Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.

96 Years On: the Battle of Gheluvelt

96 years after it ended, the Battle of Gheluvelt has hit the news on BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show, Today.

An army map of the Battle of Gheluvelt, October 1914. British army positions in red, German attacking battalions in green.

It is October 31st 1914 and the German advance across Belgium towards France presses on, reaching the village of Gheluvelt on the outskirts of the town of Ypres. There, soldiers of the Worcestershire regiment reinforce a small group of South Wales Borderers at the Gheluvelt Chateau. Their mission is to stop the German advance at all costs: they succeed, but lose many lives in the process.

The Battle of Gheluvelt is significant as the nearest that the German army would come to breaking through Allied lines at Ypres until 1918. At Gheluvelt, a well organised and brave counter-attack by the Worcesters pushed the attacking Germans back. The town of Ypres would become a bloody crater over the next four years of war; but it never again would be so near to being overran.

At Gheluvelt 354 men of the Worcestershire regiment charged the advancing German troops (more than three times their number) by running across open ground with bayonets fixed while under machine gun fire. A third of the Worcesters died in the counter-attack, but they managed to repel the German push.

Gheluvelt, October 31st, 1914.

You can read about this action at the very beginning of the First World War on Today‘s website. You can find a detailed account of the Battle of Gheluvelt on the Worcestershire Regimental Museum webpage; and how the battle is memorialised through the town of Worcester’s own Gheluvelt Park.

Phil Mackie, the article’s author, writes that the Battle of Gheluvelt is today largely forgotten. I’m not sure I buy that: the First Battle of Ypres, of which the Battle of Gheluvelt is a part, is not a neglected action, at least by those who are interested in the history of World War One.

Gheluvelt was however a dynamic and heroic counter-attack: and indeed Mackie reasons that this may be why most people have not heard of it, despite its strategic importance. The stories we tend to tell about World War One are trench-siege horrors, not dashing actions across open ground, he argues. True: but the brutal history of the four years to follow, and the millions of dead, will tend to push even the most heroic action into the footnotes of history.

Still, it’s nice to see this story of extraordinary bravery get a wider audience.

Rupert Brooke resources

Brooke is not a fashionable poet, however. Let’s stop to think about why.

W.B. Yeats, perhaps the greatest of all Irish poets, once said something scandalous about Wilfred Owen. Yeats left Owen out of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse that he compiled in 1935, because he disliked what he saw as Owen’s mix of grim realism and sentimentality. Yeats declared that Owen was “all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick”. He also said that Owen’s poetry was poor because it described the “passive” suffering of soldiers. Owen was, in effect, in love with miserable agony. As disappointing as such an opinion is, it’s cheering, I think, to find that even geniuses are capable of the odd critical slip-up, here and there. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century, was also turned down for an academic post once because he misspelt the word ‘professor’ on his application.

Rupert Brooke made it into Yeats’ anthology, however. His poetry chimed with the older man, who even before the First World War had admitted the young poet into his circle of friends.

Today, it might seem baffling that Owen would get the boot, and Brooke find inclusion. Brooke can seem, by comparison with Owen, all sucked sugar stick– without even the blood and dirt.

The truth is, something happened, something fundamental changed about the Western world between 1914 and 1918. It didn’t leave Brooke’s world behind– his brand of intense patriotism and fellow-feeling was and remains popular. A century of well-reported technological mass warfare, however, has meant most people’s feelings about war and patriotism today are inevitably more guarded and ambivalent than the sentiments we find in Brooke’s emotive poetry. The sympathies of those living in the second half of the twentieth century have mostly been with Owen’s coughing and disabled soldiers, rather than Brooke’s dutiful and sainted dead.

Knowing this however, the worst thing to do  would be dismiss Brooke and his work. This is a thing you have to be careful about as a reader and critic: sometimes you’ll miss what others love about a writer because of your own attitude or prejudices.

What is clear about Brooke is that he is part of a long, long tradition of poets who see war as the ultimate testing ground for young men. He is a poet who reflects many of the attitudes of his time– of his class, his nation, men in general– and who continues to speak for some today. His poems have fine heights (“If I should die…”) to match queasy lows (his talk of “sick hearts” and “half-men”). He remains well worth reading.

Looking online, there is a thoughtful short page on Rupert Brooke’s life and achievement at Harry Rusche’s Lost Poets website: the critical perspective on Brooke that you can find there from Charles Sorely is very interesting.

Another biographical sketch can be found here, looking at the ‘doomed’ life of Brooke and his method of composing his poems.

That excellent WWI resource, The First World War Digital Archive has a brief bio and links to a number of Brooke’s poems, annotated.

There’s a neat little webpage about Brooke’s grave on the Greek island of Skyros that gives lots of interesting information about his life and death.

To see another side of Brooke, check out the Guardian Books Blog entry about his poem ‘Heaven’– included on the page– an amusing poem about where fish may go when they die.

Finally, you can find online a copy of Rupert Brooke’s obituary in The Times— written by none other than Winston Churchill.

Thomas Hardy Resources- and a boring pep talk

As we move along I’ll be posting some links to online resources on the poets that we study. Why? Well, the first rule about becoming an A-level student is: if you want to succeed, you better study independently. Read about your subject on your own time.

Get to know writers and what other people think of them. Believe it or not, your ideas about literature probably aren’t unique– someone will often have written similar opinions to your own about this or that writer or poem before. Don’t despair  that you’re not  a total original, though. The truth is, no-one is. Moreover, those people who beat you to publication are in fact your friends when you enter a literary debate; they’re on your side. Quote them!

Even better, there’ll be people whose ideas about literature are completely different from you. These are the really interesting articles to read. Some arguments will seem so unbelievably stupid to you that you’ll want to scream while you read, ‘you’re a moron!’. Others will seem odd or irrelevant or just plain wrong. But some of these arguments, even although you don’t agree with them, will stick with you, like a bit of grit in your shoe. You’ll find yourself thinking about them– either deciding just exactly why your original rejection was correct or, against your own will sometimes, seeing the other’s point of view.

The thing is that changing your mind about books or poems is a good thing. It shows mental flexibility. It means you’re learning, broadening your horizons.

So the first rule of becoming an A-level student is independent study. Here’s the second: ‘independent study’ does not mean ‘looking things up on Wikipedia’. Sure, Wikipedia is useful. It’s an amazing resource. Go have  a look. Use it as your first port of call, if you like. But Wikipedia can be boring, badly written and wrong. It’s a collaborative encyclopedia– not always a place for interesting points of view. You’ve got to spend time finding the kind of critical voices that I’ve already talked about: this turns you from being a mere fact-checker to a literary student, involved in debates. So: no links to Wikipedia from here, I’m afraid!

Anyway. The first of the poets represented in our selection is Thomas Hardy– a writer  better known today for his novels than the poetry he produced later on in his life. GCSE students, though, will probably be familiar with his war poem ‘The Man He Killed’; while A-level students might know novels like ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ better. As a much respected novelist and poet, his life and works are well represented on the net, and you can find some excellent stuff about him online. I’ll update as and when I find good sites or essays, but to start with, you might want to look here. Both these sites have compendious links to decent sources on Hardy:

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/index.html

http://www.literaryhistory.com/19thC/HARDY.htm

Happy hunting!