Anarchism in Interesting Times
Three of my great grandfathers went to the First World War. All of them lived to tell the tale; If they hadn’t I wouldn’t be here today as none of my grandparents were born until the 20’s. No doubt, many of their comrades in arms were not so lucky to return with their lives. Millions died, families were devastated a whole generation of youth was either wiped out or left physically and mentally scarred by the conflict. George Orwell remarked, in The Road to Wigan Pier that “the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed.” No doubt the same went for most of the other belligerent nations. Today is remembrance Sunday in the UK. The red poppy has become ubiquitous on British television, on the lapels of celebrities and the shirts of football clubs. But is this a fitting way to remember those who were killed and maimed in war? Or does it perpetuate the glorification of war and condemn future generations to the same fate?
I don’t know much about the stories of my great grandfathers in the First World War, only that two of them were in the Royal Irish Regiment. One of them, Patrick Dowling of Kilkenny was a fine hurler. He played for the famous Tullaroan side who were supposed to represent Kilkenny in the 1908 all Ireland – but ended up boycotting it over a dispute about another competition. He came home from the war with a gammy leg, which I assume put an end to playing hurling. That is literally everything I know about the man other than that his wife, Hannah died young, in the 1920’s or early 1930’s, they had two children and he died in Navan while visiting my grandfather in 1954, shortly after my mother was born, and is buried there. I have a photo of him from a book about the history of Tullaroan GAA club. The other, Thomas Dunphy was the son of a wool worker who had migrated from Laois to Navan to find work in one of Ireland’s few industrial towns. Another Navan relative, Peter Murphy, who was an uncle of my grandmother, was killed at The Somme.
My English great grandad, Cecil Hoskins served in the Royal Navy Air Service (which merged with the army’s Royal Flying Corps in 1918 to become the RAF). He sat in the back of one of those early rickety biplanes and fired a machine gun. His war ended when his plane went down and he too received permanent damage to his leg. There is a photo of him here with some of his friends, all in uniform – two army, one regular navy. I often wonder what became of them, if they too made it home alive, or if they were some of the millions of casualties of that senseless war. He stayed home in the next war, as he was a telegraph engineer, which was considered an essential occupation on the home front.
My great uncle Alfie Murphy, served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. I had the pleasure of knowing him as he lived to the ripe old age of 96 and lived in the same estate as us in Navan. He served aboard the HMS Charybdis on the Malta convoys. At one point he contracted pneumonia and was laid up in hospital in Portsmouth when his ship was due to head out on another convoy. The Charybdis was sunk in the English Channel and all of his crew mates were lost, 480 amongst the millions of casualties of that war. Alfie had a photo of the Charybdis on his sitting room wall, it was his way of remembering his fallen comrades, whose loss I know was a cause of great sadness to him for the rest of his days.
Though the Second World War, had a more significant purpose for working people than the first – the defeat of the Nazis – it too was a result of imperialism, it too could have been avoided had capitalism and imperialism been defeated in the aftermath of the so called ‘war to end all wars’. The young men who were sent to the battlefields of France and beyond – in both wars believed they were fighting for an end to conflict. It is fitting to remember the horrors they endured, it is fitting to remember the colossal loss of life of ordinary people – soldiers, sailors, all those young conscripts, the women who served in support services, the civilians who died, the victims of the holocaust, the resistance fighters of WW2, those men from the colonies of Britain and France who fought in both wars believing they would be rewarded with more freedom and better lives for their sacrifice – and were not. But would I wear the blood stained poppy? No. Never.
I remember a time when the poppy wasn’t a big deal. When not everyone you saw on the television had to wear one, when for all its faults – was seen by those who wore it as a symbol of remembrance of those who died in horrific wars. Now though – in the UK it is almost compulsory – and it remembers not just those from the two wars where people went with a belief that they doing something worthwhile, but it glorifies those wars, and it remembers those professional soldiers who participated in bloody slaughter in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Six Counties in Ulster. It remembers people who shot children from a safe distance, who brutalised prisoners of war, it remembers the likes of those who opened fire on the civil rights march in Derry on Bloody Sunday, those who to this day have had no justice.
I remember the first time I saw that poignant ending to Blackadder goes forth, where they go over the top one last time and get mowed down by gunfire, and it fades to a field of poppies. Today’s poppy hysteria robs that scene of its poignancy, it robs the war dead of their right to be remembered in a dignified way and it robs us of the right to question the horrors of those wars.
The people who start wars rarely suffer the consequences. It is working class people by and large who end up in the front line, as cannon fodder for the ambitions of the rich and powerful. We can best honour the memory of those who fought in wars to end wars, by ending wars.
“Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.
And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it seet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest”
(A Soldier’s Grave – Francis Ledwidge)