09 November, 2011

The British and the Poppy

On the college trip to Paris last weekend, the first weekend in November, it was easy to spot English people as many wore an artificial poppy whereas the French did not. It was curious to reflect on why the French never adopted the custom as thousands of each country’s soldiers were slaughtered in the four and a quarter years of the First World War for what seems, retrospectively, the most inane of reasons.

The British have long had the custom of wearing a poppy in the week leading up to ‘Remembrance Day’, the 11th of November. You can’t go anywhere in central London without a volunteer poppy seller politely encouraging you to donate money and to wear a poppy in remembrance. Yet the poppy-free French suffered  much more than  the English during the war. The stalemated western front, defined by miles and miles of trenches from the Belgian to the Swiss borders, pockmarked with millions of shell holes and destroyed property was mostly in France. Second, mortality was higher amongst the French, both military and civilian. Indeed so high was French mortality and so bleak were prospects of peace that there was serious insubordination amongst the ‘poilus’ [French soldiers], a situation not dissimilar to the reason why first Russia in 1917 and then Germany in 1918, withdrew. Hence, the ‘revanchist’ peace, the ruthlessness of the French seeking their pound of flesh - and more- at the Versailles Conference in 1919.

There are three answers to the mini puzzle. First, the British manned the northern sector of the front, including the wet lowlands  of Belgium, as it  was closer to their critical supply lines at the             channel ports. Second, poppies grew out of the fertile, churned up land on  this front. And third, it was a Canadian poet/soldier, John McCrae, who in 1915 wrote the immortal and moving poem that so many British and Commonwealth children used to memorise at school, ‘In Flanders Fields.’ The French were unlikely to adopt a symbol that had anglo-saxon scribbled all over it.

Here is McCrae’s poem, written after the death of a close friend, a 22 year old Lieutenant in the Canadian army, one of over a million useless deaths of the war.

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 amongst the guns below.
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.
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The first two stanzas are pacifist in tone, but not the third. McCrae died in January 1918, a victim of pneumonia.

This Sunday, Whitehall will be closed off for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony held at the Cenotaph. We are asked to respect the moment of silence at 11 o’clock of the 11th day in the 11th month of the year.

-Bill

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