Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Armistice Day Thoughts

As the clock strikes eleven on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the world commemorates Armistice Day, the silencing of the guns of the First World War and the start of an uneasy peace.

Well, let's be honest, "the world" mainly means Great Britain, its Commonwealth, France and the Low Countries, those nations which lost more of their young men to the conflict than any other.

We don't normally think about the Germans because, well, we acknowledge they started it, and we don't normally think of the Russians because by the end of the war, they'd been through the October Revolution and the birth of the Soviet state, which had much more of a monumental effect on their future. And we don't think of the other two empires whose collapse the War precipitated, Austro-Hungary down the east of the Mediterranean sea, or the Ottomans, still further away.

Although proudly British, my cultural and genetic roots are far from here. Looking upon the seas of white crosses marking the Allied killing grounds of northern France and Belgium you won't find my surname or many like it. In fact, look at any statistics and you'll find there were no great numbers of Polish casualties of the Great War.

It's not because there weren't tens of thousands of Polish young men involved in the fighting. It's just that (and this is news to an alarming number of people), there was no Polish state at all during World War One and so the fallen don't count as Polish nationals. The country had been wiped off the face of the European map by the end of the 18th century and its territory divided up between the Russians, Prussians, Germans and Austrians. Thousands of young men, ethnically Poles, were forced to fight in the armies of their occupiers against their natural allies, or simply taken into slave camps or became prisoners of the state, partly to prevent the development of the Legions .

For Polish people, while 11th November remains an opportunity to remember the war dead lying in unmarked and forgotten graves across Europe and the Russian steppes, it is primarily the festival of the rebirth of a nation, the restoration of a physical entity whose existence had been denied for over 120 years.

My father was born at the start of the Great War and while he never talks of these things, I am always conscious, every 11th November, that he had been born in a country that didn't exist, but by the time he started school, he was one of the first children in three generations in his area allowed to go to a Polish school, run by Polish people, and taught in his own language completely openly without fear of repression or abuse.

So yes, I bow my head at 11am and think of tens of thousands of dead young men and their distraught families and I thank them for their sacrifice, but I also think of a country reborn, of hope that the future must be better than the past, and that a better future is always worth fighting for.

The red poppy has become the international symbol of Armistice Day and in the UK more than any country, we are encouraged to buy a facsimile and wear it with pride in memory of those who gave their lives for ours. For Poles, however, that symbol has a very slightly different meaning and is emblematic not of the killing fields of World War One, but the Allied operation to liberate Italy in World War Two (which is not to undermine its being the symbol of the fallen of all wars).

Every Polish-speaking child knows by heart Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino (The Red Poppies On Monte Cassino), a hymn to bravery, honour and sacrifice, written during the battle for Monte Cassino not far from Rome in May 1944. Read about the background of both the battle and the song on Wikipedia .

Oh and my dad was there, too, and it's something else he chooses not to talk about.

Every time I see the seas of red poppies in the first half of November on British streets and look down upon the one I wear myself, it's invariably this song I end up thinking about and singing to myself. And by the end, my eyes are never dry. There are several versions floating around online and I'm not really that taken with any of them, and there are also various translations into English, but I have problems with all of those two.

Please persevere with the song, and here is my non-poetic, non-scanning translation (I'm not a poet in any language) of the words:

Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino
The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino

Do you see those ruins on that hill?
Your enemy's hiding there like a rat!
You have to! You have to! YOU HAVE TO
Grab his neck and drag him from his heights!
And they moved on, mad, heedless,
And they moved on to kill and avenge,
And they went as stubborn as ever,
In honour's name, to fight.

The red poppies on Monte Cassino
Fed not on dew, but on Polish blood...
Polish soldiers crawled over and died on them,
But their anger was more potent than death!
Years will pass and the ages will dull memories,
Only traces of bygone days will remain,
But the poppies on Monte Cassino
Will be redder
From the Polish blood on which they thrived.

They charged through fire, the condemned,
Countless were hit and fell,
Like the cavalry at Samosierra,
They charged with furious momentum
Like those at Rokitna years ago.
And they persevered. And they prevailed.
And planted their white and scarlet standard
In the ruins in the clouds.

The red poppies on Monte Cassino...

