Tomorrow, “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”, Commonwealth member states will stop to observe a one- or two-minute silence to remember those who have died in the line of duty. Similar observances will occur in many other countries, as we all stop to remember those who have died in the many conflicts of the past century or so.
Here in the UK, the wearing of the red poppy has been linked intrinsically to this event; the iconic flower became a symbol of remembrance on the back of a poem penned by Canadian surgeon John McCrae in a field ambulance at Ypres in May 1915.
In Flanders Fields became one of the most symbolic and memorable poems to come out of the Great War, and its final stanza gave rise to the poppy tradition: “If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”
For decades the ritual of poppies and silence were observed unchallenged, but social change and differing attitudes to war and commemoration have undermined its original intentions, and memorialising war is now a deeply political and contentious issue.
This has been made all the more complex by the loss of those individuals at the heart of such commemorations. Most people will have been familiar with Henry John ‘Harry’ Patch (17th June 1898 – 25th July 2009), who was dubbed in his later years as ‘the Last Fighting Tommy’. In fact, whilst Patch was the last surviving trench combat solder of the First World War, he was only the fifth longest-surviving WWI veteran of any sort. The honour of being the last surviving veteran from any country was almost certainly an English woman, Florence Beatrice Green, who served as an officers’ mess steward at RAF Marham near King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Florence passed away on 4th February 2012.
Since then Remembrance day events have focussed on the dwindling number of Second World War veterans and, more controversially, on combat veterans from more politicised conflicts such as the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq.
It goes without saying, sadly, that at any point in time there are dozens of wars of varying types going on around the world, all accumulating their dreadful tolls of military and civilian casualties.
With the passing of time, the politics of conflict tends to pass into the hands of historians and academics and it’s the general public that is asked to pick up the tab of mourning, commemoration and adulation.
When we look at the present ghastly conflict raging across the Ukraine, the politics and machinations are all too evident. We can all sense very sharply the decisions that are being made, or not being made, and the wider political ramifications for countries elsewhere in the world.
With the passage of time we tend to forget the mistakes of politicians that lead to war, and conflicts become reduced to a pastiche of outrages by the oppressor, and glorious sacrifices and victories by the oppressed. For instance, most people today will tell you today that the First World War started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand while he was being driven through Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But this was just a singular moment in a chain of political decisions and errors that had already placed the world in deep peril. To the day of his death, the assasin – Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip – claimed that the First World War would have started anyway, and his action was in no way responsible for the ensuing global catastrophe. He was undoubtedly right – almost all wars are preceded by a glaringly obvious chain of human misjudgements, suppositions and false prejudices.
If ministers and generals do blunder us into wars, a deep question hangs over whether or not we should honour the institution. The original intention of the poppy commemoration was to honour and remember the dead, and really nothing more, but in recent years the flower has become increasing ‘politicised’ – even to the extent that blundering politicians and generals have seized it as a justification and glorification of war.
The blurring and subversion of commemoration is nothing new – war veterans have long been arguing that the increasing glitz and glamour of the poppy appeal has been subverted into something more resembling a showbiz product launch than a solemn commemoration.
Across the country in recent weeks we’ve seen numerous events raising money for the poppy appeal, from marathons to abseils to dinners and concerts, and showbiz personalities lending their support. The messaging too has changed, and the British Legion, which heads the appeal, is quite unapologetic. It has gone on record to say that, in contemporary society, the poppy appeal shouldn’t be just “static and serious, or conducted with a frown”. The current branding of the Legion states that: “The Royal British Legion is there for the Armed Forces community throughout their lives, whenever they need us. We provide a lifeline for serving personnel, veterans and their families.”
Whilst that’s a highly commendable call to action for a charity, it’s understandable that some veterans feel that the founding purpose of the poppy appeal has been lost. Their cynicism won’t have been helped by the sight of our senior politicians appropriating the poppy for political ends.
Within a week of becoming PM, Rishi Sunak was on the doorstep of No.10 with his wife and Nova the family Labrador, proudly launching the 2022 poppy appeal, struggling to stuff a £20 note into a poppy tin as his wife Akshata nervously pinned a poppy to his lapel whilst the cameras clicked away. In a similarly ill-staged photo-op, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace bounced out of No.10 with a poppy tray and collecting tin, and harangued the waiting journalists for donations, whilst posing cheekily for the cameras. Nearby, actor Ross Kemp, AKA Eastenders hardman Grant Mitchell, was teaming up with Irish Guards’ Wolfhound mascot Seamus and a range of military personnel in another photo-op to launch the London poppy appeal.
Businesses, TV channels, local councils and marketing organisations have also been quick to appropriate the red poppy for all kinds of vague and lateral purposes, and the pressure is once again on to be seen wearing the iconic flower.
Amidst all this commercialism and razzamatazz, it’s worth remembering the core purpose of the red poppy, that that every one sold was meant to represent a person who died alone, terrified, in pain, far from home and invariably for no decent reason. To see such a potent symbol being increasingly commodified for blatant commercial and political purposes does a great disservice to the sacrifice of so many, and raises deep questions about the nature of commemoration and remembrance.
Present-day ideological needs and demands have already necessitated a fundamental overhaul of the way we view contributions to the common good, and this will be particularly challenging as we move from commemoration and acknowledgement of still-living individuals, to a purely anecdotal commemoration of those who have died as a result of conflict. Once actual witnesses to events have passed, history can be all too easily nuanced and re-written, and ownership of events passes from the survivors into the realm of popular culture and commemoration. Worse, such events and the suffering and agony they caused can be forgotten altogether; our history books are full of accounts of now long forgotten conflicts and the terrible slaughter they caused.
Tragically, the human race is painfully slow at learning lessons, and we do seem to be locked into a real groundhog day when it comes to resorting to war as probably the worst-ever means of resolving human differences. The events unfolding over the past months in Ukraine will sadly only create yet another generation of victims and veterans, and the inevitable need for a narrative of remembrance and commemoration. It’s as if we just don’t have the capacity to learn.
So, if you are going to wear a poppy this weekend – and I think you should – please do it as an act of remembrance for what has been lost, and not as a badge of celebration.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk