Remembrance Sunday in Moffat, Scotland, 2016
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Shakespeare – Henry V, Act IV, scene iii
Tomorrow will mark the hundred and third anniversary of the ending of World War One. That wasn’t its name at the time though. Since it had been billed as “the war to end all wars”, those dictating the terms of the Armistice – signed at 05:15 on 11/11/1918 in the Rethondes Clearing of France’s Compiègne Forest to take effect at 11 am – were already calling it the Great War. But as we know, a Greater War Yet would break out not twenty-one years later.
Forty million people, only half of them in uniform, “gave” their lives in WW1. Its horrors – those of Flanders the most vividly conveyed, though there were other theatres – have been related in countless tomes. On the fiction front, may I recommend Sebastian Falks’s Birdsong?
But “the war to end all wars” was not the only lie. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised those who made it back “a land fit for heroes”. (Only the most ferocious had been redirected to Russia, to join the elite killers of thirteen other nations fighting alongside White Cossacks to crush the Red Threat to God, King and Capital.) Instead they returned to lock-out and lay-off. Some, criminal elements from the slums of the north east, signed up with the Black & Tans, sent to terrorise an Ireland yearning for freedom after centuries of British occupation.
My point being that Henry’s imagined words to an English force outnumbered by five to one at Agincourt – and Lloyd George’s to men returning traumatised if not broken beyond repair from carnage now industrialised – form part of a wider pattern. The wars of those who rule powerful states are always justified in the name of high ideals, and always prosecuted for baser reasons. From this deeper truth, lies – that the veterans of Henry’s land and glory grab would forever be honoured … that the survivors of the first global imperialist war for profits would know lifelong prosperity – follow as night on day.
I won’t be wearing a red poppy this year. I haven’t for decades. You might catch me with a white one, if I get lucky. They aren’t easy to find. I’ve twice visited Beeston Methodist Church, having been told this is the only place for miles around selling them – and twice failed to gain entry.
(Let no man call me, approaching Year Ten of my own epic war with Sheffield Hallam – in which another significant ruling in my favour was handed down just yesterday 1 – a quitter. No, and no woman either. You see if I’m not at that church door tomorrow and tomorrow for my little white emblem of defiance!)
Meanwhile, in four days’ time, my country’s Establishment – from fourth estate to Westminster Abbey – will lead the annual orgy of sentimentalised hypocrisy we call Remembrance Sunday.
To be clear: those depicted here are not hypocrites. But they are callously and outrageously deceived.
As they do so the bombs will continue to rain on impoverished, brown-skinned men, women and children in Yemen. Each bomb will chalk up a profit for those with shares in Britain’s high-tech and highly lucrative death sectors.
I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
Elsewhere, in the South China Sea, those stationed on the warships of Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA – probably not France, recently stiffed on that nuclear subs deal – will stand on deck in sombre silence as the mandatory pieties are intoned. Then they’ll go back to patrolling the Taiwan Strait in the name of Standing Up To Beijing Bullying.
(If you don’t deem that provocative, and recklessly so, you might for a second imagine Chinese and Russian warships, some of them nuclear armed, doing similar in the Gulf of Mexico.)
So for me it’s a white poppy or none. But let me leave you with one who, though no soldier, has seen more war than many an enlisted man. Or woman. Here’s John Pilger, eleven months ago – that number keeps coming up – on the subject.
Britain’s Armed Services Memorial is a silent, haunting place. Set in the rural beauty of Staffordshire, in an arboretum of some 30,000 trees and sweeping lawns, its Homeric figures celebrate determination and sacrifice.
The names of more than 16,000 British servicemen and women are listed. The literature says they “died in operational theatre or were targeted by terrorists”.
On the day I was there, a stonemason was adding new names to those who have died in some 50 operations across the world during what is known as “peacetime”. Malaya, Ireland, Kenya, Hong Kong, Libya, Iraq, Palestine and many more, including secret operations, such as Indochina.
Not a year has passed since peace was declared in 1945 that Britain has not sent military forces to fight the wars of empire.
Not a year has passed when countries, mostly poor and riven by conflict, have not bought or have been “soft loaned” British arms to further the wars, or “interests”, of empire.
What empire? Investigative journalist Phil Miller recently revealed in Declassified that Boris Johnson’s Britain maintained 145 military sites – call them bases — in 42 countries. Johnson has boasted that Britain is to be “the foremost naval power in Europe”.
