The true story of the Poppy girl and her mother

'Daddy would be so proud' - the words to her daughter of Anna Aston, soldier's widow and face of this year's British Legion Appeal
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The Independent Online

Many associate Remembrance Sunday, observed next weekend, with those who gave their lives in two world wars. But since 1945, more than 12,000 British servicemen and women have been killed or injured in action. So far, 97 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Most on active duty there are under 30. The British Legion, safeguarding the welfare and interests of serving and ex-service people, will be needed for many years to come.

Anna Aston begged her husband not to go to Iraq. The couple had been married for just four years and their daughter was only 13 months old. "I had a couple of panic attacks and told him, 'Don't go, it's not worth it, you can't risk leaving me and Paygan,'" said Anna at her home in Swadlincote, Derbyshire. "I had a really bad feeling. He just said, 'You knew what I was when you married me.' He was a soldier through and through.

"I pulled myself together and thought there's no good me crying and whinging. I didn't want him worrying about me because he was the one going into the war zone."

Russell, who served with the Royal Military Police, left for Iraq in February 2003. He was due to return the following July. Three weeks before, however, there was a knock at Anna's door. A man in a suit asked her whether she was Anna Aston. When the mother confirmed her identity, he stated: "I have the regrettable duty to inform you that your husband Corporal Russell Aston was killed in action earlier today."

"I think I said ,'You what?' And he stood there and repeated the whole sentence which is why it stuck in my head," said Anna. "I said 'Right. I'll make a cup of tea.' I was still in shock.

"I was thinking, I only spoke to him the other day and he's coming back in three weeks. I couldn't believe it." Phone calls were made and soon her house was full of crying relatives.

Russell, who was 30, was shot, along with five other members of his regiment, when an armed mob stormed a police station in Majar al-Kabir. Anna, who has heard numerous conflicting accounts of the tragedy, is hoping that the truth will come out at the inquest in March.

She doesn't hold any one person responsible, believing it to have been a catalogue of errors. Tony Blair, she said, was not without blame. She would like to see the British troops pull out of Iraq, as she believes their presence is causing more conflict than good.

Paygan still kisses her father's photograph, as she did whenever he went away. "She was so traumatised the first week or so, she didn't want to be home," said Anna. "She was too little to really understand what had happened. People were coming round and I remember her trying to push people off and saying, 'Don't make my mummy cry.'

"Soldiers are advised to write a last letter should anything happen, and one of the lines in Russ's was, 'I know you will be strong for Paygan.' That's what I've had to do.

"You can cry on your own when she's in bed but I couldn't ruin her childhood, although it would have been very easy to do so."

Russell had been a big supporter of the Royal British Legion, having lost friends and comrades. Anna, who has found the charity to be a source of great practical and emotional support following his death, readily agreed to appear on the posters. The photograph was taken in London and superimposed on the picture of a French poppy field. Paygan understood that the image would commemorate her father.

When they arrived at the charity's headquarters, Paygan asked her whether they were in heaven and if her daddy was inside. "I said: 'No darling, we're having our photo taken and Daddy's still in heaven. You can't go there yet. You only go there when you die. He'll be watching over you."

When Anna, who hopes to become a counsellor, showed Paygan the picture, her little girl said, "There's me and there's you. Daddy would like that wouldn't he?" "I said, 'He'd be ever so proud.' She was really happy then."