SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE
The outcome of the First World War was the remaking of Europe, though this was far from being its original cause or intention. It was, essentially, a war without purpose. Both sides sought to 'impose their will on the enemy' - in the military phrase of the day - without any clear idea what that will would be. The various idealistic war aims put forward sprang from the conviction that a war, fought on such a scale and with so much suffering, ought to have a great ennobling outcome. These ideals were merely a gloss on the basic struggle whose only aim was victory.
That victory, which was so vigorously celebrated and which gave birth to what continues to be the Remembrance ceremonies of today, was a victory out of which grew the Second World War and many of the conflicts still with us.
Many people at the time realised the hollowness of the victory and the danger in perpetuating and institutionalising, through the Armistice celebrations, the very ideals and beliefs which caused the war in the first place. Protest against official Remembrance ceremonies is as old as the ceremonies themselves.
NOT IRRELIGIOUS BUT INDECENT
One of the first people to oppose the military ethos of Armistice Day events was Dick Sheppard, who later founded the Peace Pledge Union. As early as 1923, he called a public meeting in Trafalgar Square on the moral issues then facing the nation, as the best way of honouring the dead. Political leaders declined an invitation to take part but the crowded meeting was broadcast nationally. In 1925, he wrote to The Times to protest at the custom of holding a Victory Ball in the Albert Hall on Armistice Day: '...not so much irreligious as indecent'. He urged that we should endeavour 'to retain for Armistice Day its setting of solemn reverence and gratitude'. In response, the Victory Ball was postponed to 12 November, and Dick himself led a simple service of Remembrance at the Albert Hall. Later he was to write on his printed service sheet: 'Of course, Pacifism must be written into this'.
But other forces were at work, and the pattern of the Festival of Remembrance which evolved from 1927 onwards under the joint promotion of the British Legion and the Daily Express incorporated an acceptance of militarism and military values which continue to colour the Festival to this day. In 1928, Dick organised a huge gathering in Trafalgar Square under the title 'A call to peace'.
Others, quite independently, shared Dick's concern. From the early 1920s the No More War Movement (NMWM), a forerunner of the PPU with which it merged in 1937, began distributing its literature at Armistice ceremonies and found those attending receptive to its message. The 'Never Again' mood was strong. Similarly, in 1925, two days before Dick Sheppard's Albert Hall meeting, the London Council for the Prevention of War organised a major No More War demonstration in Central Hall, London.
By 1926 the NMWM organised its own Great Armistice Night Demonstration at Edmonton Town Hall, with Fenner Brockway as a leading speaker, and a suggestion was made that members donate their Armistice Day income to the work of the Movement. An Armistice manifesto was also issued. The National Council for the Prevention of War (NCPW) - the then title of the present National Peace Council - also began organising anti-war demonstrations on the weekend nearest to Armistice Day.
The following year not only NCPW but also the League of Nations Union and the Fellowship of Reconciliation held meetings during what was becoming known as Armistice Week, and the Congregational Peace Crusade, the Friends' Peace Committee and the Methodist Peace Fellowship joined in. The NMWM issued a Press letter, which was published in over a hundred provincial papers, and a supply of 75,000 special leaflets 'melted away like snow', requiring repeated reprints to cope with orders.
An example of concern amongst the wider public was shown by a letter in the Evesham Advertiser in November 1930, which responded to a remark by the Bishop of Durham that Armistice Day celebrations should cease: '...their main tendency is to perpetuate the war spirit, which ever renders the coming of permanent peace impossible. The establishment of this day and the erection of memorials was a grave error...for these have fastened the system of armed defence upon one and all firmer than ever; for right through Europe...the man who has borne arms is memorialised and praised as never before and what man praises today he will practise tomorrow so that to honour war is, of necessity, to ensure its coming in all its horrors...It is the living we should consider first; we should remember the young amongst us, whose bodies...will lie out upon the battlefields of Europe in 'the next war' which is said to be coming, and for which the Armistice Day celebrations and the memorials are simply paving the way. They are the sign and symbol that war shall be, and prevent altogether the dawning of that brighter and better day when war shall be no more.'
