Tuesday 16 July 2019

Blood spilled in war is now a fashion accessory

Robert Fisk

I turned on the TV 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, and not one dared to appear on screen without it. Do these pathetic men and women know how they mock the dead?

Now, I've mentioned my dad too many times in this column. He died almost 20 years ago so, after today, I think it's time he was allowed to rest in peace. 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. 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 and his poppy.

In those days, it was 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 aged 10.

My dad gave me 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 when it suited them.

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. The original idea came, of course, came from Toronto military surgeon and poet John McCrae and was inspired by the death of his friend Lt 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.

As a boy, I went to Ypres with my dad 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 and I despise them. Heaven be thanked the soldiers of the Great War cannot return today to discover how their sacrifice has been turned into a fashion appendage. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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