Poppies & Pitches: Part 3

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]

It Wasn’t the War to End All Wars

To summarise parts 1 and 2, we established that poppies were being used symbolically during the First World War and before the existence of the British Legion. We established that even when the British Legion did adopt the symbol it was not the first veterans association to do so and it was not exclusively for the benefit of the veterans of war and their families.  There’s a nice video the Royal British Legion promote on their website that gives an airbrushed version of the story that makes it seem like Madame Guerin was just a cheerleader rather than the pioneer, supplier and driving force behind the original charity benefitting from the poppies before being cut out the equation alongside the orphaned children of France.


Before the British Legion appropriated it, the poppy had variously stood for gratitude for civilian help in the war effort, recognition of the brutality of war and how much it was actually costing the ordinary person, gratitude for sacrifices made by fallen servicemen of the allied forces and support for the rebuilding of the devastated regions of France and her shattered families.  In terms of raising money the beneficiaries had been the allied war effort, the support services and the orphans and refugees of war.

The scene:

Before dancing forward through history to freeze frame elsewhere though, we should note some further matters of significance that shape the later narrative.

We touched on how the war galvanised socialism and Marxist ideology across Europe.  The war also had a profound impact on the other end of the traditional left-right political spectrum.  While the roots of Fascist ideology run deeper and older, the formidable advance of modern warfare and the terrible power that it can wield became truly evident during the war. For the first time, cavalry was obsolete.  The left-wing Italian government were paralysed by the war.  An existential threat was imminent from the hard-line authoritarian German and Austro-Hungarian forces that could halt the advent of socialism on one hand but war would decimate the proletariat on the other. Groups of supporters of intervention in the war came to be known as Fasci (a sheaf). The modern war with its terrible weapons had butchered 18 million souls spread relatively equally between combatant and civilian. The traditional distinction between both didn’t seem to matter anymore. Ideals of duty, survival of the fittest and strong decisive leadership were appealing.  Despite some similarities with the Marxist beliefs – strong authoritarian leadership, revolutionary values and rejection of the bourgeois among them – they came to represent the polar opposite of the political spectrum.  The post-Great War period would see the world profoundly shaken by new extremes of political idealism that would shape the path of history.

One last, largely neglected factor of the Great War to hold relevance to the later narrative was the role of religion and the church. The outbreak of war saw most church officials devote themselves to state interests.  We mentioned in Part 1 that the call to war came from the pages and the pulpits against perceived atrocities:

“Everyone that loves freedom and honour…are banded in a great crusade – we cannot deny it – to kill Germans: to kill them not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant, who supervised the Armenian massacres, who sank the Lusitania, and who turned the machine guns on the civilians of Aerschott and Louvain – and to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed.”

– Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram speaking in 1915

Perhaps the role of the churches of Europe is downplayed since in writing the histories, we tend to look back with the benefit of modern values chiselled from our own experiences.  The decline of the power of the churches was only in its infancy at this stage and it is no coincidence that the decline accelerated as new ideologies and priorities emerged. When faced with the gruesome extermination of generations of men, women and children; religion becomes just one more consideration in thoughts of the greater good of mankind. Religious idealism would slowly for many become just another ‘ism’ to throw into the mix with Pacifism, Marxism, Fascism, Commercialism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Capitalism, etc while the world struggled to make sense of its greatest calamity. For others it would remain fundamental to their collective and self-perception. It always remained a part of our histories and cultural identities though whether it was now important to us or not but certainly in central Europe the importance and sway over nations of religion began to fade.

Old values and new values, revolution and counter-revolution, victory and loss, collapse of empires and rise of new ones, ying and yang. The pendulum swung but would not settle. The aftermath ushered in an epoch of turmoil and struggle based on values.

We will close this scene setting then by saying that in the sickening aftermath of the Great War the world had no appetite for doing it again, but it also had no clue as to how to act such that it would not be inevitable.  We will also add that the modern poppy debate also revolves around values and ‘what I stand for’. Intolerance could in that context be viewed as the most insulting memory of all to those who would again lose their lives in the terrible consequences.

The interwar period (broadly up to the start of the Spanish Civil War):

The collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British and Ottoman Empires proceeded at their own paces and in their place two new potential superpowers emerged through the twenties; the capitalist USA and the socialist Soviet Union.  The US monetary might grew as the defeated nations could not pay the war reparations to Britain and her Allies – merely a staging post for onwards repayment to wartime borrowings from the USA – America invested heavily into Germany to protect its debt and profits.

