Sally Hall: Often considered flawed, but poppy is still powerful symbol

LEST WE FORGET: A ceramic poppy  at the Tower of London. PIC: PA
LEST WE FORGET: A ceramic poppy at the Tower of London. PIC: PA
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It was known as ‘The war to end all wars’. But, sadly, as we mark the centenary of the start of World War One - and pause for the solemn silence of Armistice Day today - we know that was far from true.

All of those lives lost, those families riven apart. From Germany to the Indian subcontinent, it wasn’t just British soldiers whose youth was cut short by the savage brutality of war.

And yet, as the cascade of 888,246 ceramic poppies radiating out from the Tower of London as part of the now-complete exhibit ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ so powerfully demonstrates, our small island lost so many men.

Poppies are a powerful symbol for the war-dead. One which is not without its controversies and complexities - but even a flawed symbol enables a focal point for remembrance.

In contrast, the mental impact of war on survivors of conflict has no such marker. It remains invisible, unmarked and unseen.

Recently I heard a debate on the radio about the current tendency of the English language to usher in euphemism and obfuscation when once meanings were clear.

A comedian gave the example of the transition from ‘shellshock’ – a diagnosis typically offered to World War One veterans suffering the after-effects of battle trauma – to the modern-day ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD), a gobful of a diagnostic label that the comedian dismissed as mealy-mouthed.

The counter-argument to this identified that improvements in treatment for soldiers suffering war trauma have followed the acknowledgement of it as an illness with a credible label – PTSD – in contrast to what was on offer when the reference point was a whispered and dismissive term (‘shellshock’) that barely touched the sides of the experience.

Later this week I’m heading to Darlington to see the theatrical adaptation of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s best-selling, and incredibly powerful, 1991 novel about psychiatry and the First World War.

The play, staged at the Civic Theatre, has been hailed in reviews as a sensitive and deeply moving production.

It focuses on a bitter irony facing pioneering psychiatrist WHR Rivers, who agonises about ‘curing’ men of their terror of war only to prepare them to go back and fight again, with the likelihood they will be killed.

Fear of slaughter is, of course, entirely rational, and does not constitute any sort of madness at all.

Yet when men are forced to remain in a place of infinite terror and brutality, their minds may be expected to rebel in unforeseen ways.

The experience of British soldiers in the 21st century carries with it a new battery of horrors, including confusion about what constitutes an enemy or an ally, futility attached to campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, frequency of head injuries following IED explosions (which compounds PTSD, and is commonly seen alongside it).

What we remember today, though, in the sacrifice made by that earlier generation (none of whom now remain alive) is the unthinkable obedience of all those men who marched towards their death in the trenches of the First World War.

No matter how much their minds rebelled against the futility and horror, their legs kept them trudging through the mud.

In a world where soldiers were expected to deal with shellshock by applying a stiff upper lip, this fundamental dissonance was never really confronted or explored.

Perhaps today we can reflect on the gains we have made in understanding and acknowledging the impact of mental ill-health on both soldiers and civilians, as well as honouring the men who died.

Sarah Champion MP

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