Britain to take an active interest to support us in our fight against apartheid.”

    Any evaluation of the British Empire must also take into account the lot of the common people in a land BEFORE the coming of the Redcoats.

    Anton

  7. Thanx alot for this post

    مدونة

  8. What is the origin of poppies as a symbol?

    I’ve always wondered about these lines:

    Some were buried in the church and some just where they fell
    With no markers to declare their place of rest
    But the poppies they do grow where they were never sown
    And to my mind they do declare it best

    (Full lyrics at http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/irish-folk-music/irish%20songs/Red%20and%20Gold.htm
    but note that the song is neither Irish nor traditional; it was written by Ralph McTell for Fairport Convention, though he also performs it himself).

    It sounds like they grow where people (or, presumably, other animals)
    are buried, but I’ve never checked it out.

    Apparently they have long been used as a symbol of sleep (since some contain opium) and death (because of the blood-red colour), and the connection with the War is provided by them growing in Flanders. However, these lines:

    He dreams he lies in his own-made grave, leaves covering his face, his pants wet with urine. He dreams he cannot move, the dirt that covers him is alive with tiny roots; those translucent, hairy fimbriae that steal their sustenance from the soil, with delicacy, with polite persistence. He knows that they are the roots of poppies, the poppies that grow all over the Plain of Jars, swaying acres of red mouths licking at the sky. They are growing in the outline of his body, marking where he hides, yet he cannot rise. His limbs are heavy with their opiate, though the ground trembles lightly with approaching feet.

    from http://www.sybilsmithwriter.com/poppies.html seem to jibe with the “marker of the dead” explanation above.

  9. telescoper Says:

    Phillip,

    The poppy was chosen as a symbol of remembrance because of John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”:

    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
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

    The poem was written after John McCrae witnessed the death, and presided over the funeral, of a friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer. The poppies referred to in the poem grew in profusion in Flanders in the spoiled earth of the battlefields and cemeteries where war casualties were buried.

    Peter

  10. I’m aware of the poem (what I meant by “connection with the War”). The motif of them marking otherwise unmarked graves, two examples of which I provided above, indicate to me that this is probably a widespread image, though I don’t know if it originated once or many times nor if it is intended literally or figuratively.

    Carl Sagan, who now has his own day (http://www.carlsaganday.com/) which was a couple of days ago, in his book THE DRAGONS OF EDEN listed 4 possible explanations for common images in unconnected societies: common origin (several observed the same thing), dispersion (the story spread), coincidence and brain-wiring (a predisposition of the mind for certain archetypical images, which if true would explain some of the coincidences).

    Does the reference in the poem (why poppies and not something else which grows in Flanders?) refer to the “poppies mark graves” idea?

    Last Friday, I saw Sting in a German talk show, where he performed a song (Soul Cake, which he apparently has performed on many talk shows in many countries recently). He was wearing the traditional red poppy. I found it strange that it wasn’t mentioned, neither by him nor by the interviewer. Probably most people in Germany have no idea what the significance is. (I didn’t know about them until I saw them when living in England.) Most talk-show appearances aren’t “cold”, but rather the guest and interviewer (and/or the staff of either) discuss possible questions and topics beforehand.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think the point is that dormant poppy seeds are the first things to begin growing when soil is turned over, whether in a graveyard or a battlefield. The vivid blood-red colour splashed across an otherwise shattered landscape is what provides this symbol with its power.

  11. “I think the point is that dormant poppy seeds are the first things to begin growing when soil is turned over”

    Sounds logical, the impression being reinforced by the red colour. In that case, it’s probably no coincidence that McCrae chose poppies as his symbol.

  12. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Acts of Remembrance […]

  13. blackwatertown Says:

    About the pressure to wear poppies: These days I wear one, from choice. I also choose to follow the local parade of uniformed organisations to the local commemoration service.
    But years ago I worked for a media organisation in a divided society where the poppy was an overtly political symbol. Yes, I’m talking about Northern Ireland. So the poppy of the Royal British Legion was naturally linked with one side. And that side was still engaged in conflict with the other side. So TV presenters/reporters/etc were given the option as to whether they wore poppies on screen. All was well.
    Then a new regime was introduced that insisted that, in common with England, Scotland and Wales, all on screen staff had to wear a poppy. So, of course, that meant the exclusion of all staff who felt the news presenters/reporters should appear neutral. I felt the correct approach was to wear a poppy until that point when one appeared on screen – and then replace it afterwards. The new rule introduced division, embarrassment and worse for some people.
    Despite that experience, I sometimes catch myself tutting when I see someone without one at the start of November. (It’s probably an age thing i.e. getting old and moany.) So I remind myself that, on peril of undermining the whole concept of poppy wearing, it should always be a matter of personal choice. Any element of compulsion diminishes it.

  14. […] who don’t approve. I’ve already said everything I think I need to on this in posts last year and the year before, so I won’t repeat myself at length […]

  15. […] the two minutes’ silence that marks Armistice Day. Cardiff University organised a collective Act of Remembrance in which the two minutes’ silence was preceded by prayers and to which all staff and students […]

  16. […] Day. I’ve posted about my thoughts about this time of year before (see, for example, here and here). Rather than say it all again, therefore, I decided to post a poem by the greatest poet of the […]

  17. Thank You. Lest We Forget.

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