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A War Christmas: What Exactly Are We Remembering?

Otto English explores how Remembrance Sunday has been commercialised and weaponised to feed hollow national myths

A red poppy fund raiser Royal British Legion appeal on top of red postal boxes with knitted tommy and helmet in October 2021. Photo: Paul Gorvett/Alamy

A War ChristmasWhat Exactly Are We Remembering?

Otto English explores how Remembrance Sunday has been commercialised and weaponised to feed hollow national myths

On the green in the Essex village where I grew up, there is a monument, like the thousands of others that dot Britain, bearing the names of those who died fighting in both world wars. 

Remembrance Sunday didn’t mean much to me in early childhood, as I stood on that patch of grass in the chill November wind, while a local child played the Last Post badly on his bugle. It was just one of those events, like Christmas and Harvest Festival, which dotted the calendar. 

As I grew older, I became increasingly struck by quite how long the list of names was, for such a small village, and just how familiar so many of those surnames were. I might never have known the dead, but I had grown up knowing their widows, children, brothers, sisters and cousins. These were the families in our community whose loved ones had marched off to war, never to return.

Well into the 1980s, millions of British people had lived experience of the wars. Most of us knew someone who had been there and, in many cases, they were parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents. Those numbers have now dwindled. 

The last ‘Fighting Tommy’ of the First World War, Harry Patch, died in 2009. A very small number of super-centenarians alive today were small children in 1918, but those people apart, nobody can recall the Great War now. An estimated 100,000 people are still alive who played an active role in the Second World War but their numbers too are declining and you would have to be 85 plus to have any memory of the events of 1939 onwards and well over 90 to have participated in it. 

The time is not so very far off when there will be no one left who can actually remember any of it – let alone the people who died. 

I was back at that Essex village last week for remembrance of another kind. My 91-year-old uncle, who spent his own wartime childhood as a refugee on the other side of the Atlantic, died in the summer and my extended family gathered to pay tribute to him.

Afterwards, with time to kill before an evening dinner, I wandered into a supermarket in Harlow. Just inside the sliding doors, someone had laid out a table with a printed silhouette of First World War soldiers, heads bowed, marching above the legend “lest we forget”. Manning the stand, was a dead-eyed mannequin, covered neck-to-toes in poppies and topped off with a plastic helmet.

The display in Harlow’s Sainsbury’s. Photo: Otto English

There was something comical about it all. Nobody could have looked at this ‘poppy monster’ and thought ‘now there’s an appropriate tribute to the fallen’. It was weirdly reminiscent of the sort of thing made by cargo cults in the islands of Melanesia in the post-war era. And perhaps with good reason because, as actual memories of war and the people who died in them fade, Britain’s collective fetishisation of war has become something very much akin to a faith. 

‘War Christmas’ now runs from late October through to Remembrance Sunday and, if you want to celebrate in style, there’s all sorts of festive stuff you can buy. 

There are ‘remembrance cards’ that you can send to friends to wish them a Happy Poppymas and commemorative coins ‘blasted with the sand of the Dunkirk beaches’ that you can rub gently, perhaps, in the hope of summoning up its spirit. Football clubs sell poppy badges with their team logos on them. Some people deck their homes in cardboard tanks and lights (as catalogued by the twitter handle @giantpoppywatch). Amazon heaves with poppy brooches, tie-pins and cufflinks – many of them clearly not associated with the official Royal British Legion campaign. And, while the Legion, as a charity, undoubtedly does good work, its website is frankly awash with ghastly commercial poppy offerings that have little to do with the poem and the carnage and the sense of mass collective loss that inspired the symbol. 

Where once there was a choice of a paper poppy with or without a leaf, there are now poppy hair ties, watches, keyrings, coin purses, tea towels, rucksacks, handbags, ear-rings and – inevitably perhaps – face masks.

Alongside this commercialisation, there has been a slow-burning weaponisation of remembrance. You would have to be very brave indeed to appear on TV without a poppy in your lapel in 2021: wearing one is not really a choice for a public figure. Drop it or forget it and you will be trolled to within an inch of your life online. It has become less an act of remembrance and more a badge of loyalty to the tribe. Right-wing pundits on GB News have proudly been sporting theirs, even as they discuss whether it would be a good idea to go to war with France. 

For the best part of a decade, their fellow presenter, the High Priest of Brexit, Nigel Farage, has made a big deal of thrusting himself to the forefront of all things remembrance and this year has been no exception. He has done almost as much to diminish remembrance as he has to the reputation of this country.

On 4 November, he took GB News cameras down to a stand in Chelsea and ended up behind it, rattling the tin. The uncomfortable participation of Britain’s best-known right-wing nationalist politician, prompted the Royal British Legion to repeatedly put out a statement on Twitter saying that they were aware of it but that: “This visit was not on behalf of or organised by RBL. The RBL is strictly non-partisan and believes the Poppy Appeal is a time for remembrance.”

Otto English’s grandfather Murray Scott, who fought in both world wars, in 1914. Photo: Otto English

But inevitably, the continual fetishisation of all things war, the political mainstream exploitation of Britons’ unique (if non-existent) ‘Blitz Spirit’, and the depressing ‘us against the world’ narrative of the post-Brexit years has led to a conflation of war-remembrance and nationalist 21st Century politics. The fallen are no longer actual people with a wide and colourful range of political beliefs and cultural backgrounds. They are a homogenous mass of white heroes and victims who fought for ‘our freedom’; men who willingly marched off to war with a song in their hearts – and who believed that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori* was an aspiration and not, as Wilfred Owen pointed out in his famous poem, a “lie”.

This country’s morbid religio-fixation with the wars has been a breeding ground for the sort of populist, mutton-headed notions that fed Brexit and I have written many times about that and the weaponisation of the poppy. What was striking this time however, was that having posted the picture of the supermarket mannequin, an awful lot of ex-service people got in contact to tell me that they agreed with me. Some said that they had stopped wearing the poppy. Many more expressed their dissatisfaction with the Royal British Legion and wondered why provision for injured servicemen and bereaved wives was left to the care of a charity. If you have fought and suffered for this country, perhaps the very least you might expect is that its government might help you and your loved ones subsequently.

The increasing tackiness of remembrance leaves me wondering how much longer this can all go on. And, when nobody is left who can remember the dead, what exactly will we be remembering?

Of course, it is vital that the violent events of the early 20th Century never slip from our memory. We need to understand that history and understand it properly. What was built subsequently, both in the peace that was forged and the will that it would never happen again, was a testament to the people who were there. That was their legacy and one every bit as important as the little stone crosses in British towns, cities and villages. 

We would perhaps do well to remember that instead.

*It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland

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