Why My Poppy is White

Remember the war dead, but remember the conscientious objectors too, says ERNIE JACQUES.

Sunday sees the annual yawn of poppy day with the great and the good parading at the Cenotaph and elsewhere throughout the nation to remember our fallen war dead.

While I had family who fought in the two world wars and, along with two brothers, spent my national service in the war-torn Middle East in the 1950s, I have no wish to remember the truly loathsome and unpleasant army officers I served with in Aden and Berlin.

I much prefer to remember those brave and compassionate ILPers, Quakers and socialists – such as Arthur Raistrick, Stan Iveson and James Maxton – who turned their backs on such military nonsense and registered as conscientious objectors.

Dartmoor Prison ltrboxSome 6,312 conscientious objectors were arrested, court martialled and jailed during the two World Wars. During the First World War, 805 ILPers were sent to jail (see left, the ILP branch at Dartmoor prison) and 70 died in detention following much privation and physical and mental mistreatment by those in authority. Once released, they were ostracised as cowards, bullied and blacklisted by society during and beyond the war years.

For those who listen with pride to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, watch the marches at the Cenotaph, or sing with gusto Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms, I would ask, consider the words of the war poet, Herbert Read, sometime anarchist and socialist, and a captain in the Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War.

The Happy Warrior

His wild heart beats with painful sobs,
His strain’d hands clench an ice-cold rifle,
His aching jaws grip a hot parch’d tongue,
His wide eyes search unconsciously.

He cannot shriek.

Bloody saliva
Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.

I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.

This is the happy warrior,
This is he …

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing improper in looking back and taking time to mourn and remember those who have lost their lives in terrible circumstances, or to think about family, friends, neighbours and members of the community, or anyone else who has touched our lives, be they the great and good, poets, singers, celebrities, sportspeople, teachers, neighbours, rescuers, carers, soldiers, or whatever. After all, doing so is central to our humanity and our compassion, and to what makes a good society.

But is it not time we put an end to the sycophantic, nauseating glorification of war and empire, with the military bands, the banging drums, the marching feet, the salutes to royalty and military commanders?

Wear a red poppy if you need to, but also remember that many of the brave dead were led to their deaths by metaphysical donkeys epitomised by the great (sic) First World War hero, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, KT GCB, GCVO, KCIE, ADC, whose contribution to humanity and society is (to my mind) a wee bit overstated.

If I ever feel the need to wear a poppy, it will be a white one.

Read more about white poppies and conscientious objection at the website of the Peace Pledge Union.