Tag Archives: poppies

Remembrance or remembrance?

29 Nov

Memory is a strange and elusive thing. Two people who have shared exactly the same experiences in the past can have completely different memories of them.  Memory is not only selective but can also be subjective. It is difficult to pin down the exact, objective truth. The memory of an event can be viewed through from so many perspectives. Prejudices and subsequent experiences can colour an event so much.

That is why I suppose, Governments try to impose an “official” collective memory of an important National event. It’s much easier and more convenient if everyone is reading from the same hymn sheet. Sometimes, in totalitarian states, the past has been radically re-written with massive ommissions and massive distortions, to suit the needs of the present. The Nazi and Stalinist regimes were past masters at this.  In the UK we have not gone to such extremes, but censorship and propaganda have still been employed at critical times, in order to get the population to interpret an event in an approved way. The First World War or the Great War is a case in point. That devastating conflict finished just over 100 years ago and my country, the United Kingdom, has recently been consumed by its collective, officially- approved acts of Remembrance. Nobody who fought in that war is alive anymore, so individual acts of genuine remembering are no longer possible. We are left with: memorials, prose, poetry, sculpture and paintings. We are also left with the “official” rituals and public ceremonies. Now that we can no longer talk to a survivor, we have to make the best we can of all these second-hand forms of remembering.

Some sources are informative and some are very moving, but they are second hand nevertheless. In fact some of the works of art or literature about the war  are possibly based on third or even fourth hand sources.  Sebastian Faulkes was only able to write his famous First World War novel “Birdsong” after many hours in the library (or possibly, on the Internet.) There is a danger to this. It’s like a game of Chinese whispers. By the time the message has travelled right round the circle, it could be completely different from the one that started off. With regards to the 1914 to 18 war, we can no longer check facts with the participants, and even if we could, they would all have their different points of view. There are many factors masking the “truth.” All this has made it easier for the establishment to step in and impose its officially approved narrative. The generally accepted view of the First World War now is that it was a time of heroic, stoical SACRIFICE. That is the accepted British way — to suffer quietly and make the ultimate sacrifice of dying for one’s country. A conflicting narrative of : the waste, the pointlessness and the pity of war came with the rise in popularity of the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But this idea did not take hold until the 1960’s. By then the official interpretation of the Great War’s meaning had taken a firm hold and much of it still holds strong today. It is still not acceptable to remember our war dead as soldiers who needlessly died for a pointless cause. Much more palatable then to swallow the more accepted line that they bravely sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve the freedoms of their countrymen, from the threat of German tyranny.

Alternative versions of the war’s meaning could emerge from  memoirs of course or from other primary sources such as soldiers’ letters,  diaries, photographs and films. But all of these sources can be challenged as not revealing the whole, objective reality. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, Earl Haig, almost certainly retrospectively doctored his diaries and memoirs to give his decisions the most positive spin, in the light of what subsequently happened. Soldiers writing home might well have concealed horrible truths because they did not want to upset their loved ones. The letters were probably censored anyway. After the first few months of the war, soldiers were discouraged from taking photographs of the war happening around them.  They were also discouraged from writing diaries. Press photographers were mostly kept away from the battle areas. Films served propaganda purposes. For instance, the famous footage of the British Tommies going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June, 1916, was actually film of an earlier training exercise. We never get to see thousands of men being mown down by machine gun fire ( thank goodness!) So many of our “memories” of this crucial event are officially sanctioned, controlled and sanitised and do not necessarily reveal the whole “truth.” In this way, officially approved Remembrance has largely replaced the more confusing, mixed messages provided by personal remembrances. It is more comfortable and convenient to have one agreed version of the war and agreed methods of commemorating it. Thus we now have our Day of Remembrance every November.

