By NIGEL WHEALE.
CROWDS MASS ON the Embankment, along the broad walk under mature trees, a promenade that always feels somehow French. Most people are sombrely dressed, and smart, some women wearing hats, they’ve made an effort. There are children, not many teenagers. The adults are walking steadily, seriously; there is quiet talk. Something is being shared, in an unspoken way, may never be really directly mentioned or discussed much at all. We are being conformed by a mass embarrassment, confirmed together. A kind of avoidance, a kind of tact.
We got up around ten, when people were already walking along the street under our bedroom windows, towards the Cenotaph. The troubling, unsettling idea was becoming more than a pious intent – hundreds, thousands of others with the same purpose. I fret we will be late, miss the two-minute suspended moment, but we arrive in time to see various groups and organisations take up positions around the memorial. A fire engine is parked right across the road, closing it to traffic all the way up to the main bridge over the river.
We join the sombre flow, become immersed. You pin a red poppy to my left lapel. There are just a few white poppies on show; one woman wears both colours. The Women’s Co-operative Guild created the white variant, in 1933, the year when pacifist, anti-war sentiments were at their strongest. Women were sacked for wearing what was taken to be a ‘disrespectful’ badge. The white poppy is now promoted by the Peace Pledge Union, founded in 1934. A white-poppy wreath laid by Quakers at the Bath Cenotaph has been stolen again, as in the previous three years.
A few hundred yards up river is the town bridge, where local man, John Bunyan, was imprisoned under one of the arches of the Old Bridge. He was no friend of the Quakers, the ‘Children of Light’, the ‘Friends’, even though a Quaker helped release him from one of his imprisonments. Bunyan’s first publication was a tract against Quaker belief: ‘Some in all former ages have been on foot in the world, ready to oppose the truth: So it is now, there are certain men newly started up in our days, called Quakers, who have set themselves against the truth of our Lord …’ Bunyan’s vigorous preaching in the town and surrounding villages was remarkable, numerous Baptist and Methodist chapels are still active today. And then there is the Panacea Society, awaiting the return of Shiloh, son of the mystic Joanna Southcott; for them, this town is the sacred centre of Britain, the New Glastonbury.
On the footbridge over the river, there is an elaborate memorial display, clearly visible from the Cenotaph. A knitted, woollen purple poppy is vivid. This variant was first made in 2006, to memorialise the horses, mules, camels, elephants, dogs, pigeons and other animals killed by human conflict. Money raised is given to Animal Aid. Women seem to favour this version, pinned to dark coats – some on the right side, as if it were a brooch, with the red and the white flower.
THE POPPY SYMBOL has had a makeover; there are now numerous variants, options. The Royal British Legion website displays a big selection of ‘Poppy Products and Merchandise’. Several dogs trot along, a small red enamel flower swinging from their collars, one with the purple flower too. The Queen, this year, wears a unique version: four red poppies over a large green leaf, pinned high, nearly over her left collarbone. The leaf is artistic, unbotanical in fact.
Not poppy nor mandragora
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.
—Iago,Othello 3, 3
Papaver rhoeas, forever a vivid flower: in Northants, Blind Eyes; Somerset, Cockeno; Cornwall, Devil’s Tongue, Somerset, Fireclout; Headache, in many counties; in Wales, llygad y bwgan, Sprite’s Eye; Poppet, in Warwickshire; in Somerset, Red Soldiers … poppies always grew among corn, for the Assyrians, ‘Daughter of the Field’, in classical Greece it was Aphrodite’s flower, in Rome, Ceres claimed it. The regional names give it away, smelling poppies caused headaches, worse, staring at them sent you blind. Children thought that picking poppies brought on a thunderstorm, the Thundercup, Thunderflower – Do I distantly remember this? And so, by sympathetic magic, poppies woven into roof thatch guard against lightning.
A female American academic, inspired by a Canadian officer’s elegiac poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, made the first commemorative red poppies, of silk, which were brought across to England by a French woman. The (Royal) British Legion, established in 1921, ordered 9 million, all sold on November 11 that year, raising £106,000. This was donated to veterans to help find work and accommodation. Early poppies were labelled at the black centre as ‘Haig’s Fund’. ‘Butcher’ Haig, a fighter, was a controversial figure, like all the High Command, and the phrase was eventually removed. It is rare to hear them called ‘Haig’s Poppies’. Mine is for the ‘Poppy Fund’.
Now it is time for the silence, two minutes that seem unending. Leaves fall onto the mass of people, the only movement. I shiver, not from the cold. A boy tugs at his mother’s sleeve, imploring. Across one hundred years, precisely, a final silence. At the Armistice negotiation in Compiègne, the German representative, a civilian, Matthias Erzberger, had suggested a cease-fire until the negotiation was concluded. Maréchal de France Ferdinand Foch declined the proposition, 5000 dying on the final morning, up until the last moment. A closure to War, no closure at all.
