Written by TJ
[Please note this article will be moving to a new home at Football In The City and will soon no longer be available on this website]
The Poppy is in evocative symbol these days. How deeply ironic is it to be told that there is only one way to remember those that died fighting for freedom? How much the same to be told you shouldn’t wear a poppy? You’d think the sensible way to show respect for hard fought freedoms would be to allow freedom of choice. The fact is that the poppy never really stood for protecting freedom either though. There’s no quick way to say properly what I want to say about the poppy debate. It’ll maybe take me quite a while to bring it around properly to football but it is connected in my muddled brain. So I thought I’d start the ball rolling with an intro and background. If there’s enough appetite to read the rest then I’ll look to finish it before 11th November 2019. If not, then I’ll probably leave it at this and pull the article. Let me know either way in the comments or twitter please.
Part 1 – The Pre-Poppy Backdrop
The traditional story of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance (it is Remembrance Day – not Freedom Day or Armed Forces Support Day) has its roots in the poem by Canadian Lt Colonel John McCrae “In Flanders Fields” who’d watched a friend and colleague fall and wrote a lament from the perspective of the dead. It was romantic and hopeful. Mainly because it was written early in a war – May 1915 – before the bitterness and resentment in later poetry of that era set in.
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields”
In 1918 Moina Michael, another poet, was inspired to write her own works by it and promised to always wear a poppy in remembrance of those who fell.
“And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields”
In 1921 Anna E. Guérin – a French national – started making artificial poppies and importing them to the UK. In between the start of the war and the start of commercialisation of the poppy though it had already become a symbol. In South Shields in England in August 1915, a “Poppy Day” was held aid of Ingham Infirmary and local Poor Children’s Association. Two causes intrinsically connected to the ongoing World War. In 1916 artificial poppies began to be distributed for charity at some venues, such as St. Michael’s War Work Party again in South Shields. The Sleights Red Cross Hospital also held a Poppy Day in Whitby to raise funds for their hospital’s war effort. Also in August, there was a Poppy Day in Nottingham to benefit orphans.
It started during the war, not after, so let us put that war in context. The war was unforgivingly brutal and the common man was slaughtered in droves in the attrition of the Somme, Flanders and Gallipoli amongst other battles. There was a horrific death toll in the pyrrhic victories of the Brusilov Offensive where Russia alone lost 1,400,000 men in claiming a win that ultimately toppled the Czar.
It is estimated that around 18 million souls perished on those killing fields, with tens of millions more finding their lives irrevocably altered by injury, loss and the aftershocks of what could only really be considered an omnicide.
Most of the dead were ordinary working class people but this remains true of war however it is dressed up in revisionary romance. I’m fortunate enough that my kids can join a club where the officers of tomorrow are trained. When I went to high school in central Scotland the recruiters arrived for sure but it was for the rank and file. Those that would have formed the meat shield in the Great War.
At the outbreak of WW1 Keir Hardie’s labour party were just finding their feet and were opposed to war from the outset, believing that such a war would decimate the working classes they represent. Soon the pro-war propaganda swept all opposition away including the labour movement. The war effectively ended the Second International socialist movement. The story was similar across Europe, each side stirring up sentiment with tales of atrocities and unprovoked aggression preached from the pulpits and pages. That kick-started the old nation state stalwart of patriotism into overdrive. Politicians and figureheads fall over themselves to be the most patriotic. A ‘bigger issue’ distracts everyone from the struggles of their daily lives. The well-learned working men leading the charge for worker rights were gunned down in charges beside illiterate ploughmen and those who signed up for an adventure away from the harsh, monotonous life of toil. They all believed they’d be home by Christmas.
People forget that at that time, Marxist ideology and communism was an existential threat to the ruling classes. Britain wasn’t ‘free’ in the sense of universal suffrage and what we think of as modern democracy. The Napoleonic wars were a distant memory and the true horror of an outright slaughter on your doorstop was alien. The story was the same all across Europe and fear of revolution was perhaps the single biggest motivator for a war that would engulf the workers of the world leaving a generation without husbands, brothers, sons and fathers. Sure it was triggered by precariously balanced alliances, envies of empires and all sorts of other factors – but common to them all was that a revolution was in the air.
The war was carnage. No matter what flag you waved, the working classes of the world ended up corpses piled in trenches mingling their odours with the faeces and mustard gas or lying where they fell in the open for the rats and flies. The phrases ‘trench-warfare’ and ‘no mans land’ were born to try and express the horrific waves of butchery directed by the ruling classes over the workers of the world. The backbone of a potential revolution were to be smashed and fragmented across Europe. In Germany and France it is estimated 80 percent of their male populations between the ages of 15 and 49 went into battle and were among the 9 million soldiers who died alongside a similar number of civilians. Europe was in ruins. Contemporary accounts would have the war finish with German defeat and the Treaty of Versailles. What really finished the war was the ordinary soldiers on all sides deciding enough was enough. Every side was demoralised and in the pressure cooker of war, those idealistic youths who survived came back as battle hardened men determined not to be taken advantage of again. A generation who had never profited by their efforts and watched so many similar people on all sides slain and maimed at the direction of the ruling classes. Russia fell to communism quickly and Marxist ideology would shake all Europe profoundly to one degree or another.
I’m unashamedly a fan of Peaky Blinders and how it has a tremendous go at capturing the zeitgeist of that time. Also how young men came back fundamentally changed.
If the poppy meant anything at the time it started to be used symbolically during the war it represented the horrific human costs to ordinary people of modern warfare and how careful we should be to remember and care for those dear to us. It represented compassion for people ahead of country.