The socialist revolution took hold in Russia and the East like nowhere else.  With the advent to power of Joseph Stalin it took on a command culture approach and increasing willingness to use violence as a tool of control as opposed to a necessary means of achieving revolution. The methods that Stalinists were willing to use to solidify and maintain power would be horrifically demonstrated in the man-made famine of the Holodomor in the Ukraine (which had a strong separatist movement) in which 7-10 million died.  Ukraine had already suffered through the war as its modern borders formed both part of Russia and Austria-Hungary. When war broke out they faced and killed each other and were often executed as collaborators by their own side. In the years following Russia’s withdrawal from the Great War, they had been savaged by the Russian civil war. Now as starvation became critical in the winter months of 1932-33 and the death toll grew higher, many turned to cannibalism as the only available means of keeping their existence going. Though their soil was among the most fertile in the world, all foodstuffs were removed and movement of the Peoples restricted. As though taking notes from Britain’s actions during the Irish potato famine, Ukraine exported food while its children starved. What little remained of their malnourished bodies would further fertilise their fields on top of those who had recently died in the succession of wars.

Western news outlets roundly blanked out the Ukrainian suffering.  Walter Duranty, US journalist, won a Pulitzer for his stories dismissing this genocide as absurd fabrication. In Britain they had their own reasons for ignoring it too:

“We do not want to make [information about the Holodomor] public…because the Soviet Government would resent it and our relationship with them would be prejudiced. We cannot give this explanation in public.”

– British Foreign Office, as cited by Atlantic Council


One British journalist who had broken rank and published the truth was Gareth Jones, one of Lloyd George’s private secretaries. Eugene Lyons, Moscow correspondent for United Press, explained how this dissention was suppressed:

“Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes—but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulations of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials. … There was much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of Umansky’s gilded smile, before a formal denial was worked out. We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski.”

Stalin was of course being invited to participate in the League of Nations and his undermining by journalists providing actual news of the genocide was off script.  Lloyd George promptly distanced himself from this truth teller. Ukrainians mark remembrance of the Holodomor on the 4th Saturday of November by the time Britain’s poppies have disappeared for the year.  In the Ukraine the act of lighting a candle came to be synonymous with remembrance of what happened. The act of remembrance is entirely personal as is the act of lighting a candle and far less likely to result in widespread condemnation for your actions or inactions.  It is only in the last 20 years that the world is starting to properly accept the full extent of the cull of the Ukraine.

In 2008 the Candle of Memory in Kiev finally allowed a memory to those who starved in a man-made famine. Despite the earlier famine in Ireland resulting in mass migration to the West of Scotland, no such symbology is yet prevalent there.

In Germany conditions had been dire since the end of the Great War. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles including war guilt clauses had been humiliating and the Weimar Republic would be fraught by socialist insurgencies.  It would lose the Rhineland to allied occupation and hyperinflation would reach absurd proportions with workers taking home their pay in wheelbarrows and rushing to spend it before it became worthless.  Even as the currency stabilised, soon the political centre and right became increasingly reactionary to the threat of socialism and a new form of violent nationalism that opposed democratic systems. Under international restraints, a consensus that it had humiliated the nation and burgeoning civil upheaval and violence from the left and the right – the Weimar Republic was doomed to failure.

Industrialisation and innovation advanced as never before. New forms of media arose through advances in cinematography and the invention of the television. The world could be seen as well as read about. For all its monetary power the USA suffered a crippling depression that would blow across the world.  Much of Europe was heavily indebted to the US and it was being called in.  Germany was amongst the worst affected and successions of coalition governments trying to balance the chaos proved unable to make meaningful impact to the economic malaise.  The National Socialist German Workers’ Party would ultimately see to the demise of the weakened and ineffectual Weimar Republic.

A wheelbarrow became a wallet in the hyperinflationary Weimar Republic

In Blighty things were not going so well either.  The Empire had come to her aid during her darkest hour and many parts of it expected to be rewarded for their efforts.  Many parts had become almost independent during the war.  By the mid-30’s the Empire was much depleted. Among the lost realms were South Africa, New Zealand, Egypt, Iraq, Australia, Canada and Ireland.  While universal male suffrage would be granted in 1918, it would be another decade before this was extended to women.  This sparked the advent of the modern Labour Movement. While revolutions came and went all across Europe there was great concern in Britain about the potential activities of industrial Scotland but for the most part democracy held as the working classes found they had a real voice in politics.  The term ‘Red Clydeside’ was born to represent the threat of revolutionary communism in the shipyards and industry of Greater Glasgow.

By 1919 Moscow had called for the formation of a new Third International advocating world communism.  This held appeal for many of the more radical Independent Labour Party members.  This hard left had become somewhat at odds with the ILP leadership and started producing its own bi-weekly newsletter, The International. By 1924 the first Labour government had been elected.  The ILP ultimately became disillusioned with the direction of the Labour Party until ultimately breaking with them in 1931.  Political reform would see welfare reform that would start to mean protections for working classes and their rights. Many concessions would be hard fought by trade unions and many responses heavy handed.

The Clyde valley would remain a hotbed of socialist activity and Labour stalwart area until 2015.