Do you see this row of white crosses?
Polish soldiers did honour there wed.
The further, the higher you go forward,
The more of them you'll find at your feet.
This soil belongs to Poland,
Though Poland is far away,
For Freedom is measured in crosses -
This is History's curse.

The red poppies on Monte Cassino...

(25th Anniversary verse, not included in any recordings)

A quarter of a century, friends, has passed us,
The battle's dust has blown to the winds
And the monastery's white walls
Again reach to the sky.
But the memory of those terrible nights
And the blood which was spilled here -
Echoes in the monastery's bells
Rocking the fallen to their rest!

The red poppies on Monte Cassino...

Later in the day... While sorting through some old bits and pieces of paper, totally by coincidence I found a photograph of myself in a group at the Monte Cassino war cemetary while on a school trip to Italy. See if you can find which one's me! ;-)


  1. Thank you for that, I have to confess it's an aspect I had not previously considered. You've certainly given me something to think about.

  2. An interesting perspective indeed! Thank you.

  3. Beautiful post Plum thank you for sharing this!

  4. Such an interesting article. Also emotional for me as both my parents were Polish. My dad, who died 29 years ago, fought in the Polish army against the Nazis during WW2, but never spoke of his wartime experiences. My mother, who was deported from Poland by the Russians during WW2 often talks about the bravery and fighting spirit of the Polish soldiers at Monte Cassino. Jeszcze Polska nie zginela! Dziekuje sliwka. (Thank you Plum)

  5. An excellent blog post!

    I like that you looked at it not from a Western perspective, and brought at least a little awareness to the role played by the east in WWI. We all know about the Russian involvement in WWI, and the fact they stumbled out of war in 1917, but there's barely a mention of Poland in the 'popular history' of this period.

    Interestingly, Poland and Britain are much more connected in WW2 (for obvious declaration-of-war reasons) and yet we still have only the vaguest idea in the general public's mind as to what happened in the east, unlike the west.

    Not so sure about your song though... I'd much rather a nice bit of Elgar. ;-)

    Nicely done!

  6. Monte Cassino is a place that draws emotion from any being - I was there as a child/teenager and felt more then than any historian could hope to convey.
    Many people forget that 11/11 is not just a British thing, but that many other perspectives are applicable ---- nice to see that you are adjusting the balance accordingly.

  7. My own roots are Scottish (mother's side), and Lithuanian (paternal grandfather's side), though probably ethnically German (my grandfather's family was protestant). Nonetheless, as I'm sure you know, Poland and Lithuania formed a commonwealth for centuries that was for a long time the largest state in Europe and also the most ethnically and religiously diverse and tolerant -- it refused to get involved in the 30-years war and generally refused to burn heretics. Vilnius/Wilno had Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Catholic, and (various) Protestant and Armenian churches, Syntagogues of various Jewish mainstream and "heretical" versions, and even (Tatar) Mosques. Poland and the other lands of the former commonwealth now in Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, etc., suffered the most of all the regions of Europe both during and after WWII, not only through the Holocaust, from which Poland lost 3 million Jewish citizens, but from other Nazi murders (including the murder of 3 million other Poles for being too intellectual or otherwise not good "slave race" fodder), and then later from the ethnic cleansings of Germans out of Eastern Europe from where they had lived for the better part of 1,000 years (enacted largely by Stalin but aided and abetted by the allies) and of Poles from the eastern Kresy regions of the former commonwealth. All part of a series of ethnic cleansings that began in and after WWI (with the Greeks, Ottomans, etc.) and climaxed at the end of WWII and gave western europe the ability to be smug about the Balkans in the 90s due to their collective amnesia about war crimes we've chosen to forget (not to equate the allies' relocation of the Germans to the Holocaust, but a war crime is still a war crime, even if a lesser one, and even if, in some sense, somehow "deserved").

    Two exceptional reads on the topic:

    Holocaust, the Ignored Reality (The New York Review of Books, July 2009:, and the fabulous book Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 by Timothy Snyder, where you can learn -- if you didn't already know -- that the National Epic Poem of Poland, Pan Tadeusz, begins with the words "O Litwo!" -- a "paradox" only to those for whom Nationalism is not a dirty word.

  8. Just seen this - I never knew this - and the poetry transfixed me. Thank you.