Archive for Poppy

No More Poppies

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on November 9, 2019 by telescoper

Over the years I have written quite a few pieces on this blog, around the time of Remembrance Sunday, about the wearing of a poppy, the last being in 2016. I have worn a poppy at this time of year for most of my adult life, but in 2017 I decided to stop.

For one thing, there is no pressure to wear a poppy here in Ireland. Indeed, many Irish people see the poppy mainly as a symbol of British militarism and colonial oppression. At a concert to mark the Armistice last year I saw only a few audience members wearing a poppy, and most of them were the shamrock version commemorating the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the Great War.

But I don’t think I’ve ever really been that susceptible to peer pressure, so that’s not the main reason for my not wearing a poppy. The main reason is that over the past couple of years the poppy has been appropriated by the likes of racist thug, career criminal and founder-member of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (also known as Tommy Robinson):

I simply cannot bring myself to wear the same badge as this horrible racist gobshite, nor can I stand the hypocrisy of those politicians who make a show of wearing it while happily encouraging the rise of nationalism that caused all the suffering just a century ago. The message of the poppy is supposed to be `Lest We Forget’. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.

I have a lecture on Monday 11th November at 11am, when the traditional two minutes’ silence to mark the 1918 armistice is observed. Fortunately, lectures at Maynooth run from five past the hour until five to, so I will be able to observe this on my own before I start the lecture. But I won’t be wearing a poppy.

Is it disrespectful to the war dead to refuse to wear a poppy? No, of course it isn’t. What is disrespectful to them is to seek to reoeat the mistakes that led to wars in the first place.

A Suspension of Hostilities

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , on November 11, 2018 by telescoper

Among all the images produced during this weekend’s commemorations of the centenary of Armistice Day, this image of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron struck me as particularly moving.

Part of the reasons is that it reminded me of this photograph, of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, taken in 1984:

Exactly one hundred years after the truce that effectively ended the First World War, these images remind us how much suffering took place before Europe reached a point at which war between France and Germany became unthinkable. That peace now looks increasingly fragile as the forces of nationalism, spurred on by populist demagogues, and funded by greedy disaster capitalists, threaten to tear apart the institutions that have brought Europe together in a spirit of mutual cooperation for so long. All that has been achieved could so easily be lost.

As Fintan O’Toole has written in a long article in this weekend’s Irish Times, the First World War is, in many ways, still being fought. The Second World War was certainly very much a continuation of the First, after a break of just over twenty years, to which the short-sightedness of Western governments in their treatment of Germany was a contributing factor. The end of the First World War saw not only the disintegration of the German Empire (and the abdication of the Kaiser), but also the collapse of Tsarist Russia, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to boot. We are still living with the consequences of that upheaval.

All this reminds us – or should remind us – that the word `armistice’ means `a truce’ or `a suspension of hostilities’ rather than a lasting peace, and it is by no means impossible we could be sleepwalking to disaster once more. As President Macron put it in his speech today

Les démons anciens resurgissent : des idéologies nouvelles manipulent des religions, l’Histoire menace de reprendre son cours tragique. Faisons une fois de plus ce serment des Nations de placer la paix plus haut que tout, car nous en connaissons le prix.

Frankly, I fear very much for the future and take solace only in the fact that I am no longer young.

I have found the pomp and ceremony of this year’s official Armistice commemorations very difficult to endure. Perhaps there are some people, including some in high places, who have learned the lessons of history, but it is also clear that there are very many who have not.

Which brings me to the poppy. I have written quite a few pieces on this blog, around the time of Remembrance Sunday, about the wearing of a poppy, the last being in 2016. I have worn a poppy at this time of year for most of my adult life, but I decided last year to stop.

For one thing, there is no pressure to wear a poppy here in Ireland. Indeed, many Irish people see the poppy mainly as a symbol of British militarism and colonial oppression. Even at Friday’s concert to mark the Armistice I saw only a few audience members wearing a poppy, and most of them were the shamrock version commemorating the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the Great War.

