Ye hypocrites! are these your pranks?
To murder men and give God thanks!
Desist, for shame!-proceed no further;
God won’t accept your thanks for Murther!
It is that time of year in the UK again. The run-up to 11 November, Remembrance Day. Every year there is pressure on people to wear poppies, nonsense stated about those who wear white poppies for peace, and hypocrisy-laden sanctimonious speeches and soundbites from politicians of all colours.
It happens every year, but the big difference is that this year, 2014, sees the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, and the government have gone for broke with their political hijacking of what was once meant to be a solemn day to remember those who fell in wars. This has all been planned well in advance. On 11 October 2013 the Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated in a speech given at the Imperial War Museum “I want a commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.” That’s right, he actually spoke of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
And the Prime Minister has been true to his word. On 5 August 2014, the 100th anniversary of Britain entering WWI, a major artwork of ceramic poppies in the moat surrounding the Tower of London, created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre stage designer Tom Piper. Named Blood Swept Land and Sea of Red, each of the 888,246 poppies, one for every British serviceman killed in World War I, were sold for £25.00 each, with proceeds going to service charities. When the PoppyScotland appeal was launched, Edinburgh Castle and it’s basalt Castle Rock were lit up in red that evening
What is worse still is the public are not only falling for it. Every one of the poppies in the moat sold in record time. I listened live to LBC Radio one day as they read out a police statement pleading, in vain, for people not to drive to the Tower of London as it was causing gridlock. But worse than that, I have heard and seen both the artwork at the Tower, and the red lighting on Edinburgh Castle as “lovely”, “beautiful”, “wonderful”, and other such adjectives espousing admiration. Excuse me, but the very point of the poppies and their red colour is that they symbolise the blood of millions who died in war. One can only wonder if those saying such things would still consider it beautiful if it were real blood? Given that even the artist made reference to that blood in the title, it seems to me a great many people are completely missing the point. Against the artist’s wishes, a great part of the artwork, which was to be dismantled on 12 November, is now to be extended to the end of the month.
As I said, the Tower of London artwork has a ceramic poppy to remember every British serviceman killed in World War I. The Society of Friends (Quakers) devised a map showing that if there were a poppy for every member of the services and every civilian killed, on all sides, there would be 19.1 million in total, stretching from the Tower of London to Buckingham Palace; a distance of three miles. Even if it were restricted to deaths of all Allied service personnel, there would be 6,349,352 poppies.
Even the official song of this year’s poppy campaign has been hijacked. The song, No Man’s Land / Green Fields of France has been altered for a cover version by Joss Stone and Jeff Beck. Written by Eric Bogle about finding the grave of a 19 year old private in Flanders, has been stripped of it’s strongly anti-war final verse:
And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie Mcbride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you ‘The Cause? ‘
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie Mcbride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Although he has no plans to take legal action, Eric Bogle has stated that as his licensing company in the UK owns the rights, he was not asked his permission to record it, or made aware of the changes made to it. He also stated “Do I approve of what they have done to the song ? (missing verses, rock’n’roll arrangement, etc) No, believe it or not I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement. Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.”
Yet more worrying still is the national fervour and jingoism this centenary year really is beginning to feel like 100 years ago. In his speech at the Imperial War Museum, David Cameron stated “This was the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation. It was a sacrifice they made for us, and it is right that we should remember them.” And people are buying into that with a national fervour and British jingoism which I have never seen so strong in previous years. People are talking about the “sacrifice” which those who fell made to keep us free, and in doing so they are referring to the First World War. I am just wondering how long before Germans in the UK are attacked, as happened 100 years ago.