So what exactly were people doing on this last, high profile Remembrance Day in November, 2018? What were they doing at the Cenotaph and other war memorials throughout the land? It’s easier to state what they were not doing. What is certain is that the participants were not really remembering the details of what happened a century ago. The vast majority of Britain’s population were not alive when the war was raging or when the guns finally fell silent a hundred years ago. Many, including myself, cannot even remember the Second World War which followed 20 years after the “War to end all wars.”  Therefore, if it is impossible to genuinely remember the Great War, why are we being constantly urged not to forget?  On war memorials and social media posts up and down the country we have been bombarded with the phrase from Kipling’s early poem: “Lest we forget.” This almost sounds like a threat. In the dictionary “Lest” is defined as a conjunction meaning “in order that not” or “for fear that.” Thus it seems as if forgetting is a fearful prospect. We’d better not forget, or else. Or else what? What are we frightened of forgetting? What will happen if we do forget? These questions are difficult to answer because they are like thinking about the unthinkable. Of course we will not forget what those soldiers did for us. How could we? Yet the reality is that in everyday life, departed people are only remembered for about two or possibly three generations, and after that they pass into the dreaded oblivion. I can remember my grandparents but can recall nothing of my great grandparents. They are just images on a few faded photographs or words chiselled on to an old grave stone. So without the official props of Remembrance, those thousands of perished soldiers would have been forgotten already. They can only now be remembered in a vague, general sense, in ceremonies that serve to bind us together as a nation. How long can this go on for? We no longer “remember” the British dead in the Boer War, the Zulu war, the Crimean War or the Napoleonic wars. They have passed into the mists of time.

Even though they could not be genuinely remembering, people have certainly enjoyed the whole experience of Remembrance Sunday. A nurse taking my blood, commentated that this year’s ceremonies were ” lovely.” Two friends at a recent dinner party agreed that 2018’s Remembrance Day was particularly enjoyable in their respective towns. They loved the marching soldiers, the military bands, the displays of poppies, the laying of wreaths, the 2 minutes silence and the playing of the Last Post. A very good day out then. Throughout the last 4 years, people have flocked to  gaze at and photograph striking pieces of conceptual art such as images of British Tommies on a beach or huge shoals of bright red poppies flowing into the moat of the Tower of London. Massed poppies have featured in many striking pieces of art. “Nit and natter” groups have had a great time knitting  thousands of woollen red poppies to represent the British dead from that terrible, distant war. The poppy has come to symbolise the sacrifice of the soldiers who perished. The idea came from a poem, “In Flanders Fields” written in 1915 by a Canadian field surgeon, John McCrae, who was serving in that worn-torn area of Belgium. He noticed that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. Once the war was over, the poppy was one of the only flowers to grow on the otherwise barren battle fields.  This is why the British Legion, which helps injured soldiers, adopted the red poppy as its emblem. The powerful symbolism of the poppy is enhanced by the fact that it is red, the colour of blood. Even today, most of the public wear red poppies out of respect for those who sacrificed their lives in that far off war. Later, white poppies were produced to symbolise Peace but many refuse to wear these because they believe it is dishonouring our war dead.

The only trouble with using a poppy to remember those who  died in the wars, ( the Second World War has now been added to the commemorations), is that it is very pretty. It’s very beauty prevents real remembering, in my opinion. I wonder how many would have flocked to the Tower of London art installation if it had featured a mock-up of rats, lice and putrifying corpses?  Or perhaps an artist could have made piles of skulls with clouds of blue-bottles buzzing around them?  I believe these would  have been a more realistic representation of conditions in the Western Front trenches. Siegfried Sassoon, a war veteran and poet made the same point in his 1919 poem “Aftermath.” Thinking of the noble appeal of war- memorials to “remember”, he wrote:

“Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a

hopeless rain?”

The point is simple — war is not pretty, like displays of poppies, and not dignified, like ritualised ceremonies. It is ghastly, ugly and cruel. I find it hard to understand why some people “enjoy” Remembrance Sunday and describe it as “lovely.” In my view, remembering such a tragedy should be an unpleasant, painful and uncomfortable experience.

Another obstacle to a realistic understanding of what the Great War was about is the overuse of certain words to describe it. Phrases such as the “horror of war” or ” ultimate sacrifice” have been used so often that they have lost their meaning. They have become cliches. They convey none of the horror or tragedy of war that they are meant to express. People are well meaning but phrases that trip off the tongue in an automatic response, fail to deliver any meaningful message. Let’s face it, if you weren’t there it is impossible to use realistic words to describe the conflict. But such empty cliches make it even more difficult to gain any real insight into soldiers’ experiences in the war. It is much easier to use off-the-peg formulae when writing or talking about the war, because they free us from thinking too deeply about such a disturbing subject. However, they are another barrier standing between us and the real thing.  Few people willingly seek out pain and distress. Most of us are not masochists.

