Poppy Outrage

Next week sees the release of a song in support of this year’s Poppy Appeal. There is also a supporting video which is already available to watch via YouTube.

The song is “No Man’s Land” (aka “The Green Fields Of France”).[1] It’s a song I’ve loved and admired since I first heard it more than thirty years ago.

Despite that reverence – or, perhaps, because of it – I am outraged by this new version. Let me explain that, which has nothing to do with the performance by Joss Stone or the style of the video.

This post is now in its second revision. To be honest, although I’ve long toyed with saying something on the subject of the “Remembrance industry”, I wasn’t sure that I did in fact have anything original to contribute. My first draft was simply what had been in my mind for some time; but, I wasn’t convinced it was worth posting. Indeed, it’s become almost fashionable in recent years to comment on this matter and I wasn’t interested in jumping on any established bandwagon.

With the announcement of the selection of “No Man’s Land” for this year’s Poppy Appeal, I started to think that I might be able to build on the song to say something after all and to that end revisited my draft. Then I heard the thing . . . and here we are at a second re-write, which has me pounding the keys in anger and dismay.

It’s worth recapping the debate on this subject, which has three strands to it.

First, it has to said up front that the campaign promoted by The Royal British Legion (i.e. the Poppy) is primarily a practical fund-raising mechanism, which gathers money to give support in various ways to current and former British military personnel and also to their dependants. Those aims and purposes are not to be decried in any way whatsoever. You should support them.[2]

There’s been some criticism of the corporate sponsorship option, whereby in return for donating companies can use the Poppy in their own advertising. I find it difficult to get worked up about that as a matter of principle: after all, the lifeblood of the organisation is fund-raising and it can’t reasonably be faulted for pursuing new sources of revenue.

Still, it left a bad taste in the mouth when the arms dealer BAE Systems was allowed to use the Poppy in exchange for sponsoring the appeal. That said, the current crop of “corporate partnerships” seems inoffensive enough.

The second strand of the debate concerns the way the act of “remembrance” has been transformed into the promotion of militarism and jingoism (not to mention Unionism).

I dislike this time of year. For one thing, there will be the all-too-predictable behaviour from the supporters of the two main football clubs here in Glasgow: some Celtic fans will stage their usual protest at any attempt to have the Poppy symbol appear on the team’s shirt and also Rangers FC will display various hysterically overdone shows of support for the proclaimed backbone of the Union, namely its armed forces.[3]

Jon Snow, the C4 TV presenter, will make his own protest at what he has called – perhaps a little intemperately – “Poppy fascism”. His objection is to the pressure put on those on TV to wear the Poppy and to do so conspicuously. Even those in shirtsleeves or cardigans, garments after all that don’t come with any suitable buttonhole, are not exempted. Those in the military are compelled to wear the Poppy, which changes its character to that of an item of uniform.

It’s no longer enough for there to be a period of Poppy wearing as the remembrance act of choice for many. Instead, this has morphed into a campaign against anyone who fails to do so. There’s a sick irony in this turn of events: the insistence that not participating in the ritual dishonours those who fought to preserve our freedom, and even that it borders on a treacherous act, is no less than a form of the very tyranny those combatants were meant to be struggling against.[4]

Whilst of course many intend their wearing of the Poppy as a genuine mark of respect for those lost to conflict, it has to be faced that it has become presented as being inextricably linked to an expression of absolute support for the current activities of the UK’s armed forces, with no middle ground being permitted. The narrative is that opposition to war is in effect an act of disloyalty to soldiers, their widows and their families.

The poignant plea of lest we forget has been turned into an implicit mantra of lest we stop supporting war-mongering. Not so much never again as rather repeat as required.

The third strand to this discussion is to ask: why do we need special fund-raising anyway? Why should these specific charities have to exist?

Vital services shouldn’t be left to volunteer groups, working in competition with other good causes for the generosity of the public. If we are prepared to send soldiers to war then the deal has to be that we will support those who suffer mental or physical injury as a result, as well as their dependent families. We should pay in full for the damage done and then keep paying.

Anyway, enough of the background and back to the song.

“No Man’s Land” as written by Eric Bogle has four verses, with a chorus following after each. The first verse sets the scene by describing the gravestone of a Private William McBride, only nineteen when he was killed in 1916.

The second verse has the narrator wondering if the soldier had left behind a loved one to remember him or whether instead his sad fate was to be forgotten, a nameless face in an aging photograph.