Tanks dispatched in George Square, Glasgow amid concern over ‘Red Clydeside’

Meanwhile in Ireland the situation had become entirely revolutionary. On 24 April 1916 while the war still raged, the Proclamation of the Republic was issued by the Irish Republican Brotherhood amidst the Easter Rising. The Rising was suppressed by British forces, killing many civilians in the process.  The leaders, and some who were not leaders, were summarily executed for treason under court-martial of disputed legality.  Treating the matter under military law in wartime rather than a civil matter would be something the British government would come to rue.  By the early twenties public opinion had turned and hostilities escalated. The war of independence had culminated in the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Irish Republic, but the terms ultimately led to the Irish Civil War. With things delicately poised in 1922 between those who supported the Treaty with Britain and had formed the transitional government and those that were against it, the Anti-Treaty faction had taken over several Dublin city centre buildings including the Four Courts.  The intention would have been to provoke a British reaction that would reunite the Irish against British hostilities. Things reached crisis point with the unclaimed assassination of the British Field Marshall Wilson.  The British cabinet passed a motion that would send in the forces, complete with tanks and heavy artillery to reoccupy the city.  Tactics that had only served to stir up nationalist sentiments through civilian brutality in the past.  The order would be cancelled at the last moment on the advice of General Macready who sensed that a quick victory would have longer term serious consequences.  Ultimately it would be the Pro-Treaty forces under command of Michael Collins that assaulted the Four Courts, accepting British military weaponry.  The advantages of weaponry, organisation and help of experienced British soldiers eventually overcame the Anti-Treaty Irregulars but not before descending into a serious of atrocities that would leave Ireland deeply scarred.

Irish Civil War – short bloody and deeply devisive

In August 1923 in the aftermath of the ceasefire and with many of the Anti-Treaty Republican leaders and their supporters still incarcerated (around 12,000 of them) a general election was held. Cumann na nGaedheal, the pro-Free State party, won.  The Republicans, represented by Sinn Féin received around 27% of the vote. By the winter 8,000 of the imprisoned Republicans would go on hunger strike.  The short, bloody war had solidified Northern Ireland’s existence as a part of Britain.  Éamon de Valera, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising and of Sinn Féin would in 1926 fail to convince that Republican movement to give up its policy of abstentionism and form instead the Fianna Fáil (Warriors of Destiny) party which would ultimately supplant most of the Republican support Sinn Féin previously enjoyed. It would seek to reform from within the political mechanisms.  By 1932 his party would win a general election and begin systematically reforming Ireland into a Republic and dismantling the 1923 Treaty. His constitutional reforms asserted dominion over the whole of the island of Ireland including those which remained under British control in the north.

The Easter Lily was introduced in 1926 by Cumann na mBan (the Irishwomen’s Council) and sold outside churches on a Sunday before Easter, initially to raise money to help the families of those who had helped Ireland acheive independence, later to become a mark of respect for those that lost their lives and a sign of hope and peace for the future.

A modern enamel version of the Easter lily

Although football had taken hold in Britain before the Great War broke out, it was this post-war era that would see growth in professionalism and participation really take hold. Elsewhere the game became popular in other parts of the world.  By the end of the twenties most European nations had national leagues playing professional football.  FIFA itself had been founded in 1904 to oversee international competition. The founding National Associations were France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain (represented by Madrid FC), Sweden and Switzerland. Its first president was Robert Guérin (who presumably is no relation to Madame Guérin, the poppy lady of France).  Within a few years most Western European nations were represented in it. Although it was still finding its feet, the following had been agreed between the founding national associations:

  1. The reciprocal and exclusive recognition of the National Associations represented and attending;
  2. Clubs and players were forbidden to play simultaneously for different National Associations; and
  3. recognition by the other Associations of a player’s suspension announced by an Association and the playing of matches according to the Laws of the Game of the Football Association Ltd

By 1906 it was able to demonstrate its first show of strength. An improvised football team known as the ‘English Ramblers’ wished to play matches across continental Europe without the permission of the FA and FIFA intervened preventing its members from playing them.  Football was not at that time viewed as a serious sport. During the war things could have easily fallen apart for the fledgling organisation.  That they didn’t is largely down to the efforts of Carl Anton Wilhelm Hirschman acting as honorary secretary from Amsterdam.  He kept the body alive by maintaining correspondence with the member associations through the war.  In 1920 a new administrative Board of FIFA was elected on a provisional basis.  Football under the auspices of FIFA was represented at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and was becoming a resounding success.  It resolved to host its own tournaments starting with a World Cup in 1930.  Differences with the Olympic Committee over the amateur status of football players saw it drop out of the 1932 Olympics.  Football was a resounding success however. It was a game rooted in the working classes who were finding their lot in life changing.  It was also the beginnings of one of the most successful and lasting empires the world had seen.

FIFA empire, as reproduced from nalakagunawardene.com

The Great War and remembrance had not stopped the bullets loading or violence flaring. Tensions were again rising; Europe again becoming a tinder box. All the while poppies were being sold to provide income to help the maimed from the Great War.

Next: Part 4a – It All Happened Again

Previous: Part 2 – The Commercialisation of the Poppy

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