In the midst of the greatest health emergency in modern times …
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Nottingham quaker meeting house will definitely have white poppies. Sheffield qmh certainly does
Thanks Sue. I was about to hop on a tram to do as you suggest but decided to give it another shot at the local church. Third time lucky!
“Instead they returned to lock-out and lay-off. ”
‘The more things change the more they stay the same’
With many servicemen and women traumatised and maimed in the service of charlatans having to rely on charity and even, in at least one well known case of the recent past, dying alone at home of starvation having been sanctioned by private firms sub contracted by those same charlatans for yet more profit.
The hypocrisy of ignoring such everyday realities whilst engaging in a once a year virtue signalling is about as woke as it’s possible to get.
It’s vile beyond measure, Dave
Thanks for the reminder, Phil. Time to bring my frugally preserved white poppy out of storage and make a modest donation to the Peace Pledge Union (https://www.ppu.org.uk/donate).
My Uncle Arthur, who as a miner detested Winston Churchill, had a big red poppy – the kind that cost a tanner instead of a penny – bought the year of Suez and Hungary. He laid it away carefully after each eleventh of the eleventh, dusted it off the following year, and was sporting it as late as ’72 when he saw action, led by another Arthur, at Saltley Gate.
I doubt he made a donation, modest or otherwise, to the Peace Pledge Union though …
Many thanks for that, Phil.
At this time of year I think especially of Tom Easton, a Northumberland miner and Labour and trade union activist who survived the first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. He was captured later in the war and made to work in German pits until 1918.
His quietly heroic life in war and peace was movingly described in The Violet Dots by my old Washington Post Post colleague, Michael Kernan:
Published in the United States in 1978 by George Brazilier, Mike’s fine work sadly never found one here in the UK .
I met Tom shortly before his death. He was still fighting the cause of the widows and children of his fallen comrades.
John, see bevin’s second comment below
It has been a long time since I read them but Henry Williamson’s autobiographical novels of the Great War always struck me as being flawed masterpieces. As to WWII Williamson, by then a fascist was interned.
And now to google Violet Dots!
He of Tarka the Otter? I devoured that at fifteen on a coach journey to Cornwall. Nature lovers – and I count myself one – seem frequently to drift, out of disgust for capitalist savagery, which they confuse with industrial and even human savagery, into the arms of reaction.
The Violet Dots
Published by George Braziller April 1978, 1978
ISBN 10: 0807608874ISBN 13: 9780807608876
Seller: Hennessey + Ingalls, Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A.
Seller Rating: 5-star rating
Used – Hardcover
Condition: Used – Very Good
US$ 65.00 Shipping
From U.S.A. to Canada
A tad pricey !!
Thanks bevin. Even if the price didn’t deter, I doubt I’d find time to read it, good as I’m sure it is.
Thank-you for your article which I was pleased to read.
I was dismayed that you are having difficulty obtaining a white poppy. We give them away in our shop in Sutton-on-Sea and I would be delighted to send you one in the post. Possibly a little late for this year but you will be ready to go next year!
Thank you Robert. That’s kind of you. I’ll bear this in mind next year. To be fair on the good people at Beeston Methodist Church they weren’t really ‘selling’ white poppies – simply displaying them, as is common practice with the red ones, next to a donations box.
(Back in the day – I was born in ’52 – it was made very clear to us kids that we were expected to part with a penny for the bog standard offering, sixpence for the deluxe model with its more ornate, double leaf construction.)
Also to be fair to Beeston Methodist Church, it had almost certainly been open on my first two attempts. Only on my third, when the alternative was two tram rides and some ninety minutes of my life, did I try a little harder and find, tucked away behind its huge and sprawling structures, an annexe with office and coffee bar – good find: I’ll be back, though I’m no believer – with the sought after item.
That said, I’m sure we’d be seeing more folk sporting white poppies if ways could be found to get them into shops, high streets and other public spaces. Easier said than done, I suppose.
I like the red poppy because I think it is a symbol of remembrance, or at least that is its original intent. Remembrance Day has lately been used as a drum beater for ‘humanitarian’ intervention along with everything to do with WW1 and WW2 but that doesn’t change the meaning of the poppy. When the military wear it they too are remembering the dead.
They are, Johnny. And let none make light of what they endured. My point, and that of the white poppy, is that they and the dead they remember were cruelly deceived. (Also, that in that deception their true interests lay with those who “gave” their lives on the “enemy” side. WW1 and WW2 were no less wars of profits than those of this century.)