On Wednesdays I go to the excellent Newsome Junior School near my home in Huddersfield, to listen to children reading. By the front path yesterday morning, there was an installation of poppies, made by the children. The design is influenced by Wave, part of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London last year, now touring Britain and currently at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The poppies are made from the bases of plastic drinks bottles, sprayed red, and each child in the school made one. Today some of the children were also wearing their own hand-made paper poppies. This set me thinking about changes in the styles of Remembrance.
In the twenties, Remembrance Day was presented as the tribute of comrades, relatives and other citizens to those who had died in the war. Royalty and politicians removed their hats and stood silent before the cenotaph in a ritual of respect. It was the repayment of a debt of honour, and the poppy, signifying a gift to the Haig Fund, showed that its wearer had made a small contribution to the payment of that debt. In some other countries ex-servicemen’s associations were divisive forces, linked to extreme politics; in Britain the British Legion absorbed most other associations, and was a unifying institution. Almost the entire country wore a poppy. Doubtless some people did so unwillingly, and only because of social pressure. (Where did I read the anecdote about the man so mean that he ironed his poppy to keep it neat and smart for wearing next year?) But the moral duty to help the war-disabled was felt by most to be an imperative that they must make at least a show of respect.
By the late twenties, Remembrance Day could mean different things. For some it was a day for expressing pride in the armed forces; for many it was about remembering individual soldiers and sailors who had died; for others it was a way of marking the dreadfulness of war, and a commitment to preventing its ever happening again. In 1929, BBC radio found a perfect text to accommodate all these meanings when it broadcast R.C.Sherriff’s Journey’s End. Sherriff’s play expressed no opinion as to the origins of the War, the politics of its conduct or the justice of the cause; it just offered a compelling sense of the experience of soldiers, the pressures upon them, and the human cost of the war. Despite this the BBC was nervous about broadcasting it (even though they had censored, with Sherriff’s permission, a few instances of ‘bloody’). As a Radio Times article, two years later explained: ‘it was feared that the effect upon many listeners of recalling actual scenes of war might be unduly painful and create protest.’ In the event, however, ‘Journey’s End drew more letters than any single broadcast of the last two years; only one of these hundreds of letters protested against the play being included in the programme for Armistice Day.’
The Second World War gave new impetus and added new meanings to Remembrance; soldiers were once again being killed, and so were civilians. After 1945, it is notable that no new national rituals were added to those invented in the early twenties. Just as few new town or village memorials were built then, but new names were added to the existing monuments, remembrance for the Second War was latched on to the day commemorating the end of the First.
This suggests that the two wars were seen as similar – two battles against German imperialism (or even one continuous fight, with an uneasy twenty-year interval in the middle of it). Later, historical perspectives changed, and in the sixties a strong popular distinction is often made between the two wars: the Second World War was the good war, its righteousness utterly proven by the dreadful facts about the Holocaust that were revealed after victory; the First World War was the bad war, a fight between imperialists, with one side as blameful as the other. At this time, many on the left stopped wearing the poppy, or even wore a pacifist white poppy instead. The slump in Haig’s reputation led to the words ‘Haig Fund’ being removed from the poppy’s centre.
Many of the later generations who did not go to war, or do military service of any kind, did not share their parents’ identification with the armed services. A division in the nation emerged (probably always there, but becoming more evident) between those emotionally bonded to the forces and those not. Televised Remembrance festivals from the Albert Hall concentrated were full of military music and marching soldiers, and became spectacles that alienated many.
Decreasing numbers wore poppies in the street, whatever their politics, though they remained compulsory for anyone appearing on television. The two minute silence was observed far less frequently in public places, through the eighties, though silences became popular again during the nineties, as expressions of shared emotion (or emotions that some sections of the press said we should share). There were official or semi-official silences for victims of disasters, and for Princess Diana.
The popular reputation of the First World War slumped further; novels and films represented the war as uniquely awful; dogged relatives of those shot at dawn fought for pardons; there was a wave of sentimental affection for Harry Patch and the other last few Great War survivors, who were generally presented as victims. As classic poetry of any kind became a harder sell to younger generations, war poetry (which could be presented as poetry with a purpose) took a more significant role in school English lessons.
Then the nasty little wars of the twenty-first century began to produce their own dead and their own war-disabled. The mess in Iraq made many on the left even less willing to associate with anything that seemed to justify military action; meanwhile ‘Help for Heroes’ became a popular cause and slogan. Wootton Bassett led the way in reviving the habit of homage to casualties, in a way that both honoured the military and made the authorities uncomfortable because it drew attention to casualties. Perhaps the country assuaged its deep uncertainties about the Middle East wars that we were engaged in by expressing pity and indignation on behalf of the soldiers of the First World War. Executed deserters were given a blanket pardon. Towards the end of the twentieth century, murmurs of ‘poppy fascism’ began.
But am I right in sensing a change round about 2014? The dominant tone of centenary celebrations has not been Morpugo-esque sob-stuff, but an interest in and respect for the men who fought. The crucial exhibitions of the era have not been the big ones at the Imperial War Museum but the small collections of documents, photographs and mementos in just about every town museum and every village hall (or sometimes church). Helped by ancestry.co.uk, the nation has researched grandad’s military record and dug out his medals, and the dominant tone is pride rather than pity.
Meanwhile the poppy is taking on a symbolic life of its own, quite distinct from the British Legion collection boxes. Conceptual artists are using it, sometimes glibly, but sometimes, as in the case of the Tower installation, in ways that touch the public’s imagination. Like the Huddersfield schoolchildren making their own poppies, modern England is looking at the poppy afresh. Its meanings can include support for the army (Poppies were included in the impromptu memorials that sprung up when Lee Rigby was attacked by a madman) but also respect for ancestors and horror at the thought of war. Maybe a new, more fixed, meaning will emerge soon.
Meanwhile, here’s a reminder that Remembrance has always offered opportunities for those keen to make a buck, and also for those who like to feel indignation and resentment. It’s from the Daily Mail of 1923: