Reflections in red

I am not an art critic – nor do I have pretensions to be such. Nevertheless, having personally seen the earlier stages of the ostensible war memorial in the moat of the Tower of London, I have not been overly impressed by the artistic merits of the display of red ceramic poppies spread out beneath the walls of this historic royal residence and prison. The display is intended to be a memorial to the British dead of World War 1, the so-called “Great War” – the “war to end all wars”.
The Tower of London display is currently attracting huge crowds and has become something of the defining popular artwork in this centenary of the Great War’s outbreak. Understandably, the display has become a point of debate, and not just among art critics. Nevertheless, The Guardian newspaper’s art critic mentioned the words “toothless as art” and a “UKIP-style memorial” in his critical evaluation of the sea of red poppies. The right-wing press duly waded-in with its denunciation of this “sneering left-wing critic”.
In some ways it seems most appropriate to have a commemoration of a brutal and bloody war displayed at the Tower of London – itself a monument in stone to discrimination, torture and death and a refuge throughout its history for the royal class who were so much at the centre of the causes of the First World War. Whether it is appropriate to have a display composed of 888,246 red ceramic poppies is, arguably, another matter.
In this day and age, with the UK a member of the European Union, yet still recognising, if not celebrating, the existence of a British Commonwealth (though no longer an Empire), is it sufficient to just remember British military fatalities – and to do so in a tourist location that annually draws many thousands of global visitors to it? What about the Commonwealth troops from, for example, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India (and many others, large and small) who “defended the Empire” with their lives – each one a member of a family and a citizen of a country who responded to the appeal of the “mother country” in its hour of desperation.
There is, of course, some discrepancy, even ambiguity, about numbers. This is to be expected given the uncertain nature of the secondary sources used to compose the number of fatalities. The Tower of London’s memorial claims to have one red poppy for each “British and Commonwealth” military fatality. This is clearly not the case.
The number of red poppies quoted above (888,246) is very likely the number of deaths of British military and those of the “former colonies” – many of which were in Africa, for example Nigeria and Kenya. When the former British “Dominions”, for example Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Undivided India, are included, the official number of casualties of the then British Empire rises to 1,118,760 deaths.
So too, the Tower of London display will not serve as a memorial for French fatalities (one in ten of its young men – 1,397,800), nor for Russia (for whom the war casualties numbered 2,254,369 and precipitated bloody and remorseless revolution, civil war and famine). The total number of military casualties for the Allied forces (Entente Powers) was a colossal 6,349,352. And, of course, there will not be a red poppy remembering a single casualty of the Axis forces (Central Powers) – a staggering total of 4,390,544 (including 2,037,000 Germans).
In consequence of the First World War, the combined number of military fatalities from all causes was a horrific 10,739,896. That number does not include civilian deaths. These have been estimated to have been a further 17,989,982. These figures do not include those who were wounded and survived. The cost of the First World War in human life and suffering has been appalling. There are no victors in human slaughter of this kind – just victims!
The Great War, therefore, was not just a British tragedy and, in a city that lays genuine claim to be one of the truly great cities of the modern World, as patriotic as it might seem (if you are British) it also seems insufficient to have such a memorial upon which the world gazes but to be seen only through a distinctly British prism and to be coloured red. This insufficiency is highlighted when the story of the red poppy is told.
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery and had become good friends with Major John McCrae, the second in command of the 1st Brigade. On the morning of Sunday 2nd May, during the Second Battle for Ypres, Alexis left his dugout and was instantly killed. Alexis Helmer was a 22 year-old university graduate in Civil Engineering from Ottowa, Canada, and a popular young officer.
Near to the 1st Canadian Brigade’s position on the canal bank there was a small burial ground and, by early May, 1915, the burial ground contained a growing number of graves of French and Canadian casualties. Lieutenant Helmer was buried on that site on the 2nd May, 1915. In the absence of the brigade chaplain, Major John McCrae conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England’s “Order of Burial of the Dead”.
It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for Major John McCrae’s famous poem “We Shall Not Sleep”. Whilst exact details of when the first draft was written may never be known, it is generally thought that McRae began writing the poem on the evening of the 2nd May, 1915 – the evening after Alexis Helmer began his eternal sleep under Belgian soil.
One account says that, on the following day, McRae was seen writing the poem sitting on the rear-step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground. During 1915 John McCrae sent the poem to The Spectator magazine. It was not published and was returned to him. It was, however, published in Punch magazine on 8th December 1915.
In 1918, it was the idea of an American, Moina Michael, to use the red poppy to commemorate the fallen. Her inspiration came from McRae’s poem, now better known as “In Flander’s Field”.
It would, however, be somewhat of a mistake to claim that the use of the red poppy is an exercise in neutrality – not when one line of the poem reads, “Take up our quarrel with the foe”. As the saying goes, these are fighting words! It is for this reason, amongst others, that there is strong advocacy for the use of a white poppy to replace the red. The white poppy was worn recently by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on the BBC’s Question Time, and by the historian Neil Faulkner on that same broadcaster’s Sunday Morning Live programme.
