Eton Rifles: Why I am proud to wear a white poppy

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I’m not going to rehearse the arguments about the symbolism of the white poppy – but a few things should be said, as there is a lot of (perhaps wilful) misunderstanding around it. The white poppy has a long history, which goes back to Armistice Day 1933. As the Peace Pledge Union website, which produces White Poppies for Peace says:

“In 1933 the first white poppies appeared on Armistice Day (called Remembrance Day after World War Two). The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War – a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers – but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.”

That appetite for war has hardly abated since 1933, so, in the eyes of many, there is still the need to make that statement. What is disturbing is the lack of respect and tolerance still shown to peace activists around Remembrance Day, despite that context.

There is an airbrushing of history, which glosses over the real, lived experience of real people, and puts them in a box marked “respect for the dead”. Inside that box is a mixture of half-truths, myths and downright lies.

However, that isn’t what this piece is about. I also have a personal reason for recoiling from the ceremony around Remembrance Day – a personal, family story which recently came to light and chimed with my own instincts about war and our history.

My great granddad, George Sellers was born in 1887, in Eton Wick, just up the road from Eton College, but a millions miles away in terms of social class and status. Although his father, John Sellers, had worked his way up from the labouring of his early life to become Foreman to the Board of Health, the family was not well off, maybe due to the fact that George was the youngest of eleven children. In June 1914, George married Selina, my great grandmother. They were, apparently, childhood sweethearts and very much in love. By this time, George had found permanent work as a waterman at the Eton boathouse, preparing the boats for the over-privileged school boys at Eton.

By all accounts, George built up an understandable resentment towards the Etonians and was fiercely independent and trenchant in his criticism. This is hardly a great surprise, when wealth and poverty sit so close together as they did in pre-war Eton, class antagonism is pretty inevitable. Some of my relatives suggest that there were longstanding ructions between George and the schoolboys, while others claim that it was all muttered under the breath.

The outbreak of war, however, brought these tensions to the surface. George was, apparently, stridently against the war. It’s not clear whether he would have called himself a pacifist or whether it was a more instinctive horror at going to fight “their war” – or whether it was for entirely different reasons again. What is clear, however, is that, in 1914, while many of his friends signed up enthusiastically, George stayed at home and at the Eton boathouse.

This decision brought him into direct conflict with the Eton schoolboys. It is said that, after many arguments, George was subjected to sustained abuse at the hands of some of the older boys. The irony of their patriotic enthusiasm for the “Great War” will not have been lost on George, knowing that they would be either too young to fight, or would have a high ranking officers position which carried far less of a risk than the many thousands of working class men who we’re being sent to the Western Front as glorified cannon fodder.

A year later, in August 1915, George did sign up. Maybe he had become convinced by the argument for war. Maybe the death of close friends in the first year of the “Great War” had a profound effect on him and persuaded him that he had to “do his bit”. Maybe he just got tired of the disdain, the abuse and the intimidation – we just don’t know. However, he said his goodbyes to Selina and left for the killing fields of Flanders. He left his wife in the early stages of pregnancy, carrying George Albert, my grandfather.

I don’t know an awful lot about the battles that George senior fought in, only that he was part of the Royal Field Artillery D Battalion, 19th Brigade. I don’t know the detail of the horrors he would have seen, but I have read enough about the Western Front to be able to draw a mental picture. Mutilations, dismemberment, death in massive numbers, putrid conditions, disease and death again. It’s no surprise that it was often described as hell by the ordinary working class “Tommies” who were its victims. Meanwhile, the old Etonians of the officer class played out their strategic power plays with little regard for the human waste.

After two years in the field of battle, and many heart wrenching letters home, the war seemed to be coming to an end. Finally, the German troops, devastated by their own mass carnage, seemed close to surrender. In Ypres, in October 1918, the final battles were being fought. Nothing decisive was being won here – it was almost as if the hapless armies were playing out the final act of a cruel drama. Here it was that George’s life came to a very premature end. At the age of 31, he was killed by mortar fire. The date was the 3rd of October 1918, just over a month before the armistice.

