When I was in school, like everyone else, I did a whole term in History on World War One. The Great War, the war to end all wars – so called not because of our ‘glorious’ victory or the great sweeping changes that followed, but because of the unprecedented swathes of young men and women led by the hand to their death, fed on lies of seeing the world and great adventure, pushed into filthy rotting trenches full of disease and death and hunger.
The thing that stuck with me from then to now was a poem by Wilfred Owen, a man from the town I live in who wrote poetry of the horrors he saw with his own eyes in the trenches. The poem was called ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and I’ve posted it below.
‘The old lie’ Owen refers to is phrased in Latin and translates “it is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Surely those terrified young boys carrying their friends bodies home were all to aware of what a great lie it was.
Ever since, we wear poppies in November to commemorate those lads who fell during this horrific war. We wear poppies because they grow in Flanders fields where so many died.
Whenever I have worn a poppy before I have stood at the cenotaph, with my head bowed, trying to imagine what it would be like to set off from home excited, full of the thrill of adventure, only to land at the frontline and have the horror of reality set in as the old lie dawned clear. The terror at the realisation that there was no going back, there was no retreat from this gruesome hell they had been thrown into. I thought hard. But I could never quite grasp the intensity of it.
As I stood at the cenotaph with tears in my eyes, thinking of that ancestor of mine who was conscripted and dead in France within two weeks, I did not get that same feeling from the spectacle before me. Shiny medals, smart uniforms, the butchers apron flown proudly from the mast. This was not remembrance. This was propaganda. A good reason to do it all over again, a way to excuse the bloody war mongering that has continued from that day to this.
I saw that slogan “never again, lest we forget” and thought how crass that appears when we see how the British Army has conducted itself throughout the world since. The old lie is still drummed into every squaddie on the parade square, the same excuses are still made for the butchering of innocent people.
The poppy is no longer a symbol of remembrance. It is a symbol of British imperialism, of blind patriotism, of the ‘glory’ of war.
Did those men really believe that this war would end wars? Their deaths were all in vain, as it continues year after year, and the blood drenched poppy is foisted upon us every November as though we should be grateful for the kidnap and butchering of our children for their profit.
I do not wear the poppy now. I wear a small pewter Tommy helmet on my breast, and I still stand at the cenotaph, and still try to imagine the heartache of mothers who’s whole family were wiped out in an instant.
A whole generation of working class people butchered for the profits of men who need never hold a rifle themselves while there are the poor to do it for them. I do remember, and I do pay my respects. But not with them, not with their pomp and ceremony, not with their offensive white washing of an army that continues to murder innocent people in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘progress.’
Lest we Forget indeed.
Dulce et Decorum Est:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.