Friday, 7 November 2014

Lest We Forget

The British Legion has censored the anti-war verses of its Poppy Song.

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when the dead of war are commemorated by ceremonies of red poppy wreath-laying at memorials around the country and a two minute silence is observed. The events mark the moment that World War One officially ended at 11 am on 11th November 1918. The first Remembrance Day was in 1919, when the two minutes were known as the Great Silence, a fitting term given the absence of perhaps forty million souls carried away by the conflict and its aftermath.

This year is, of course, especially poignant given that it is just over one hundred years since that war began in August 1914, as commemorated on this blog in an earlier post, "We Will Remember. And One Day Learn".

And learn we still have to do. The First World War was once referred to as the Great War, with the epitaph "The War to End All Wars", as the socialist H.G. Wells called it, so great was the scale of death and destruction of this first truly international, industrial war. But of course it was far from the end of war; rather it presaged that even worse was to come.

And in the 96 years since it ended amidst Europe-wide chaos, civil war, revolution and a flu epidemic of historic proportions, around 150 million more people have died in wars; quite possibly more than in all the rest of history put together. We have not learned, and we have not changed.

And nor will we if, among all our other propensities to fight with each other, we choose in our very act of remembrance to forget. Yet this is what seems to be happening.

The Royal British Legion organises the Remembrance events and in doing so, it has always had a fine line to tread between remembrance and glorification of war. All the more difficult, perhaps, as in the last decade or so several hundred new names have been added to the lists of the dead from Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan - and many have felt uneasy about the nature of the Legion's commemorations, which have seemed increasingly willing to support current government policy rather than remember those who were lost. Yet whatever their views of the political decisions that have led to these wars, many have still wanted to commemorate the fallen and injured in the hope that there will be no more in the future.

But how much harder that now is when it is revealed that the Legion has accepted support from two big arms manufacturing companies - Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest arms company) sponsored last week’s Poppy Rocks Ball, while Thales (who manufacture the pilotless drones that have killed hundreds of innocent bystanders) have joined London mayor Boris Johnson in a big Red Poppy billboard at Westminster.These are companies making money - huge profits - out of wars happening right now. It is surely an affront to those who have fallen to have such events funded by these merchants of death.

But almost as bad, breathtakingly so, is the official Remembrance song issued by the Legion and sung by Joss Stone. This is a censored version of the beautiful The Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle. The original version recounts the thoughts of a visitor to the grave of a 19 year old soldier, Willie McBride, questioning the reasons for his death and it is distinctly anti-war.

The Legion, however, has cut it; as well as renaming it No Man's Land and squeezing any feeling or power from it as they turned it into lachrymose mush, it has excised two key verses (almost half the song) including:

Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, were all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again. 

Scots-born Bogle wrote the song as a reaction to the slaughter of the Vietnam War, hence his line that in the war to end all wars, "the killing and dying were all done in vain." He has criticised Joss Stone's version for diminishing the intention of the song to build up verse by verse to a powerful anti-war statement.

Our PM wears a poppy while on an arms sale promotion to Gulf rulers
Compromised by its funding by arms merchants and association with three pro-war government parties, the Legion should be seriously revisiting its purpose - its support, or often lack of support, to former service people has come under increasing criticism. It should be focusing on them rather than adopting the role of cheer-leader to the Michael Gove-view of the slaughter of the trenches being a good thing.

It seems certain that more people will follow the route already taken by many on the Left and in the peace movement and wear white poppies in their own acts of remembrance. Among them will be a growing number of war veterans, people who, unlike virtually all of our blood-thirsty political class, have been at the sharp end of killing and dying, and want no more of it. Remembrance Day was established to mark the sacrifice of the dead in part so that we would learn to not add to their number. The deaths of millions through the last century must be commemorated for, as the over-used phrase goes, those who do not learn from history are bound to relive it.

But, with the plethora of regional conflicts around us, so many eagerly anticipated by our rulers and their arms manufacturing funders, perhaps we already are.

Lest we forget.

A petition has been started to ask the Royal British Legion to apologise for censoring the words of the poppy song. You can sign it here: Petition

Meantime, here is the full version, performed by the incomparable The Men They Could Not Hang.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I had missed this crass censorship of one of my favourite songs by the British Legion.