Poppies are like Christmas decorations...every year they appear a little bit earlier, and no one in Britain wants to be caught out and have their patriotism called into question by not wearing one in early November. They are worn in memory of the British war dead, and were chosen as the symbol of remembrance because they pushed their way up through the soil of northern France that had been turned over and over by the thunder of artillery and rattle of machine guns, into which three quarters of a million of Britain’s youth were interred during the First World War.
When I first came to Britain, Remembrance Day (11 November) and Remembrance Sunday had assumed a greater importance than for some time, because British soldiers were fighting and dying in Afghanistan, and had been recently committed to a war in Iraq that the overwhelming majority of people in Britain had opposed. So I was impressed to see that the occasion had not become one for jingoistic flag-waving and chest-thumping.
It had become something like a quiet acknowledgement of the terrible waste that is war, and a mass reproach to those who would engage in it lightly or on false premises. Editorials echoed with censure of the ease with which political leaders cheered on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I remember how uncomfortable Tony Blair looked at the Cenotaph in 2007.
Although the more urgent questioning of those conflicts seem to have disappeared, the Remembrance days seem to have managed to avoid becomingly stridently nationalist, as would almost inevitably be the case in the United States. So I wear a poppy if early November finds me in Britain.
I suppose one of the reasons Remembrance Sunday has managed to stay more solemn than its equivalents in the U.S. is because it remains most associated with the Great War of 1914-18, whereas in the U.S., it is likely most related to the Second World War. And that was our ‘good war’. Comparatively easy to think of as justified, the generation who fought it celebrated as our nation’s Greatest, it also came to a satisfactory close, with what we think of as a clear-cut victory of good over evil, of right over wrong.
It is much more difficult to find anything positive in the First World War, which was fought for what must have seemed the most obscure reasons to the people who found themselves on the front-line. It was a war which tore Europe apart as countries and kingdoms and empires ravaged each other in the name of nationalism gone mad. Somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 British soldiers were killed, around twice as many as died in the Second World War, and far more than the United States lost in either war. There was no decisive victory; rather, the two sides, bloodied beyond recognition by over four years of fighting ground to a halt opposite each other, the casualties of their hubris dead in the mud all around them.
In cities all around the country, people with poppies pinned at their breasts converge on war memorials to pay their respects (the country now acknowledges the deaths of those who were executed as conscientious objectors). The central ceremony is at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in London, but most towns include a war memorial with the names of the war dead, and there is even a ceremony which takes place atop Great Gable in the Lake District. Many colleges in Cambridge have their own memorials, for many of their graduates were lost to Europe’s great conflicts of the twentieth century: Pembroke’s is located in the cloister beside the Chapel.
Cambridge’s Remembrance Sunday ceremony took place at the Memorial on Station Road. The Mayor and representatives of the various armed services stood at attention at the intersection which was closed to traffic. A large crowd gathered for a service, in which the Bishop warned us never to make the mistake of glorifying war, and enjoyed all present to do what they could in their lives as individuals to strive for peace. When the clock in town struck eleven, the silence on the cold, clear, sunny morning was absolute. A tear ran down the cheek of the elderly woman in front of me, and her husband, in a faded uniform, clutched at her hand with his left while saluting with his right.
The laying of the wreaths began to the disturbingly-moving theme from Holst’s Jupiter (the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’), and closed to the endlessly amusing ‘God Save the Queen’. As the military representatives marched away up the road into the sunlight, the crowd of people quietly converged on the memorial, and stood in silence with their own stories. One could only begin to guess at the accumulated anguish in a nation that went through the inferno of the two world wars, and dozens of small wars since, some of which are still raging and doubtless seem anything but small to those whose friends and family-members who have been sent off to fight them for the most sordid of purposes.
Yes, we must remember the dead. But we should learn some lessons about what war does to the people who fight them—as individuals and as collective bodies. That would be the much more difficult tribute to pay to the dead, but all the more worthwhile for it.
SONG FOR THREE SOLDIERS
Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, fine soldier,
In your dandy new uniform, all spick and span,
With your helmeted head and the gun on your shoulder,
Where are you coming from, gallant young man?
I come from the war that was yesterday’s trouble,
I come with the bullet still blunt in my breast;
Though long was the battle and bitter the struggle,
Yet I fought with the bravest, I fought with the best.
Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, tall soldier,
With ray-gun and sun-bomb and everything new,
And a face that might well have been carved from a boulder,
Where are you coming from, now tell me true!
My harness is novel, my uniform other
Than any gay uniform people have seen,
Yet I am your future and I am your brother
And I am the battle than has not yet been.
Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?
Stand out of my way and be silent before me!
For none shall come after me, foeman or friend,
Since the seed of your seed called me out to employ me,
And that was the longest, and that was the end.
—Stephen Vincent Benet (1940)