The political bloodshed of Poppy Day

white poppy

SO with most of those who fought in World War 2 now resting in their graves or in a nursing home for the over 90s, why are we again in such bloody state over Poppy Day?

Like World War 1, which is now 100 years ago, it is another tragic part of our inglorious military history, as much as the battles of Hastings, Agincourt, Crecy, Waterloo or Trafalgar.

Like a twisted Groundhog Day, it is a history which is repeating itself in the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.

And every November our collective conscience becomes blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders.

Why does our Establishment not do the same for those who have died from cancer, MS, Aids or heart failure?

It is because our leaders and the most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts.

The American civil war’s General Sherman once said that “war is hell”, but unfortunately today’s politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good.

Yesterday, football’s governing body, FIFA turned down requests from England and Scotland for players to wear armbands featuring poppies during their World Cup qualifiers on 11 November, because it breached a ban on “political” symbols.

FIFA bans “political, religious or commercial messages” from being used on national teams’ shirts.

The decision got the English and Scottish FAs in quite a lather, with both threatening to defy the ban, at the risk of heavy sanctions for doing so.

Lucy Noakes, a social and cultural historian at the University of Brighton, thinks it’s not accurate to depict the poppy as apolitical.

Despite the fact that it was introduced in 1921 for charitable purposes – to raise money that would help World War 1 veterans with employment and housing – it has “been politicised almost since its inception”, she says.

Among political objectors to the red poppies is West Bromwich Albion and Republic of Ireland midfielder James McClean, who refuses to wear a poppy, arguing that it represents all the conflicts the UK has taken part in.

He cites in particular “the history where I come from in Derry” – the Northern Irish city in which British paratroopers killed unarmed civilians on “Bloody Sunday” in January 1972.

In 2010, a group of Celtic supporters unfurled banners objecting to poppies on their team’s kit, citing British interventions in Afghanistan, Ireland and Iraq.

Among those today who also argue that the poppy is political is Harry Leslie Smith, a 93-year-old World War 2 RAF veteran, who has not worn a red poppy since 2013 because he believes “the spirit of my generation has been hijacked” by today’s politicians to “sell dubious wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Three years ago, Harry explained his decision: “I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.

“We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.

“I can tell you it didn’t happen that way because I was born nine years after World War 1 began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today.

“We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain’s population in 1913.

“My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren’t officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies. They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn’t care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated.

“My family members took the king’s shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

“Today, we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda. We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom.

“If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.”

The power of the privileged Establishment is there for all to see as they move Heaven and Earth to keep Poppy Day as a sacred national institution.

Last year our right-wing press launched a scathing attack on Jeremy Corbyn, claiming a video from 2013 showed him calling WW1 commemorations “pointless”.

The papers (the usual suspects) the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Telegraph – concentrated on one line from a speech in which the Labour leader says: “I’m not sure what there is to commemorate about the First World War.”

They then went on to claim Mr Corbyn “denounced” the money that was to be spent on – amongst other things – the huge display of ceramic poppies that filled the moat around the Tower of London in 2014.

But what Mr Corbyn said in 2013 was actually spot on: “Keir Hardie was a great opponent of the First World War… I’m not sure what there is to commemorate about the First World War other than the mass slaughter of millions of young men and women, mainly men, on the Western Front and all the other places.

“And it was a war of the declining empires and anyone who’s read or even dipped into Hobson’s great work of the early part of the 20th century, written post World War, presaged the whole First World War as a war between monopolies fighting between [inaudible] markets.

“The reason I say this is next year the government are planning this celebration and I think that’s an opportunity for us. It’s an opportunity to discuss war and discuss peace and to put up an alternative point of view.”

As a life-long pacifist I write each November about the farce and fallacy of the British Establishment’s Poppy Day.

Two years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful piece written by Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones, which not only underscores what Mr Corbyn said, but also many of my own beliefs.

I won’t reboot all that he writes but his salient points are:

“Recording only the British dead of World War 1 confirms the illusion that we are an island of heroes with no debt to anyone else, no fraternity for anyone else.

“In 1924, the German artist Otto Dix depicted a skull, lying on the ground, a home to worms. They crawl out of its eye sockets, nasal opening and mouth, and wriggle among patches of hair and a black moustache that still cling to the raw bone.

“Dix recorded his memories of fighting in the First World War. He was a machine gunner at the Somme, among other battles, and won the Iron Cross, second class. But he remembered it all as pure horror, as did other participants who happened to be artists or writers such as George Grosz, Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Jünger and Robert Graves.

