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By Jason Michael
HOLY AND PIOUS IT IS TO PRAY for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:45). During the autumn of 2015 I had the privilege of working with the In Flanders Fields museum and research institute at Ypres in Flanders, the site of the ghastly Ypres Salient between 1914 and 1918. Together with a number of other Irish postgraduate students I was awarded an academic fellowship by the Irish government, the purpose of which was to begin the work of identifying the over sixteen thousand lost Irish men and boys who fell in Belgium during that awful conflict. It would be an exercise in complete futility to attempt to put a number on the lost and unidentified. The area of the salient west of the Menin Gate is not much more than forty square kilometres; as large as the “Great War” looms over our historical memory, the area involved is surprisingly small.
This was the bottleneck of the war, where, after having been beat in “the Race to the Sea,” the German Army was arrested in its advance and forced into the war of attrition that was the trenches. With each battle and offensive the lines shifted back and forth, making no-man’s-land – the killing zone between the opposing sides – a constantly moving feature of the conflict. The dead of one battle were left in the mud only to be churched up in the next – and on and on it went. “Known unto God,” the words of Rudyard Kipling chiselled into the whitewashed gravestones of almost every unknown soldier, is but an understatement in the vast impossibility of finding and identifying the poor lost souls. Most will never be found, never be known. These are the damned and the lost of World War I.
Farewell Ireland! I am on the way to the Western Front; to Ypres and Passchendaele, to help save little Belgium. http://t.co/Fz9id6ywXI—
RPJ Opinion (@RPJblog) August 23, 2015
It was on the shallow rise of Passchendaele we encountered, face to face as it were, the first of our boys. Archaeological investigators had uncovered the remains of an unknown soldier. Our job was to make sense of what was left; what was left of his uniform, the belt buckle, the helmet, any insignia et cetera. Then would begin the painstaking task of locating the dates his regiment were in this sector with the help of British Army command war diaries and such like, cross reference this information against lists – massive lists – of soldiers missing in combat, and, by a process of elimination, attempt to put a name on him. This done, he could be given a proper funeral with full military honours, and his relatives – his great or great-great grandchildren – informed.
Of him, of his physical person, these was nothing left. A century in the wet Belgian clay had wholly swallowed him up. There was no fabric, no bones, no teeth. All that remained of this once living lad was an outline drawn by the metal and rubber on him when he was killed. The rubber heel of his boot and the thin metallic clip which held it to the leather were nearer the surface than the toe, meaning he had been lying face down in the dirt for almost exactly a hundred years. Standing over where he lay the words of Second Maccabees came to mind: “Holy and pious it is to pray for the dead.” Saints of God, come to his aid! I silently prayed, Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord! Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High. All around us was a graveyard of the unburied. Countless young men just like him were under our feet – layered corpses forever gone.
It was impossible for him to remain to us “a body” or “a find.” He was so much more than “human remains.” A hundred years ago there was a mother, a father, sister, brother, wife, sweetheart, waiting at home for news that would never arrive. No telegram would come to his door. Those who knew him and loved him would live out the rest of their lives not knowing where he was or how he died, or even if he died. Did he have children? Were there people alive now who knew of him, cared that he was found? In so many finds of this nature there simply is not enough material to go on to put a name to the remains. He becomes yet another “known unto God.”
RPJ Opinion (@RPJblog) August 27, 2015
Yet with this young man we were lucky. Two weeks later Shane, Frank, and I – the team – had found him. His regiment could be identified. He belonged to the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers. His situation on the battlefield fit with the account given by Lieutenant Arthur Glanville of the first day of the battle:
At zero hour, the divisions went over the top but in reality most of them were only at half-strength. The men were hit before many of them had even left the trenches… the battalion’s advanced companies were almost completely wiped out in the initial attack. Under hellish fire I collect as many of the company as possible and give the signal to advance, but one after another is shot down. It is death to move – to raise oneself an inch out of the mud.
Our boy was one of these, shot down no sooner than he had gone over the top. His particular battalion was at this location of the trench line for one day in the whole war – the first day of the battle, his last day alive. The regimental records gave us the list of all the men on the role for his battalion. We could see who lived. We could see who had been killed and was recovered, and – most importantly to us – we could see the list of those lost in action on the first day. Whoever this man was, we were now looking at a list which most definitely contained his name. Going over letters home and over mountains of first-hand accounts of where survivors had seen their friends and comrades killed, we began the process of crossing names from our list.
Eventually, reduced to a short list, his height was the clinch. We had one name on the list that matched roughly where he fell and was an exact match to the height determined by the archaeologists. We were looking at the name (which now sadly escapes me). The will he wrote when he enlisted gave us his home address: “Bride Street, Dublin” – a street in the Dublin Liberties not a fifteen-minute walk from where I now live. The 1911 census filled in more details. He was a schoolboy in 1911. He was 21 when he was killed by a bullet on 17 October 1917. Now we had his mother and father’s names, we saw he had a few brothers and sisters, and that he came from a dilapidated two-room tenement in the heart of Dublin’s southside inner-city slum.
Instead of wearing a poppy for #Remembrance2018 we should wear our shame because as a human race we've learned nothing since 1918.—
Harry Leslie Smith (@Harryslaststand) November 06, 2018
When I say that I will not be wearing a poppy, and when I say the idea of the poppy makes me sick to my stomach, it is not because of any lack of sympathy for the dead or for those who fought. It is not possible to be unmoved by their individual stories as we unravel them a century later. This young Dubliner and so many others became personal to me. I was part of a team that re-humanised them. At the end of the project we felt we knew them.
