“Just wear a poppy, it’s nothing”, the headteacher said.
“If it’s nothing, why do I have to wear one then?”
One of the most striking and increasingly uncomfortable culture shock I encountered in England was the one surrounding November 11th so as they call it in England “Remembrance Day”.
Let’s start with the poppies. In November 2007, I had been in England for a bit more than a month when I started to be asked, demanded, harassed to wear a paper poppy. I didn’t know why I should but I started to feel like if I didn’t do it, something bad would happen to me. Or that I was bad myself. So I asked what the poppy was about and I was told that the poppies celebrate (?) the fallen soldiers of the battlefields of France and Belgium in WWI. Lovely but why a poppy? Because after the battle (Only one? Which one? Where?), the year after, fields were covered with poppies and that year they were redder because of the blood of the soldiers. How cute!
But that’s complete bollocks!
I am French and I never heard of that. I found out that the whole legend (yes!) is actually from a line in a poem that is read year in year out about that war then I remembered a mention of it in Sting’s Children’s Crusade too:
“Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed.”
I was happy to finally be able to explain that line to Sting-adoring mother because none of us in France has even heard of that.
Personally, I think it could be a genuinely lovely way to remember the fallen soldiers…if it hadn’t become a symbol of England’s militarism.
In 2012, 2013 and 2014, I did not wear a poppy as they appeared sooner and sooner in late October so my students would first ask me why, then tell me I just should and finally the low-educated, tabloid-reading one just stated that I was heartless, mean, cruel and uncaring for the ones who saved my country after we surrendered.
And there you have it. I was yet another “cheese-eating surrender monkey” who is too proud to be grateful that they saved my life. That’s actually what many Englanders told me. We surrended (as we always do) and they saved my life (as they always do) and that’s why I should wear a poppy. And that also says loads about the state of England’s mind-set in today’s Europe. We owe them something.
In England, I discovered Remembrance Day is not about WWI anymore. Well, it’s not only about WWI but it’s definitely not about remembering the horrors of the war like we do in France. When I talked about the differences between the two days in France and England, I discovered how little they knew about the war itself, how little they were made to understand the reality of the front. That’s because Remembrance Day has become a moment to “remember all soldiers that died for the country” and the poppies are “to show respect to all soldiers that died for the country”. The day and the flower have become terribly heavily emotionally charged. And the fact that the money you spent to get the poppy goes to army charities is making it virtually impossible not to wear one. This is a symbol anymore, this is a sign. Wearing it shows something about you as person.
Everyone on TV from presenters to guests, whence-ever they are coming, to members of audience or the crew…even animals on their collars have to wear one or the network will face with thousands, hundreds of thousands of aggressive, threatening complains from viewers. Before, you had to wear one on the day itself but now, within a couple of years, it has changed and you have to wear one for the entire week before too.
I lost count of the times I was heckled, shouted at, called a “foreign cunt” and told to “go back to my fucking country” as I was not wearing one because I was “showing disrespect to the UK.” I was even once called into the headteacher’s office because some parents complained that I wasn’t wearing one. Three of my family members fought to death during WWI so a stranger can call me a “French twat” for not wearing a piece of paper.
The poppies and Remembrance day have lost their meaning because they have been used and abused. They have become something religious you have to abide by, no one really knows why but there is some kind of morale, and physical something, pressure to do it.
I began to wonder: why has something so pretty as a poetic metaphor as the poppy to remember the dead become such a commercial, patriotic whip to sort out the good and bad among people?
Since 1945, the UK and the US have been seeing themselves as the world peace-holders which, oddly, means that they have been hawking and going to war everywhere in the world, with a wide degree of success but mainly, failures. Expect for the Falklands and the Korean war, the two countries cannot boast any actual victory.
However, today, the UK is facing with greater difficulties making itself heard throughout the world, with greater challenges to the world order they established in 1945, with greater dissent to which they always respond with mention of The War. “We saved you from the Nazis!” Like every former hegemonic power which defined its position in the world by war but is now struggling, the UK’s psyche has become extremely militaristic as they go back to what made them powerful and they endlessly reminisce on a glorious past full of victories. It’s been over 60 years but they still mention The War, even though very little can actually talk about it.
