Mark Steel: Why should I be pressured into wearing a poppy?

The plan must be to honour the dead of past wars by starting new ones

Wednesday 04 November 2009 01:00

It's Poppy Week, which means if you don't wear a poppy all week you're a filthy, dirty, low-life, scummy traitor. Yesterday, there was outrage in newspapers because a library in Derbyshire would not sell poppies, and a headline in the sports section of the Daily Mail complained: "Why are only 12 Premier League clubs wearing their poppies?"

Everyone on television has to wear a giant, beaming poppy, so there could be a documentary about the tribes of Africa and someone would complain that none of the Masai warriors were wearing poppies. The popular press will demand an apology from the swimming federation because none of the finalists in the 200m butterfly on Eurosport were wearing poppies on the backs of their trunks (with instructions to swim with their arses just above the water so as to keep their poppies visible and thereby pay suitable respects to our war heroes).

And letters in The Daily Telegraph will begin "Sir: while watching Night Nurse Knocking on the Adult Channel on the evening of 7 November, I was shocked to see that none of the nurses in question were adorned with poppies, as might be deemed appropriate in this week of solemn remembrance. My father fought at El Alamein, and one can only be grateful that he is no longer around to bear this fearsome insult."

Because the poppy means you care. So a Conservative defence spokesman will declare that he is so patriotic he wears TWO poppies, Peter Mandelson will announce that he is having a poppy tattooed on his face, and Nick Clegg will convert his house into a giant poppy with an opium den in the loft.

Yet the institutions that scream the most that we must respect our fallen soldiers through poppies and Remembrance Day are the same ones that are most keen to have a new bunch of wars to create a new generation of dead soldiers to remember. This must be the plan; to remind us about the dead of previous wars by keeping a flow of dead coming in from new wars.

Maybe that's why the First World War happened in the first place – the Kaiser, Lloyd George and the Tsar of Russia met in 1914 and said, "We could sort this out peacefully, but then we'd have no way of remembering the dead, which would be deeply insulting to those who would have died, so off we go."

So the poppy wasn't chosen as a symbol of the horror and pointlessness of that war, but as a celebration. The poem on which it was founded was supposed to be a cry from a dead soldier in Belgium that went, "Take up our quarrel with the foe/ We shall not sleep though poppies grow."

The Royal British Legion that sells the poppies often has a slogan at its stalls that reads "1914: The Glorious War". It is possible they are being ironic, but in that case they are too subtle, and might be better with "1914: oh very glorious, with hardly any casualties and only the tiniest hint of shell-shock, and fought to end all wars which worked a treat I suppose".

The sense of war and glory may derive from the founder of the poppy tradition, Earl Haig, the General in charge of British troops in northern Europe, 350,000 of which were wiped out at Passchendaele. Haig was derided as an idiot by almost all observers at the time, including most servicemen, but said: "I know quite well I am a tool of divine power."

I suppose if God hadn't been guiding him there would have been 350,001 casualties. He then had a furious row with Lloyd George because he wanted to be in the front coach at the victory parade, and the surviving soldiers must have wished he'd displayed a similar eagerness to be at the front while he was in the Somme.

So Haig was as responsible as almost anyone for the slaughter, then set up the foundation to remember those who were killed during it. You might as well have let Harold Shipman set up a foundation to remember old women who died after seeing a doctor.

Most people who sell or buy poppies are probably not doing so in honour of Earl Haig, but are remembering the casualties in their own way and contributing to the charity for injured soldiers. But that raises the question of why these soldiers are dependent on charity in the first place.

It seems the Government that has devised a series of tricks for reducing compensation payments then makes the poor sods beg with a poppy. The next move will be to make returning wounded servicemen dance for pennies in libraries.

But maybe this is why the Government is so keen on the current war – it is convenient to have another one in a place full of poppies, as we have already got the remembrance stuff ready without having to change the flower.

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