Members of the 1929-31 Labour Government were also unhappy about the ceremony. Alfred Salter MP recalled in 1936: 'I was Chairman of the Parliamentary Peace Committee, and took a deputation to see the then Minister of War. We asked him if he would exercise his influence...to turn the November 11 Armistice service into a peace and memorial service...His official adviser from the War Office jumped up and said, "Impossible! Unthinkable! It would be opposed by the highest authorities!...We get more recruits for the Army in the fortnight following the Armistice ceremony than in any other time of the year."'
In 1931, however, the Daily Herald headlined 'The Empire's Armistice Call: There shall be no more war', and went on, 'Never again! That will be the vow in every sane mind throughout the British Empire today.' Hannen Swaffer asked: 'Now that Economy has come, will they really cut down those health services...Why don't we do something to stop the next war?' Two years later the first recorded alternative wreath was laid at Cambridge War Memorial, by the Cambridge Student Anti-War Movement, with the inscription: 'To the dead and wounded of all nations, victims of a war they did not make, from those who are determined to prevent all similar crimes of imperialism.'
THE WHITE POPPY
Such ambiguous wording, with the hint that 'anti-imperialist' war might be acceptable, did not apply to the White Poppy launched by the Co-operative Women's Guild (CWG) in the same year, as 'a Pledge to Peace that war must not happen again'.
DRIFT TO WAR
From 1935 meetings were held in the evening of Armistice Day by the Council of Christian Pacifist Groups, at Central Hall and Kingsway Hall in London. In 1936, Armistice Week was turned into Peace Week with a variety of events - meetings, exhibitions, services, etc. - being arranged by the peace movement in different towns. Dick Sheppard wrote an Armistice Day article for Peace News recognising that after the First World War the hope had been that there would be no more war; this hope was now dead and the question was not 'Would there be another war?', but 'When would it happen?' He urged the promotion of the peace pledge as the best way of remembering and 'paying our debt to those who died...I can imagine no better way in which to serve the unborn generations of the future'.
In 1937 the PPU produced and widely distributed a special Armistice Day poster and a Peace News editorial questioned the meaning of Armistice Day itself in the clear consciousness of the impending tragedy that would make a mockery of it:
'What are we celebrating? Is it the death of brave men? If so, all the days of the year are anniversaries of that event. Is it the magnitude of the tragedy? If so, what if a greater tragedy should occur: would that obliterate this celebration? If so, where are the signs that we shall not repeat it? Is it to commemorate the sacrifice made for something real and lasting? If so, what is that something? Because if we are celebrating sacrifice for its own sake, then we are being sadistic. Those who celebrated Armistice in 1919 believed that November 11, 1918 was more than a passing date in history. They felt that an epoch had come to an end...they resolved that, come what might, they would hold themselves as trustees of experience for the benefit of future generations.
'This resolve...gave meaning to the early Armistice celebrations...And so long as Armistice keeps this solemn covenant with the past at the heart of its ceremony, the two minutes' silence will retain its meaning...the power of mankind to learn from tragic experience will be proved. If this should fail, what can be the meaning of the day? Could it be turned into a military affair without blasphemy? For since 1918 we have known that war and civilisation cannot co-exist. The conscience of mankind has been witness that we cannot celebrate war itself, however proudly we may remember the dead. If, then, we are to keep the celebration of Armistice with any worthiness at all, assuredly it must be for the purpose of renewing our resolution "Never Again".'
1937 was also the first year in which a direct alternative to the Cenotaph ceremony was arranged. Dick Sheppard and other prominent pacifists invited people 'who do not care to be present at the military parades now generally associated with that day' to join them in Regents Park on the morning of Armistice Day for a non-military ceremony with readings, singing and the observance of two minutes' silence.
That first ceremony must have been especially poignant because Dick Sheppard had died only a few days before. Appropriately, a cross was laid in his memory by PPU members at the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey, in the section reserved for the memory of 'those who died in the hope of peace on earth'. The numbers attending the ceremony, 'for those who wish to keep faith with those who died', revealed the existence of a widespread desire to remember the dead without a military display. The CWG reported an Army colonel coming up to a girl who was wearing both red and White Poppies, telling her she should not wear the red one as 'That is a debt the War Office should pay'. He asked for her White Poppy and pinned it on his coat as he strode away. In other parts of the country there were similar events. In Manchester the PPU organised a service; peace films were shown in Hampstead; and there was a Peace Pageant at a Derbyshire girls' school (raising funds for the PPU). The PPU encouraged those who bought White Poppies at this time to wear them with red ones; some members sold them on behalf of the War Resisters' International to support the release of conscientious objectors, such as those imprisoned on Devil's Island, the French penal colony. The CWG also organised a march through Manchester to lay a White Poppy wreath at the war memorial, but the police refused permission.
