On Ypres and Poppies

I was fortunate to be able to take part in the Great peace run and walk in Ypres recently. I have no relatives who fought in the first world war, they thought it a war between Imperial powers, but I thought it was immensely valuable for my 13 year old son in particular to take part in one of the 100 year commemorations.

The military efforts of my ancestors were seldom on the side of the British, though they were heavily involved in the War of the Two Kings, also known as the Williamite war. Naturally as Irish Catholics they were on the side of King James and sadly lost (in 1691). Victors get to write the history and the Williamite victory is depicted in Britain as the Glorious Revolution. A more recent history by Scott Sowery: Making Toleration paints things very differently: “Though often depicted as a despot who sought to impose his own Catholic faith on a Protestant people, James is revealed as a man ahead of his time, a king who pressed for religious toleration at the expense of his throne. The Glorious Revolution, Sowerby finds, was not primarily a crisis provoked by political repression. It was, in fact, a conservative counter-revolution against the movement for enlightened reform that James himself encouraged and sustained.”

The immediate result of the defeat was a disaster for Irish Catholics with the introduction of the Penal Laws. These were described by Edmund Burke at the time as “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

Winding on a few hundred years my paternal grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and numerous granduncles fought in the Irish War of Independence. I have early childhood memories of tricolour draped coffins and the last post being played when they were buried with full military honours. The most famous perhaps was granduncle Gareth who, as a medical student in Cork, used to shoot British soldiers during the day and nurse them back to health at night.

Of course John Redmond the leader of the constitutional nationalists encouraged the Irish to fight in the First World War for the right of small nations. Indeed Nationalists and Unionists joined the British army in approximately equal numbers and of the c 200k soldiers 49,000 met their death. It is sad to say however that after Ireland gained independence many First World War veterans were not treated as heroes in Ireland, quite the contrary, and it has only been comparatively recently that they have been properly honoured.

I found Ypres or, more properly, Ieper (as it is in the Flemish region) deeply moving. There was no sign of British triumphalism. The focus was entirely on remembering the dead. The 8:00pm ceremony at the Menin Gate was deeply moving. This happens every evening without fail with the sounding of the last post. On the 5th May there was an excellent choir and a pipe band adding to the sense of occasion. The In Flanders Fields Museum in particular brought home the sheer horror of the First World War; one can read as much as you like in history books but the sheer barbarity was viscerally brought home.

The next day, Sunday,  was hot and we decided to do the walk that started at any time between 8:00 and 11:00 rather than the run at about midday. Along the walk there were bios of individual athletes of various nationalities, English, German, French etc., many Olympic medal winners, who perished in the War. The photo below is of one of the hundreds of war cemeteries dotted  around Flanders which we passed during the walk.

 

I have never worn a poppy. For me it has mixed connotations. I have welcome remembrance of the fallen dead wholeheartedly, however there is also the feeling that the British army is in some respects an oppressive Imperialist force. The appropriation of the poppy by the Royal British Legion seems inappropriate. The modern slick marketing also jars. As it says on the British Legion’s website: “By working with us you can increase sales and competitive advantage; maximise brand affinity and build brand equity.” There also seems increasing pressure to wear a poppy, what John Snow describes as an unpleasant breed of poppy fascism.

I am not on my own. Chris Kendall of the excellent CakeWatch podcast has similar misgivings and wears a hand knitted EU poppy, shown below. As Chris says:

Marking 11 November as Remembrance Day has a long international history. Many countries mark it. In Belgium, where I’ve lived for many years, it’s a public holiday. It does not ‘belong’ to the Royal British Legion nor to the UK, and I feel it has been appropriated in Britain by people who want to make it about the country’s current armed forces. That’s not what it is to me. To me, Remembrance Day is first and foremost about the awful horror, stupidity, and waste of the First World War. Then, by extension, it’s about the Second World War, and the way European civilisation turned in upon itself in fratricidal conflict.

In conclusion then I was pleased that Ypres seemed genuinely about remembrance rather than inappropriate “British Nationalism.” It also reinforced my feeling that Brexit is an obscenity, not just a lose-lose situation economically, but has the ability to increase ethnic nationalist tensions of the most destructive and destabilising kind.

Comments

  1. Peter May -

    Even if the British army is “in some respects an oppressive Imperialist force”, I wear a poppy for the people who died – not for an institution. And I’m happy too that it is worn for any who died in any war. Why shouldn’t it be just as much for our contemporaries who are killed rather than just those who died in the first world war?

    1. Samuel Johnson -

      The problem is not the wearing of the poppy per se, but the shaming and even bullying of people, Irish in particular, who don’t wish to wear a symbol associated with foreign army which has murdered innocent civilians in Ireland. That’s despite the fact that many Irish people have worn the uniform. Often they had little choice. Ireland has been ill-served by the “green-washing” of Irish involvement in Britain’s wars. More Irish men from what is now the Republic than from the 6 counties died in British uniform in both wars, among them the first VC medal awardees in each conflict. In the case of WW2 the govt’s colluded to cover-up Irish participation. Returning soldiers were issued with civilian clothes at Holyhead. This maintained the fiction of Irish neutrality & afforded some protection to the men concerned – – it wasn’t that long since the British army machine-gunned a crowd at a football match in Dublin and Irish ports were occupied by the British navy until 1939.

      Coerced displays of loyalty are resented by Irish people whether it’s poppy fascism, having to being seen at church, or pass mandatory Irish language exams when taking state examinations, all of which involve acceding to unwanted authority that has, historically, been illiberal, intolerant of dissent, and keen to co-opt people in their own repression.

      The term I have seen used in respect of the vindictive pleasure Donald Trump takes in humiliating others is performative cruelty. It’s certainly applicable to efforts to compel people to wear the poppy, either directly, or to create an environment that is actively hostile to their not doing so.

      The poppy today is associated with fund raising for modern veterans, which may include soldiers who have gunned down Irish civilians (such as Aiden MacAnespie) and never been held to account for it. And it’s not just Irish people who might have some mixed feelings. While I worked in Kenya a couple of years or so ago the UK govt paid compensation to Kenyans who had been abused & mistreated by British soldiers (some were castrated in detention). The sanctimony about the poppy, linked to noble sacrifice and the British invariably being on the side of right, can be a bit hard to stomach for others, so alternatives are very much welcome. To say the least, it’s a symbol with some mixed connotations.

  2. Bill Hughes -

    When will we ever learn? Despite the wide publicity about the horrors of war, the deception, cruelty and conscription by our so called masters, the public is still hoodwinked into thinking that having a vast military with weapons of mass destruction is a good thing, ready to bomb Syria or whatever target they choose at will. I agree the red poppy of the British Legion is being used to promote British (English?) nationalism. The grief and sorrow of relatives of those killed or maimed in war is being exploited by the powers that be. An almost compulsory wearing of the red poppy by MPs and anyone who thinks they are important is pernicious. An answer to this could be the wearing of a white poppy signifying that we remember war casualties but pledge never to let it happen again!

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