If anyone thinks that the First World War was making the world safe for democracy, then they either need a history lesson or they are deluding themselves. It was an utterly insane conflict which cost millions of lives, based on feuding blocs led by three cousins; Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V and Tsar Nicholas II, caused by ill-feeling from Austria-Hungary towards Serbia and an Anglo-German arms race which had been ongoing since 1900. In just over one month in 1914, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June, to the formal declaration of war of Austria-Hungary upon Serbia on 28 July, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Britain were all sabre rattling, and in the matter of a few days thereafter, peace quickly went to war and one of the bloodiest conflicts mankind has ever known.
And of course, it was all the fault of the ‘Beastly Hun’, the ‘bosche’, and their empire building – said Britain, who were still boasting of a globe with one quarter coloured red and an empire “upon which the sun never sets”. But those Germans were different, and it was all the fault of their insane Kaiser, who was so different from the British, wasn’t it? Was Kaiser Wilhelm II really all that different? Well certainly he underwent a very difficult birth, which deformed his left arm, and was deprived oxygen for a short while, which may have caused brain damage. As a child he was known to be mischievous and often badly behaved, apart from when in the company of his grandmother, whom he loved dearly but who would only have to give him a certain look to bring him to heel. That grandmother was in fact Britain’s own Queen Victoria. Still think this ‘bosche’ was so different? And indeed, if he were such a criminal, then perhaps the jingoistic would like to explain just how Kaiser Wilhelm II was not brought to book after the war, but having been deposed by his own people, was allowed to live in exile until his death in 1942.
Meanwhile, while Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was not a grandchild of Victoria, his wife Alexandra was. However, the royal families of Russia and Britain were so closely related that King George V and Tsar Nicholas II were so alike as to be indistinguishable. I showed my mother a photo of Nicholas once, and she immediately thought it was George V. By the way, the British royal family changed their name to Windsor during the First World War, because Saxe-Coburg of Gotha was considered “too German”.
Socialism was on the rise before, during and after the First World War, and many referred to it as “the bosses war”, and never a truer word was spoken. An elite few got very rich selling the munitions of war while men, women and children died in millions, and Europe was ravaged. A standing joke of the time was the definition of the bayonet; “a weapon with a worker on either end of it”. Munitions suppliers went from small names to huge names, like Alfred Nobel who made a fortune from producing TNT at his factory in Ardeer, south-west Scotland, in which women worked in terrible conditions, which were to lead to health problems and early deaths. Where is the remembrance for them?
And for the four long years of the war, both sides moved very little, but for most of the time were bogged down in trenches from which neither could advance, but instead did little more than shell and shoot at each other across the intervening space; the infamous “No Man’s Land”. And the manner in which it was done was superbly insane. Although the world was well into the 20th century, Britain still was still very much entrenched in 19th century, the result of which was an attempt to fight a Victorian war and against 20th century technology. It is true that British forces did indeed launch Calvary charges, mounted on horses, and went charging on foot carrying rifles, or in the case of officers, a Browning revolver in one hand and a swagger stick in the other, against German machine gun fire. The Germans could be equally insane by the way. In places they would start shelling British trenches at 4:00pm, convinced that the English would just be sitting down to afternoon tea.
And in the end, what did all that gain? With the USA having entered the war in 1917, after the Armistice, President Woodrow Wilson warned the Allies not to place punitive reparations upon Germany, as they would merely sow the seeds of future wars. This call was echoed by British economist John Maynard Keynes. Britain and France completely ignored this wise advice and did indeed enforce tight reparations upon Germany, enforced them to disarm, annexed settled German and other Axis lands to other countries (particularly France), and whenever Germany could not meet their reparations, Allied troops were sent in. The result was hyperinflation, the collapse of the Deutsch mark, and growing resentment in Germany, which led to a rise in nationalism and the popularity of the Worker’s Party, which was to become the National Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany – the Nazis.
Meanwhile, among the lands annexed to other countries, one area was oil-rich Mosul, which was taken from Ottoman-ruled Turkey and annexed to British-mandated Iraq. Many of the conflicts in the Mosul area today have their root in this post-war annexation. And nobody has ever stopped to ask the native Kurds in the area how they feel about it.
Back at home, having ‘won’ the war, Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised “homes fit for heroes”; a promise he completely failed to deliver upon, and which no government since has ever honoured. Indeed, by 1919 there were people on the streets of Glasgow, protesting the high rents in their slum dwellings. And the government’s response, fearful of a Scottish ‘Bolshevik’ revolution, was to send tanks into George Square, Glasgow’s main thoroughfare, while Scottish troops were held at gunpoint in Maryhill Barracks, by men they had all too recently been fighting alongside in the trenches.
Of those who did return from the trenches, many were maimed physically, and a number mentally by the insanity and slaughter they had seen. During the war such men who had fled had been shot for ‘cowardice’. But of those invalided out, they called it ‘shell shock’. Today we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which the present government will still not formally recognise, just as no preceding government did.
The simple, blunt, hard fact about the First World War is that it achieved nothing. And all who died in it did so completely in vain. I am not sorry if that offends anyone. As brutal a statement as that may be, if one looks at the aftermath of the war, it remains a fact. It was not “the war to end wars” and it most certainly did better the lot for many UK citizens. Indeed, post-war, with millions dead, mostly men, leading in places to entire communities disappearing, a huge labour shortage, war widows with children striving to make ends meet, and invalided and homeless veterans treated like dirt by an uncaring government, things were much worse for millions.
It was in 1919 that Lady Haig, wife of Field Marshall Earl Haig, spotted a Canadian war widow selling silk poppies on the streets of London, and this along with poppies being the first wild flower to grow in Flanders after the war, led to the founding of the Haig Poppy Fund and Remembrance Day, as a solemn commemoration of those who died in what then was still referred to as the Great War.
Since then, Remembrance Day and the poppy have come to represent all conflicts. My grandfather, a man who could remember both World Wars, was the very person who utterly refused to wear a poppy, on the grounds that he saw it as a glorification of war. I see it a bit differently. My father was a member of the Young Communist League during World War II, and had the Nazis won, if he were lucky he would have got a bullet through the brain. If he were unlucky, he would have been shipped off to a death camp. Either way, I would never have been conceived, let alone born. Given the strong socialist feeling in the UK at the time, I doubt I am unique in that. And that is why I do wear a poppy; as a mark of respect to those who laid down their lives that I might live. I owe them a debt which can never be repaid, as do I reckon millions who are alive today. Alongside my red poppy however I wear a white poppy for peace. And far from that making me a “traitor” or “disrespectful”, I wear it because I do care, and I do show my respect. For the Peace Pledge Union white poppy stands for;
- All those who have ever died in wars.
- All those who died because resources which could have saved their lives were spent instead on wars
- All those who will continue to die until we learn to live together in peace.
Remembrance Day and the poppy campaign has been hijacked by successive governments for political gain. By politicians who make sanctimonious speeches at one time in the year about sacrifice. The same politicians who make defence cutbacks, starving the armed forces of the resources they need. The same politicians who tell the elderly who have seen war to only heat one room and wear more clothes this winter, and close their eyes to those who die of hypothermia every year. The same politicians who refuse to recognise PTSD as a fact. The same politicians who are taking welfare benefits away from invalided veterans who have fought for Queen and country.
In this 100th anniversary year of the First World War, David Cameron and his cohorts have hijacked the poppy and Remembrance Day to a new low in politicising both. He has turned politicising what is supposed to be a solemn event into an art form, albeit a poor-taste, kitsch, Disneyland-style one at that.
In the 1980s, during the tenure of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, the slogan of the annual poppy campaign was “Wear your Poppy with pride”. I can only repeat what I said then: I do not wear my poppy with pride. Rather I wear it with the utmost humility, as all should do.
I leave the final word to Harry Patch, the last veteran of World War I, who would have been disgusted at the politicising and hype surrounding this year’s poppy campaign and Remembrance Day, and whose words remain true, one hundred years after the start of the First World War:
“Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”