On Poppies: The Ways That We Remember War

 I recently came across this article in The Guardian by art critic Jonathan Jones, which ran with the headline:

‘The Tower of London poppies are fake, trite and inward-looking – a Ukip-style memorial’.

First of all, what on earth has UKIP got to do with a memorial art installation commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War? Jones is bang on trend with the UKIP vilification, but surely even he would have to admit that he’s shoehorned that one in a bit? He mentions UKIP once (in the paragraph where he describes the memorial as ‘inward looking’ and nationalistic) but this buzzword is used in the antagonistic headline to secure more views.

Unlike Jones, I don’t see anything wrong with the fact that each hand-made ceramic poppy symbolises a life cut short. He describes this beautifully simple personification, a clever way to represent a shockingly high death toll, as ‘fake nobility’. How small minded of him to decide that remembering the 888, 246 men who died fighting for the British Army, 251,900[1] of whom were not from the British Isles, means that one is incapable of remembering anybody else who died in that war. Where else would we commemorate our war dead but in the country they fought for?

Second of all, I disagree with him when he says ‘this is a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial’. The title of the work is ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. What better reminder of violence and death than a torrent of blood pouring out of the tower? The pool of blood is growing larger by the day and will be completed on 11 November, when the final poppies are added. Use of the poppy in this artwork, created by ceramic artist Paul Cummings and stage designer Tom Piper, neither glosses over the horror of war nor glorifies it. Poppies surround the tower in a demonstration of the vast scale of the bloodshed. The artist leaves it to the viewer to imagine the gruesome details of each individual death, the mud, bayonets and trenches which Jones would like to see accurately represented before him. These details are deeply ingrained in our cultural memory, alluded to in a memorial which is about the scale of the tragedy, of tragedy repeated 888,246 times over here and millions of times over worldwide.

The poppies at the Tower of London

The poppies at the Tower of London.

The poppy became an emblem of remembrance after WWI because it is a symbol of hope and regeneration as well as loss of life. Poppies flourish in disturbed ground and so these blood-red flowers grew in vast numbers out of the churned up soil in Northern France where hundreds of thousands lay dead. They bloomed in clusters in the unusually warm spring of 1915 and after the war ended they filled idyllic meadows where less than a year earlier there had been hell on earth.

As a result of the fact that the moat contains poppies and not ‘barbed wire and bones’, Jones deems the spectacle empty, a lie and a sanitising of war. He sneers at the fact that this memorial has ‘caught the national imagination’, belittling the ‘tide of humanity’ which has flocked to see it in the same way they would flock to see a royal wedding. He makes it clear that this crowd is a bunch of morons, philistines and nationalists. I think this criticism comes from a rather negative point of view. I agree with him that war is ‘not noble’, that it is not to be romanticised or glorified. I share his palpable sense of anger at life wasted. However, I see this memorial as moving and rather beautiful piece of art (although no doubt this makes me a pleb). An estimated four million visitors will have seen the artwork by 11 November. Surely that level of engagement with the past can only be a good thing, hard as Jones tries to find fault with it?

Jonathan Jones, taste maker and art critic, has told us that visiting the Tower of London memorial is not the way we should remember WWI. What about the form of remembrance many of us adhere to: pinning a red poppy to our lapel? There are those for whom wearing a poppy at all is considered poor form. They state that there are hundreds of other causes which we should be dedicating our attention to and that we shouldn’t favour one over any others. News reader Jon Snow has said that he is inundated with requests to wear various symbols whilst on air and has chosen not to wear any. As a news presenter who should remain a completely neutral figure, I can see why he has made that choice. He wears a poppy in his private life but not on the telly, and decries the ‘rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism’ which he says puts pressure on public figures to start wearing them many weeks before Remembrance Sunday. ITV News presenter Charlene White last year received a hefty amount of nasty criticism, some of it racist in nature, when she chose not to wear the poppy on air on Armistice Day. She said she did not want to be seen to support The Royal British Legion over other charities, but wears a variety of charity badges and symbols in her private life.

Royal_British_Legion's_Paper_Poppy_-_white_background

The Royal British Legion’s red poppy. This year they hope to raise £40 million from the poppy appeal.

Then there are those who say we should all wear white poppies instead of red, in support of peace rather than war. White poppies are now distributed by the Peace Pledge Union and were first worn as early as 1933. Today, the PPU states that the white poppy was never meant ‘as an insult to those who died in the First World War’ (how depressing that they feel they have to make this clear) but was instead intended as ‘a challenge to the continuing drive to war’. Devastatingly for those who lost so much in WWI, the message symbolised by the white poppy fell on deaf ears.

One white poppy amongst a sea of red.

One white poppy amongst a sea of red.

The ways we are told we should and shouldn’t do our remembering are many. Don’t go to the Tower of London memorial, says snobbish art critic, because it’s popular art which masks the true horror of war, and remembering people from our nation who died is the same thing as forgetting those from other countries. Don’t wear a poppy before Armistice Day, say those who support many charities, because you can’t be seen to be favouring one cause over another. Do wear a red poppy, say some veterans, because if you don’t it means you are forgetting us. Wear a white poppy instead of a red one, say some pacifists, because a red poppy is propaganda which supports and justifies the notion of war itself.

I wear a red poppy every year, usually for a few days to a week before Armistice Day. I view it, as I suspect many others do, as a small act of remembrance rather than a mark of my support for The Royal British Legion or a political statement about my stance on wars past and present. Regardless of the political reasons why those in the Armed Forces are asked to participate in war, I believe that their loss should be mourned. I am aware of the dangers of patriotism and nationalism but don’t view the poppy as a symbol of either of these things. When I wear one I think of my father’s father, and my mother’s father and his best friend Mick. The way that we remember war shouldn’t be politicised or dictated by anybody, whether one chooses to wear a red poppy, a white poppy or no poppy at all.

The simple act of remembering, though, is important. In May 2011 the last surviving combat veteran of WWI, a British-born man named Claude Choules, died in Australia at the age of 110. Memories of that war have now been passed on to those who did not experience it. I find myself returning to Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ again and again. Hers is the best insight I’ve come across into what it was like to be part of the generation that was decimated by the years 1914-19. She reminds us that it might be tempting to romanticise war, explaining that “the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain [an] allure”. In reality, though, “The glamour [of war] may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is…”.[2]

We must safeguard these memories and pass them on. We should remember the men and women traumatised, maimed and killed in war not only out of respect for the sacrifices they made (regardless of the political manoeuvrings which forced them) but also in an attempt to keep the tragedy of war vividly alive. By doing so we might prevent such slaughter from ever taking place again. The poppy, as a symbol of loss and hope, helps us to do that.

[1] Statistic taken from http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm

[2] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925, (London: Virago Press, 1978), pp. 291-292.

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