Day of Remembrance For What?

Early on the morning of July 1 1916 the barrage which had been crashing down upon the German lines on the Somme lifted and, in a short eerie silence, waves of British soldiers left their trenches and began to walk across No Man’s Land. They had been told to do that — to walk across because the guns would have cut all the wire, wiped out all the defences, killed all the Germans. They had only to walk across and wait for hot food from the field kitchens which would be rapidly following them.

It was not like that at all; before the day was out something like twenty thousand of the men who had climbed out of their trenches in such optimism in the morning had been killed. The battle dragged on for same weeks more, eventually to be disguised in history as a general’s blunder, as if the “correct” decisions had any more to recommend them, as if it were better to kill twenty thousand German workers than the same number of British.

The First World War was a succession of such horrors, marking out like grisly milestones the long road of murder among the deadlocked trenches. To the people on both sides who, drunk with patriotism, had cheered the start of the war, the slaughter was a shock they could barely absorb. They had gone to fight in such heroic style; now there was only the mud and the guns and the rats and lice —and finally, all too often, a line in the casualty lists. The war reached out beyond new frontiers of terror, with the aerial bombardment of civilians, There had been nothing before to prepare the workers for this sudden experience of total war.

For decades afterwards Europe lived in a state of shock, a massive grief and bewilderment that the frantic response to the war propaganda — the songs, the posters, the white feathers — could have contributed to this. At the same time as the war had spawned more powerful weapons to smash human bodies it had also developed better medical services to patch up and send them back onto the streets in wheelchairs, on crutches, or to keep them only part alive in perpetual hospital. There were political dangers in this situation and to avert it something had to seem to be done to redeem the many promises to make the land fit for such heroes to live in.

This was all happening in an atmosphere of deep disillusionment, Post war Britain, unexceptionally, was a country of unemployment, bitter poverty and cynicism. Disabled ex-servicemen who were naive enough to expect same recompense for what they had suffered found instead that their claims for pensions were met with delay, muddle, niggardliness and sometimes blank refusal. Those who had come through the war in one piece tacked themselves onto the end of their local dole queue. This is the story of one man, whose unit was badly cut up in machine gun fire on July 1 1916:

When I was out of work, I had to go before a Means Test Panel. There was a very fat lady on the Panel, cuddling a Pekinese on her lap. She said, “We’ve all got to pull our belts in a hole or two these days.” I was fed up and told her, “Your words belie your appearance. That bloody dog’s had more to eat today than I’ve had.” There was a lot of argument and it ended in a row. My chair went over; papers and inkwells went flying and the dog was yapping and squealing. I was charged with common assault and got three months in Wormwood Scrubs. (The First Day on the Somme — Martin Middlebrook.)

Such men often found their way into one or other of the organizations which were springing up with the aim of fighting the case of the ex-servicemen. At first these split on political lines, with one linking with the TUC and another – the grandly titled Comrades of the War – attracting ex-officers and therefore considered fit for a good Tory patriot to join. There was some rivalry between the organizations, which did not inspire any confidence in their ability to improve matters, as Europe slid into the first slump of the post-war years.

It was to stem this despair, to sell the ex-servicemen the idea that there was more to the life of a returned hero than the dole queue and the Means Test, that a movement began to unite the opposing organizations. Leader of this movement was none other than Douglas Haig, the general who had organised that slaughter in July 1916, a man famous for his trust in God and who was ready to blame his soldiers for not being able to survive a simple walk across No Man’s Land. Haig was still, then, wallowing in the glamour of the super returned warrior; for organizing the killing of all those men he had received a title and £100,000. He supported the move for unity among the ex-servicemen because he hoped this would be a stabilizing influence which would avert what he saw as the threat of social revolution. In May 1921 the British Legion was formed.

The Legion declared — as it had to — that it was non-political, politics being associated with nasty squabbling over sectional interests at the cost of humane rescue work. It is not surprising, though, that they saw no inconsistency in adopting distinctly political attitudes — their patriotism, their servile royalism (they have always been unable to refer to any aristocrat without stringing out the full title and when mentioning royalty they never miss a Royal Highness or a Majesty), their assumption that capitalism is basically a decent society with just one or two problems which any well-intentioned person can sort out.

In the General Strike the Legion advised its members ” … to come forward once more and offer their services in any way that may be needed by the authorities.” This caused something of a row, since many of the strikers were ex-servicemen who had been driven into it by desperation at the conditions they had faced when they came back from the war. “Non-political” attitudes were also evident when the Legion sent a delegation to Germany in 1935. They saw the concentration camp at Dachau, where the Nazis were holding their political prisoners, and then they had a “quiet family supper” with Gestapo chief Himmler who was, they thought, “…an unassuming man anxious to do his best for his country.”

The first Poppy Day was in 1921, with the Legion hesitant about its chances of success, However it pulled in so much money that a year later the Legion were making the flowers themselves. They now have a factory in Richmond, Surrey, where disabled ex-servicemen turn out something like forty million of the flowers each year. Selling the poppies is the Legion’s main source of income.

Between the wars the effect of Poppy Day was immense. To begin with, it was always on the anniversary of Armistice Day — November 11, which often meant that the working day was interrupted by the two minutes’ silence. Schools, factories, transport, offices — they all marked the occasion in this way and the sombre ritual became established. It was very powerful and it was no unusual sight, to see people in tears as the maroons sent out their melancholy booms into the cold mists of a November morning.

But since the Second World War the occasion has been moved to the first Sunday in November, which has deprived it of much of its effect but which means that there is the minimum interruption of the steady exploitation of workers, ex-servicemen and all. As Poppy Day has declined, the British Legion has felt itself losing some of its relevance, its style of patriotism as much of a joke as Colonel Blimp, (There is, alas, no evidence that current attitudes are any less patriotic than those they have modified, that there is no longer a well of patriotism waiting to be tapped by the appropriate war propaganda, at the appropriate time.) But the Legion was slow to grasp this; it continued to live in its heyday of the Thirties. When eventually realization dawned, they made frantic efforts to catch up, with a campaign bearing all the signs of having been designed by a slick advertising agency.

The collecting boxes were revamped into the plastic age, a dolly bird showed her legs beneath a tray of poppies and the slogan Wear Your Poppy With Pride was coined, aimed at the doubters who were wondering whether a CND march was a better use of their time. Last November the Cambridge University Rag Day decided to cut the Legion out of their list, on the grounds that it was an “unpopular charity with the students”. At the time the Daily Telegraph, in a check on British universities, found this attitude to be widespread; the British Legion, with its image of old soldiers, has been replaced by more trendy appeals for community action trust funds.

There was some anger in the Legion at this slight, which probably confirmed many members in their prejudices against the alleged laziness and ingratitude of students and there must have been many a call, over the glasses of bitter at local British Legion clubs, for the re-introduction of conscription to shorten these students’ hair and teach them to act like men. They need not have worried for, in whatever shape, the ethos of rehabilitation lives on, with its implicit support for capitalism. This ethos interprets the casualties of capitalism as unfortunate, unavoidable accidents who, after the event, need to be patched up and helped to cope with their disabilities. It is difficult to imagine a more insidious bolster to capitalism than this avoidance of reality. For capitalism is not a succession of accidents; wars are not mistakes and poverty is only one segment of the many in capitalism’s mosaic of social malaise. There are numerous organizations wearily trying to deal with separate problems in isolation from their common basis. They make appeals, they sell their paper flags and flowers and they claim their successes. They are convinced that they appeal to something they call our better nature when in reality they are a persuasion to avoid the issue.

There were poppies growing in the fields of Flanders when the war started in 1914 and they clung on as the devastation became complete; they were in the ground and poking out of the soil of the trenches when the men went over the top that day in July 1916. But there is more to it than the popular symbolism, for the poppy is the colour of blood and it has its association with opiates. Those who buy a poppy are helping the workers to deaden their senses to the facts. War is not to be remembered with pride; it is to be feared and hated. Capitalism kills workers in their millions, then lays them out in regimented cemeteries, raises huge monuments to tell us they are dead. And all this to protect the position of the ruling class, to keep in being the very society which ensures the next bloodbath.