Having compiled three newspapers of news 100 from years ago (1912 and 1914, 1916 is still on sale, a bargain) I felt a little detached last week from the news about FIFA’s poppy row.
Don’t get me wrong, the soldiers who died in WW1 should be remembered; their deaths should be commemorated today. But it’s all a bit more complicated than paying a quid and getting a poppy.
As an aside, while WW2 was caused by one man, WW1 was down to struggles for dominance and territory between countries, and royal families, that resonates today. Kaiser Wilhelm II famously made ignorant comments on sensitive topics without consulting his own government, a habit we hope Donald Trump does not repeat. It did not end well for Wilhelm.
But back in 1916 — and it’s the centenary of the Somme this year — it was not so clear cut. It’s true many soldiers patriotically enlisted at the start of the war but that was because their life was so hard at home: the first Biddulph soldiers put on weight as they ate a proper diet for the first time in their lives.
They had no idea of the slaughter that was to come; when they did, men were much less willing to die for king and country. Biddulph men got their names on the payroll at the pits, mining being a protected occupation, but never or rarely went down the pit. This regular absence of a number of healthy men could not happen without a network of support, from fellow miners to the pit owners.
Over in Congleton, the tribunals deciding on who went to war did favours for people they knew, and people tried various dodges — sending brothers to different tribunals and claiming each was indispensable to a family business was a favourite trick. There were no pits in Congleton, but there were armament factories and other places doing essential war work and young men with no previous experience suddenly appeared, indispensable, in essential — and thus protected — jobs.
People seem to have accepted a degree of dodging, reserving their anger for families who had no-one serving or who flaunted their avoidance.
More moving than even the deaths were family members who went so another could stay at home, such as an older brother volunteering and leaving the younger brother on the farm in the hope that his life would be saved.
The men who did go out to fight clearly went through hell. Going through the Chronicles of the war years, it is obvious that the letters home make up the war experiences that veterans famously “never talked about”, and they don’t mention the worst of the trenches — tramping through dead men’s entrails, the rats or the horrific wounds.
But I can’t help feeling that the families at home had it as bad. At least in the trenches you were kept busy, you were not always in the front, and when you were in action, adrenaline kicked in. Death was often instantaneous.
The families at home just suffered constant misery. I have said before that some weeks, there were four or five deaths reported — that’s a Bosley mill disaster every week. Look at the trauma that disaster caused, and then imagine that every week, week in, week out. Worse: imagine knowing that it was going to happen and next week your son or husband could be part of the death toll.
As we said in 1916, “there is scarcely a family in Congleton that has not one or more members serving, and many a family has been robbed of some dear one on the battlefield”.
As if the waiting was not so awful, even bad news could be made worse: men could be posting missing but not dead and families could spend a year or more trying to find out what had happened to their loved ones.
As we commented over one poor Mrs Ridgway: “Although vague rumours of his death reached those at home, they cherished the hope that news would come that he was alive.”
Or a Mrs Bunn, hunting for well over a year: “After many months of weary waiting, she has received news that her son is posted as dead. Even after such a lapse of time the family never gave up hopes that the young Guardsman was alive, so the news came as a great shock.”
Current social pressure has elevated the wearing of a poppy to a level where celebrities are pilloried for not wearing one, but in the 1950s — not so long after World War Two — there was a move to abolish the appeal as support had waned so much.
We’ve covered some pretty poorly attended Remembrance Day parades over the years, and a decade ago we ran an appeal for a Help For Heroes type charity, and received one donation, £20. We were so embarrassed we made it up to £50 ourselves. There was no public mood to support our troops at that time.
Clearly a lack of support is not good but then hounding people who don’t wear a poppy is going too far the other way.
I’d guess the townsfolk of 1914-18 would want you to remember that their men bravely died in the trenches, and donate money to a charity that helped wounded soldiers today.
They would expect you to go to church and pray — the country was far more religious — but we doubt they’d be too bothered about whether you actually wore a poppy. The honour is in the actual remembering, not telling other people you remember.
So, remember the fallen this weekend, but remember they died to give people the choice of being patriotic or not, and showing respect or not. And spare a thought for the families, helplessly suffering at home while their men folk were in the front line being slaughtered.