The politics of poppy day

Following the threatened demonstration of Islam4UK in Wootton Bassett, Lucy Noakes explores the fraught history of war remembrance. The article launches Lest we forget: remembering historic conflicts, openSecurity’s new editorial project in association with History & Policy, asking historians to reflect on wars gone by and the light they shed on present conflicts.

Lucy Noakes
25 January 2010

The ways in which societies commemorate and memorialise the dead of wartime have long been marked by controversy, a point which has been thrown into sharp focus by recent  events  concerning the repatriation of soldiers killed in the current military campaign in Afghanistan. The small market town of Wootton Basset lies on the route that the corteges accompanying the repatriated bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan take from RAF Lyneham to the John Radcliffe Hospital in nearby Oxford. Since 2007 the moment when the hearses pass through the town has been marked by a small and simple ceremony: the Church of St Bartholomew tolls its bell, shops close and traffic is stopped as people line the streets in silence and when the cortege reaches the war memorial, members of the British Legion salute.

However, this simple ceremony has recently become a political minefield.  Nick Griffin, the Leader of the far-Right British National Party caused outrage when he joined the ceremony on 10 November 2009 and when Islam 4UK, a branch of the al-Muhajiroun movement, threatened in January 2010 to hold a counter-protest in the town marking the deaths of Afghan civilians in the conflict, the Home Secretary Alan Johnson responded by proscribing their demonstration.  Distasteful though these two attempts to appropriate the ceremony may be, they do demonstrate the inherently political and problematic nature of ceremonies commemorating and memorialising those who die in war.

In contrast to the controversy that the Wootton Bassett ceremony has attracted, the Remembrance Day parade and ceremony held at the Cenotaph, Whitehall, each November, and the accompanying sale of red poppies to raise funds for the British Legion appear as an almost uniquely unifying events, bringing the nation together in remembrance of the military dead of the First World War and of wars since. However, even the briefest study of events surrounding the early Remembrance Day ceremonies shows that, far from cohering a war shattered nation, acts of wartime remembrance were the focus for acts of dissent.

Original artwork for openDemocracy by Hannah Abbo

The need for war memorials to mark the dead of the First World War did not come about purely as a response to the sheer scale of death in this first industrialised war (at least 722,000 British service personnel died) but were rather a necessary material point of mourning for the families and friends of the dead and missing following the decision early in the war not to repatriate their bodies.  In place of graves and headstones, street shrines and local memorials were erected around the country.

The form that these memorials took was often disputed; whether the dead should be memorialised through something of use to the living, such as a bus shelter or a village hall, or whether their memorials should take the form of a sacred space, separate from the mundane routines of everyday life, was the subject of fiercely argued public meetings up and down the land.  Armistice Day rituals were established in the early 1920s, with the unveiling of the cenotaph and the internment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey taking place on November 11, 1920.

The two minute silence, still so associated with war remembrance and echoed in the silence today at Wootton Bassett, was almost universally observed as the nation came to a standstill to remember and commemorate the war dead at 11a.m. on the 11 November.  However, as the historian Adrian Gregory has shown, many veterans of the war felt excluded by these ceremonies and by the society which held them.  Ex-soldiers often gathered together on November 11 not only to remember dead comrades, but to celebrate their own victory and survival; celebrations that were often fuelled by alcohol and subject to disapproval in sections of the press, eventually subsumed into a sober and teetotal Festival of Remembrance. Unemployment rates soared in the years immediately following the war and Armistice Day ceremonies in the 1920s and 1930s were sometimes marked by parades of unemployed ex-servicemen, wearing their dole papers pinned to their chests instead of medals.

Unease about the potential political meanings of Armistice Day were expressed at the highest levels of government.  While it may have been politically and practically necessary to erect war memorials as a means of materially demonstrating a unified nation’s gratitude and grief, the potential for a day of mourning to become the focus for anti-war and anti-government movements was always present.The government, understandably, would have felt more comfortable with a day that commemorated victory, rather than a day of commemorating the dead, and the tensions between these two forms of commemoration continued to pull at Armistice Day throughout the 1920s. Lord Curzon, President of the Armistice Day Committee in 1921 argued that 11 November should not be ‘a day of mourning’ but instead should become ‘the commemoration of a great day in the country’s history.’

Bereaved parents, wives and children, ex-servicemen and politicians all bought different understandings, needs and experiences to Armistice Day and while at times these were held in common, at others they conflicted with one another.  It was not until the 1930s, with a new generation emerging into adulthood who had not experienced the war first hand, that Armistice Day more completely focused on commemorating the war dead, with the meanings, ceremonies and symbols associated with the day apparently strong enough to emerge renamed as Remembrance Day but otherwise unscathed from the renewed devastation of the Second World War.

Who though does Remembrance Day commemorate? In 2006 the government agreed to post-humously pardon the 306 soldiers executed for cowardice during the First World War following a campaign by the Royal British Legion, which invited relatives of these men to take part in the march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day and the unveiling of a Shot at Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in 2004.

The focus of commemorations though remains on the military, with the many civilian victims of warfare marked by their absence. Hundreds died in aerial bombardment during the First World War and thousands in the Second yet, despite the creation of local memorials, there is no recognition of these deaths on Remembrance Day. It is harder to integrate the death of civilians into national acts of war remembrance because it reminds us that, as well as dying, soldiers kill, a fact not lost on the would-be organisers of the Islam 4UK protest in Wootton Bassett.

In 1933 the Women’s Co-Operative League successfully created and marketed the White Poppy as an alternative to the British Legion’s Red Poppy, designed to commemorate all the dead of war, not just the military, and to demonstrate the wearer’s commitment to work for peace.  Money raised from White Poppy sales went to the Peace Pledge Union, the primary pacifist movement of the 1930s.  White poppies are still in evidence and remain controversial, acting as a powerful symbolic means of both commemorating all war dead and as a way of expressing opposition to war.  They grew in popularity in the early 1980s, at the height of the second Cold War, when it seemed that any conflict involving the world’s superpowers would end in nuclear Armageddon, and can be seen again today, perhaps being worn as an expression of opposition to Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It seems that Remembrance Day has a new resonance today.  The coming together of a number of factors – the deaths of the last British veterans of the First World War, the 90th anniversary of the First World War and the 60th anniversary of the Second, the continued deaths of soldiers and civilians in the ‘war on terror’ and the concomitant rise of the nationalist Far Right in British politics have combined to make the underlying tensions of Remembrance Day more apparent than at any other time on the recent past. Whilst the rituals associated with remembrance emphasise the concept of a nation united in war and in commemoration, wars and the ways that we remember them can equally be seen as divisive, emphasising the multiple identities, politics and beliefs that exist in any nation. The people of Wootton Basset may have been driven by a simple desire to pay respects to a dead soldier and, by doing so, to offer some comfort to the bereaved, but as they are discovering, commemorating and memorialising the war dead has never been straightforward.

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