Lest we Forget, and the hijacked Poppy

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image by Sharon Muir Wall

In this time of great upheaval and changes it is perhaps even more important to take a minute and remember moments in history which should have taught us the type of lesson we should never forget.

Armistice Day is a day, or one of the days, when we make emotional, written and physical gestures to the world and those around us, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the volatile conflicts of the World Wars and other war skirmishes. In the UK we pay tribute to the British, and men and women in the Commonwealth, who have paid the highest price and all those who have served and still serve.

I feel it is important to point out that I and the majority of those paying tribute also include the fallen, and the injured servicemen and women of our Allies in our thoughts, speeches and posts. In fact I also include non-Allies. No soldier chose to face the horrors of WW1. The mustard gas, the barbed wire, the fear, the cold, the psychological repercussions or death for that matter. No sailor chose to burn alive, to drown in the cold murky depths of the oceans or suffocate in a tomb of impenetrable metal. No pilot chose to plummet to their death.

In 1922 Major George Howson MC opened the Poppy Factory with the intent of giving wounded soldiers, airmen and sailors a way of earning a living. What started out with a few men and the Disabled Society soon became a flourishing business called The Poppy Factory.

Poppies had become popular as an icon of public Remembrance through the work of Anna Guerin of France and Moina Michael of the USA, who took Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and devised a practical way of raising vital funds for wartime charities. The British Legion had been set up the year before and the very first Poppy Appeal – using silk poppies made by widows in France – had raised £106,000. (quote: poppyfactory.org)

Recently this symbol of remembrance has been hijacked for political purposes. Right wing groups are using the poppy to promote their agenda of hatred and to gain followers on social media. So-called honeytrap click-bait. Unfortunately they are doing the same with images of veterans from all wars and conflicts, and using them and their words, faces or rather they are misusing the images for their campaigns. Instead of a symbol of remembrance the poppy has now become a symbol of patriotism, or rather the hijacking has made it a pseudo-symbol of said patriotism.

On top of that there is a fair bit of poppy shaming going on. A sort of moral pressure to wear the symbol, which puts some people in a bit of a quandary. When I wear my poppy I wear it as a symbol of support. To honour those who have fought and died, those who fought and survived. I do not and would never wear it as any kind of fascist representation, and make no mistake the so-called patriots misusing the symbol are right wing fascists.

Then you have the poppy shamers, who are only too eager to jump on this misrepresentation by the far-right and accuse all wearers and sellers of being ‘patriots.’ This has led to poppy displays being banned and sellers being told they can no longer sell them. More often than not the poppy seller will be a veteran ( I have bought off quite a few World War veterans).

Just so we are clear all proceeds go to charity, The Royal British Legion, and the funds raised by the Poppy Appeal go to those in need.

A small percentage of the money goes toward running the charity, its premises, staff, fundraising and other activities such as the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas and Remembrance Tours. (quote: britishlegion.org.uk)

In the last few weeks even the FiFa has decided to join the ranks of the shamers by banning the football players from wearing anything associated with the poppy.

Fifa prohibits any political, religious or commercial messages on shirts.

Thereby they are both confirming the fascist message and inadvertently making it a stronger one. The poppy is neither a religious, religious nor commercial message. It is to honour the sacrifices of our servicemen and women.

Dulce et Decorum Est
By WILFRED OWEN (1893 – 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

It does not represent the politicians or men who create war, it does not speak to the wrong or right of war and it certainly does not carry the message of superiority, victory or misinterpreted patriotism. The poppy has nothing to do with the misguided interpretation of patriotic pride. I buy and wear mine with respect and honour in mind. To remind myself of the trauma, despair and suffering of those that died and those who came home, both then and now. The same respect and honour I have and represent even when I choose not to wear one.

I certainly won’t be letting fascists, poppy shamers and poppy hijackers take my choice away from me and neither should you. You choose. Don’t let others dictate their agenda and choose for you. Most importantly if you do wear or share the poppy do so with the original intent and reasoning. Do not hijack it to make a political point or to vent your frustration with the regime.

War has no victors. War means loss, pain and blood seeping into the ground. War means losing entire generations of young men and women. There are no real winners in war. It means death, pain, torture and despair in abundance. I leave you with some words from For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon.

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. 

Download to read The Poems of Isaac Rosenberg, Selected poems by Laurence Binyon, poems by Alan Seeger, read Flanders Field by John McCrae or listen to Flanders Field by John McCrae. Alternatively you can listen to Anthem for Doomed Youth, Poems by Siegfried Sassoon or The Diary of a Dead Officer.

Read Poetry and the First World War, Centenary of World War 1, The Public Domain, A Treasure Trove of Poetry right here on the blog.

Go to 1418Now.org.uk for WW1 Centenary Art Commissions

Connect with artist Sharon Muir Wall

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