The third verse starts by describing the “green fields of France” today, where poppies now grow in peace. It then hits you with this observation:

But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

The fourth and final verse continues with that altered tone. It’s powerful stuff. Here it is in full:

And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you ‘The Cause’?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

You really couldn’t do better in terms of an anti-war message.

In the Poppy Appeal version Joss Stone sings the first verse as written. When it comes to the second verse, she changes the first part of the narrator’s question (“to that loyal heart are you always 19?”) to the definite statement that “in that loyal heart you’re forever 19”. The second part of the question, mooting the possibility that instead poor Private McBride might have been forgotten by all, gets dropped completely.

The chorus gets repeated and then . . . well, that’s all; there’s nothing more after that.

What Stone doesn’t go near at all is the second pair of verses. The stage is all set but the play itself is dispensed with. It seems that wistfulness has been deemed to be on-message, but it is completely unacceptable to have anything which comments on the horror that warfare actually is.

And that’s what offends me so much. The Poppy Appeal rendition of the song strips the heart out of it, removing the intended moral. It’s dishonest and a fraud. Why did they pick this song if they don’t like its core message?

All it does do is to reinforce the idea that what modern Remembrance efforts are all about is disguising the inconvenient reality in the interests of promoting the militarist policies of current governments. Anything that questions the official rhetoric (“The Cause” in the words of the song) is written out of the script.

Attempting to airbrush a century of slaughter is an insult to those who gave so much (or had it taken from them, in truth). The refusal to admit the reality of that carnage suggests that the deaths did not matter after all. Does that truly count as “remembrance”?

Let us remember the dead by all means, but not as the “glorious fallen”, because there was nothing glorious about it. Please do support the appeal; but, you should be wearing your Poppy with sadness, not pride.

The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, for . . . it all happened again.




1. Note that all lyrics quoted above are © Eric Bogle.   A full set of lyrics is available here.

You can find many performances of the song on-line, particularly via YouTube. It’s always worth checking out the writer of a song, in this case Eric Bogle. He does of course use his original lyrics, which is something many following later do not do.

One version I’m particularly fond of is that by the Furey Brothers, for which they used the alternative title of “The Green Fields Of France”. (They are also responsible for most of the alterations to the lyrics that seem to have stuck.)

Forgive them their frequent lapses into mawkish sentimentality; regardless of that, the Fureys are fine traditional musicians. Their version of this song is genuinely affecting.

Perhaps the best version is that by the English folk singer June Tabor. Just her voice and a spare piano backing. She adds an instrumental coda of “The Flowers Of The Forest”, which works very well.

2. You can donate via the Poppy Scotland website. My own preferred choice is to support Erskine Hospital.

3. Of course, it has to be said that a large part of the motivation of these two groups is simply the desire not to be outdone by the loathed rival. Tit-for-tat-ness of the worst kind, with the principal victim being sincerity. A plague on both their houses.

Nonetheless, in relation to the media reaction to the protests by the Celtic fan group (the Green Brigade) there’s a genuine and serious point to be made concerning free speech – or, more precisely, the attempted suppression of it.

A political opinion is not the same necessarily as a sectarian one. Stamping out the latter is what we want, to be sure, but we need to be vigilant about protecting the right to voice the former. That’s the problem with the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, at least with the way it has been interpreted so far in practice.

4. This point has been better expressed previously by others. An excellent contribution is that made by “durchfall” that can be found as one of the comments posted on this 2010 Guardian article.  (It’s on the 5th page of comments for me, but that will vary depending on the configuration of the browser you’re using.)

6 thoughts on “Poppy Outrage

  1. I have always found it ironic that this song been adopted as the anthem for the armed section of the Loyalists in Northern Ireland who have laid Claim to Willie McBride as one of theirs.

  2. Yes. I realise that it’s about a soldier of the British Army, and that they view WW1 as “their” war (for eager participation in which they were rewarded with their mini-state), but they must not be paying attention to the words of the song.

    Bogle does say that the song was inspired by an actual gravestone in a cemetery in France or Flanders. Some claim to have traced the McBride mentioned back to an origin in the Six Counties, but that’s relying heavily on Bogle’s lyrics being a literal rendering of what he saw.

    “19” is suspiciously a convenient rhyme with “1916”. Also, when he wrote this, the Vietnam War was fresh on people’s minds. 19 was reputed to be the average age of US soldiers in that conflict. There may have been a bit of poetic licence at work here.

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