“We need to look harder, and keep looking, at the terrible truths of the war that smashed the modern world off the rails and started a cycle of murderous extremism that ended only in 1945. If it did end.”

I agree with every word and every sentiment, but sadly the ‘murderous extremism’ has sadly never ended, a glance in the direction of Israel, Iraq or Syria will confirm that.

But let’s go back to the root of this.

If we honour the fallen Allied soldiers of the 1914-18 conflict, why do we not do the same for the German soldiers or indeed the dead of the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Boer War, the battles of Bannockburn and Culloden or the dead from the English Civil War, Agincourt, Crecy or even the Battle of Hastings?

Where does logic and reality stop and politics and propaganda begin?

The reasons given for World War 1 commemoration that is we must remember our dead. “They died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget.”

Total balderdash!

As a child I remember sitting on my Great Uncle Jack’s knee as he told me tales of the Somme and the mud, horror and death. He showed me the 11 inch scar on his back where a German sniper had almost taken his life as he crawled back to his trench from no man’s land. And he also told me of his older brother Burnet who died from enteric fever in the trenches at the Somme, like many thousands of his compatriots.

There was no glory, no heroism, just as Harry Leslie Smith also observed: the mechanised slaughter of millions of young working class men.

As World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen wrote: ‘the poetry is in the pity’.

One example of the mindless killings occurred on the 24 and 25 September 1915 when the 4th Black Watch was decimated at Loos.

“Haig had ample warning that an unprepared attack by two untrained divisions was unlikely to succeed. And so the stage was set for a repetition of the charge at Balaclava.

“For the set-piece attack of the 11th Corps was as futile and foredoomed as that of the Light Brigade. There had been 12 battalions making the attack, a strength of just under ten thousand, and in the three and a half hours of the actual battle their casualties were 385 officers and 7,861 men. The Germans suffered no casualties at all.”

Little wonder the Germans called the battlefield “Leichenfeld (field of corpses) von Loos”.

Perhaps in war, it’s the names that count. Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s Cathedral or Les Invalides.

The soldiers were simply dumped into mass graves.

At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped back to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled by their unsuspecting farmer sons.

No posthumous glory for them.

It is perhaps easier to believe that the names will “live for evermore” even though hundreds of thousands of World War I British and French and Germans and Austrians and Irishmen in British uniform and Hungarians and Indians and Russians and Americans and Turks and even Portuguese have no graves at all.

Or as German comedian Henning Wehn recently observed about Poppy Day, the British have: “A highly selective remembrance.”

The last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Brussels by the Germans for rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, are inscribed on her monument beside the National Gallery: “Patriotism is not enough.”

In the four years of World War 1, Britain endured 658,700 fatalities, 2,032,150 wounded and 359,150 men missing in action. This adds up to total of over three million casualties from one side alone.

Add to this the four million fatalities from the German side and other civilian deaths, the total death toll was in excess of 16 million.

No glory, just death and suffering.

Historian Phillip Knightley wrote that during the war: “More deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth”.

When war broke out in 1914, it did so to flag waving and patriotism. Men were promised honour, glory and a conflict over by Christmas.

This was the Great War, to end all wars!

These were times of great social inequality and disenfranchised boys from the poorest communities could, for the first time, be useful. The army offered food, clothing, camaraderie and the respect of the nation.

Enlistment was a collective endeavour – many battalions were made up of men from the same villages. They joined together and died together.

There was no way out. Not to join was cowardice – a treacherous act which would bring shame upon their family and nation.

And they would be fighting against an identifiable evil.

The British propaganda painted German Kaiser Wilhelm as the devil incarnate. The Daily Mail of 22 September 1914 portrayed him in separate reports as a “lunatic”, “madman”, “barbarian”, “monster”, and “modern Judas”.

The German soldier raped, mutilated and tortured. Stories of Hun atrocities in Belgium were front page news despite there being little proof of their occurrence.

The Times of January 8, 1915, stated: “The stories of rape are so horrible in detail that their publication would seem almost impossible were it not for the necessity of showing to the fullest extent the nature of the wild beasts fighting under the German Flag.”

So when we read about the heroism of all those dead men, when we pause to consider their sacrifice we should remember also a propaganda system which romanticised and demonised, misled and obfuscated.

As Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1916, said: “If the people really knew the truth the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

And what they don’t know, can’t hurt, can it?

This year, like many before, I will not wear a red poppy.