WHEN THEY CAME HOME at the end of the First World War, many ex-servicemen faced poverty and unemployment, and their anger led to civil unrest.
On Peace Day 1919, Luton Town Hall was burned to the ground. Indeed the Summer of 1919 is now known to some historians as Britain’s ‘Red Summer’, as the unrest was so great the government feared ‘Communist agitation’ might be at work. Three veterans’ organisations were formed and became politically active.
But if the British Establishment has a genius, it is surely its ability to subsume anything that is potentially destabilising. Earl Haig, whilst agreeing that an organisation to represent veterans’ interests was needed, refused to work with any of the existing groups separately. Following protracted negotiations, by May 1921 the discontented veterans had been amalgamated with The Officers’ Club to form the Royal British Legion (RBL), with Haig as President and the Prince of Wales as Patron. A potential threat to the established order became a bulwark of its continuing existence.
Arguably, this process was mirrored in the way Remembrance evolved. As Frank Cottrell-Boyce explained in his radio documentary God and the Great War, the first memorials to the fallen were spontaneous, grassroots street shrines, springing from the personal grief of the bereaved. But whilst they met the need for heartfelt remembrance, these street shrines attracted criticism and disapproval in some quarters. The Protestant Truth Society, for instance, vehemently objected to them as a form of ‘Popish superstition’. When the war was over, Earl Haig, having commanded the troops on the battlefields began, as the RBL says, ‘helping to shape modern Remembrance’: a Remembrance perhaps more attuned to English sensibilities.
As the number of living military veterans in Britain declines, Remembrance has continued to evolve. In recent years, whether to boost fundraising or as a way of drawing together an increasingly fragmented society around a unifying story, the traditionally sombre and discreet practice of Remembrance has become more commercialised and part of popular culture. This may have reached its peak (or nadir) with ‘poppy’ pepperoni pizzas.
What has been included in official Remembrance, and what has been left out, is also interesting. There has been surprisingly little focus on the over 43,500 men, women and children killed in the Blitz – particularly surprising as the ‘Blitz spirit’ is now so often invoked, usually by people who did not experience that terrifying bombardment. Perhaps a focus on civilian dead would increase awareness that in modern wars civilians may suffer as much, if not more, than military personnel, which undermines the notion of dying in war as a noble sacrifice.
Another omission from our official Remembrance has been the appalling exclusion of Empire soldiers who fought on behalf of the ‘mother country’. Only this year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission revealed that hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern First World War casualties who fought for Britain may not be commemorated by name, or even at all. This emerged after an inquiry prompted by David Lammy MP’s 2019 documentary, Unremembered.
Whilst our cultural focus is on the two world wars, most British veterans alive today will have served in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq or Afghanistan – conflicts with a far less unifying narrative. Perhaps this is why remembering the ‘Great War’ and the war against Hitler seems to have become so much more intense in recent years. Without the relative moral simplicity of those wars, we are left with the messy and controversial reality of modern conflict.
Honouring the dead is an easy obligation for a nation to meet. Caring for the survivors who have been damaged by war is another matter. And whilst the British state is keen to do the former, there are some shocking failures in the latter. For instance, in September this year it was announced that the government “will start officially counting veteran suicides in order to better target support for those in need.”
Hang on – shouldn’t this have happened long ago? How can a country ask people to put their lives on the line, risking physical and mental trauma, then take so little interest in what happens to them afterwards?
It also seems remarkable that there are currently 1,843 armed forces charities in the UK, which by my calculations means there is one charity for every 86 people currently serving. No doubt those charities do good work, but one can’t help thinking there may be some duplication of effort or expense. And doesn’t it indicate an abdication of responsibility on the part of the state? Surely it would be more efficient, and respectful, for the state to make proper provision to support serving personnel and veterans as a right, rather than wait for them to experience problems and then signpost them to a charity?
In recent days, the Peace Pledge Union has been attacked on social media for ‘taking money away from our veterans’ through the sale of white poppies. (Whilst red poppies commemorate only British military dead, white poppies commemorate all victims of war, with the proceeds going to peace education.) The entire annual turnover of the PPU is probably comparable to the CEO salary of one large charity. But this strongly held feeling, that white poppy sales could actually make a material difference, and deprive veterans of the support they need, is indicative of a huge problem, and actually quite tragic.
In the context of the biggest rise in military spending since the Cold War, it seems shameful that some military veterans and their supporters can still feel that their future wellbeing may depend on the number of red poppies sold outside their local supermarket. Surely our veterans deserve much, much better than this?
And when the state fails to make proper provision for veterans, there is a danger it can fuel an ugly politics. A politics which demonises asylum seekers and demands cuts to overseas aid, because people have been led to believe that ‘we can’t afford to look after our own, even our veterans’. The truth is that we can afford it, the government just makes a political choice not to do it.
Meanwhile, Conservative MPs were reported as saying that Boris Johnson’s popularity could soar if he engineered ‘a Falklands moment’ in a fishing dispute with France. This careless invocation of a conflict which left 907 families grieving, as a tool for boosting political popularity, makes the case for peace education as eloquently as the PPU ever could.
As we in the UK learn more about our colonial past and about the terrible fate of civilians in conflict, and as humanity faces together the existential threat of the climate crisis, from which no borders or armies can protect us, the message of the white poppy ‘Remember Them All’, seems increasingly relevant. For as Pope Francis says, we need to learn from history in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, and as the inspiration for present and future decisions to promote peace, because: “Every war is a form of fratricide that destroys the human family’s innate vocation to brotherhood.”
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden