Poppies, Paris and the Power of Objects

This article was written and first published after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

Only a week ago the remembrance poppy was still in full bloom as millions remembered the lives of millions, and a time when the world was at war. The human experience of the Western Front is now confined to that conflict’s material culture, yet its horrors remain ingrained in our minds. The continuing oral testimonies of those who experienced the Second War allow us to ‘imagine’ that conflict too, although it won’t be long until those voices are laid to rest in artefacts and the memories of the memories of others. Despite the remembrance poppy being inextricably linked to those lost in the two World Wars, it stands for all who have died in conflict across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, both military and civilian. Yet as those great conflagrations fall further into depths of the past, the poppy becomes harder for younger generations to identify with, in turn making it increasingly difficult for them to ‘remember’ and identify with the realities of war.

Perhaps this is why, according to recent research conducted by the Royal British Legion, 67% of 18-25 year olds questioned did not know when Armistice Day was, and many who did said they would be surfing the net or using social media during the traditional two minutes silence. To combat this, the Legion enlisted the help of celebrities to remind us of why poppies are worn, and when they should be pinned to lapels. The media, and increasingly social media, was then used to promote this endorsement in the hope that 18-25 year olds would follow their idols in sporting the little red flower, the donations for which are put to such good use by the Legion. But are those in their late teens and early twenties that easily influenced by pop groups, reality television stars and athletes? There was a time when this was the case, but social media has changed the dynamics of fame, as well as how we remember. It has also changed the context in which modern warfare is understood – something brought into sharp focus last Friday on the streets of Paris.

The events of 1914 irreversibly changed the concept of a battlefield. The industrialisation of war meant that it was no longer possible to adequately define these places – aeroplanes, submarines, long range artillery and the mass produced machine gun created battle zones, as warfare became a more dynamic entity, as ambiguous as the landscapes on which it was fought. Today the battle zones of modern war are still global, yet the world has seemingly become smaller, constricted by the communications revolution, as the conflicts simultaneously seem further away. Newsreels and newspaper headlines no longer communicate events to us first. Today that is the job of Twitter and Facebook, and although 67% of 18-25 year olds may not know when Armistice Day is, they almost certainly know what occurred in Paris last week.

The hashtag #parisattacks was used in 1.2 million tweets during just 15 minutes on Friday night. The news networks were openly using Twitter for their information and it was impossible to scroll through the messages quick enough as thousands of people relayed the unfolding events in real time. Social media is overwhelmingly the preserve of the younger generation, and although many of these individuals may not have been interested in November 11th or the poppy, it did not take long for new symbols of remembrance to appear on the airwaves last week. Within hours Jean Jullien’s ‘Peace for Paris’ symbol was being retweeted by thousands, striking a chord with many. Facebook soon followed suit, allowing users to superimpose a Tricolore over their avatar image, enabling a show of solidarity with those in France’s capital.

Symbols of memory are contested objects, and just as many discuss the rights and wrongs of wearing a poppy, the appropriate angle of a reverential bow in front of the Cenotaph, and whether or not the little red paper flower still has a place in modern society, so too have these new symbols of remembrance become contested, not over the course of a century, but over the course of a day. On Saturday morning social media was alive with people claiming that the display of an Eiffel Tower peace sign, or a superimposed Tricolore was inappropriate, as it memorialised violent events in Paris at the expense of those in Lebanon and Garissa, Mosul and Aleppo, Homs and Ukraine, The point was valid and echoed the sentiments of Sassoon, McCrae and others, as well as today’s incarnation of the Western Front, all of which surround the remembrance poppy in controversy. The desire for lives of the lost in other parts of the world to be heard above the cacophony of gunfire on the boulevards of Paris is understandable, so it is perhaps surprising that the remembrance poppy, or le Beluet, has not yet appeared in connection with the Paris attacks. That new symbols are required reflects the way modern warfare has become distanced from those in the West, even as it is increasingly played out closer to home.

That the terrible events in Paris were prioritised over similar attacks elsewhere in the world is a symptom of the Western gaze, aided by the proliferation of social media in the developed world where seemingly everyone has a mobile phone and access to Twitter and Facebook. Should one want to, it is easy to find out about events in Africa or the Middle east, but in an age when the horrors of war are communicated via the fast moving platform of social media, events so far away are quickly forgotten, lost in their seeming ubiquity. So too is the reality that despite the President of France saying his country is now at war, France, and much of the world is already at war, and has been for some time.

1914 and 1915 saw the Battles of the Marne and Mons, poisonous gas unleashed around Ypres, the Battle of Loos, the Battles of the Artois and the disaster at Gallipoli as the world plunged headlong into the Great War. A century later, in 2014 and 2015, the world is still on fire, yet it took a catastrophe in Paris for many to realise. The past two years have seen intense fighting in Ukraine, waged by soldiers wearing no insignia on their uniforms, two passenger planes blown out of the sky, the destruction of large swathes of Syria, gas attacks on civilians, devastating bombings in Africa and the Middle East, the offices of Charlie Hebdo attacked, aid workers beheaded on YouTube, drone attacks, remote assassinations, relentless bombing campaigns on IS strongholds, at least six terror plots foiled in the UK this year alone, and almost as many in France. Arguments have erupted in the last few days as to whether more violence should be applied to those who do not share the West’s values, whether suicide bombers should be shot on sight by security forces, and if mass immigration, in large part caused by the continuing world at war, is endangering the lives of those who only experience this ongoing global conflict through social media and nightly news broadcasts.

Warfare since 1914 has created a sensorial No Man’s Land, a place where events are distanced from reality by the lack of visceral contact with it. The never-ending casualty lists in the Great War’s newspapers, the legion of walking wounded in society, and the dogfights above British streets brought home the horrors of the two World Wars, directly imprinting the sounds and sights on those that witnessed them. Today the delivery methods have changed, desensitising us to the realities of industrial conflict. Another bombing in the Middle East fades into the clutter of online noise and opinions on foreign policy in a manner that the same violence in a European capital cannot. Paris could be London or Madrid or Berlin, whereas many Europeans would not even know where Garissa is, or how to find Beirut on a map. Events like those of Friday night take place with increasing regularity in far off places, but in the twentieth-first century, unlike in the one that preceded it, the sound of this gunfire is not heard in Western Europe and the blood of the innocent does not stain our streets. Until it is, and it does.

In January of this year ‘Je Suis Charlie’ became a symbol of remembrance in Europe. Ten months later the Eiffel Tower and the Facebook Tricolore took its place. The next attack, and their will be a next, and a next, and a next, will undoubtedly produce similarly powerful symbols, all of which will be contested. Amongst these new artefacts of remembrance the red paper poppy, along with the blue cornflower, will continue to bloom around November each year as we remember the two major, and countless minor, wars of the last century that dominate our understanding of modern conflict. Yet in reality the type of warfare born on the killing fields of France and Belgium in 1914 has never ended, never left us, and perhaps never will. Over the coming days and weeks many will continue to sport the Tricolore on their Facebook page, or change their Twitter image to Jullien’s Eiffel Tower, and as a consequence perhaps next November the 18-25 year olds will stop surfing the net for two minutes, pause and think. They may even pin a poppy to their lapels and remember all who have had their lives destroyed by the continuing existence of industrialised conflict, not just over the last century, but today, yesterday and last week, in a world that is still very much at war.

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