As memory of the First World War receded and fear of another war developed, opposition to White Poppies became more prominent. White Poppy wreaths began disapearing from memorials and two PPU members even lost their jobs for wearing White Poppies.
In 1938 the PPU and the Co-operative Women's Guild arranged a joint alternative ceremony in Regents Park. Both organisations read their pledges, together with a poem by Siegfried Sassoon. 3000 strong, accompanied by George Lansbury, they marched down Baker Street with a large banner saying: 'SOS! Women Calling the World! No More War!' Following a public meeting at Central Hall in the afternoon, people went to the Cenotaph where Stuart Morris (PPU Chair) and Vera Brittain laid the PPU's white and red poppy wreath. Edith Williams and Rose Simpson laid the CWG wreath of White Poppies. This was also the peak year for White Poppy sales - reaching 85,000.
SECOND WORLD WAR
From 1939 the official commemoration was transferred to the Sunday nearest 11 November, and simple wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph by junior officials, without ceremony; the Festival of Remembrance was cancelled for the duration of the war. The British Legion adapted very quickly and encouraged people to buy two red poppies - 'one as a tribute to the men of 1914-1918 and the other to their sons who are serving today'. As Peace News said: 'The comments of some ex-Servicemen would probably be unprintable, for they feel that the fact that the sons of the generation which went through the Great War are now being asked to undergo the same experience is the measure of our betrayal of those who died'.
On Armistice Day 1939, George Lansbury spoke at a large meeting arranged by the CWG at Central hall and a service of alternative Remembrance was held at Kingsway Hall. In towns up and down the country people arranged meetings, services and wreath-laying. Some PPU members decided to go to the Cenotaph and bravely stand there with White Poppies during the two minutes' silence. In Glasgow Vera Brittain addressed a large public meeting arranged by the PPU, Women's International League and the Union of Democratic Control.
From 1940 to 1944 there were Christian pacifist commemorations, usually under the name 'Christ and Peace', held on the Saturday of Remembrance weekend, with such speakers as Charles Raven and Donald Soper.
DEVOUTLY MARKING TIME
The immediate post-war years were taken up with other preoccupations, but concern about Remembrance ceremonies returned in 1948, when Peace News published a selection of letters received by the PPU from people who had fought in the war, and now regretted it. The editorial says: 'Remembrance Day should be an occasion for heart-searching and re-dedication. These letters challenge us to both. They challenge the pacifist, who has perhaps grown weary of swimming against the tide, who is tempted to relax, to be more like other people - and to drift downstream. They challenge him to ask again whether he is doing all in his power to make the pacifist message known, and to order his own life in accordance with it.'
From 1948 until the early 1960s, each year at Remembrance time articles and poems appeared in Peace News. Throughout the 1950s Sybil Morrison wrote in Peace News questioning the symbolism of the poppy and the official ceremonies. The red poppy, she wrote, 'conceals that horror of mud and blood, those shattered bodies and shrieks of the dying and injured'; they and the ceremonies provide 'an armour of emotional defence'. Much of this material uncannily foreshadowed the thoughts and phrases written by others in the 1980s.
The possibilities of reviving the White Poppy or arranging alternative ceremonies were occasionally discussed. The PPU arranged a meeting in Hyde Park on Remembrance Sunday in 1950, and some years later discussed the feasibility of producing White Poppies, but the cost of production was prohibitive. In 1961 Donald Soper and Canon John Collins led a Remembrance service in Trafalgar Square arranged by Christian Action and Christian CND.
Vera Brittain, encouraging people to attend, wrote in Peace News:
'It is now 40 years since the battered and exhausted First World War generation heard the maroons which echoed along the Thames from Westminster to usher in the original Armistice Day. For a time its members believed - since many of them had nothing else left to believe in - that a new world, purchased with the lives of millions of young men, lay just round the corner beyond the portals of the League of Nations. Regardless of expense they set up their memorials in towns and villages to the dead whose sacrifice had brought insane, destructive mankind to the verge of a fresh opportunity.
