B Company of the 8th Battalion, Royal East Surrey Regiment, making their ‘Football Charge’ on July 1, 1916, beginning the Battle of the Somme.
At 7:30am on July 1, 1916, Captain Wilfred Nevill led his company ‘over the top’ to start the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916 is still the darkest day in British military history, the British Army sustaining 57,000 casualties that day alone. The Somme was only one of many horrendous battles while the war itself became a byword for all that is dreadful about warfare in general. Captain Nevill became an overnight celebrity, but never lived to enjoy it. Like so many others he was killed in action.
I chose the image because the First World War spawned Remembrance Day, what we British now often call ‘Poppy Day’ as its symbol is the red poppy, about the only plant that still grew on the quagmires of the Western Front. Unfortunately, ‘Poppy Day’ is increasingly a political football. Should people wear a poppy or not? Should people make a special effort on Remembrance Day or not? Should doing either be obligatory or optional?
It seems to depend as much on political persuasion as personal choice. Some publicly burn poppies, some are furious if you don’t wear one, others are furious if you do. To some the poppy glorifies warfare, to others it’s simply a mark of remembrance and respect. Every year the argument grows deeper, more bitter.
Opinion varies from one extreme to the other. At one end you have ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ burning poppies near the Albert Hall on November 11, 2010. They didn’t quite grasp the idea that an event recognising the horrors of war isn’t the best place to try picking a fight. Either that or their leading political thinkers have the collective intelligence of a boiled potato.
The far-left are a little more subtle, if no less disingenuous. The best-known Trotskyite group, the Socialist Workers Party, adoringly praise British left-wingers fighting for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Their party hacks wear Che Guevara T-shirts, banging on endlessly about the need for a revolution (despite revolutions usually involving violence) but, according to a piece on their own website ‘The poppy is tainted by the hypocrisy of warmongers and imperialists. It is better to wear an anti-war badge, representing a struggle to end war by challenging the rulers and the system that cause it.’
So, if you believe that, then you’ll support some soldiers and some wars, but only when they happen to fit the party line. Boiled down (Trot-shop verbiage and convoluted logical acrobatics aside) it’s OK to have been to war as long as they liked that particular war and you fought on the ‘right’ side. Their side. Any other former soldier is, by default, an enemy of the working class despite the fact that most soldiers actually are working-class, often considerably more working-class than your average SWP member.
The more liberally-inclined seem pretty uninterested in the debate generally. I doubt it makes much difference to many liberals as, for liberals with a small ‘l’, it’s rarely anybody else’s business whether or not you wear a poppy or attend a Remembrance Day event, provided you’re not forcing others to attend that event or turning out to picket it.
British right-wingers seem more entrenched (no pun intended). They generally prefer people unquestioningly following the flag. They aren’t usually as fond of people checking out whoever’s waving it before deciding whether to fall in line and march to the sound of the guns. And, the less unquestioningly tub-thumping you are in agreeing with them, the more likely they’ll treat you like the enemy within. Accusations of being disrespectful/unpatriotic/ungrateful/insert random slur here often fly like Maxim bursts at anybody questioning their perspective and right-wingers are often as choosy as Trots about their heroes and villains. Left-wing veterans of Spain deserve no respect for backing their politics with their lives. Nor do Irish veterans of the 1916 Easter Rising. If, on the other hand, you blindly praise British military and foreign policy then they’ll probably buy you a pint. Just don’t mention the Amritsar Massacre or that concentration camps are a British invention dating from the Boer War. And avoid mentioning that ‘dum dum’ bullets are a British invention as well.
Last, least articulate and most odious are the far-right. To British boneheads you’re either white, native-born and despise everybody who isn’t, or you’re probably a Communist who needs shooting. The ever-lovely British National Party and English Defence League (definitely no neo-Nazi’s or Fascists crawling around in their woodwork, wink wink) love Remembrance Day. For the BNP it’s a perfect platform to espouse their brand of ‘If it’s foreign, it’s inferior and suspect’ patriotism. The EDL will probably display national pride and patriotic virtue by drinking themselves cross-eyed before hospitalising anybody resembling a foreigner. ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ don’t have a monopoly on hate-fuelled rabble rousing.
There’s the rub. Something intended to recognise the horrors of war (war being so often born of divisive, cynical political game-playing) is becoming another battlefield used ruthlessly by party hacks of all shades for divisive, cynical political game-playing. And, like so many conflicts, tub-thumping political hacks keep one eye on feeding the fire and the other on their approval ratings. The very concept of Remembrance is increasingly being lost in the political football being played around it.
I’ll leave you with the words of the distinguished First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon (Military Cross, recommended for the Victoria Cross):
“I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”