The Trouble with The Poppy

RANCOURT CEMETERY AND POPPIES, SOMME, FRANCE.EUROPE. THE WW1-1914-1918 CEMETERIES AND MEMORIALS MAINTAINED BY THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION. COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN HARRIS © 2006 0044(0)7808-579804-brianharrisphoto@ntlworld.com OR brian@brianharrisphotographer.co.uk

Rancourt Cemetery and Poppies, Somme © Brian Harris

I have been deeply frustrated and saddened by the, to me, farcical discussions between FIFA and the Football Association about the wearing of a poppy on a black armband on Armistice Day. Frankly no one has taken the trouble to look at the facts behind the poppy as a symbol of remembrance so here is a brief history lesson in the whole subject.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up in May 1917 to commemorate, in perpetuity, the fallen of the Great War. It was needed because the repatriation of remains was impossible given the colossal numbers of the dead and cemeteries had sprung up all over France, Belgium and further afield on Gallipoli, in Greece, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. Over 1,100,000 men from the United Kingdom and the British Empire died in the First World War and are commemorated by the CWGC in cemeteries and memorials all over the world. A further 800,000 came under their care after the Second World War. The numbers of dead from other countries in the Great War were even higher. France lost over two million, Germany over four million… It was death on a scale hitherto unimagined. The CWGC has from the very outset made no differentiation in its cemeteries and memorials between race, caste, creed or rank. The officers in all but the earliest cemeteries are buried alongside the men in equality. The headstones are marked with the symbol of the buried man or woman’s religion and if there was no religion then the headstone has no symbol. There would be no bar to any soldier, sailor or airman who died in the service of his or her country in the First, and later the Second World War, to CWGC commemoration.

Kirkee War Cemetery, Poona, India © Brian Harris

Along with the desire in Britain to commemorate the dead was an equal desire, post-war, to form some sort of ceremony. On the 11th November 1920 the first Remembrance Service took place in London. The occasion was to mark the return from the battlefields of the mortal remains of the Unknown Soldier who would be buried in Westminster Abbey in soil brought back from France. 2,000 people attended the service, the elements of which had quickly to be put together in a form that would be as equal in its regard for colour, creed and rank as the CWGC is in its memorials.

The two minute silence had been proposed in November 1919 and was ordered by the King to be held on 11th November 1919 at 11 o’clock. The Manchester Guardian described the scene:

The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.

The two minute silence is now a part of all Remembrance Day Services.

The poem, For the Fallen, by Lawrence Binyon, was written in 1914 in a reaction to the horrific high casualty numbers of the British Expeditionary Force. For the record, Binyon could not fight as he was too old but he volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers. The poem was adopted as part of the Remembrance Day Service in 1920 and has been used ever since. The haunting second stanza has been claimed as a tribute to all casualties of war.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

 

The bugle call, Last Post, sounded at every Remembrance Day Service, is a military call that dates from the 17th century. It appears to have originated from British troops stationed in the Netherlands which drew on an old Dutch custom called taptoe from which we now have the expression Military Tattoo. But that is an aside. The taptoe signals the end of the day and itself came from the expression in Dutch that meant the beer taps had to be shut. The Dutch phrase is Doe den tap toe which means Close the Tap.

So far, so secular. And now to the poppy, this innocent flower that grows best in freshly turned soil. Poppies flowered in huge numbers all over the battlefields of France and Belgium adding a blast of colour to the decimated landscape torn up and freshly turned by the machines of war and the spades of the grave diggers. ‘There was a great profusion – beautiful it was – of wild flowers – poppies, cornflowers, white camomile and yellow charlock’ wrote Captain Parker, one of the CWGC’s first horticultural officers. In May 1915 a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was inspired by the sight of the poppies to write a poem in tribute to a friend who died at Ypres. In Flanders Fields immortalised the poppies among the graves:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae’s poem was published that year and it inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman. The Royal British Legion, which was formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies to sell on the 11 November of that year. They sold out almost immediately and raised over £106,000 or £28,000,000 in 2016. The money was used to help veterans with employment and housing. The following year ex-servicemen were employed to make poppies and the tradition has continued ever since.

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Wild flowers on the graves at Couin burial ground before the cemetery was taken over by the CWGC

There is nothing religious about any aspect of the core of the Remembrance Day Service, nor is there anything political about it. If you take the trouble to watch the service at the Cenotaph on Sunday 13 November you will see that the poppy laying, the poem and Last Post are a self-contained mini-ceremony before the religious prayers and the military parade.

So please, when you next hear bleating about the poppy being a religious or political symbol, just recall that it is, like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission itself, neutral. It represents remembrance of everyone who dies in war regardless of rank, creed, colour or caste. Like the lark in McCrae’s poem, the poppy is ‘above’ the noise of the guns below.

THIEPVAL MEMORIAL, SOMME, FRANCE. 11/02 COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION COPYRIGHT OWNED PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN HARRIS 0044 (0) 7808-579804 NO UNAUTHORISED USE WITHOUT PERMISSION

Poppies at Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 6 The True Cost of War

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

The magnificent Women of Great Paxford © ITV

As the second season of Home Fires draws to its dramatic close I thought I would concentrate on a question I have spent a great deal of time working on: the true cost of war. I do not mean in the sense of how much it cost the government to prosecute the Second World War – that figure is recorded as somewhere in the region of £10,000,000 a day. No, I’m interested in the cost of the war in human terms. Not numbers of killed or wounded but the impact it had on their families.

