Adam Williams is a second-year geography student at King’s. He describes himself as a bit of a leftie with a penchant for the Welsh rugby team. He also likes to consider himself as having a different view of the world to most.
Upon its creation, the poppy was a simple gesture of remembrance and, yet, today it has become deeply politicised as people debate what it means. Standing in the Scott Polar museum during the minute silence, I noticed that I was only one of few wearing a poppy. To me, it’s natural – I’ve always worn one. I see it as a part of my duty as a British citizen, conforming to the national memory of mourning, tragedy and loss through conflicts that have claimed the lives of millions.
Yet, how we remember conflict is changing through various ways. Recently FIFA banned the poppy from appearing on player’s armbands for the England vs Scotland football game, justifying this as a ban on political statements given the Association’s apolitical stance. There is also the white poppy, meant to remember all who have suffered in conflict past and present, including civilians, refugees and the innocent. Finally, popular culture and technology has latched onto the idea of remembrance. The videogame producers Dice recently released the popular Battlefield 1, an action game in which the player experiences the First World War in graphic detail and intense violent simulations of some of the deadliest parts of the conflict. Moreover, there is a system where upon death, a name and the birth and death date of the individual emerges, contextualising the game’s protagonists in the realistic scale of the slaughter that occurred in the conflict. Many critics posit that the game trivialises the conflict and its violence, as well as the memories of the people that took part. What emerges out of these different examples, from politics to gaming, is that we think about conflict differently, often with a grand narrative of national sadness and political underpinnings.
What these examples show is that our perceptions of conflict are expressed in different ways. But, the key to looking at conflicts, in particular the First World War, is through discussion. Discussion between different peoples about the conflict is integral to the creation of a powerful reminder of what violence can cause. This is especially important when international commentators remind us, a century since the battle of the Somme, that we face geopolitical crises across the world in Syria, Colombia, Ukraine and the South China Sea.
However, I want to take a different route, and move away from the grand political narratives that we often attribute to the First World War. We should focus on remembering the individuals. After the research trip and the minute’s silence, I went to the Chapel. King’s Chapel holds also the King’s Wall of remembrance for its dead from both World Wars. It’s a sobering sight, and all should visit. The memorial is more secluded than at other old colleges, but, like the other colleges, the list of the dead is long. It makes you step back and think about the cost to the college when you see the extent of the list. In fact, in 1916, King’s only had three students in residence (due to them being medically unfit for duty), the rest were serving in the theatres of conflict. When you look at the list, you see famous names such as the poet Rupert Brooke, a fellow at the college. Remarkably still, there is also is inscribed a German name, representing in darker side to the university’s international reach which we celebrate today.
The effect is sobering.
As one stares at all these names and the anonymity of their faces, their experiences, and their dreams, one realises: that could be me. I myself am 19, the legal age at the time for British Army conscription. Indeed, as a British national, I had family who fought on the western front at Ypres and the Somme, where many on the wall of the Chapel probably lost their lives. They were lucky and survived, if they didn’t, well, I wouldn’t be here. After all, I’m fully aware of my positionality. I am western, white and male, I would have been seen as the ‘perfect’ individual to be send into the meat-grinder of trench warfare on the western front. Visiting last summer one of the many cemeteries in the killing fields, I was struck by a circular wall of remembrance to those in the Arras region. It bore alone the names of the individuals, no rank, religion or nationality. Walking around, the list of names just keeps growing. Rare are sights so sobering. As I started to reach the end, I discovered people with the same surname as me. As I glanced through the Williamses, I saw my own exact initials. ‘A.D. Williams’. Perhaps it sounds trivial, for this man is not me and his story is a tragedy like many, nor could I ever understand his experiences. But, like looking at the memorial wall in the Chapel, the sinking feeling of realisation hit me.
To think that a hundred years ago I would be forced to go in combat and kill people! Boys like me – some even younger – had no choice, or volunteered having no idea what they would witness. They were sent into the midst of the first industrial war in human history that claimed the lives of 17 million people from around the world. It is haunting and it should be for our generation. We, who a century ago, would have been the victims of this catastrophe.
This is why I wear a poppy. It will be different for everybody, and should be, because we will interpret the poppy and remembrance of conflict differently. My view perhaps appears self-centred; after all, what scares me is imagining myself in combat and the likely possibility of death. Moreover, I’m fortunate never to have suffered in the way people have in the past and continue to do so today. The grand political narratives that shaped the conflict and how we perceive it in national memory, is focused on the individuals. People. People who, like my namesake, had hopes and dreams, but unlike us, these were cut short by war.
These are the people I choose to remember; this is the reason I wear a poppy.