England has been at war virtually non-stop since 1945 but its attitude has not changed towards it: it still sees war as a positive force. Only violence, threats and intimidation will get you somewhere. It also rules its idea of capitalism, burning and harming everything in sight. However, it was easy up to the late 20th century to just say war is good because it makes powerful but today how do you make death acceptable? We found “collateral damage” to justify the murder of civilians (so that’s dealt with!) but how do you bring a population to accept its own men and women to die in foreign land? If war is good, it should not be source of such much pain for us, people think.
So you have to rise war and the army to some kind of new religion: you don’t question its premise, you don’t disagree with its servants and you make martyrs the ones who fell as they were fighting for it. The pain is for greater good.
How do you make it mainstream? That’s when war propaganda gets in the pictures. In England, it is working full-blast and, unfortunately, since 2007, Remembrance Day and the poppies have become pillars of war propaganda along with the whole rhetoric:
*They are providing dictators with weapons and money yet, all the wars fought by the US and the UK are in the name of “freedom” and “liberty”, against “oppressive regimes” who are “killing innocent people”.
*Open the tabloids and you will find that other countries’ soldiers are called “soldiers” whereas anyone fighting for England is a “hero”.
*Showing respect for the heroes who died is showing respect for your country. “Showing”, we said, display it, make it obvious. Being silence for a minute or three is not enough, we want red on collar.
“Poppies for our heroes” is all over the newspapers, TV and traditional media outlets because it is what Remembrance is all about nowadays and what the huge display at the Tower of London is all about (they are actually going “on tour”, by the way).
War will save you, fighting it will deify you, supporting it will absolve you from being a coward so wear the freaking poppy!
In England, the army has become a religion and all soldiers are role-models. Even the Secretary for Education said that the only way to restore discipline in schools was to allow “our heroes” to teach without any degree or qualification. In the English mind-set, being soldier puts you above, makes you god-like. They are never wrong, the reality of the army and their behaviour is chocked by the rising of soldiers to example of selflessness, courage, strength and devotion. They will fight for the great and the good against the evil, they are the keepers of our democracy, they will make us, the country proud. If only we could all be like them.
Talk to people in England about the wars they are religiously remembering on that day and they will not be able to distinguish WWI from WWII, they think the French lost both, that Hitler started both, that the European Union is responsible (true story), they mistake Iraq, Iran and Israel. The kids do not know much about WWI or WWII, just that England won and all soldiers were heroes and that’s all that matters because propaganda is not about facts, it’s about hammering, emotions and symbolism.
The English are behaving with war like a lot of Christians still do with their religion: they don’t really know what is about but were told to believe in God, go to church, believe the priest, do as he says and give money to the institution. Mostly, it’s about showing that you believe, the church don’t care if you do, what they want is you to show it, to display signs of belief. Poppies are now the sign of belief in the army and the war in England.
In France, November 11th is to actually remember the people who died but also why. It is a private matter because it’s mourning at the end of the day so you don’t do ostentatious. Black is the colour and there is no need for more symbolism, death in itself is enough. Some visit and clean graves of people who died. Many never found bodies at the time so every city, every town, every village has a cenotaph in its centre to the Unknown Soldier. In Paris, an unknown soldier was actually buried under the Arc de Triomphe where the president will display a wreath. Because it is also bank holiday, which it is not in England. I always liked to point that out to the students who liked to say that the French were all bastards that did not care. “We care enough to actually allow people to get off work so we can mourn and remember. Unlike you”. They hated it but that shut them up.
Seriously, this is a very important day in our calendar but like Germany or Belgium, we have a different thinking. When it comes to war in general, we hardly see it as a positive force, we are weary of it. I think it’s because we know the price of defeat. When you only have bleak outlook, it’s easier to reflect and ask yourself: What is the point?