'It is 16 years since the disillusioned generation which bore the burden of World War Two celebrated yet another Armistice Day, and economically added new lists of names at the foot of those already inscribed on the expensive war memorials. This time the names included women as well as men, and many more memorials of mothers and their children, wiped out by 'area bombing' on both sides, recorded the new phenomenon of mass burials in civilian ceremonies.
'The friends and relatives who mourned these victims now realised all too clearly that no constructive consequence would come from the modern varieties of massacre which had destroyed them, for they knew that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 had ushered in, not a better world, but a new era of terror for humanity. Henceforth the main issue would be, not the slow development of long-term international institutions, but the stark and urgent problem of human survival.
'Throughout the years the Remembrance Day ceremonials have continued, adorned before the Cenotaph by military trappings and parades, and with the symbolism of falling petals at the British Legion commemoration in the Albert Hall. Though the martial music and the plaintive notes of the Last Post inevitably stir poignant memories, they are no longer of a kind to inspire either old or young to fresh resolution. In his or her heart each mourner, unless wilfully self-blinded, knows that those dead were betrayed, and sees the nominal victories for which their lives were given as sham achievements dominated by the grim reflection of the mushroom cloud.
'And yet, year by year, a great opportunity for Remembrance and rededication has been lost. The Armistice ceremonies could have become, not an empty laudation of the long-vanished fallen, but a living act of penitence and redress. Annual memorials are not only a method of devoutly marking time, but an occasion for asking ourselves just exactly what we did in those long uncreative years; they are a challenge to our immaturity, which so seldom grows up to ask what we are doing now, and where we are going. Though the men and women who remember live now on sufferance, and begin their too often heedless days beneath the shadow of great danger, they are still here, and so long as man's life on earth continues, time remains. Time to realise what we have done or left undone in the past, and to consider with real responsibility what we ourselves might do to change the direction of national policies for which, however feeble and neglected our voices, we are, as citizens of a democratic state, at least partly to blame.
'A Remembrance Day widely marked by humility and penitence would be a challenge to the world to start again. The present threat of nuclear weapons and the dangerous balance of international politics suggest that the emphasis of Armisticetide should be laid on repentance, reconciliation and a determined self-dedication to a nobler future, rather than on past military victories with their appalling cost in young human lives.'
Similar services were held in Trafalgar Square for a few years afterwards, and smaller services were held at local war memorials, arranged by Pacifists, Christians, Committee of 100, and Youth CND groups. A White Poppy wreath was laid jointly by PPU and YCND at Lowestoft in 1966. A Nagasaki cherry tree was planted in Birmingham on Remembrance Sunday 1970. The York Pacifist Group laid White Poppies in 1971 during the official Remembrance ceremony. In the same year the names of the first 1000 to die in the present troubles in Northern Ireland were read out on the steps of the war memorial in Manchester.
In 1976 the PPU arranged an alternative ceremony on the Saturday of Remembrance weekend in the courtyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields. This followed a procession from Dick Sheppard House to the Cenotaph. The names of wars in this century were read out following a minute's silence around a specially built alternative cenotaph.
THE NEW TRADITION
In 1980 London Peace Action started the new tradition of silent torchlit vigils outside the British Legion Festival of Remembrance and the walk to the Cenotaph to lay a White Poppy wreath on Remembrance Sunday. The PPU later took on arrangements for these events, as well as the promotion of similar events throughout the country and continues doing so to this day.
Interest was slowly being aroused and the sales of White Poppies increased every year. In 1986, during the promotion of White Poppies, a Conservative MP took exception to their anti-war message and asked the Prime Minister, in Parliament, what she thought of them. Margaret Thatcher expressed her 'deep distaste', a distaste which some sections of the media shared and made the subject of their headlines. This attack on White Poppies and the PPU convinced many who in the past felt uneasy about engaging in what was seen as a sensitive occasion, that this was indeed an appropriate time to challenge the attitudes that lead to war. Alternative Remembrance and the White Poppy finally became a national issue.
The PPU was born of the revulsion against the First World War, of which the red poppy is the symbol. The White Poppy, born of concern that the lessons about war have still not been learned, is the symbol of the Pledge to Peace 'that war must not happen again'.