It is said that Selina “lost her mind” when she heard of her sweetheart’s death. It must have felt like murder, knowing what she knew about her husband. Certainly, glory and sacrifice would have been far from her mind. Although she re-married, it was a mistake – she never recovered from the tragedy of losing her beloved George. Selina lived out her last years in an asylum.

One life ended. Many more wrecked. Even more again affected. And this tragic story could no doubt be repeated thousands upon thousands of times up and down the country – in ordinary, working class homes. At Eton? Not so much. Theirs was the glory. They had defended their Empire and their wealth – and miraculously survived intact. Of course, there were well known martyrs and heroes from the upper classes, but the overwhelming majority of the blood spilt was that of people like George, who had little choice, in the end, to fight “their war”. That’s the reality of the First World War.

I suppose it’s a persuasive argument that Remembrance Day is just one day. One day for us peace loving, lily livered objectors to leave our politics at the door. Except it isn’t just one day, is it? It’s at least two weeks of build up, of saturated media coverage and – of course – the subtle inculcation of militarism in our society’s values. Two weeks when peace activists and those opposed to militarism have to hide their views, shut their gobs and get in with it.

Ultimately people will wear whatever colour poppy they want – or none. I have to say, I’ve never heard of anyone who has been bullied, threatened or harassed for wearing a red one. I wish I could say the same about the white poppy. What I object to, and will continue to object to, is the sanitisation of a very dark period of our history.

As any basic social history will tell you, the First World War wasn’t a “Great War”, it wasn’t a war to end all wars and neither was it a war to defend our freedoms. It was an imperial war game between competing European powers that sent millions of young working class men, on all sides to their deaths. So, in its proper historical context, and with the memory of George Sellers in mind, I’m happy to talk about their courage, but please don’t lecture me about their sacrifice and our freedom. Pick up a history book if you want to argue that First World War was a just war, necessary to protect our way of life. Then we can talk. In the meantime, if you don’t mind, I’ll do three things:

Firstly, I won’t be intimidated into wearing a red poppy. I’ll stay true to what I believe and what my great granddad believed and continue to make any statement I feel is appropriate.

Secondly, I won’t wipe my brain of the memory of history or people’s real experience – whether that is the First World War or Iraq. Neither will I take a holiday from thinking about history from below  – and in so doing, conceding a kind of anti-history which conflates and confuses the first and second world wars, militarism and remembrance, patriotism and courage.

Thirdly, I’m not going to stop being a peace activist for two weeks, a weekend or even a day. So that’s why I’ll make an explicit decision to wear the white poppy instead of none at all. That is entirely consistent with what history has taught me, from the First World War right up to Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is also, I believe, what George would have wanted me to do and an appropriate tribute to all those working class “Tommies” who could see this war for what it was, but had no choice but to sacrifice their lives for something that they didn’t believe in.

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6 thoughts on “Eton Rifles: Why I am proud to wear a white poppy

  1. Excellent and brave article, always goes deeper when it’s a personal story like that, here’s mine:

    My Grandad fought in the jungles of Burma in WW2 and my Great Grandad spent three years in a Japanese prisoners camp, he never talked about his experience til the day he died. One of my relatives was shot for ‘desertion’ and only got pardoned a few years ago as it turned out he had shell shock.

    I am proud that my relations showed the courage (however forced) to defend their country and I will remember and respect them for that; but none of this will prevent me wearing a white poppy on Remembrance Day as I believe the occasion itself and the run up to the day has been turned into a commercialized, warped propaganda exercise to support present and future wars using the memory of those of the past by the media, politicians and charities like the British Legion and Help For Heroes.

  2. Tony Dawson says:

    A provocative read. I never knew of a white poppy, and for that matter I would never pick on some one who did probably putting it down to cultural difference. Rather like the tomb stones scattered across Europe being distinct to their country.

    I also have 2 grandfathers in the wars, one was nasty (and I refuse to portray saints where sinners stood), the other died when I was young. And neither would talk about the wars, at best I would be quoted as “we fought because we had to”. Nothing more was said and the way it was said always denoted to me that it was something they did not believe in, or if they did they were disillusioned with it well before the end.

