When Flanders failed
I could not let another November go by without saying something about Poppy Day, something I have been wishing to say for a while. Everybody knows – or should know – that Poppy Day, also known as Remembrance or Armistice Day in other Commonwealth countries, commemorates the official end of World War I on November 11, 1918.
At 5 that morning, Marshal Foch and Matthias Erzberger signed an armistice in that legendary railroad car in the forest of Compiègne. They agreed that hostilities along the Western Front would formally cease later that day, “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918. That war cost about 37 million casualties, including 16 million deaths, almost seven million of whom were civilians.
Now held on the Sunday nearest to November 11, Poppy Day pays tribute to the fallen of the two world wars. The red poppy sold by the Royal British Legion (and, in Malta, by its Maltese branch) to raise funds to help ex-servicemen and their dependants is, of course, inspired by John McCrae’s 1915 war poem In Flanders Fields. One is tempted to ask: Who does not remember at least the first and the last verses of that poem?
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place…
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
I don’t want to give the impression I think it is a great poem. In fact, I agree with Paul Fussell’s view, in his The Great War And Modern Memory, that the almost propagandistic character of the last stanza contrasts with (and somewhat devalues) the pastoral pathos with which the poem begins and which culminates in the second stanza:
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.”
If the second stanza (especially the first two verses: “We are the Dead. Short days ago/We lived…”) is an effective denunciation of the horror of war, elegant in its restraint, it is difficult not to read the closing stanza as a strident call for a continuation of the carnage. This is especially true of the first three verses of this stanza:
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.”
But what precisely Poppy Day stands for today is not an uncontroversial issue. In Britain itself, it has often been suggested that Poppy Day presents governments with the opportunity of emotionally massaging the cost in human lives of military interventions abroad after World War II, especially current ones. Only two weeks ago, Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman, argued that “soaked in the powerful narrative of righteous heroism, the poppy of remembrance has become a fig leaf for the overseas military interests of successive governments”.
Ms Penny starts off her piece with a picture of the scene during a ceremony held in front of the BAE Radway Green facility, in Cheshire, to mark the beginning of the local Poppy Appeal. The ceremony was “cheerfully hosted” by BAE, described by the writer as “a prominent supporter of the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal”. BAE, a global producer of advanced weapons’ systems, reported sales of $36.2 billion in 2009.
“Officials from the arms and munitions company, which rakes in billions from international wars and is subsidised by the British government, watched as servicemen and schoolchildren planted crosses in front of the (BAE) base.” Ms Penny’s view is that “a million paper flowers will never be enough to mop up the carnage of war”.
Poppy Day can be even more controversial outside of Britain. Take the Irish. Remembrance Day manages to both divide and unite them. The tendency to focus on soldiers fighting for the British Crown opens wounds that do not easily heal. The image of the role of the British Army as an instrument of violent repression, take Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, and, on the other side, the Provisional IRA’s Poppy Day Massacre at Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, on November 8, 1987, stand in the way of a definitive rehabilitation of Remembrance Day as a day that unites.
Which brings me to Malta. I am glad some politicians proudly wore the poppy and made an effort to be seen to be wearing it. I am glad some of them chose to wear the poppy during the Budget debate, a televised event keenly followed by citizens across the political divide.
The poppy should not be seen as nostalgia for our colonial past. Even less should it be seen as a reminder of a British war (I am thinking of World War II, which is the more vivid one in our collective memory), of a war that we fought for Britain or, more generally, for “the foreigner”. World War II was a war that prevented Nazism and Fascism from dominating the world. From this point of view, lest we forget, it was our war. Remembering (proudly) that we fought against Nazism and Fascism is what Poppy Day should be about.
I must credit the second part of the title to Jon Vitti, author of When Flanders Failed, the third episode of The Simpsons, broadcast in the US in October, 1991.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on November 22, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101122/opinion/poppy-day-when-flanders-failed