Robert Fisk: Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?

 

Share
Related Topics

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 – it was never part of the original Lady Haig appeal – and not one dared to appear on screen without it. Do these pathetic men and women know how they mock the dead? I trust that Jon Snow has maintained his dignity by not wearing it.

Now I've mentioned my Dad too many times in The Independent. He died almost 20 years ago so, after today, I think it's time he was allowed to rest in peace, and that readers should in future be spared his sometimes bald wisdom. This is the last time he will make an appearance. But he had strong views about wearing the poppy. He was a soldier of the Great War, Battle of Arras 1918 – often called the Third Battle of the Somme – and the liberation of Cambrai, along with many troops from Canada. The Kaiser Wilhelm's army had charitably set the whole place on fire and he was appalled by the scorched earth policy of the retreating Germans. But of course, year after year, he would go along to the local cenotaph in Birkenhead, and later in Maidstone, where I was born 28 years after the end of his Great War, and he always wore his huge black coat, his regimental tie – 12th Battalion, the King's Liverpool Regiment – and his poppy.

In those days, it was – I recall this accurately, I think – a darker red, blood-red rather than BBC-red, larger than the sorrow-lite version I see on the BBC and without that ridiculous leaf. So my Dad would stand and I would be next to him in my Yardley Court School blazer at 10 years old and later, aged 16, in my Sutton Valence School blazer, with my very own Lady Haig poppy, its long black wire snaking through the material, sprouting from my lapel.

My Dad gave me lots of books about the Great War, so I knew about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo before I went to school – and 47 years before I stood, amid real shellfire, in the real Sarajevo and put my feet on the very pavement footprints where Gavrilo Princip fired the fatal shots.

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 – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 "problem" – 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." And he swept his hand from left to right. 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 – he was a provocative man and, sadly, I fell out with him in his old age. What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War – or the Second, for that matter – were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic and British 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. At home, I still have a box of photographs of his mates, all of them killed in 1918.

So like my Dad, I stopped wearing the poppy on the week before Remembrance Day, 11 November, 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, of course, from the Toronto military surgeon and poet John McCrae and was inspired by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, killed on 3 May 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. 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. (Read his Undertones of War, if you do nothing else in life.) 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" (it is still there, on the same side of the square as the Cloth Hall) and met many other "old soldiers", all now dead. I remember that they wanted to remember their dead comrades. But above all, they wanted an end to war. But now I see these pathetic creatures with their little sand-pit 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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success  

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

DJ Taylor
A strong currency isn't everything  

A strong pound is a great tonic, but it's not an end in itself

Hamish McRae
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?