Sunday, 12 November 2017

Poppies, my family and me

I am not, and never have been, a regular poppy wearer. It is not an issue over which I get on my high horse, though Stuart may beg to differ. Whether or not to wear a poppy should always be a free choice, otherwise it undermines the whole concept of 'fighting for democracy'.

And, on the whole, it is a free choice. I cannot recall any occasion over the last sixty-odd years when I have been admonished for NOT wearing a poppy. People generally accept that one may have reasons for one's decisions.

What is slightly odd, however, is that no other charity is given the same status. People in authority or public organisations like the BBC do not insist that their employees wear Red Cross emblems, Oxfam stickers or any other outward signs of charitable giving. I am supportive of the charitable work of the Poppy Fund, though I think it should be carried out by the state for whom these soldiers fought. However, it is not this charitable activity which is behind the expectation of conformity. It is more a public recognition of the military aims and status of our armed services, evident in the ceremonies associated with it, in particular those supported by our establishment figures and organisations. And that is where I diverge from the commonly held view.

Most of us will have particular political or social reasons for wearing or not wearing a poppy. We will also have reasons based on our own family's involvement or otherwise in previous wars. This post is about my personal reasons for not wearing a poppy. I entirely understand and respect those who hold a different view. It is just that their history and background are different from mine.

Most educated people have known for decades that the war from which poppy wearing originates, the first world war, was unnecessary and destroyed a whole generation of young people. It was a war among European nations over which was the pre-eminent colonial power, indeed, who should take the lion's share in carving up Africa and removing its resources. Each of these nations was prepared not only to sacrifice its own young people, but, unforgiveably, to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of men from faraway continents for whom the conflict was totally irrelevant but who, nevertheless, were expected to die for it. And so they did, in enormous numbers. Why on earth were local people in Nyasaland (Malawi) expected to fight local people in Tangyangyika (Tanzania) about whether Germany or Britain should claim ownership of their countries? Why were the deaths considered noble rather than an immoral and terrible waste of life?

For almost a hundred years, we have been expected to  wear poppies commemorating this conflict and its pointless slaughter. The Poppy Fund was even named after the butcher-in-chief, Earl Haig, although it changed its name a decade or so ago when it was clear that its name was discouraging potential donors. However, beyond these anti-colonial views, I have very personal reasons for not wearing a poppy.

My maternal grandfather and all his siblings were conscientious objectors during the first world war. They refused to fight, citing religious reasons when they appeared before the tribunal. They took seriously the Christian injunction against killing others, the belief that God is Love and the commitment to turn the other cheek. Naive, you might say, in a world where European nations were intent on tearing each other apart. They were not prepared to swallow the jingoistic public narrative.

Because of his principled stance, my grandfather was handed white feathers in the street by non-combatant women who gloried in the prospect of sending other people to their deaths. My great uncles became stretcher bearers on the front, and reported that once conscientious objectors were in uniform, they could have guns thrust into their hands and be told to fight or be shot themselves.

My family's pacifism and anti-militarism remained uncompromising even after the war was over, which could make it difficult for their children. My mother recalled her father forbidding her to dress up as a toy soldier for a school Christmas party as her class had been instructed, but being sent along all the same - trivial but humiliating as the only child not to conform. It seems unnecessarily harsh these days, but if you have argued your case in front of a tribunal, soldiering can never become a game, even toy soldiering. It goes without saying, that none of the family ever wore a poppy. For them it was representative of warmongering and the destruction of young lives for no acceptable reason.

In the period leading up to the second world war, my mother's family were acutely aware of the rise of fascism in Britain, in Germany and beyond - much like today. They had German and Austrian friends. They helped to run a centre for refugees: Jews, socialists and members of the Confessing Church. They welcomed refugees from Germany and Austria into their home and provided them with lodgings. Many became personal friends, though contact was lost when these refugees were subsequently arrested and interned. My family belonged to the Peace Pledge Union and opposed the cruel blockade of Germany and demand for financial reparation which resulted in famine and malnutrition among German and Austrian children. They were appalled by increasing militarisation, recognising its orgins in the way we British and our allies had treated defeated countries at the end of the previous war.

During the second world war, as you would expect, my family were all called up and again appeared before the tribunal. My mother was able to complete her university education and enter teaching, a reserved occupation. My aunt and uncle worked on the land.

During the war, the family continued to provide welfare services to local communities. My grandfather, partner in a City accountancy firm, was also minister of the Baptist Church in Poplar, in the East London docklands area, providing support to local people during the Blitz. Trapped by a bombing raid during one Sunday evening service, they dragged the pews against the walls and lay under them all night. They emerged in the morning to find that it was the only building left standing. They themselves were bombed out of their south London home and moved to Biggin Hill. My mother moved to central London to teach, spending her nights on fire watch.

