We WILL Remember Them — When Remembrance Turns Toxic

A Centenary of Remembrance

It’s almost 100 years since the guns of the First World War fell silent and the last four years of the Centenary of the conflict has seen an upsurge in interest, research, funding and general awareness.

As part of a company (Lonely Tower Film and Media) that has worked closely with local history groups, councils, historians and enthusiasts on many First World War projects over the last four years, it’s been wonderful to see their hard work and ideas come to fruition.

Nationally, projects like Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London and We’re Here Because We’re Here have been visually striking, thought-provoking and perhaps most importantly, tasteful and relevant.

As we’ve passed certain milestones — The battles of Ypres, The Somme, Passchendaele (and that’s just the Western Front) — the ceremonies and events that have surrounded these anniversaries have ranged from the wonderfully creative, to the downright bizarre.

This year, 2018, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are one and the same and boy, has this upped the ante.

The History of the Symbolic Poppy

Buying a poppy from The British Legion is something many of us do as second nature at this time of year. It all started with John McCrae poem, In Flanders Fields, where the author painted a vivid picture of poppies growing on battle-scarred fields.

American, Moina Belle Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, had read McCrae’s poem and been deeply affected by it. She purchased artificial red poppies from a department store and began to sell them. After convincing a US veterans’ organisation (the Georgia Department of the American Legion) to take on the poppy as their symbol, a French woman named Anna E. Guérin became aware of the campaign, and took the idea back to France. Guérin then travelled to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain, where she met with Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who in 1921, was president of the newly formed British Legion.

Haig and the Legion adopted the poppy as their symbol of hope and Remembrance, and so a tradition was established that survives to this day.

Misinformation and Appropriation

Over time, perspectives about The First World War have changed. 60s education concentrated on war poets, very specific emotional experiences that soon became a one-size-fits-all. At a time when the Vietnam War was in full swing, and hippy culture was the flavour of the moment, everything associated with the military was ‘bad.’ Clichés and misinformation became de rigueur.

In the UK, The Battle of the Somme is the poster child for the First World War and many First World War stock phrases have come from these battles, particularly from July 1st 1916. As research has progressed and as time has distanced us and allowed us to become a little more objective and dispassionate, many historians and researchers have sought ways to respectfully progress the narrative.

Particularly during the deluge of First World War coverage over the Centenary, it’s been, at times, a thankless task. Mainstream media, often preoccupied with fairy-tale over facts, have perpetuated many of the tropes that we now know just aren’t accurate.

Glib headlines with little understanding or even attempt at understanding, become representative of everything for those who don’t know, or worse, fuel those who have less than genuine motives when it comes to commemoration. Just this week, a major publication ran a story on the sale of the Butte de Warlencourt, attributing the site to the Second, rather than the First World War. Rare gems shine through in local publications from those journalists with genuine interest and desire to accurately tell the stories of their community.

War becomes a banner to wave, the symbols surrounding it, something to appropriate. In recent years, particularly with social media sharing, the symbol of the poppy has become a weapon that many wield as an attempt to work themselves into the narrative, ‘look how I Remember better than you…

Men during the First World War were sometimes presented with a white feather to symbolise cowardice, if they weren’t in uniform. It could be that the man was simply on leave, or had tried to join up but couldn’t (ill health, age and so on), it didn’t matter. Such was the pressure that ways were created — badges, arm bands — to demonstrate that they were doing everything possible for the war effort.

It’s hard not to see the juxtaposition between this behaviour and those who would seek to use the symbol of the poppy for their own agenda or self-aggrandisement. The absence of a poppy can now be a stronger message than wearing one. TV presenters have been hauled over the virtual coals for the absence of a poppy, people are discussed in local Facebook groups because they were seen without one. Likewise, there are those who would seek to attribute the small red flower to the glorification of war — a friend told me of the time she was wearing a poppy on the Tube in London, only to be the subject of stares from a group who loudly talked about why people shouldn’t wear a poppy.

Hope and Commemoration

A major detail to come out of the commemorations surrounding the Centenary is that those who survived — and that was a majority, contrary to popular belief, almost 90% in Britain during the First World War — have often been overlooked. Whilst Remembrance is frequently and understandably associated with the fallen, we owe it to all who lived through that time to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.

Local groups, heritage sections of desperately underfunded small councils, and historians whose area of interest this was before the Centenary, and whose research and dedication will continue long after it has faded from populist memory, have worked tirelessly to tell the stories of our men and women who served the war effort during The Great War. They have patiently and dutifully chipped away at the tropes that do a disservice to those we seek to represent, have fought through the stone wall, conversation stoppers who yell ‘disrespect’ to anyone who dares to question what they believe to be true.

With all the coverage of various First World War commemoration events, there has been an inevitable upsurge of visitors to battlefields, particularly at the more easily accessible Western Front. Visitors to West Flanders doubled in 2014 at the start of the Centenary and while that will undoubtedly drop off after November the 11th this year, it will still have sparked a new interest in that period of history for many.

Whether it’s a family connection that brings us out to the local war memorial on a bitterly cold, wet November morning, whether it’s a sense of duty, geography, or of community that induces us to pin that small red flower to our lapel; whether we choose to make a pilgrimage to those hauntingly beautiful Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries, how we commemorate and if we choose take part in Remembrance, is an entirely personal matter.