But I don’t think I’ve ever really been that susceptible to peer pressure, so that’s not the main reason for my not wearing a poppy. The main reason is that over the past couple of years the poppy has been appropriated by the likes of racist thug, career criminal and founder-member of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (also known as Tommy Robinson):

I simply cannot bring myself to wear the same badge as this creature, nor can I stand the hypocrisy of those politicians who make a show of wearing it while happily encouraging the rise of nationalism. Enough is enough. The message of the poppy is supposed to be `Lest We Forget’. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.

Why I’m wearing a poppy again

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , on November 2, 2016 by telescoper

Once again we’re coming up to 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, which means that this year it is on 13th November, so that it is close to the date of anniversary of the armistice that formally ended the First World War, which happened 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, next Friday  (which is the 11th November). I’ve kept my calendar free at 11 am precisely for that purpose.

Then there  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. In fact, if someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess or imperialism, 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, etc) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused by World 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 Hitler’s Nazi regime 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 because it has that implication. The sight of some hypocritical warmongers 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 so many seem to be so contemptuous of the great strides that have been made over the past decades to try to construct a Europe defined by peaceful cooperation rather than by narrow-minded nationalism and conflict. The parallels between Britain in 2016 and Germany in 1933 seem to me to be frighteningly real,  and I fear very much for the future if we carry on in the direction we seem to be taking. All I can say is that I’m glad I’m not young.

People have  a wide range of views about the poppy and its meaning. There is no “right” answer – every person’s attitude is shaped by a number of factors, not least by whether or not they have lost a loved one in any form of armed conflict.  Some of us wear wear a poppy, some don’t. It’s a matter of choice. The fact that we have a choice is important in itself. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory.

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 relatively 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.  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.

When the newsreader Jon Snow decided not to wear a poppy on TV, 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.  But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in the Observer a few years ago:

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.

So, yes. I am wearing a poppy again this year. You can decide to wear one if you wish. You can also decide not to.  It’s entirely up to you.  That’s the whole point really. It’s called Freedom.

Lest we forget.

Why I wear a poppy

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , on November 3, 2015 by telescoper

Once again we’re coming up to 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, next Wednesday (which is the 11th November). I’ve kept my calendar free at 11am precisely for that purpose.

Then there  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. In fact, if someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess or imperialism, 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, etc) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused by World 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 Hitler’s Nazi regime 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 because it has that implication. 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.

People have  a wide range of views about the poppy and its meaning. There is no “right” answer – every person’s attitude is shaped by a number of factors, not least by whether or not they have lost a loved one in any form of armed conflict.  Some of us wear wear a poppy, some don’t. It’s a matter of choice. The fact that we have a choice is important in itself. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory.

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 relatively 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.  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.

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. . But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in the Observer a few years ago:

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.

So, yes. I am wearing a poppy again this year. Lest we forget.

Lest we forget

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 11, 2012 by telescoper


It’s Remembrance Sunday which happens this year to fall exactly on Remembrance Day, so I scheduled this in advance to be posted on the eleventh hour as seems appropriate. I’ll be observing two minutes’ silence as this goes online, on my own as I prefer to do it on such occasions. I’ve written long posts about my feelings about Remembrance Day (see the tag Poppy for examples), so I won’t repeat myself here.

I will however take the liberty of posting this video about shell shock and other reactive disorders, as a reminder that the Poppy Appeal is not just about remembering the fallen, but also about helping the survivors who have been maimed or traumatised by war. It’s not an easy clip to watch, but then it’s not supposed to be. Click through to the other segments if you can stand it.

I’ll also add that many victims of shell shock were shot as cowards, including three seventeen year-old British soldiers who had lied about their age in order to enlist. Nowadays this is recognised as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and although it can be treated, there is no complete cure.

Some people say that Remembrance Day glorifies war. I don’t see it that way at all. It’s there as a reminder of  the horrors of  past wars to urge us avoid armed conflict in the future. It’s a pity our politicians seem not to understand this.