But also, we are conditioned to look at it with care. When I was a child, we looked at images of war propaganda, analysed them and looked at them for what they are, saw the message behind them and were told to be careful with messages of blind faith towards something. We study WWI and WWII at length in school. It used to be about dates but now that many letters, journals and written testimonies found then hidden or censored by the state at the time are coming out, we see the war for what it really is: not this sexy, attractive, manly idea of brotherhood and fighting with pride like the propaganda has always tried to make it look like.
When I was at school we had two very old men talking to us about what they had experienced in the trenches of Verdun and the fields of Somme. They were not soldiers, they were forced to be. They told us how they were just like us but one day the army would barge in their classroom or bedroom to take them away because they were 14 or 15 and “France needs you”. We were silent, no attempt to be funny or clever, we asked questions if we were interested, remain mute if we were not because we felt the solemn of the occasion.
They told us about the reality behind the posters we see in the books of tall, strong soldiers in glittering uniform fighting in the sunset; or the articles in the newspaper mentioning how many German soldiers were killed by the great French army that day.
In France, at school, prior to November 11th, we remembered the Battle of Verdun, for instance, where French and German soldiers lived for month in narrow, two meters trenches they dug themselves in the fields, sleeping in the mud and cold water next to the corpses of other soldiers who had been blown in half by lone grenades or sudden attacks in the middle of night. We hear about the soldiers alone, far from their loved ones, surviving without clean water, with barely any food and plagued by Spanish Flu. We read their anguished letters revealing human beings far away from the strong men on the posters, rather men scared, frightened, that cried every night, killed themselves and begged their family to get them out of her. We talked about how they would go to prison and maybe get shot to be made an example of in they ran away or refused to go to the front.
We saw pictures of them: kids like us, young men like our fathers, we see the mutilations, the bodies deformed, hurt by the explosives. We see the agonising pain on the face of the ones who inhaled mustard gas, their body covered in blackened blisters that leaked pus and blood. It was not about glorifying them, stripping of the humanity like they do all too often in England but showing human beings torn apart by the war. We are made to remember that it must never happen again.
The Battle of Verdun lasted more than 9 months and every single family in France has someone who fought or even died in that battle. In my family, three people died in the mountains of Jura during the war. Up to 542,000 French soldiers and 434,000 German soldiers died in Verdun alone. In nine months. That’s up to 3400 every single day!
We could be proud of that battle, we could picture it in endless films showing the bravery of soldiers fighting for their motherland but history is not made of pretty stories to emulate people or make a country feel better about itself. The truth we learn is that battles like this are useless butchery where innocent men, sons, brothers, fathers, 16-year-old boys are used by the army and are made to kill each other in the name of nationalism, for purposes they know nothing about.
These men, not soldiers, but simple everyday men who were forced to be soldiers for four years were all telling us that they had no idea why they had to fight. They were told the Germans were evil and they had to be killed because they were evil Germans, end of but then the Germans they encountered turned out to be just like them, as human, scared and fragile as they were. We are taught to see the similar patterns in the Middle East today where propaganda attracts young Muslims to “fight for their faith” just to realise once they arrive there that they are actually nothing but canon food for extremists who have ulterior motives.
November 11th in France, Germany, Belgium and all countries on the continent that had to suffer from it is made to avoid this happening again. We are showing the kids how far hatred, xenophobia and autocratic despotism can go in brutality. I always felt this cultural shock between war-going England that encourages people to support war and us, in Europe, trying to learn lessons from millenniums of aiming to crush each other dead.
This is what the European Union with all its flaws and problems is built on: the blood of the innocent men who died because leaders wanted pay back and revenge which they justify under patriotism and the religion of war as a mean to solve problems. Which England still believes in.
“Just wear one to show that you gave money”, the headteacher also said, trying to appeal to some kind of common sense that was foreign to me. I told him I was not the kind to fake cough when putting £10 in the basket at church so everyone could see it. I told him I would wear it if it meant something to me because it still means something to people and wearing for the sake of it would be insulting. I told him I was sending money to France every year to pay for some flowers we put on graves every year. That shut him up. Not the parents or the kids, but he did not come back to pressure me with that travesty.
In seven years, I never wore a poppy.