Remember, Remember, So Many Cruel Novembers: Militarism And Commemoration In The United Kingdom

Remembrance Day was a solemn occasion decades ago, but it has since degenerated into a commercialised and hollow fashion statement, an empty ritual blindly enforced without conviction. Worst of all, since 2011 Red Poppy merchandise, owned by the Royal British Legion, is deployed to justify recruitment drives for Britain’s ongoing and future wars—in complete contradiction to its original purpose. What was once a blistering indictment of the horrors of war, has transformed into a cheerleader of Britain’s disastrous foreign interventions.

British militarism’s appropriation of the red poppy is part of a broader phenomenon, born around the 1980s and most apparent in the Anglosphere: the glorification of World War I. Jamie Swift and Ian McKay say that many Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders today see the battlefields of Flanders and northern France not as reminders of a monumental catastrophe, but as the birthplace of their respective nations. Citizenship guides and school textbooks preach the gospels of the Vimy Myth and the Anzac Legend, now akin to holy writ. The “Great” War is no longer regarded as the graveyard of European, and by extension Christian civilisation, as it was until the late 20th century. Instead, it is venerated as a triumph of democracy, the wellspring of freedom, and the crucible of self-determination, among other treasured values. Questioning these hallowed narratives is fraught with peril. Blasphemers face scorn, censorship, and cancellation.

Whether cloaked in the feel-good nostalgia of Top Gun: Maverick in the US (the most successful blockbuster of 2022 worldwide), draped in the feminist empowerment of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl in India, or packaged in the seemingly harmless escapism of video games like Call of Duty, a highly sophisticated military-entertainment complex conveys the same subliminal messaging: war is a noble endeavour, war is fun, war is aspirational, and perhaps something to celebrate and look forward to. At a time when nuclear confrontation looms ominously over Ukraine and Taiwan, and not mentioning the ballooning number of “small” wars and insurgencies spreading across the globe, this message is profoundly disturbing. We are being taught and primed to accept warfare as the new normal, while alternative methods of conducting international relations are rapidly becoming unthinkable.

Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom should play no part in this insidious mobilization of everyday life. On the contrary, as Alexandre Christoyannopoulos stated previously, poppy rituals must stop indulging in preferential mourning for fallen soldiers and begin to commemorate the victims of Britain’s misadventures abroad. November happens to be one of the cruellest months in the British Empire’s history, a startling record brimming with tragedies worth pondering.

In November 1755, overcrowded coffin ships ferrying thousands of famished and sickly Acadians, the descendants of French settlers and indigenous Mi’kmaq tribes, landed in Massachusetts. British authorities in Canada banished the Acadians from their homelands in Nova Scotia for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Richard LeBlanc says that irrational paranoia, combined with a thinly veiled contempt for the mixed-race, French-speaking, mainly Catholic, and “lazy” Acadians, compelled the British to destroy their peaceful way of life. British soldiers, eager to find any pretence to kill Acadians, according to one officer, set fire to nearly 700 barns, homes, and mills in Minas before deporting the population. In Chignecto, churches and entire villages were burnt to the ground. Countless Acadian refugees, riddled with disease, despair, and scattered far away from friends and family, died in exile. Newspapers like the Maryland Gazette hailed the Acadian genocide as “one of the greatest things that ever the English did in America.”

In November 1828, Governor George Arthur declared martial law in Tasmania, which precipitated the extermination of the Aboriginal population. Following years of murderous clashes with indigenous Tasmanians determined to protect their land, colonial settlers embraced wholesale violence by the late 1820s. Historian Tom Lawson argues that martial law radicalised settler animosity towards the Aborigines. Hefty bounties incentivised the capture of Aboriginal adults and children. Even convicts could earn tickets to freedom if they caught an Aboriginal. Though London officially opposed settler violence against Tasmanians, militarised campaigns designed to erase the Aboriginal presence on the island continued unchallenged until the early 1830s. Journalists like Henry Melville met “Black War” veterans many years later and concluded that Aborigines were often “massacred without mercy.” Stripped of their culture and traditions, survivors eked out a living on pestilential islands in Bass Strait. By the late 1800s, the Tasmanian Aborigine was almost extinct.

In November 1875, British interference in Malaysian politics culminated in the assassination of James Birch, a colonial official. In retaliation, London abandoned its non-intervention policy and sent troops into Perak State to quell resistance to British rule. Michelle Gordon says that innocent Malays paid a terrible price for Birch’s murder. Troops ransacked and burnt down one village after another for weeks in search of culprits as warships blockaded the coastline, which prevented food from reaching civilians. The Times admitted that collective reprisals drove people to flee and seek shelter in the jungle, where many “died a lingering death…with no human aid near.” None of those accused of killing Birch received a fair trial. The Perak War arguably marked the beginning of Britain’s formal annexation of Malaysia—an occupation which only ended after a far bloodier conflict convinced London to leave in 1957.

