Remembrance Day is looming, and it’s maybe worth reminding ourselves of what it should signify. Some people seem to think it’s a patriotic celebration of military victory. Of course it isn’t. The poppies we wear are supposed to remind us of the flowers that sprang out of ‘Flanders Field’ after the massacre of the First World War was ended, which in turn symbolised the blood of the slain who were still buried there. (Fifty years ago some pacifists recommended replacing them with white poppies. That missed the whole point.) Marches and church services held in commemoration of the War are usually doleful, soulful affairs, with the poppies woven into wreaths and lain on war memorials or graves. If a military band is involved, it is usually funereally, and the event ends with a solitary bugler playing ‘The Last Post’. (I used to be involved, in my school CCF.) Almost no-one regards it as a triumphalist affair, just as no-one sees the First World War itself as anything we should take retrospective pride in. It was a horrible tragedy, born of stupid nationalisms, which it was hoped at the time would never have to be repeated. The overwhelmingly dominant image of the war today is that conveyed by the last episode of the fourth Blackadder series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH3-Gt7mgyM. Only hidebound old reactionaries saw it as anything else.
Michael Gove, as Tory Education Minister, was one of the latter. In discussing how British schools should celebrate the centenary of the outbreak of the War in 2014, he specifically advised them – sneeringly – to avoid the ‘Blackadder version’, in favour of something Brits could take pride in. He was met by a torrent of objections, not least by historians, which in the end put paid to his jingoistic dreams. All the centennial markings of the various stages of the War, from August 2014 onwards, have had an overwhelmingly sad and regretful quality to them. It’s the same in France, incidentally, where I was – visiting the war graves near Amiens – a couple of months ago. I expect the one on 11 November this year, the centenary of the final battle and of the Armistice, will be the same.
Again, I imagine that stupid old militarists will try to make something else of it: as one minister did a few years ago when China, I think it was, objected to English footballers wearing poppies. (Of course poppies symbolise something entirely different to the victims of our ‘Opium Wars’.) I wrote a letter to the Guardian about that:
‘”Wearing a poppy,” writes our sports minister to Fifa, “is a display of national pride, like wearing your country’s football shirt” (Report, Sport, 9 November). I have worn a poppy at this time of year for as long as I can remember. For me it has always been in sad remembrance of the slain of two world wars, with no shred of nationalism attaching to it. Talk of “national pride” and “football shirts” cheapens the gesture. If this is what it really signifies, I shall not wear one again.’
Almost everyone, I think, would go along with that. The result is that I still wear my poppy – not with pride, but ‘lest we forget’. The reactionaries shouldn’t be allowed to confuse the picture, and take from us this way of memorialising the cruelties and sufferings that humanity inflicted on itself a hundred years ago, and – of course – almost every day since. This year a special effort is being made to remember, too, the contribution and sacrifices made by non-European combatants in both World Wars. That must be humbling.
For a typical British response to WWI, can I recommend the third movement of Elgar’s Spirit of England, written (I think) to mark the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and entirely – despite the title of the piece, and Elgar’s whole reputation – free from ‘jingoism’ of any kind. It’s his most heartfelt work. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1wJfKUif90.)
Celebrating war? ‘Weaponising’ the suffering (as one of my Facebook Friends put it to me)? I’m sorry; I can’t see it.