For over three decades, the conservationist Loki Schmidt Foundation has selected Germany’s “Flower of the Year” for the twelve months ahead. For 2017 they chose the poppy.
It is a worthy choice. You might not believe it when you look into the British press during the autumn months but the poppy is a much neglected species, so much so that it is even at risk of becoming an endangered one.
Modern farming methods, including the use of pesticides and deep ploughing, have meant that poppies are having a hard time of it across Europe, and Germany is no exception. The poppy was chosen to highlight the plight all those species of wild flower currently under threat.
They are great attractors of pollinators: bees, butterflies and the like — and are very good for the ecosystem. They are tough, too. I love the fact that at this time of year they grow just about anywhere and most of all I love that shade of red, bright with an orangey pink hue that is quite unique. The paper ones just can’t match that colour.
I see some out of the train window growing between the stones on the waste grounds of the marshalling yards. I have crossed into the Netherlands heading for Arnhem, in order to check out one of those moments of British military history that the poppy has been chosen to symbolise.
I shan’t confuse you too much with the details of the Battle of Arnhem. If you’re interested then Michael Caine and Sean Connery explaining it very well in the film A Bridge Too Far. I am looking at the mass of blue and red arrows splashed over a map of the city and its environs and I am completely bewildered.
The date would help I suppose: September 1944 –as would a bit of context.
The motives were purely honourable. The Allies hoped that by moving northwards through the Netherlands they could circumvent the Nazi defences and enter Germany via the back door. Thus, reasoned high command without a hint of irony in respect of the previous global conflict, World War Two would be “over by Christmas”.
A cunning plan was devised. In order to secure a route through Holland, four bridges had to be captured from the Germans. Arnhem was the last, the gateway to Germany. It was also the furthest away. The Americans would take the first three, Arnhem would be a job for the British 1st Airborne Division.
Had things gone according to plan, around 9,000 British troops would have been dropped by parachute around the city, held the bridge against small numbers of lightly armed German infantry until their allies arrived. The cold, callous hand of Murphy had other ideas.
Murphy’s law stalked the operation at every stage. “Three days of good weather” were apparently all that was required. They got thick fog. Troops and equipment could not take off from England, let alone land in the Netherlands.
Radios did not work and communication broke down. Food and ammunition were dropped out of reach of the troops. The Americans were held up further south by unexpectedly heavy resistance.
The same heavy resistance split the British forces into two while the river cut them off from a Polish brigade which might well have saved the day.
In the end, instead of 9,000 Allied troops holding the bridge for two days against a few German raw recruits, 675 British soldiers held the bridge for four days against a German force supported by tanks and armoured vehicles. The British had rifles and grenades.
The British soldiers’ courage, dedication and professionalism are hard to question. The heroism was collective but it was also individual. Spare a thought for Private Alfred Willington if you will, who threw himself in the way of a Nazi grenade to save a Dutch mother and her son. There are dozens of stories like this: What is remarkable about Arnhem is not that it failed but that it very nearly succeeded.
Sadly, in the end their efforts were not enough. Of the 13,000 troops dropped around Arnhem, around 2,000 were killed and 7,000 captured before the British surrender. The Bridge was never taken and the war dragged on for the next eight months. The Poles were made the scapegoats.
The people of Arnhem have not forgotten. Arnhem is possibly the most pro-British town in all of continental Europe. The Dutch really are friendly. They are also terrible show-offs.
When I first came to the Netherlands over twenty years ago, the rule of thumb was that anybody who looked under fifty would be able to answer any query you had in perfect English. Now, the rule is that you can pretty much ask anyone. The Dutch are also very progressive.
I always try my best with the language but it’s pointless. Show offs that they are, they always answer in English. Not that it’s ever stopped me having a go mind you. I’m on the main square right now looking at a sign outside the Body Shop:
Body Butter: Was 12€ -Nu 8€
Easy if you know how.
If knowing a few words of the language won’t win you any points with the locals then there are other strategies you can try. I’m here with my bike today and have gone for my most garish sporting ensemble: orange trainers, orange socks, orange shorts and an orange rain jacket. Orange is the Netherlands’ national colour.
The lady at the bridge museum is very helpful. She would have prefered a kilt she says, but the hup Holland hup look is just fine. She draws out a map which takes me over the bridge into enemy territory, five miles along the river to where the Poles were stranded.
From there I can take a ferry across to the village of Oosterbeek and the infamous Hartenstein Hotel, the British Headquarters during the fight. Nowadays this is home of the Airborne Museum, a permanent exhibition detailing the events of the battle.
The ride there is very pleasant. For all their progressivism, the Dutch are great conservationists. Everything looks as green and rustic as it does in the film. A ferry is waiting and I cross the river — General Sosabowski’s Free Polish Brigade did not have that luxury.
After a climb up a hill so uncharacteristically steep that I suspect the Dutch government have put it there to annoy the tourists, I reach the Airborne Museum.
That too looks just like in the film, but only from a certain angle. The original hotel now has a huge glass extension on one side and is in the process of further expansion. Business is so brisk that an extra floor has been added in the cellar.
The glass construction houses the ticket office and gift shop; it is doing a steady trade in replica Parachute Regiment berets, poppy-themed tealights and scented candles, plastic toy soldiers and model aircraft. I am told that the souvenir shops around the World War One battle sites are in much worse taste.
The tour begins with an introductory film in the cinema area. It is available in three langages. You make your choice by pushing a button and the rest of the audience just jolly well has to accept it. I am beaten to the button on three occasions and watch it three times in Dutch. I get the gist of it then set off around the glass cabinets full of waxwork Nazis.
