Whether we like it or not, the First World War will stop being relevant to future generations. That this seems like sacrilege reflects the degree to which poppy mania rules Britain every autumn. But it’s nonetheless true. It’s also true that much of our current culture of remembrance bears little or no resemblance to that just after the two world wars.
My mother was taken to see her grandfather’s Belgian grave in the 1960s and my siblings and I visited in the 1980s. My niece found it while on a school trip, and I’ll probably take my son. Whether a fifth generation makes the journey remains to be seen; how we perceive major events such as conflicts changes over time. And as the last veterans of the Second World War pass away, an important part of what ties us to the past will go with them. We’ll move on from remembering a century past in which Britain fought global wars.
What we remember
My great-grandfather, Private Phillip Kelly, died at the third battle of Ypres, killed by a German shell. He was a late volunteer for the war, leaving behind his family, including my grandmother, who was just two at the time. She visited his grave at Lijssenthoek Cemetery in Belgium in the 1920s, with her mother and four siblings. The journey was so unusual for working class Stockport families in the interwar years that her teacher chastised her for lying when she told her class about it.
The question of what we’re actually remembering is a vexed one. The answer supplied by government ministers wearing performatively solemn expressions is: “the men and women who fought for your freedoms”. But in WWI, there was no suggestion that anyone was fighting for freedom, or democracy. Of Britain’s working class soldiers, 40% were ineligible to vote before March 1918.
In WWII there was, no doubt, a popular desire to resist Nazism. And in the summer and autumn of 1940 there was a sustained threat of invasion of the British Isles. The war that was fought to its bloody conclusion in May 1945 in Europe – August in Japan – is remembered as the ‘good war’ because of the monstrousness of the enemy and the finality of the outcome.
It’s important to remember that this ‘good war’ was fought mainly against civilians. Internationally, there were 15 million combat deaths, the majority Russian and Chinese. And 40-45 million civilians, who are never mentioned.
The interests of empire
The argument that working class cannon fodder were defending the imperial elites who exploited them was articulated by Lenin during WWI. He was livid at European socialists in London, Paris, and Berlin who’d fallen in§§ line with their reactionary rulers and voted for the war. That oversimplifies the outlooks of soldiers at the time and robs them of historical agency. (My great-grandfather, for example, was an Irish socialist, more than aware of the workings of the British Empire. He felt signing up was the right thing to do because so many others had).
But it’s still true to say that 20th century wars were waged in imperial interests. British and Commonwealth soldiers fought to protect a system of colonial exploitation that served a class elite. In his book Blood and Ruins, Richard Overy argues that 1931-1945, which he views as an era of continuous conflict, was the product of older established empires (France and Britain) defending themselves against insurrectionist imperial powers (Germany, Italy, Japan).
This isn’t to suggest that there weren’t legitimate reasons for fighting all three. But our national war jamboree might fall apart if we decided to have an open and honest conversation about wars of the last century. Perhaps we should discuss other conflicts where British servicemen were deployed? Rarely do we talk about Korea, as it doesn’t fit with the prevailing, simplistic story we know.
At the Cenotaph, the invasion of Suez, the suppression of revolutionary movements in Malaya, and the brutal repression of the Mau Mau revolt are never discussed. Special mention is made of the Falklands, despite its controversial nature, because it passes the freedom test: British citizens were ‘rescued from the threat of tyranny’.
The sale of the poppy
When the Royal British Legion was founded in 1921, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig didn’t establish a separate officers’ organisation as he believed the shared sacrifice of war transcended class differences. (Also, post-war poverty and the impact of the Russian Revolution made Britain’s ruling classes more circumspect about elitism).
The sale of poppies to aid war widows and their families has continued ever since, supporting countless veterans and victims of conflict. The Legion’s website reveals the scope of its admirable and inspiring work. But the poppy has a dual purpose, and its ideological role has superseded its charitable one. The poppy and I have parted company.
I’d love to blame this on Brexit, but can’t. The poppy madness gripping Britain stems from another project, wildly misunderstanding Britain’s place in the world. This was forced through to its insane conclusion via lies and manipulation: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A government with a reasonably progressive track record fell in line with a Neocon American administration, due in part to acceptance that Britain has been unable to have its own foreign policy since at least 1956. So it waged wars that saw millions protesting in the streets.
Widespread scepticism about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Chilcot Inquiry into the decision to go to war, meant uncritical support for ‘our lads’ became a political priority from 2010 onwards. That coincided with the WWI centenary, and an obsessive TV and publishing culture of ‘Hitlerology’. The conditions for soil in which poppy madness could thrive were created.
I won’t engage in uncritical thinking. I refuse to dishonour anyone’s memory by adopting a poppy whose meaning has been appropriated by our political class and served up to the far right.
My great-grandfather. A great-uncle, Private Frank Seed, returning from Burma a gaunt, haunted man. My dad’s uncle, Private Bob Arthur, who liberated Belsen and never spoke of it. I remember the generation of my family whose lives and dreams were on hold for years, and Holocaust survivors I’ve met whose war didn’t involve being with Monty in the desert, or Spitfires over the South Downs.
Our annual obsession with the poppy becomes increasingly deranged. The barrage of ‘lest we forget’ memorabilia seemingly fails to remind anyone of the futility and horror of war. Let’s consider who claims to speak on behalf of my ancestors and yours this weekend. Who’s been encouraged to ‘protect’ the Cenotaph, or to ‘protect’ statues previously, as if somehow the past and its many meanings belonged to them? A band of racist, fascist ignorami.
We have a Home Secretary who weaponised remembrance this week, with the aim of undermining both a peaceful movement for an armistice in Gaza and her own Prime Minister. Tory MPs and ministers performatively planting small wooden crosses and wearing poppies are no doubt well aware of what Braverman was up to but continued with self-regarding photoshoots anyway.
For me, if the poppy was ever about a meaningful act of remembrance, it is no more. So this weekend I’m thinking of the ties of love between people ripped asunder by imperial wars. I’ll say a quiet prayer for mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, devastated by the madnesses we inflict on each other. I’ll donate to the Royal British Legion. But I will not wear a poppy.