For some time now the “No Glory in War – 1914-1918” campaign has been an advocate of putting white poppies at the centre of Remembrance Day and the wearing of the white poppy instead of the red. Each year more and more people choose to wear the white poppy – as a respectful way to emphasise (white) peace and not (red) violence at the heart of remembering those who died in war. This year, 100 years on from 1914, seems a fitting time to spread the white poppy as widely as possible.
Of course, this is not an action centred merely on emotion. There are those who consider that the significance of the red poppy has been devalued through its use as a symbol of “sacrifice” and “honour” instead of a “solemn remembrance and a determination to end war”.
It is poignant to recall the opinion of the American constitutional lawyer and historian, Philip Bobbitt (in his 2008 book Terror and Consent: The Wars for the 21st Century), that, far from being the “war to end all wars”, the 1914-18 war was the beginning of a series of conflicts that ended only with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989. Interestingly, the 25th anniversary of this significant event has been celebrated in the lead-up to the WW1 centennial remembrances. Bobbitt refers to this period of war as the “Long War” and included protracted wars in Russia, Greece, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, colonial wars in Africa and South-East Asia, and, of course, the various wars in the Middle East.
It is further argued that the Festival of Remembrance and the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph have been turned into “militaristic occasions to encourage recruiting and forget the inhumanity of warfare”. It is certainly a time when the British establishment comes together, and is seen doing so, albeit to remember the deaths of so many ordinary people who had no choice in the matter and manner of their deaths.
The question has also been raised as to whether the British Legion still carries advertisements for arms dealers in the back of the programme for the Festival of Remembrance? Now, this is an interesting question. When, in 1921, the red poppy came to be adopted in the UK, it was promoted by the British Legion under their founding father General Douglas Haig (of “lions led by donkeys” infamy) in order to raise funds for British service personnel and their families. Is this an unmistakeable echo, perhaps an inference, of partisanship? But there is more.
A week ago the current British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced he was making a start on repaying money a former coalition government had raised in order to finance the First World War (a long memory is needed in politics). The chancellor announced the redemption of bonds that, as well as paying for WW1, date back to the UK’s first brush with wild financial speculation – the British East India joint-stock company (EIC) that received royal assent from the first Queen Elizabeth in 1600. This trading company was heavily involved in the South Sea Bubble of 1720.
In order to pay for WWI, the coalition (Conservative and Liberals) British government of the day sold war bonds. This was advertised as a patriotic duty and the bonds were sold to private investors in 1917 with the advertisement, “If you cannot fight, you can help your country by investing all you can in 5% exchequer bonds…..unlike the soldier, the investor runs no risk…..A large part of the nation, instead of being impoverished by the war, has been enriched.” By the end of WW1, many of the rich had got richer, but the UK’s national debt had risen to 175% of GDP. Nothing much seems to have changed!
Many of those who cling to the present remembrance of war with red poppies, militaristic services and the accompanying pomp and circumstance, uniforms, ribbons and decorations, do so with the view that far from being “lions led by donkeys” in a futile bloodbath whose origins remain controversial, the British soldiers who fought from 1914-1918 were fighting to defend democracy from militarist authoritarian Germany.
This seems to be an unjustifiable viewpoint and explicitly a revision of actual history. What sort of “democracy” existed in the first decades of the 20th century, especially when so many parts of the world existed as colonies and supply zones for the major political and military players – including the UK! To see Germany as the “unique culprit” of the Great War seems to me to be absurd, as is the simplistic explanation of events in the lead-up to and performance of this conflict.
A recent BBC programme on the causes of the Great War weaved a far more complex background and production – as do recent books and debates on the matter. Not the least of the factors is the solid evidence of the internal conflicts within the royal families of the main European nations which instigated and perpetrated the war.
Several of the monarchical families involved in this long period of turmoil, for example, those of Germany and Russia, were closely linked with the British monarchy during the period before the Great War. Indeed, they were members of an extended family that centred in the UK. It is no coincidence that, following the war, the British royal family changed its name to “Windsor” and endeavoured to sever its association with Germany and its Hanoverian roots.
Debate about the war memorial and red poppy display at the Tower of London goes on. There are those, like Boris Johnson, who believe that the display should be prolonged so that “as many people as possible can see it.” However, the actress, Sheila Hancock, is of the view that “a tank should mow down the poppies and leave them shattered like the bodies of the guys that died. That would be an amazing image.” The BBC has refused to put to air the Stone and Beck song “No Man’s Land”. The Royal British Legion says that such a decision is “disappointing” (it has hopes of raising money through the song for “wounded and disabled war heroes” – echoes of 1923 and the first sale of red poppies).
The last few paragraphs of this article are being written as the Armistice Day remembrance at the Cenotaph is concluding. The military carnage of the Great War was supposed to mark it out as “the war to end all wars”. This has not been the case, as even bloodier and subsequent slaughters have proved.
Even so, the quiet dignity of soldiers old and new at the Cenotaph and memorials all over the country carry added poignancy 100 years from the start of World War One. The poppy river at the Tower of London is nothing if not stunning and should, silently and dramatically and, perhaps, regardless of artistic merit, remind us that it is both the living and the dead that are honoured. The living for the legacy they carry on; the dead for a debt that can never be repaid.

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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