Saluting war veterans – then and now -From poppy to suriyamal and back to poppy
Posted on November 10th, 2014

By Janaka Perera

Poppy Day November 11 this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.   I recall over 50 years ago during our school days our teachers told us to observe two minutes silence at the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month to remember the dead of both World War I and World War II although Sri Lanka was spared of the horrors other nations faced during the two conflicts.

 Few of the present generation are however aware of the controversy surrounding Poppy Day which had its origins in World War I (1914-1918). The four-year conflict left some 10 million dead and 20 million injured. It was called the Great War or the ‘War to End All Wars’ – one of the biggest myths of the 20th Century. The day the war ended was also known as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day.

 Calling it a World War however was a misnomer since the conflict hardly affected Asia. The only time Sri Lanka and India came to closest to that conflict was when the German light cruiser Emden sneaked into the Bay of Bengal on August 30, 1914.  The raider shelled oil installations in Chennai (then Madras) and sank or captured a total of 11 ships plying between Sri Lanka and India before the Australian Cruiser Sydney attacked the Emden and set her ablaze off Cocos Islands.

 Over 300 Sri Lankan volunteers fought in the campaigns and battles of World War I. Of these 45 died. Sixty-five of the volunteers were from Trinity College, Kandy. Thirteen of them were killed, 18 wounded and two taken prisoner.  In Trinity’s Cadet Room stands a World War I German machine gun, which the British had captured when they were winning the war. King George had gifted the weapon to the school as a mark of gratitude. Trinity became the first school outside England – on the other side of the British Empire to be thus honoured.

 Among the young men who saw action were Richard Aluvihare (who later became independent Sri Lanka’s first Inspector General of Police), T. Halangoda, P.D. Pelpola and D.B. Seneviratne who was the most decorated WWI Sri Lankan volunteer and hero of the French theatre of the war. He was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry and served as a sergeant with the British Army of Occupation in Germany from 1918 to 1919.  Later promoted to the rank of major his picture hangs in the Regimental Museum of the Ceylon Light Infantry – the Sri Lanka Army’s oldest regiment – at the Panagoda Army Cantonment. Pelpola was the only Sri Lankan, who had the honour of being elected a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen. The country’s only major tragedy in that war was when 14 student volunteers perished when the Germans torpedoed the troopship Ville de la Ciodat in the Mediterranean in December 1915. 

.Coming back to poppies they were small red plants that grew on the graves of World War I soldiers buried in Northern France and Belgium, especially in the latter’s Flanders Province. The soil disturbances caused by trench-digging and shellfire produced the ideal conditions for poppies to grow.  These flowers symbolised the first sign of life after death and inspired Canadian officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who fought second Battle of Ypres in Flanders, to write the well-known poem:

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row…”

 Since the publication of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields in 1915 the poppy has become an international symbol of remembering fallen soldiers.

 But between the two world wars it became a controversial issue in Sri Lanka (then colonial Ceylon). The Left and many others treated Poppy Day as pure and simple poppycock – a means of colonizing the minds of the natives, who gained nothing from the ‘Imperialist War’ (World War I), which had no relevance to the colonized nations.

When the British colonial regime began commemorating Armistice Day every year by selling poppies and donating the proceeds to World War I veterans a Sri Lankan Valentine Pereira and others complained that their comrades weren’t getting their fair share of the funds. Monies collected by the sale of artificial poppies went to meet the needs of disabled war veterans (mostly British, Australian and Canadian) in the Empire.

 In 1931 Aelian, a member of the official Poppy Day committee, and also President of the Youth Congress, decided to start a parallel committee to sell the local sunflower, suriya mala, on the day before Poppy Day and donate the proceeds to Ceylonese war veterans.

One of those who took part enthusiastically in this campaign was Susan De Silva, an anti-imperialist activist who spearheaded the Youth Leagues. She was also a founder-member of the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).  Susan and other volunteers’ appeal to the public to wear the Suriya Mal in the first campaign had a considerable impact, causing concern to the official Poppy Day Committee. 

 Ananda Balika Vidyalaya’s English Principal Doreen Young (later wife of Dr.S.A. Wickramasinghe) succeeded Aelian Perera as President of the Suriyamal Committee and recruited teachers and students for the next campaign.  By this time all of them had come under the leadership of Philip Gunawardene, known as the Father of Marxism in Sri Lanka who joined the South Colombo Youth League after his return from abroad in 1932.

 The Suriyamala became a symbol of defiance against British Imperialism. The campaign gained immense popularity and continued until the outbreak of the Second World War which began on September 3, 1939 following the German invasion of Poland.

By then the political landscape in Asia had changed vastly. Japan had allied herself with Nazi Germany. The independence struggle in neighbouring India had reached its peak. The Japanese claimed that they were fighting to liberate South-East Asia from “white imperialism.” Asian patriots like Subhas Chandra Bose, Aung San and Sukarno sought Tokyo’s help to fight against European colonialists.  World War II thus was of much greater significance to Sri Lanka and other European colonies since it hastened the end of Western colonialism in Asia.

To the local Left however this global conflict too was just another ‘imperialist war’ – that is until Germany attacked the Soviet Union, which had earlier signed non-aggression pact with Hitler. Suddenly the Marxists found themselves in a dilemma. Doctrinaire Socialists split hairs over the Nazi offensive. What was until then an ‘imperialist war’ became overnight a ‘people’s war’ to the Stalinists.

The Trotskyites (LSSP) refused to fall in line and promptly expelled Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe and Trade Unionist M.G. Mendis from the party. The Stalinists in turn parroting their mentors in Moscow accused the LSSP of being ‘Fascist Agents’ and ‘Fifth Columnists.’

With the Soviets joining the Western Allies against the Nazi-Fascist Axis powers the Sri Lankans who volunteered to serve in this war as members of the Ceylon Light Infantry, Ceylon Garrison Artillery, the British Royal Army Service Corps and the Royal Air Force and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve too became – in the eyes of the pro-Moscow Communists – heroes in the international struggle against Fascism.

World War II ended the Suriyamal campaign.  Since 1945 Poppy Day has staged a comeback as a day for remembering not only World War I veterans but all fallen soldiers especially in Commonwealth countries.

However the question may be asked is not Ranaviru Commemoration Day of far greater significance to us Sri Lankans as a Remembrance Day than November 11.   Over 21,000 security forces personnel paid the supreme sacrifice in defending the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in a 30-year armed conflict that ended on May19, 2009.

Let us honour them with that moving tribute inscribed in every war memorial:

They shall not grow old

As we that are left to grow old

Age shall not wary them

Nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun

And in the morning

We shall remember them”

One Response to “Saluting war veterans – then and now -From poppy to suriyamal and back to poppy”

  1. Sri Rohana Says:

    1914-18 was truly a greedy European imperialist’s war but not a world war. Main actors of the war were U.K+ (European colonies =Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa), Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Tsar’s Russia.
    Europe is not the world? It is euro centric propaganda to say it was a world war.
    If we want to salute our war heroes we have a day for it. May 18th.

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