I am being cynical. The exhibits vary between slapstick and macabre, as is the case in most war museums –but the explanations and the personal accounts are well expressed and make interesting reading.
The museum staff are honest enough to admit that the collection needs to evolve. Current plans involve emptying a couple of rooms of flame throwers and rocket launchers and restoring them to what they once were, a Dutch country villa. It is the only such building in the area open to the public.
I find a quiet corner and a film about the annual memorial service. Here too, thoughts are turning to the future. Veterans of the battle still travel to the parade and memorial service every year but every year they are fewer in number. As long as they are there, say the organisers, nothing will change. Nonetheless, the commemorations must evolve if they are to remain relevant to future generations.
I find it hard to disagree. Our attitude to remembrance has become stagnant. For as long as I have lived, the format of the Remembrance Day service has remained the same. The march past of the veterans, two minutes of silence, the last post on the bugle, a reading from Rudyard Kipling.
Things change as time marches on. When I was the kid then you still saw veterans of the Great War in the parades, now even those who fought in the second war are but a handful in number.
Our view of history has also undergone a thorough revision.
When I was at school, we learned about phrases such as “benign dictatorship” to describe the British Empire –a harmless institution which we were not to be ashamed of. We were told that those who “gave their lives” (itself an inappropriate synonym for “who were killed”) in Britain’s wars did so “so that we might be free”.
Asking why the British Empire was good while the German one was bad singled you out for accusations of flippancy and ingratitude. “If it wasn’t for them” your teachers would tell you “you’d be speaking German now!”
What is it that the English football yobs like to sing when facing continental opposition? “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be krauts.” There’s a link there, I swear it.
You assumed that America’s assistance was the product of a mystic Anglo-Saxon blood tie that anchored them forever by our side and which could be taken for granted at any time. You never thought for a moment that American help could be conditional. George W. Bush and Donald Trump changed all that.
The result was a cultural arrogance born of an acceptance of prepackaged notions passed down through the generations. We won the war, it was a war of light against darkness and those who died in the conflicts willingly did so in order that I might enjoy a better quality of life.
The British public’s thirst for history has forced a re-examination of the facts. Britain’s former empire can no longer be ignored. More than ever, the experience of empire is being subjected to the microscope treatment and Britain’s “good guy” status has become relative.
It is also no longer taboo to question the Anglo-American dynamic. Historians now make it clear that President Roosevelt saw the British Empire as the lesser of two evils and demanded its dismantling as the price of his help.
The current Remembrance Sunday format worked well enough as long as it coincided with the wishes of veterans to (quite rightly) commemorate their contribution. Without a living link to the past it is open to abuse.
Poppy candles are at the more tasteful end of the range of merchandise on offer. I once saw Passchendaele poppy beer in a bar in Belgium for example. Dodgy souvenirs are increasingly easy to come by.
The subject of the war has also become political capital. Did our soldiers fight and die so that Britain could be free from continental hegemony or was it so that there could be peace across the continent? Both arguments use excessive teleology, arguing with the benefit of hindsight to reach 21st century aims.
This is one of my real pet hates. At Arnhem they fought because the generals told them to. They died because the generals were too ambitious. The rest is speculation.
The poppy itself has become political. When I was a child they appeared on or around the eleventh of November; now the first appearance of poppies on the jackets of politicians coincides roughly with the start of the football season.
Finally, the act of remembrance itself becomes corrupted. Putting on a poppy is meaningless if we blindly accept the well-worn mantras handed down from our youth. Accepting without question the notion that “they gave our lives so that we might be free” gives an undeserved legitimacy to the horrors our soldiers had to face.
It compartmentalises, allows us to deal with the past in ways we can control, to exclude inconsistencies and block out uncomfortable truths. We seek closure when in fact the door should be left open, preferring instead the easy answer. In choosing to remember, we often unconsciously choose to forget.
The bravery of our troops is something we must always be aware of and must never take for granted. This includes the living and not just the dead. The serving members of our armed forces make enormous sacrifices on a daily basis and their contribution deserves more recognition.
I would like to see the sort of event that encourages people to think about the contribution our soldiers make. We should celebrate heroism and not martyrdom. Perhaps the new Armed Forces Day could be a good start.
We should also be encouraged to think more about the abuses they face from our government. Currently our legal system is digging up the cases of veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict with a view to sending them to prison. Be it Waterloo, Belfast, Arnhem or Afghanistan, we are not good at talking about what happens to heroes when they become surplus to requirement.
Perhaps we should keep Kipling as part of the memorial. He may have been the bard of the British Empire but his Ballad of Tommy Atkins, from where we actually get the word “Tommy” sums up an attitude to soldiers which recurs throughout British history:
For it’s “Tommy this”, an’ “Tommy that”, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot.
We also need to be encouraged to find out the truth for ourselves. Access to history is more widespread than ever before. There is no reason to blindly accept the interpretations passed down to us from our schooldays. Either they pass the test of history or they do not.
I have one last stop on my bicycle tour: the war graves. The men who died at Arnhem are still here, lined up neatly under rows of little white headstones, some with names and flowers, others known only unto God. I pay my respects in the most appropriate way I can think of: I wait outside the gate. I have no desire to walk through a graveyard in my bright orange cycling gear.
I stand there for a minute or so in reflection. They lie here, Dutch civilians on one side of the street, British soldiers on the other. Outside the Dutch cemetery is a sign which I try to decipher.
No dogs without leads.
No artificial flowers.