Guest Blog: A Historical Costumer’s thoughts on nationalism
Reposted with permission from greatwarcommemorations.blogspot.ca
By Tim Soper
Each year in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day I prepare for my ritual appearance in the uniform of a Great War Canadian soldier, this year in the 1915 equipment. This is the equipment that I was researching a year ago, and about which I was sending information, measurements, ideas, and mock-ups to Ashok, in India. From this a set of reproduction 1915 leather equipment has been created including the 1915 haversack, an adaptation from the Oliver Pattern haversack from the 1890s.
This is getting pretty arcane. Why do I do this? On the one hand I am certainly wishing to show off something for which I am proud and find delight in its existence. On the other hand, in the context of Remembrance Day, I am also waving the Canadian flag in some sense and representing that which we nationalisticaly admire and honour. Of course, I hope to elicit the usual interest from the other bystanders who will come to me with interesting tales to tell of the great uncles and grandfathers who fought and died on the Western Front. That part I like best, but do I really want to be seen as a flag waver? I would say that my purpose for being there is that I am remembering my grandfather’s unlucky friend, Reginald Ellsworth Parrott, who died March 5, 1916, buried by a parapet that collapsed after a German retaliatory bombardment. “Polly” Parrott, as he was called by his mates, is seen standing to the right behind my grandfather. This is a studio photograph taken at the Somme, November 1915, one hundred years ago this month. “The Somme” did not yet have its resonance with such slaughter in a single day on July 1 1916. That was to come. But these young men are not warriors out to kill. They strikes me, rather, as having barely left boyhood behind, and they’re out for a lark.
My reasons for being at Remembrance Day are my own, and that is all well and good, but what if I’m seen by others to be supporting something that is counter to my intentions? Anyone on Remembrance Day has to acknowledge that even by being present they are, in some sense, in support of Canada’s role within a military context. Words such as “honour”, “valour”, and “sacrifice” are presumed to be embraced by all of us. Thankfully, the word “God” is not so much used.
On November 5 I participated in a memorial held by a local chapter of a group called Peace Quest
in support of an organization called “The World Remembers“.
Essentially, their intention is to use Remembrance as a way to commit to positive actions and intent which seek to ensure peace without war and conflict. At this event, with the participation of local artists, especially writers and musicians, we saw war as an affliction which affects combatants and noncombatants alike, and equally on all sides.
I had expressed my interest in participating with one of my Canadian uniforms. I was quickly instructed, prior to this event, that participation would require that a German uniform given an equal ranking and space as the Canadian uniform. I was able to oblige. I resurrected my some-what theatrical German uniform from a few years ago and with the addition of new reproduction belt, leather pouches, and a newly minted German backpack of my own making, I was able to give a good rendition of the German soldier in the early days of the war, compete with picklehaub helmet. This is a bad photograph, but here it is:
I think the stand of these organizations is best symbolized in the white poppy. Historically this symbol started in England when people wished to remember the war and to say that war must never happen again. This was a grand aspiration that also produced the League of Nations and, some might argue,Neville Chamberlain’s conciliatory approached the Adolf Hitler. Sadly, the aspirations of all people to a world without strife, and conflict, and bloodshed, seems unattainable these days.
This year, I shall be at the usual Remembrance Day ceremony, in my uniform, wearing my red poppy, and thinking of my grandfather’s friend. I will also be wearing a white poppy. To wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day is to embrace the still prevalent line, that our soldiers sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. I find myself thinking, increasingly, that young men and women die in wars because more powerful forces, be they warlords, politicians, patriotic pride, or industrialists, have failed to create a world where peaceful coexistence is possible or even wanted. Soldiers may be led to believe that they are sacrificing themselves, but I think there are, rather, sacrificed by others who stand to gain power and profit from the outcome of the world they are creating.
A hundred years ago millions of young men were slaughtered, and unenlisted civilians died, because kings and emperors were unable to curb their desire for kingdoms and empires. Had every citizen declared “the emperor has no clothes” then a very different history of the world would have unfolded. I would not be spending my time foolishly making reproductions of Canadian leather military equipment from the time my grandfather was a mere teenager. I’m sure he, and Polly Parrott, would be glad to be remember, but I don’t suppose suppose either of them would wish for the world history that has passed in the hundred years since their sorry sacrifice.
November 19, 2015 @ 7:38 pm
Thanks so much, Tim, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking blog posting. I was at the event at Memorial Hall where your two W. W. I uniforms were displayed. I spent several minutes looking at them, respectful of how well they represented all the many soldiers who had died in that terrible war — and, by implication, all the others dead who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The comments and information you provided in your blog-posting gave such wonderful, added meaning to what I had been looking it. Much appreciated.
What you wrote reminded me of words from the Eric Bogle song, ‘The Green Fields of France’:
And I can’t help but wonder, oh Willy 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 and dying — it was all done in vain.
Oh Willy McBride, it all happened again —
And again, and again, and again, and again.