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It is not only 'the fallen' who deserve remembrance

The most strident anti-war criticisms came not just from pacifists but from survivors.

'What do you think of this? The 'studio' is situated just behind the front line.This was taken just after several gas attacks, hence my 'long' face. Hope you are well, love Stanley (June 1916)'

Stanley Gordon Hogg, survivor of Ypres and Passchendaele, never wore a poppy; the truest way to respect veterans, he believed, was to stop adding to their number. The sentiment has been explored in recent public discussion over the Tower of London’s sea of ceramic poppies. In response, Quakers released a map illustrating the extent of the sea of red, were it to represent the dead of all nations killed in First World War. 2014 saw not only the centenary of that war’s beginning, but the departure of the last British troops from Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Poppies are worn in their honour, too – and, according to Cameron’s spirited defence of the memorial, in honour of the cause for which they fought. It was a reminder, he noted, of ‘how many people gave their lives not just in that conflict, although obviously the slaughter was horrendous, but also in so many conflicts since then where our Armed Services personnel have been defending our freedoms and our way of life’. The poppy hijab has been presented to British Muslim women as a commemoration not only of the Muslim soldiers of the British colonial empire who ‘fought and died for democracy’, but potentially, British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq too. This manner of public mourning, Will Self writes, is a 'loyalty oath to the modern British state'. There are further shades of grey in the Red Poppy. Indeed, it is an odd catharsis that sees Lockheed Martin’s sponsorship of the Poppy Rocks concert or BAE Systems’  towards the Poppy Ball. A stranger catharsis still which continues to demand retrospective justification and rose-tinted platitudes.

It is not, then, only in the fevered imaginations of white poppy wearers, of us centenary Scrooges, that the respect for the dead and respect for British foreign policy are so intertwined. Why do we demand a pageant of retrospective justification for what the war’s last veteran, Harry Patch, would describe as ‘legalised mass slaughter’?  The ‘fallen’, one British veteran of the Iraq war noted, is a misnomer – for rarely is death in combat so graceful. The Royal British Legion, to its credit, states that whether to wear a poppy—of any colour or none—is a matter of individual conscience. Remembrance has rarely been monochrome. The pacifist White Poppy campaign has existed since 1933, while a recent antimilitarist initiative in Glasgow saw the blossoming of Black Poppies.

I’ve heard that Stanley Gordon Hogg, my great-grandfather, never wore a poppy. At the war’s end he returned to Kent, and joined the Peace Pledge Union. He met his wife Emily Simpson in a pacifist meeting, and they would later welcome the local Communist Party to hold discussions in their home. On his return, shell-shocked, from the war, he threw two family photo albums of distant relatives from Bavaria into the fireplace. Two of his three sons would later marry Germans, and his daughter-in-law’s grandfather who had fought in the German Army in 1914 would be murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. When the Second World War came he refused service even as an Air Raid Warden, and in the following years became a prolific writer of letters and articles for various pacifist and secularist publications. In an October 1944 letter to the Freethinker titled ‘Duty meets Conscience’, he imagines a conversation between a Christian Soldier (CS) and a Christian Pacifist (CP), part of which I reproduce below

CS: No, you are wrong – we are fighting to defend the right to be free
CP: Free of what?
CS: Fighting to defend the right of freedom of speech, of free press and freedom of religion; freedom from tyranny and oppression; to ensure the freedom of future generations so that they may live in peace, harmony and concord – individually as well as collectively.
CP: But why is it necessary—in the twentieth century—to have to fight for such privileges? In other words, what is wrong with civilization when nations have to resort to barbarous methods to settle differences – which even then are temporary settlements only?
CS: It is because people are wicked. God in his infinite kindness and mercy has inflicted this catastrophe as a punishment and a warning to us to mend our ways.
CP: I do not see that point at all. There are a very many people who are suffering and dying, because of the war, who are not wicked at all. On the other hand, it is possible that there are many people in non-belligerent countries who are very wicked and are not suffering at all.
CS: That cannot be helped. ‘God makes the rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust’. If the quotation is wrong it will serve just the same. Besides, the Bible is full of stories where the innocent suffer with the guilty. To do a great right, do a little wrong.
CP: I am convinced that it is a sin to shed blood. The crime is all the more heinous because it is not your quarrel; that is to say, you did not personally commence the hostilities in which you are involved.
CS: (sharply) No, of course I didn’t, but that does not prevent me from taking part in a quarrel on the side which is defending the right. You must see that our cause is just. 
CP: No, I only see Christians in Germany, Italy, Poland and other countries fighting for what they believe to be right also.
 

Much has been written on the chequered history of pacifist opposition to the Second World War. The centenary of that conflict will call for a different conversation. Veterans like Stanley Hogg, who held steadfast to his pacifist principles throughout those years, were traumatised – a fate rarely faced by the heroes of myth and popular imagination. ‘We have received many more letters concerning conscientious objectors, far more than we are able to print – Ed.’, reads the end of one clipping of my great-grandfather’s thoughts. Out of 60,000 conscientious objectors in the Second World War, some 3000 were imprisoned. Many of the remainder worked the land, in hospitals, and in the rescue services. Their story has resumed in 2014, and there are all the more column inches for it. ‘It is important that we remember those who dissent in a time of war even if we believe our struggle to be true and just’ wrote Harry Leslie Smith. ‘How a nation treats those who oppose its war aims is a true measure of its enlightenment’.

The legacy of the 16,000 conscientious objectors of the First World War grew after the slaughter; their pacifism of conviction amplified as it ceased to be a philosophical exercise and became the validation of lived experience. This trauma informed choices in the following conflict, such as Stanley Hogg’s refusal to once again wear a uniform and serve as an Air Raid Warden. Whether this was a principled stand or moral compliance in the death of civilians is a painful question, but a necessary one. His was a belief formed in Flanders, and the volume of newspaper letters on pacifism illustrated how the strength of lived experience had transformed that debate. Veterans would emerge in politics during the 1920s and 1930s, some of them in the far right. These were, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, ‘the sort for whom the Great War, with all its horrors, marked a mountain peak of personal achievement, from which the view showed only the disappointing lowlands of their future civilian life’.  Many more tried to return to a semblance of normality, with various degrees of success. Our commemoration should not end in Flanders Fields. To respect the stories of those other victims—those who survived—demands a reassessment of the mythology of heroism. On their return, there was a whole life left to live, and a whole life left to suffer. Remembrance in Monochrome, of White and Black poppies, honours the darkness of those lives and that trauma, of a victimhood which continued long after war’s end. 

‘This may explain the impatience and intolerance manifested by the unsympathetic and unthinking majority of people towards the pacifist’s attitude’, writes Stanley Hogg, reflecting on Duty meets Conscience in a subsequent letter. ‘The pacifist, by his open and avowed expressions of abhorrence of warfare, and his arguments regarding the futility of its aims, is, in effect, expressing the innermost thoughts of man. In short, the pacifist is the conscience of man in expression. The [Christian Soldier], resenting the truth, reacts accordingly’.

‘Is it naïve to expect that the state, in admitting the claims of the conscientious objector, is acknowledging its error in resorting to armed conflict?’’

About the author

Maxim Edwards is Commissioning Editor at oDR. He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, EurasiaNet and the Forward among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @MaximEdwards.


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