A bugler plays the Last Post, ‘Come to the Cookhouse Door, Boys’, fiendishly difficult, he doesn’t fluff it. Individuals representing dozens of groups and organisations present wreaths, accumulating around the base of the Memorial. They are left there for a period, I have never seen any vandalised, anywhere. The latest wide-boys, in ass-backwards baseball caps, who speed-ride too close to you on the pavement, their bikes sometimes way too small for them – even they don’t mess with the wreaths. In Smethwick, West Midlands, the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick Temple erected a 10-foot high figure of a Sikh soldier. The £30,000 bronze statue, Lions of the Great War, created by local sculptor Luke Perry, commemorated the 1.2 million soldiers of all faiths from the Indian subcontinent who had fought for Britain.
Within days it was vandalised. Police in the Smethwick Neighbourhood Team assumed this was a racially aggravated hate crime. The memorial had been sprayed with a slogan, ‘Sepoys no more’, ‘the Great War’ was obliterated, and ‘1 jarnol’ substituted, referring to a militant Sikh leader who was killed in the siege of the Amritsar Golden Temple, in 1984. These phrases could only come from within the Sikh community, not a work of random vandalism. Sikhs constituted 20 per cent of the British Indian Army, but only two per cent of the population. Militant Sikh nationalists argue for the creation of their own state, and would see the figure on the memorial as a symbol of Sikh subjection to the imperial Raj – ‘Sepoys’ were ‘troopers’, the lowest rank from the time of the British East India Company.
This midlands town is one of the most multicultural communities in Britain, and from an early date. All kinds of groups and organisations bring wreaths, laid gravely around the stone pillar. Counsellors, the police force, Girl Guides and Scouts, the NHS, the Asian community, representing, among others, the 400,000 Muslim troops who were conscripted, the Polish wreath (a large population, here), likewise the Italian contribution (the highest number of Italian immigrants in the country, the town in the third century AD a key base for imperial Rome), a Sikh in a pale red turban, the green beret Marines, and carers (my last job). We’ve often seen a group of bikers drinking outside the Hotel just along the Embankment. I’d thought they were elderly ‘Rockers’ in smart leathers, maybe. They bring up the rear of the parade, riding in formation, the Royal British Legion Riders Branch (RBLR), formed in 2004.
Finally, the homeless, some were in the forces and disabled, perhaps by PTSD – ‘shell shock’ for first-war victims. A British Legion survey found that as many as 770,000 former servicemen complain of isolation, or difficulty in maintaining relationships.In 2000, the ‘Armed Forces Covenant’ was drawn up, a single page, ‘An Enduring Covenant Between \ The People of the United Kingdom \ Her Majesty’s Government \ – and – All those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces of the Crown \ And their Families.’ Three short paragraphs of centred text make the pledge, on behalf of the Government, to members of the Armed Forces. The Preamble states:
In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service … This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier, an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history. It has perhaps its greatest manifestation in the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, when the Nation keeps covenant with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in action.
A Brigadier and other senior officers sweated over the capitalised abstractions of this text for three years – Nation, Army … Covenant. A quasi-theological, informally legalistic word, but the pledge has been used to good effect by the Royal British Legion and parliamentary Opposition to challenge questionable decisions made by the War Office.
‘Cenotaph’, empty tomb, in the classical period, a sign of assumption, apotheosis, taken, to be with the gods. Alexander the Great connived to have his own body removed from his tomb – I have become divine. Christianity creatively adopted the tradition; Mary Magdalene came ‘when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away’ (John 20:1).
Edwin Lutyens’ Whitehall Cenotaph (1919/20) was originally a temporary construction of wood and plaster, but the public demanded a permanent memorial; the result is blank, severe, mystical even. The midlands structure we look at is an elaborate statue of St George standing upon a ferocious, strangely art deco dragon, all on a pedestal and base; there is no list of names. After the ceremony, we walk around the mute pillar, reading wreath inscriptions. At each corner, a memorial guard, from each of the services, one, a young Asian woman, her L85 SA80 assault rifle, bayonet fixed, at present arms. She gazes impersonally forward, not to be engaged.
Walking along with the silent crowd, under falling yellow leaves, a slight sound of clinking medals. Their ribbons are a refined code, an artform that can be scanned. Many were given ‘just for being there’, others were earned in extremity. A West Indian woman wearing a long green coat and green beret has an impressive display, on her left lapel and green beret. They are her son’s, she tells me, serving now in Afghanistan. Is he in Camp Bastion, the largest base the British army ever built, in Helmand valley, the site that Alexander the Great, Lord of Asia, chose around 300BC, in what he called ‘the Valley of Death’?
The mass silence ends, people look at each other with a kind of relief, a weight has been lifted, the past conjured, however ineffectually. The Hotel is across the road, a veteran is playing accordion, ‘Hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line’, singing with spirit. We buy him a drink.
Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.
Note: Published to accompany Remembering no one and everyone: memory and war by Jerry Palmer.
A minor modification was made to this essay after publication to correct an editing error.