Thus we are left with commemorations of wars that are ritualistic and prescribed from above.  People love rituals it seems. Look at all the stuff that is going on in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples around the world. Ritualistic worship is a world away from figuring out one’s personal spiritual path. It is easier to follow other people’s rules and seek safety in numbers. My parents were lifelong Methodists. If they followed the “method” ( prescribed by John Wesley) they believed it would gain them entrance to  heaven. I would argue that the act of Remembrance has mostly been reduced to the same thing. Rememberers now follow a ready-made “method.” The individual does not have to deeply engage with the subjects of war, death, horror, atrocity, sacrifice or tragedy. Neither does he or she have to ask the awkward question: “why?” He or she has simply got to follow the rules laid down by established  society. There is a lot of social pressure to conform to these rules. We are all expected to buy and wear poppies. For instance, all TV presenters are expected to religiously wear them every November. People choosing to wear white peace poppies can expect to be challenged, as diverting from the accepted norm is frowned upon. Like Christmas, Remembrance Day has been turned into a festival of conformity.

Yet another problem, in my view, is that Remembrance has got inter-twined with the idea of patriotism. You don’t love your country if you don’t wear the poppy. You are not respecting the soldiers who died if you choose to wear a white poppy. I love my country, warts and all, and would never emigrate. It is the country that I belong to, where my roots are. However, love for one’s country can sometimes turn into distrust and even dislike of foreigners. In other words, patriotism can spill-over into chauvinism, and even racism. This is why I have always been uneasy about it. Far-right, white supremecist groups such as The National Front and the English Defence League wrap themselves up in the flag of St George ( ironically the flag of Genoa in Italy) and preach hatred of immigrants, asylum seekers and foreigners in general. This is why I am always uncomfortable about overt patriotism and I believe that our Remembrance ceremonies have unfortunately become coloured by this. The days have become excuses for flag waving and military marching when it is exactly that sort of stuff that got us into the Great War in the first place. A major reason why the UK entered the war was to defend its Empire and its naval hegemony against German enchroachment. For many, it was a highly patriotic exercise. We would show Germany who was boss. The same chauvenistic attitudes were prevalent in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Serbia, Turkey and the rest — leading to a four year conflict and mass slaughter. It is ironic, in my opinion, that the patriotism which partly led to the disastrous war is now being employed to remember it. It makes me feel uneasy and makes me suspect that we have not learnt the lessons of history.

I think, if we really want to commemorate the dead of last century’s murderous wars, the best way is to campaign for peace. One should try to ensure that there is not a repeat of such disastrous wars and the terrible waste of life. I have been a peace campaigner for much of my life. I was particularly active in the 1980’s and 90’s when American Cruise Missiles were being stationed in our country, making the UK a prime target in any future nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I was frightened for myself and for my young children. I did everything I could, as an ordinary citizen, to raise awareness of the dangers of war for our country and  for the World. You would think that campaigning for peace in the world would be a popular, non-controversial cause. However, during my time as an active peace campaigner I was verbally abused and called a “coward”, a “communist” and even a “traitor.” It was that patriotism thing again. I loved my country but if I spoke out against its militeristic ventures ( Falklands War, Iraq wars, parts 1 and 2, Afghanistan war, bombing  of Syria etc) I was castigated as an unpatriotic traitor. This is still the case today. I am sure some people reading this blog will think of me in such terms.

So I believe that true remembrance and true commemoration of our war dead is to campaign for world peace, not turn out to see marching soldiers, listen to military bands,  look at pretty displays of poppies and wave the Union Jack. War memorials often speak of our “Glorious Dead.” This makes me suspect that instead of reminding us of the  tragedy of warfare, they are in danger of glorifying it. Our attractively packaged “cult of Remembrance” serves as a barrier, separating people from the horrors of the real thing. I’m all in favour of remembering and not forgetting the disastrous follies of the past. But surely, remembering such shocking and abominable events should be an uncomfortable endurance test rather than an enjoyable, officially sanctioned day out.

 

 

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