In November 1913, six years before Colonel Reginald Dyer’s troops massacred peaceful protestors in Amritsar and unwittingly galvanised demands for Indian independence, British Indian Army soldiers slaughtered approximately 1,500 Bhil tribal men, women, and children at Mangarh Hill. Scholars like Rima Hooja and Alf Nilsen found that Bhil chieftains spent decades trying to broker favourable terms of co-existence with colonial governments and their princely collaborators, but to no avail. Marginalised Bhils soon fell under the spell of the charismatic Guru Govindgiri, who promoted social reform and railed against caste, unpaid labor, and onerous taxes. Fearing a Bhil insurrection, princely kingdoms pressured colonial authorities to suppress Govindgiri’s movement in Mangarh. Soldiers incessantly and indiscriminately fired upon the crowd for two hours. Hundreds lay dead after the dust settled, while Govindgiri and around 900 Bhils were imprisoned.

The memory of this abhorrent crime, much like the red poppy industry in the UK, is being cynically exploited today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the state of Rajasthan to devise a plan for the construction of a memorial to commemorate the Mangarh Massacre. The potential for electoral gain among tribal communities, rather than any genuine interest in honouring the victims of British imperialism, may explain why the BJP is suddenly so keen to memorialise the Mangarh Massacre. According to The Wire, Modi is courting the tribal vote, especially since more and more Bhils believe the BJP is dumping polluting industries on their land.

In November 1920, after the IRA (Irish Republican Army) assassinated numerous British intelligence agents in Dublin, British troops and PTSD-addled paramilitaries known as the “Black and Tans” stormed a Gaelic football match in Croke Park in search of suspects. They opened fire, killing fourteen people and injuring over a hundred spectators. The Irish Mirror reported that the youngest victim, Jerome O’Leary, was ten years old when he was shot in the head. Jane Boyle, aged twenty-eight, was due to get married a week later. She was buried in her wedding dress. “Bloody Sunday” hastened the end of the Irish War of Independence—and poisoned relations between Britain and Ireland for generations.

Finally, in November 1944, in a Greece freshly liberated from German occupiers, British authorities rehabilitated and armed hundreds of fascists and Nazi collaborators to rebuild the Greek army. Winston Churchill, who was inclined to view Greece not as a sovereign nation but a colonial satrapy, preferred to entrust the fate of post-war Athens to former “Security Battalion” members and policemen, renowned for having tortured and executed thousands of their own people, rather than cede power to popular left-leaning or communist partisans. The Guardian reported that outraged and horrified Athenians marched in droves to oppose this betrayal in December 1944 – only for British snipers and fascist-aligned security forces to mow them down. The Syntagma Square Massacre was the opening salvo of the Greek Civil War.

British complicity in Greece’s descent into fratricidal warfare should not be overlooked. London overtly and covertly backed collaborators responsible for unleashing a “white terror” throughout the country, which saw thousands of ordinary citizens rounded up and detained in concentration camps. Sir Charles Wickham, the architect of the notorious anti-Catholic “B” and “C” Specials in Northern Ireland, headed a “British Police Mission” and oversaw the recruitment and training of a new police force filled with ex-fascists and Nazi sympathisers. By 1949, historian John Newsinger says that the civil war claimed over 100,000 lives before communist insurgents either surrendered or fled. Nearly a century later, Greek society has yet to fully recover.

Many more examples could be added to the list. The RAF (Royal Air Force)’s relentless firebombing of German civilians in Dresden, MI6’s destabilisation of Iran, the brutal torture of Cypriot nationalists in Cyprus, the displacement of Chagossian islanders, the alleged rape of Kenyan women, the British arms industry’s support for Saudi Arabia’s cataclysmic war in Yemen and, according to a recent academic study, the 165 million policy-induced excess deaths at the height of the British Raj in India—a staggering figure that surpasses the combined death tolls accumulated under fascism, Stalinism, and Maoism.

There is never any shortage of victims to remember, only a lack of courage to confront our own sins. British war commemorations, whether they be rituals or monuments, must make room for Britain’s imperial past and acknowledge the inglorious truth that soldiers can commit heinous crimes as well as admirable feats in the name of king and country. Only then will the red poppy cease to represent a stifling, dogmatic, and intolerant secular religion, or myopic patriotism, and become a symbol of compassion, meaningful reflection, and thoughtful debate.

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