Lest we forget.

Insensibility

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on November 11, 2011 by telescoper

It’s the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month which means it’s Remembrance 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 First World War, Wilfred Owen. I might even go as far as to say that this is Wilfred Owen’s greatest poem. It’s certainly one of his most complex and ambivalent works, as it juxtaposes the necessary insensitivity of men who have to survive in conditions so appalling
that they might otherwise go mad, with the unawakened or even wilful insensibility of people who have never been confronted with the horror of what war is really like. Lest we forget.

I

Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

II

And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on Armies’ decimation.

III

Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

IV

Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.

V

We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.

VI

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

To the Warmongers

Posted in History, Poetry, Politics with tags , , , on November 8, 2010 by telescoper

As we approach Remembrance Sunday (which this year lies on 14th November) I find myself once again wearing a poppy on my coat lapel, and having once again to explain this to those I meet in the department and elsewhere 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 here.

I am aware (and acutely sensitive to) the danger that the wearing of a poppy might be mistaken for support for militarism and that many of our politicians would like to manipulate the meaning of this symbol in precisely that way for their own ends. Nevertheless, I will wear one and will observe the two minutes’ silence on Thursday too. Why? Lest we forget, that’s why…

But instead of debating this again, I will  post the following poem and letter, both of which were written by Siegfried Sassoon.

The poem is called the To the Warmongers:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss.
Young faces bleared with blood,
Sucked down into the mud,
You shall hear things like this,
Till the tormented slain
Crawl round and once again,
With limbs that twist awry
Moan out their brutish pain,
As for the fighters pass them by.
For you our battles shine
With triumph half-divine;
And the glory of the dead
Kindles in each proud eye.
But a curse is on my head,
That shall not be unsaid,
And the wounds in my heart are red,
For I have watched them die.

The astonishing letter below was written by Siegfried Sassoon in July 1917, and was subsequently read out in the House of Commons. Sassoon narrowly escaped court martial for treason.

It’s worth noting the last two paragraphs:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The tragedy is that these words could equally well have been written about Afghanistan 2010 rather than France or Belgium 1917. The sight of Tony Blair wearing a poppy at the Cenotaph is one that filled me with nausea, but his hypocrisy makes it more, not less, important to hang on to the true meaning. Lest we forget. Nowadays, though, I don’t really “wear my poppy with pride”, but with something rather closer to shame.


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Acts of Remembrance

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 8, 2009 by telescoper

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.

Statistics

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on November 11, 2008 by telescoper

Not many summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror. When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too. Some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial. On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into heavy fire from machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by an artillery barrage that had been tragically ineffective. Rather than calling off the attack in the face of this slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The material loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue after 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. A year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

The First World War ended a long time ago, and there is now only one living survivor of the British trenches, but the tragedy that it was shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the sacrifices made by those caught up in the slaughter. Every year, we have Remembrance Sunday (which passed yesterday) for which it is traditional to wear a poppy after 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.

And tomorrow morning, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – when the guns fell silent 90 years ago – I will stand (as I always do) for the two minutes of silence observed across the country. Some people consider the wearing of a poppy and the observance of the two minutes’ silence to be celebrations of militarism. I don’t. I wear mine with respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice (on both sides, including non-combatants, and in all wars not just the “Great” one). As their deaths recede into the past, these rituals are needed to stop us seeing them as mere statistics. Each name on the war memorial at Buxton represents a human life extinguished and is evidence of the capacity for inhumanity which we all possess and from which we must not be allowed to hide.

For me the poppy also symbolises anger for those whose arrogance and mendacity has led us into wars that we should have avoided. I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote another great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq (2003) as Flanders (1917).

Benjamin Britten was the reason I went to Buxton that day in 2004 so its only fitting I should mention the moving performance of his War Requiem I listened to yesterday on the radio. This is a powerful work that interleaves the latin mass for the dead with poetry from the greatest of all the war poets, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth , which is set right at the beginning of the War Requiem, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.