Britain's Remembrance Day: Why It Needs to Change


Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day Britain collectively mourns its war-dead. This morning London’s Whitehall – the national site of remembrance and military administration – will be showered with red poppies. Ex-servicemen, politicians and dignitaries march alongside. It’s the same every year. 

It all commemorates the Armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” – Europe’s First World War. As it turned out, 1918 was the beginning of over a century of repugnant Western war-making. Today we should try to re-evaluate how we remember our wars to avoid them happening again. This includes a change in education, as well as symbolism. 

This is what British journalist Robert Fisk argued, controversially, last week in The Independent. Fisk is a journalist I admire enormously, but I admit his tone may have been harder-edged because of his father’s WWI service, as well as his own war experiences as a reporter from our generation’s own Somme-like battlefield – the Middle East. 

Fisk claims red poppies “mock the dead” with their absence of meaning, mere “fashion appendages” worn by politicians and BBC journalists keen to look in on the sorrow. While I’m not offended by Fisk’s words, I can see why the sensitive or sanctimonious amongst us might be. The swathes of people who have joined in lambasting Fisk are testament to the ongoing debate of what constitutes appropriate remembrance. The fact is it is an individual choice. If Fisk doesn’t wear a poppy, that’s fine with me. 

In addition to the 11 a.m. moment of silence, wearing red poppies is our principal way of remembering our dead – a custom from Canadian medic John McCrae’s 1918 poem, In Flanders Fields. McCrae’s poppy image promotes remembrance but not reconciliation. Instead McCrae wants us to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” 

The funds from red poppy sales go to ex-servicemen – an important cause we should continue. The Peace Pledge Union also sells a white poppy with “Peace” embossed in its face, promoting pacifism while challenging the absurd reverence for war which often pervades traditional remembrance. 

I wear both symbols. My pounds go to the British Legion to help British veterans while politically engaging people on the street. I’m often asked what the white poppy is. Then one more person will at least consider that “Peace” face. (Others have reacted violently – a sad irony in itself.) 

But really we’re only talking in symbols. Perhaps Fisk is right to do away with them. Surely real change only comes with changes in how we educate? 

At present the red poppy bears no inscription – until 1998 it bore the hallmark of its founding charity, the Haig Fund (now the responsibility of the British Legion Poppy Appeal). Established in 1921 by Field-Marshall Douglas Haig, the man who infamously walked British soldiers into their most foolhardy and horrific of massacres – the Somme, July 1, 1916 – this seems more than hypocritical. What does that teach us about war? 

All too much, unfortunately. That history can be re-written in this way, through bending or omission of historic fact is not surprising. As an event covering all wars, Remembrance Day ties together the First, and Second, World Wars. Every year we are told British soldiers died for a noble cause – in both – “for freedom.” This malignant myth still lives – in Afghanistan, Iraq and soon, Iran – because it has been perpetuated through remembrance. 

My great-uncle, Seth Rollins, died at the Somme. Years ago I found a picture of him in a book in the Imperial War Museum’s archives in London. Seth looks proud and hopeful in the photograph, presumably taken when he signed up to the Accrington “Pals” regiment in Lancashire, 80% of whom would die in the first few minutes of what we still ominously call “The First Day of the Somme.” Some 20,000 men died would die there, shelled, bayoneted and machine-gunned like sitting ducks into an early grave. Seth’s face, barely 18 and blissfully ignorant of his oncoming death, says as much about the waste of war as any film. 

Men and women like Seth didn’t die for freedom. We need to remember the poppy is just as much a memorial to lives lost, as it is to one of the greatest follies of the 20th-century. And this is Fisk’s problem with the poppy – that the symbol has become separate from its reality. People wear it without knowing what it means. It’s our duty to our war-dead to remember exactly why they died. 

Photo Credit: isamiga76