    I also remember, something cast into the concrete of a German artillery housing in Normandy. I had a German friend translate it, which said:
    “Germany must live, even if we have to die”
    Which I was assured that it was a sorrowful statement, and in that context can go on through history to show the perception of the wars from both sides.
    Sadly there are tour guides out there not only translating it wrong, but outright lying for the sake of the story. That’s when people notice it as its not obviously placed.

    Finally, I do not think, anyone average working person who was not born in to money has a glorified perception of war or ever consider it necessary, but rather everyone who stands at a cenotaph knows some one killed needlessly in a war, or a person/soldier who has had their life ruined by war.

    A example being the many crippled, arms, legs, even eye sight missing thanks to a stray bullet (an actual person I have met). Which men I might add often sign up seeing no other place in society for them. No family to support them, suffered a violent upbringing and wanting to escape to give a few examples.

    We go to the cenotaph to remember the atrocities, not heroes, to remind ourselves that war is only destructive and to teach the next generation that.

    I do however, think that there should be a movement, dedicated to the ideals of peace. Forgetting and destroying the idea of a need to show a flexing of muscles (Trident).
    But have it coincide with with the red poppy, with a white one. Aim for real peace by remembering and never forgetting the fallen, who fell in the name of war, driven by dangerous and corrupt ideologies of the selfish and mad men in positions of power.

    And it starts here.

  3. RobW says:

    “The continuing drive to war”- Yeah, the drive to war being against the fascists in Spain, Italy and Germany who, thanks to the very misguided pacifism which you so laud, were in a much stronger position when war finally came than they would have been had the left actually committed itself to a proactive international anti-facist policy in the 20s and 30s. The unmitigated disaster of appeasement was born out of this same line of thinking: that war is a bad thing so we should never go to war; ignoring the fact that that is going to do little to prevent evil people from waging war, only make us unprepared to act when they do so.

    Take George Lansbury, the pacifist leader of Labour who, at pretty much the same time you are talking about, said he wanted to abolish the army and say to the world “do your worst”; the same man incidentally who as late as ’37 believed Hitler an honourable man who “loved children and old people”. It’s this misguided pacifism which creates a direct line to the British government handing a sovereign country over to a fascist state; “feeding the tiger in hope it will eat them last” as it has been eloquently put.

    At the end of the day war should be avoided wherever possible, but it must also be recognised that there are some intractable geopolitical situations, notably in the case of atrocities and authoritarian regimes, where there is no diplomatic solution. We always learn from the last war, the pendulum swings: WW1 led to pacifism which left us unprepared for WW2, WW2 taught us to oppose hostile regimes which led to the debacle in Vietnam. So it goes…

  4. patrick phillips says:

    You’re left wing reading of history seems to discount the thousands of old etonians who died alongside the men the men they led. ‘the human side of war’ covers aristocratic public schoolboys as much as it does the unfortunate George Sellers.

  5. Mike Jackson says:

    The often used argument for a white poppy is also the fact that in a democracy, the very people who died gave their lives to give you the right to wear one. It is therefore totally illogical to try and argue against your right to wear one as that is the very right they gave their lives for you to have.

    Being an activist is a fabulous place to be. Whether on the right of left of any political movement it allows you to be strident in your views, with very little chance of ever facing the reality of having to put your ideas into practice. History has taught us that only at extreme times of social pressure does the political swing move far enough left or right for those very same activists to get a chance of putting into practice their views. So being an activist is a brilliant place to be, as you will always be right, no matter what the argument. A really brave person, is someone who realises that being right, sometimes doesn’t make the world a better place, and who actually does something that physically makes a difference. Not just talks about it, reads about it, or pontificates. Even if it means compromising on some beliefs. Now that is brave. Try it sometime, and stand as a local councillor yourself.

    In relation to “war”, I have seen it first hand. I have fought for my country, I have been wounded, and I have lost friends. I wear a red poppy with pride, as I know the history. I know the symbol came from the “Great War”, but I also know I was wounded serving on a UN mission, and my friends died protecting a town full of civilians from an army bent on ethnic cleansing. The red poppy is more than just WW1, it is showing solidarity with all servicemen who died, whatever the battlefield.

    I would have expected a bookstore that trumpets solidarity to realise that the red poppy is about true solidarity, as there can be no greater sacrifice than a comrade giving their life for your right to wear a white one.

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