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A view of Etaples Military Cemetery from the Cross of Sacrifice. 10,816 men and women are buried here © Julie Summers

Last week I visited Etaples Military Cemetery and was reminded that 10,816 men and women are buried here, of which just 35 are unidentified. It was the cemetery for nearly 20 First World War hospitals. Each of those buried would have had parents and possibly siblings. Some would have been married with children, so the number of people mourning the dead buried at Etaples would be in the tens of thousands. Next year the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be 100 years old. This remarkable organisation commemorates over 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. It was set up in May 1917 in response to the outpouring of grief over the slaughter on the battlefields of France, Belgium and further afield on Gallipoli and in Palestine and Greece. Bodies could not be repatriated. That only started in the late 1960s, so men had to be buried where they fell and the Commission’s job over the next decades was oversee the construction of cemeteries and memorials for two world wars. It now has a presence in 154 countries worldwide. It is through their remarkable determination to remember the war dead and to commemorate them in perpetuity, that has shaped our remembrance services of today. But for the men and women whose sons, daughters, lovers, husbands, brothers, uncles were sucked up into the Forces in 1939 commemoration was the last thing anybody wanted to be thinking about. Every hope was for the safe return of a loved family member or friend.

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Clara Milburn, wartime diarist from Balsall Common © Harrap, London

One of the worst notifications a family could receive, short of killed, was Missing in Action. This was the fate of the Brindsley family in Home Fires. Miriam refused to believe that David was dead and held onto that hope against all the odds. In Jambusters I told the story of diarist Clara Milburn whose son, Alan, was posted as ‘missing’ after Dunkirk. Her diary entries over the summer of 1940 make haunting reading. In June she wrote: ‘How curious this life is. A sort of deep stillness comes over everything from time to time. There is not much traffic on the roads during the week and the village seems empty in the evenings. One misses the young life everywhere, particularly Alan coming in in the early evening.’ A month later there was still no news of her son: ‘Always one is thinking of him, wondering whether he still lives and if so, whether he is well, where he is, what he does all day, what discomforts he is suffering. If… if… And so the days go by.’ At the end of July she heard that he was a prisoner of war and hugged her husband ‘for sheer joy at the good news’. It was not until October that she received a letter from him, a full nine months after she had last spoken to him over the phone. Alan Milburn returned safely but a very changed man.

For Barbara Cartland the news from France was the same as for Clara Milburn. Both her brothers, Ronald and Tony, were fighting with the British Expeditionary Force. Ronald wrote to his mother just before he went into action: ‘This is just to send you my love and bless you always. Don’t be anxious if there is a long silence from me – the fog of war is pretty impenetrable. We shall win in the end, but there’s horror and tribulation ahead of all of us. We can’t avoid it. What a waste it all is, but after months of desolation we shall gain and retain what you and I have always understood the meaning of – freedom.’ Barbara’s mother, Polly, had lost her husband in 1918 and knew full well the horror of the telegram. It came twice over that hot, dry summer of 1940. Both her sons were ‘missing’. In January 1941 came the terrible news that Ronald had been killed in action on 30 May 1940, hit in the head by a German bullet.

Barbara wrote: ‘We had gradually been losing hope of hearing that he was alive – now we knew the truth. My mother was wonderful. “Missing” is the cruellest uncertainty of all, as she well knew, for my father had been missing in 1918; and that ghastly waiting, watching, hoping and praying was hers all over again – not twice, but three times, for Tony was still “missing”.’ Tony Cartland had been killed the day before his brother, hit by a shell. For Polly and Barbara Cartland there was no happy ending to their story.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam Brindsley, DANIEL RYAN as Bryn Brindsley and WILL ATTENBOROUGH as David Brindsley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

The Brindsley family in Great Paxford © ITV

In Home Fires there are men caught up in the same drama as the Cartland brothers and Alan Milburn. Sarah Collingbourne’s husband, Adam, is missing in France while David Brindsley has miraculously returned from an horrific accident at sea and Bob Simms, wounded at Dunkirk, was sent back to Great Paxford in an ambulance. It is easy to understand why Miriam clung so desperately to her belief that David was still alive and remarkable that he was able to come home. Of the vicar’s fate we know little. Ronald Cartland described ‘the fog of war’ meaning there was confusion and chaos as indeed there was. And the pressure on families was immense.

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My grandmother, Alex Toosey, was the inspiration for JAMBUSTERS which in turn was the inspiration for Home Fires © Toosey family

My grandfather was taken prisoner on Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the first official notice my grandmother received that her husband was alive but a POW was on Christmas Eve of that year, almost 11 months after he had been captured. For her the fog of war was exceptionally thick. And for her there was the added problem that as he was ‘missing’ he was neither dead, in which case she would have received a war widow’s pension, or alive, in which case he would have received army pay. So for nearly a year she and tens of thousands of other wives received no money.How did they cope? Sometimes firms would make hardship payments to wives of men who had worked with them pre-war but more often than not they had to rely on family support or charities. The oldest military charity in Britain was SSAFA – the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It was founded in 1885 to provide lifelong support to serving men, women and veterans from the British Armed Forces and their families or dependents. In the Second World War SSAFA helped hundreds of thousands of families and their support was invaluable then, as it is still today.

So as this second season of Home Fires gives us a powerful finale, it is worth reflecting that there are very real parallels between the experiences of the fictional characters and their historic counterparts. We are going to be left with more questions than answers but then that reflects the true cost of war. Let’s just hope we get a third season to give us some answers.

Home Fires