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.

couin-b-c

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 Women Don’t Go Quietly

????????????

It is almost three weeks since Home Fires was dropped by ITV but the noise on social media shows no signs of quietening. There is an impressive cross-section of people who comment on Facebook and Twitter. The majority of supporters are women but there is a strong male presence which, when I assessed it, almost matches the drama in terms of representation. I was once again reminded of Mark Umbers (Wing Commander Lucas) wise words when he wrote how the Home Fires story is told from the female perspective in a way that does not diminish its male characters. That’s exactly right and is one of the reasons why it has a strong male following as well as the perhaps-to-be-expected female audience.

St Boniface Church, Bunbury. Today’s view has hardly changed in 75 years.

This got me thinking about the profile of wartime villages in Britain. It was not the same as in the towns and cities, where factory workers were split almost 50/50 but the men were a great deal older, about 11 years on average, than they had been in the 1930s. The young men had in the main been conscripted. Women stepped up to the plate and took on roles that were hitherto the domain of men. They drove buses, became tram conductors, they made machines and munitions. In the countryside it was different. Women’s roles had changed in the Great War and with the birth of the WI they had a stronger sense of community than their urban counterparts. By 1916 women in the countryside made up a significant proportion of the labour force on farms. It is estimated that over 600,000 women worked in agriculture in the First World War, of which just 1/10th were members of the Women’s Land Army. The rest were wives, mothers, daughters of farmers and farm labourers who worked more often than not for no pay. It was simply expected that they would pick up where their young men had left off.

Rolling forward two decades these women, now a generation older, knew that they would have to do the same as they had done in the previous war. This time they were better organised. The Women’s Institute, formed in 1915, was a huge help in that it offered a ready-made structure to get things done: to bust the government’s bureaucratic logjams and keep the countryside ticking. They also knew that this time they would be more directly involved. The editor of Home & Country wrote in 1940:

‘Women who were grown up in the last war remember, as hardest to bear, the thought that young lives were being paid for their safety. Young men are defending us now, in a manner beyond praise. But this time we have the honour of sharing a little of the danger.’

Mrs Dunne, county chairman of Herefordshire wrote to her eighty-five presidents: ‘We must remember that “The main purpose of WIs is to improve and develop conditions in rural life.” To do this we must not neglect the education and social side of our movement. The war threatens civilisation, and we must do our best through the stress and turmoil to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’

There is something so stoical in these remarks. They are not headline grabbing or startling in their insight. They are not even particularly passionate but they are solid, determined and focused. Nothing, not even a war, was going to put the countrywoman off her stride. Throughout my research for Jambusters I found countless references to women who would carry on meetings or jam-making in an air-raid ‘because it had to be done’. A Kent member would shout and wave a clenched fist at the German planes flying overhead, not out of rage but out of frustration that it meant she had to abandon her fruit picking or gardening while they fought overhead. Other women sprang to help evacuees from the Blitz on Coventry and Plymouth, offering them practical help, such as a bath and a bed for the night. If there was anything they could do to help they would do it.

20140902_110031

Farrow Farm, Great Paxford

Simon Block has managed to capture this sense of community in his glorious fictional Great Paxford. I think one of the reasons why so many viewers react passionately towards Home Fires is that they recognise this as something they knew or or learned of through parents, grandparents or older siblings. It is living history in the most visceral way. Yet, as I have said before, Home Fires wears its history lightly. So it speaks to our sense of community, to our understanding of the role played by women in the war and, frankly, to our debt to them that they did so bravely and with humour. Looking at Frances Barden, can you not see how similar she is to Mrs Dunne of Herefordshire? Not speaking the same words but understanding the same sentiment: ‘to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’ In her own way, Joyce Cameron wants the same, but in the first series she is too stuck in her old ways to see that preserving something can mean allowing it to change with the times. By series two she is a changed woman and we find ourselves warming to her more and more. When Malcolm shows her the picture of her baby granddaughter I had hot tears in my eyes as I watched the brilliant, regal Francesca Annis do what every proud grandmother would do, which is to beam with joy. But Home Fires also speaks with a modern tongue to issues that cross generations: domestic abuse, loneliness, prejudice, racism and love. I think that Simon’s characters, in the hands of the outstandingly gifted cast and the superb camera crews, sound engineers, make-up artists, directors and producers, give us something that we really get. These are people who are real to us every Sunday evening, so that they have become like friends who we talk about all the next week. That is one of the reasons, I believe, that Home Fires has such a strong and passionate following.

I am going to end with a quote from the Chairman of the Women’s Institute, Lady Denman, from October 1939. If you want to change the words and see what I’m getting at slightly tongue in cheek, you are most welcome to try.

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.2

The Hon. Lady Gertrude Denman, Chairman of the NFWI, was an inspiring woman and a wonderful example to her membership

‘Germany is said to count on breaking our nerve. Every person who spreads an atmosphere of cheerfulness and quiet resolution at this time is helping to win the war. We are proud of the cause for which Britain is fighting, and those of us who are not called upon to endure the hardship of actual fighting, will be glad to feel that we have comforts to go without, difficulties to contend with in daily life, and that by meeting such troubles cheerfully and helping our neighbours to do so, we are taking our small share in winning the victory which we believe will come, but which will come only if the whole nation is ready to make willing sacrifice.’

#savehomefires