Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Remember this: We're not worthy of wearing poppies

Suffering symbol: the poppy

I turned on the television in my Damascus hotel room to witness a dreary sight: all the boys and girls of BBC World wearing their little poppies again.

Bright red they were, with that particularly silly green leaf out of the top - never part of the original Lady Haig appeal - and not one dared to appear on screen without it.

Now, I've mentioned my Dad too many times in print. He had strong views about wearing the poppy.

He was a soldier of the Great War - Battle of Arras 1918 and the liberation of Cambrai.

And, year after year, he would go along to the local cenotaph and he always wore his huge black coat, his regimental tie - 12th Battalion, the King's Liverpool Regiment - and his poppy. But, as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme was a trashing of human life.

In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. "All I can tell you, fellah," he said, "was that it was a great waste."

Then he stopped wearing his poppy. I asked him why and he said that he didn't want to see "so many damn fools" wearing it.

What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons; to look patriotic when it suited them, to keep in with their friends and betters and employers.

These people, he said to me once, had no idea what the trenches of France were like, what it felt like to have your friends die beside you and then to confront their brothers and wives and lovers and parents.

So, like my Dad, I stopped wearing the poppy on the week before Remembrance Day, November 11, when on the 11th hour of the 11 month of 1918, the armistice ended the war called Great.

I didn't feel I deserved to wear it and I didn't think it represented my thoughts.

The original idea came from the Toronto military surgeon and poet John McCrae and was inspired by the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, killed on May 3 1915: 'In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row.'

But it's a propaganda poem, urging readers to 'take up the quarrel with the foe'.

Bill Fisk eventually understood this and turned against it. And he was right.

I've had my share of wars and often return to the ancient Western Front. Three years ago, I was honoured to be invited to give the annual Armistice Day Western Front memorial speech at the rebuilt Cloth Hall in Ypres. The ghost of my long-dead 2nd Lieutenant Dad was, of course, in the audience. I quoted all my favourite Great War writers, along with the last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, and received, shortly afterwards, a wonderful and eloquent letter from the daughter of that fine Great War soldier Edmund Blunden.

But I didn't wear a poppy. And I declined to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate. This was something of which I was not worthy. Instead, while they played the Last Post, I looked at the gravestones on the city walls.

As a young boy, I also went to Ypres with my Dad, stayed at the 'Old Tom Hotel' and met many other 'old soldiers', all now dead. I remember that they wanted to remember their dead comrades. Above all, they wanted an end to war.

But now I see these pathetic creatures with their little sandpit poppies - I notice that our masters in the House of Commons do the same - and I despise them.

Heaven be thanked that the soldiers of the Great War cannot return today to discover how their sacrifice has been turned into a fashion appendage.

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