The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est

white poppy

AS a life-long pacifist and former newspaper editor I write each November about the farce and fallacy of the British establishment’s Poppy Day.

But strangely this year, on the 100th anniversary of World War 1 – it was never and is still never a Great War – I was struggling on what new I could say.

So I wrote another poem on the subject and left it at that.

Then I stumbled upon a marvelous piece written by Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones.

Jonathan tackles one of the corner stones of Red Poppies and Remembrance Day, which has always irked me.

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.

Personally I would rather see the moat of the Tower of London filled with “barbed wire and bones” than the red ceramic poppies currently drawing huge crowds to see what has become the defining popular artwork in this centenary of the Great War’s outbreak. I called the sea of poppies now surrounding the Tower “toothless” as art and a “UKIP-style memorial”.

My criticism of this work of art was and is reasonable, honest and founded not in some kind of trendy cynicism but a belief that 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 you express, Jonathan; but the ‘murderous extremism’ has sadly never ended, a glance in the direction of Israel and Palestine or Isis and Syria will confirm that.

But let’s go back to the root of this and the war that defined so called glory and greatness.

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 this year’s 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.

I have my Uncle Jack’s pencil written letters from the front – and from hospital – at my side as I write this.

There was no glory, no heroism, just 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 1 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.

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.”

This was the absolute necessity of conflict; ironically the same necessity that Michael Gove pointed to earlier this year, as he rewrote the history of the war and instilled his own propaganda.

Cambridge history Professor Richard Evans accuses the Conservative led commemoration of gross oversimplification: “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-1906.”

Unlike Germany – where male suffrage was universal – 40 per cent of those British troops fighting in the war did not have the vote until 1918.

“The Kaiser was not like Hitler, he was not a dictator… this was not Nazi Germany,” he added.

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?

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep.

Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod.

All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!

An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And floundering like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

October 1917 – March 1918