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

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.