Carolyn's Business MK Column Oct 2010

Fri 01 Oct 2010

In the next few days, remarkable numbers of ordinary members of the public will turn out at towns and villages up and down the country to mark Remembrance.  Millions of us will buy poppies – the Royal British Legion says thirty million of the buttonhole variety alone will be manufactured – and we will “wear them with pride.”  But it has not always been so.  The idea that soldiers (meaning in this instance all service personnel), are worthy of our thanks and support is a comparatively new one.  So why are former and serving soldiers held in higher public esteem today than ever before?  The answer lies in a hundred and fifty year long Public Relations master class.

In the Parish Registers of Boughton in Norfolk the record of burials for 23rd January 1862 lists  James Smith who died at the age of twenty-five.  Scribbled in the margin presumably by the clergyman who laid him to rest are the words, “Crimean Hero.”  James must have been a very young soldier indeed being only nineteen when that war ended.  What is interesting is that the title of hero would certainly never have been given to him if he had fought in any earlier conflict.  

A new book, “Crimea: The Last Crusade,” by Orlando Figes tells the story of the first truly modern war and the impact it has had on our collective idea of the soldier.  For the first time journalists were embedded with the troops.  For the British establishment it was an opportunistic attempt to slow Russian Imperialism dressed up as a defence of, “poor little Turkey,” just as the First World War was sold as a fight for the liberation of violated Belgium.  Stories of valour maintained support for the war, but, less expectedly, the foul conditions endured by the troops and the attempts by nurses like Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole to care for them also hit the headlines.  As Figes observes, the heroes of previous wars had included men like Wellington and Nelson, Henry V and the Duke of Marlborough.  He says, “Our military heroes were no longer dukes, but the “Private Smiths” or “Tommies” of folklore, who fought courageously and won all Britain’s wars in spite of the blunders of his generals.”  Even Queen Victoria was moved to cast a new medal for courage which was available for the first time for the meanest common soldier, the Victoria Cross.

This marks a dramatic change.  The “media campaign” had transformed attitudes and the soldiers of only the previous generation were fair less venerated.  The men who beat Napoleon in what was then described as the “World War” were for the time extraordinarily disciplined, showed remarkable respect for civilian rights and property and highly successful.  However, even the Duke of Wellington himself said of them, “Our army is composed of the scum of the earth - the mere scum of the earth.”  If a modern day general made such a statement today he would be on the next flight home, but Wellington was only expressing the attitudes of the day.  After the war they were widely blamed for the rise in agricultural unemployment, merely for having the temerity to have survived!

In the period between the Crimea and the First World War, such was their popularity that soldiers were used during war and peace to promote all kinds of goods.  The Red coated warrior was seen on jars and bottles ranging from “Camp Coffee” and “Huntley & Palmers Biscuits.”  The Music Halls got in on the act.  Whereas once their songs were about noble heroes of rank it was now praise for the common soldier which pushed the audience’s buttons.  As pride in Empire grew so did pride in the men of the armed forces, as in Leslie Stuart’s famous song, 

“Soldiers of the Queen:”    
“And when we say we've always won,
And when they ask us how it's done
We'll proudly point to every one
Of England's soldiers of the Queen.”

By the First World War this “cult” of the military had reached such proportions that one point of Lord Kitchener’s famous finger from his famous poster brought such numbers to volunteer the authorities were barely able to cope.  Here our story takes a melancholy and macabre twist.  A mixture of censorship and disbelief meant the public never really understood the true horror of life on the Western Front or the Dardanelles.  During the campaign the truth was largely sanitised, and many men felt unable to tell their stories even when they wanted to.  It was something the people at home just did not want to know about.  They loved their men in uniform but were reluctant to hear the details of death and mutilation suffered in that conflict.  As a result, many did not speak of what they had endured for decades after if ever at all.  Once more it was the power of words, (that effective use of the “key message” in Public Relations terms) which led to some of the servicemen and their families receiving the help they needed once the guns had fallen silent.

“In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,” are the first two lines of John McCrae’s poem which inspired the Poppy Appeal so familiar to us today and for the past ninety years.

The PR machine slipped up a gear in World War Two and singled out heroes who were still alive and fighting.  RAF pilots like Douglas Bader, “Sailor” Malan and Guy Gibson were as significant household names as any General. 

What began as political spin resulted in a kind of “democratisation” of war.  The “anonymous Tommy” was even commemorated at the heart of the establishment in Westminster Abbey at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.  The poppies we wear are not solely in memory of a Montgomery or Harris or Slim.  They are for all the soldiers, as numerous as the blooms of Flanders themselves, and for that we must be grateful to a sneaky bit of Victorian Public Relations.

Back to all articles