Sunday, 9 November 2014

White Poppies

The other day, someone sold me a white poppy.  I was rather surprised, as I had not heard anything about them since the 1980s, when I was a member of CND.  Along with the poppy came a leaflet about its history, and along with that came thoughts of Siegfried Sassoon.  

The elderly gentleman who sold me the poppy is, as I knew, an ex-Communist - or possibly still a Communist.  I have to admire him for sticking to his principles in a time when it has become unfashionable to declare oneself a pacifist, as though to do so were somehow to negate the sacrifices made by British soldiers in continuing conflicts around the world.  At the time the white poppy first appeared on the streets, in 1934, it was difficult to imagine that the "war to end all wars" would not, at least, keep Britain out of any further wars for the foreseeable future.  Yet, only five years later, the cycle resumed.

The Peace Pledge Union was founded by a canon of St Paul's named Dick Sheppard.  Only a few years older than Sassoon, and himself an old Marlburian, Sheppard had been a chaplain in France during the First World War, but was sent home after suffering a breakdown.  A charismatic speaker despite his repeated bouts of ill-health, he began calling on the public to make a "pledge" of peace in 1934.  The PPU was formally established two years later, in the belief that the Nazi party in Germany could be appeased.  Sadly, Sheppard died the following year, and his legacy was quickly overwhelmed by a growing recognition of the dangers of Fascism.

The movement nevertheless attracted some big names, including the novelists Rose Macaulay and Vera Brittain, and acquaintances of Sassoon's such as Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley.  Its chair was the Labour politician George Lansbury, who continued in the job until his own death in 1940. Siegfried was personally recruited to the cause by Sheppard himself, who wrote to ask him to appear at a peace rally in the Royal Albert Hall in 1935.  Sassoon read some of his own poems at the meeting, and persuaded his friend Edmund Blunden to make a speech on the occasion.

Sassoon would not have taken much convincing.  In 1933 he had written to William Temple, then Archbishop of York, to protest at the Church's apparent support for a war against Germany.  To Ottoline Morrell, he wrote, " is as if the powers of darkness were winning."  The involvement of his wealthy cousin, Philip Sassoon, did not help.  By 1936, Siegfried had become so close to Sheppard that he invited him to officiate at the baptism of his long-awaited son, George.  He continued to appear on the PPU platform even after Sheppard's death, but the excesses of the Nazi regime were beginning to make him have second thoughts about his commitment to pacifism. Although he shared the views of many, that the failure to settle the First World War fairly had led to the situation in Germany, he had begun to change his mind after seeing a Fascist government in action during a visit to Italy in 1937.

Whilst admiring Chamberlain's efforts, Sassoon must have found himself in a quandary comparable with that of recent British governments trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan.  Fully aware of his Jewish roots, he could not have failed to understand that his life would have been in danger if he had been a German citizen.  When the inevitable came to pass, in September 1939, and Heytesbury House prepared to accept the first evacuees, he was resigned to it, but did not welcome it. To his old friend Blunden, he wrote "Edmund, I don't want to write anything about this war."

And indeed he mostly steered clear of the subject, yet it indirectly brought about a work that contains some of Sassoon's most memorable prose: The Weald of Youth.  "It was the war that did it, I think," he wrote to Max Beerbohm, referring to the fact that he had overcome a nasty case of writer's block in order to begin his second volume of autobiography (after a disappointing public response to The Old Century).  The book ends where Siegfried's career as a writer really began - with his decision to enlist on the outbreak of the First World War.  Once, he genuinely had believed that it was the war that would end all wars.

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