When I say that I will not be wearing a poppy it is because I reject everything the poppy is – everything it was introduced to be and everything it appears to have become. This flower of “remembrance” was the idea of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and his wife. Haig, known without much affection by those under his command as “Butcher Haig” and “the Butcher of the Somme,” lived through the war. He died, aged 66, in 1928. He lost no sons in the war. He was never in any danger of losing a son in the war. Other than the fact his son was born in 1918, he was a man who could ensure those close to him never saw action on the front. He was of the donkey class, ordering lions – the sons of the poor and the working class – to their deaths. Those who turned back; the shell-shocked, the traumatised, the terrified, he ordered shot for desertion.
Volunteers and unwilling conscripts alike he sent to the slaughter. He and the entire British High Command knew fine well there were children in the ranks. To Butcher Haig and those in charge they were all the same – toy soldiers in a meaningless imperial conflict. All were fodder for the guns. All were expendable. All were equally worthless. While it may have been German bullets that cut them down, not a single soldier was killed by the German Army – itself an army of the Kaiser’s victims. Every last one of them was murdered by the British state, by men like Haig.
In 1914 the Brutish Empire went to war against "the Hun," asking Britons to help poor little Belgium. It's an incon… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) November 06, 2018
“But they volunteered,” the ignorant are forever screaming. For sure, many did “volunteer.” Many were lied to. They were told they were going to save “poor little Belgium” from the “Bosch,” from the “Hun.” No one felt the need to tell them that Belgium was perpetrating genocide in the Congo. Poor little Belgium was no innocent victim. It too was an imperial player in an imperial squabble for land and riches for the benefit of the richest of Europe’s royals and aristocrats. The boys and men in all the trenches were of no more worth to these monsters than were the dumb beasts pulling the guns and munitions. Do not tell me that Douglas Haig was moved by a poem about flowers in a graveyard. Haig was a pitiless psychopath. His and his wife’s use of the poppy was – as it still is – entirely cynical. “If ye break faith with us who die?” Break faith? How can people who were never their friends break faith with the poor drudges they sent to die?
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…
Can we say that the boys and men who volunteered from the tenements and slums went to war for the cause of freedom? They did nothing of the sort. Back in Ireland the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, James Connolly, described their volunteerism as “economic conscription.” The soldier’s pay was much to preferred to watching children go hungry in a stinking slum dwelling at the height of the “Dublin holocaust.” This was the same in Glasgow as it was in Leeds.
My issue is not with the soldiers. I have no problem with the soldier of today and with those who have served. The squaddie from Sheffield pointing his gun at an old woman in Belfast during the Troubles signed up for much the same reasons – money in the Thatcher years.
Yet the poppy, from the joke it was – no matter how ordinary innocent people feel about wearing it, has been “hijacked,” or so we are told. It has now become the totem of hyper-aggressive, right-wing racist British nationalism. On the football field it has become the weapon of choice to be deployed against non-British outsiders; Irish Catholics and Argentinians – very much victims of British imperial and colonial violence – who play for English clubs. On the lapels of knuckle-dragging thugs it has become a compliment to the Nazi swastika tattooed on their necks. In the pond-life imagination of Britain’s extreme right street politics it has become a symbol of patriotic hatred.
That we had to go to war against Germany to stop the Nazi genocide is a bogus ex post facto justification. Britain… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) November 06, 2018
In polite society it has been elevated over the symbols of the crown and the union flag as the last best chance of unifying Britain as the pillars of empire finally begin to topple. This poppy is a sign of Britain’s final retreat into the abyss of the hell from whence it came. It is the rear-guard of the establishment’s murder machine, clinging desperately to the diminishing hope people are stupid enough to see in it a memory of the glories that were always lies.
But we wear it to remember those who fought the Nazis? Surely this, we are asked, is worth our remembrance? No! Not at all. That too is a lie – a disgusting revision of history. Britain and France created the Nazis at Versailles. Germany would have never collapsed into the totalitarianism and barbarism of Nazism had it not been for the ambitions of empire played out at the 1919 Peace Conference. Moreover, it was in the interests of its empire that Britain went to war with Germany again in September 1939. It had nothing to do with saving Jews and ending the Holocaust – not even in 1945 in the closing days of the war. In 1938 and 1939, when the need for Jews to escape Germany and Austria was already well understood, Britain limited the number of Jewish refugees it was willing to take. Britain’s singular concern was the protection of its imperial possessions from Germany and its allies in the Far East. Britain wasn’t fighting against evil – evil as Nazism was, it was fighting for another type of evil.
When I see my fellow Scottish independentistas wearing the poppy I see a contradiction. This bloodied weed is nothing short of “Britain the brand” painted over the bones of its victims, and we Scots have given it enough. Yet, my anger is not with those who wear it to remember. My frustration is that still there are people who fail to see how it is being used – with massive cultural force – to forge a sense of national unity in a state that is anything but one nation. It is being used by the British state and by the nationalist foot soldiers of British thuggery as a nation building tool much in the same way a dog marks its territory – all over its victims in Flanders, France, Ireland, India, and all over Africa. Wear it if you must, but please do not expect me to join you.
What the White Poppy Stands For