Now, I am not saying that any of this was 'as bad' as the experiences of those in the trenches during the first world war or at Dunkirk or in Japanese prison camps during the second. What I am saying is that they thought deeply about the views they adopted and took practical action which exemplified their beliefs. They took unpopular positions which made social relationships with other members of the community difficult for them. In some respects, and you might well disagree, it would have been easier to have gone along with what was expected.

Towards the end of the war, my mother married my father, also a conscientious objector, a teacher and an ordained Baptist minister. My paternal grandfather never forgave my father for his pacifism. Before they met, my parents had, separately, applied for the mission field. They had to wait until the war was over to go out to India as missionaries had to travel on troop ships, the only transport available. To travel on a troop ship, one had to serve as chaplain, which my father refused to do. He did not believe that one should 'bless' soldiers who were going off to kill people. You could argue that this was an unnecessarily obstinate position to take. However, when taking a moral stance, even small concessions may seem unacceptable.

It is interesting how my father's views changed over subsequent years. After his retirement and long after I had left home, he did actually take up a post as chaplain to RAF Finningley. I think this fact is important. People's views change They respond to circumstances. That is as it should be. I would be more worried if people's beliefs stayed the same over their lifetimes. Still, I found it surprising given my childhood.

It was in India and immediately after the war that my parents' anti-militaristic views consolidated. During the war, India had suffered intolerably from Britain's arrogant colonialism. Three million Bengalis died during the 1942-43 famine because Churchill, renowned for his contempt for Indians, diverted Indian grain to British forces. The government prioritised British military and defence needs over those of the Indian rural poor who had actually grown the crops. They impounded and even destroyed the rice grown around the Bay of Bengal and the boats which could have been used to bring in supplies. Available food and medical care were directed towards allied troops, labourers in military industries, and civil servants. The War Cabinet refused to import emergency relief aid despite offers of help from other countries. The starving population succumbed easily to smallpox, malaria and dysentary. 150,000 refugees flocked into Calcutta alone, and corpses were left unburied. The starving population were literally left naked as Indian textiles were also diverted to the British army. From the first years they entered India, the British regarded it as a source of natural resources to be plundered, without concern for the needs of its citizens. The same was true of other colonies.

Support for the Congress party and the Quit India campaign was, not surprisingly, fuelled by the famine. The British responded with public floggings and imprisonment. Soldiers torched rural villages. Winston Churchill, adulated in Britain, was loathed in India. My parents hated him. Don't believe those who would persuade you of the benign nature of colonialism and the essentially positive impact of Britain on the countries it ruled. 

In 1939, 200,000 Indian soldiers were brought into Britain's military campaign against the Axis. By the end of the war, two and a half million soldiers from the Raj had been involved and 89,000 Indian soldiers died fighting for 'democracy' in Europe. India itself, of course, was not allowed democracy. Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian army said the British "couldn't have come through both wars if they hadn't had the Indian Army." That story of unredeemed sacrifice was repeated in many other countries of the British Empire. Caribbean troops fought and died in their thousands, but the British wouldn't even offer lodgings to them when they came across to work in our public services. Only in the last couple of years have Remembrance services begun to recognise the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers to Britain's war efforts. The first memorials have only just started to be erected.

My parents loathed colonialism and the military system which supported it. They loathed the Raj and the arrogance, racism and snobbery of British colonial and military officers and their wives. There were good reasons why they did not wear a poppy.

Back in post-war Britain, however, poppy wearing was de rigeur. However,  my mother, having experienced the humiliation and isolation of her own parents' stance, allowed us to buy poppies to wear at school, even though they didn't wear them themselves. The fifties were a period of great conformity. Our family was different enough from the norm already. It was surprising what concessions my parents did make to convention, to enable us 'to belong'.  I even have happy memories of church parades, carrying the Brownie pennant to the sound of Pomp and Circumstance!

Britain carried on fighting in one foreign country after another long after 1945. Our military forces have propped up British colonies across the world, imprisoning, torturing and executing hundreds of thousands who dared to claim the right to self determination. We fought in Korea and elsewhere in South East Asia. I am sure I am not the only viewer of the recent serial The Last Post, who asked themselves, 'What on earth were the British doing in Yemen?'. Securing our oil supplies, of course.

Now I accept that there have been a few occasions on which our troops have been used effectively in support of a genuinely worthwhile cause: in Sierra Leone for example, in the former Yugoslavia and during other peace-keeping activities. However, more often than not, we have meddled, as in Iraq, with terrible results.

As an adult who, unlike my parents, has been distanced from conflict as have most of my generation, I can now separate wearing a poppy in recognition of the sacrifice of individual soldiers, from public support for colonial and military action.

Yet I have a great deal of respect for the positions my family took on what were to them very challenging issues, and admire them for it. My more conflicted views are my own. Some of their decisions might not have been my decisions, although they have had an immeasurable influence on me, as you would expect. I honestly do not know how I would have reacted if called up in 1939, but I might not have taken the decisions my parents did.

That family inheritance is part of me, however, as the poppywearing of my friends is part of them.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Choosing how, what and whether to remember

Recalling past wars: reflection or recrimination?

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