Why I wear my poppy

I did this blog last year and after looking through it there is little I would change so since it is poppy time again I will recycle it. I have always been interested in military history and at times am probably too interested in the engineering and statistics rather than the people. I find the engineering of the battleships fascinating, the stories of the naval (and other campaigns) captivating. However, primarily war is about fighting and that involves people people killed. The following is an entirely personal set of musings about Poppy day and Remembrance etc. I know some people find some of my blogs at times too personal but I wanted to do this one and looking back over it a year later there is very little I have wanted to change: if you do not like it just move on to the next blog. It is poppy time again and I am back to wearing a poppy and yet feeling a bit uncomfortable about it. My discomfort exists at a number of levels:Firstly I do not want to offend anyone by wearing a poppy. I am aware that there are some people who find a poppy offensive: they may have good or bad reasons for disliking poppies. One can argue that they celebrate militarism and glory in what were actually awful events. I am not trying to celebrate militarism: I am trying to remember the sacrifice and death of the world wars by wearing it. I feel that I am remembering the young Germans who died in the First World War as well: they were not very different to my ancestors who fought on the British side. I even feel that I am remembering the Germans of the Second War as well. Just because the Nazi regime was itself evil does not mean that they were themselves all committing evil by fighting for their country: most had little choice. As such I know why I wear the poppy but clearly I cannot explain that to everyone I see in the street.

I also do not want to be seen as being critical of those who are not wearing a poppy. I remember an elder in our church apologising as he was reading the announcements on Remembrance Sunday but had forgotten his poppy. Not wearing a poppy: be it through forgetfulness, the thing dropping off or refusal to wear one should not be something to be ashamed of. I often wonder if there are a vast pile of poppies in Westminster so all the politicians can pick one up before going on television.

Poppies are sometimes used as a badge of Prodishness: I well remember Queen’s at poppy time and the instant badge of identity which the poppy implied: just as in a way Ash Wednesday provided an alternative badge. I do not really like the way a poppy tends to imply support for one side in Northern Ireland and indeed may be seen as implying a particular political position: one which I of course support. I happen to support hardline unionism and also happen to wear a poppy. I do not wear a poppy in order to demonstrate my unionism. Again I cannot explain that to everyone I meet.

So why do I continue to wear a poppy? Well because at the end of the day I want to remember and mark what happened in the world wars and indeed in the wars before and since: most of all I want to remember the people who fought, suffered and died, especially the ones I knew:

A number of relatives fought in the First World War. I have the letters of a relative who was an artillery officer on the Western front. The letters tell of little save him missing his wife and family: they are not great literature but they identify him as a person. Another relative about whom I know almost nothing was wounded by splinters at Jutland. Turning to people whom I knew personally: My grandfather was ground crew for the RAF, my step grandfather was a navigator on Wellingtons. He once recounted that they were sent to drop mines off the Dutch coast. They started receiving heavy flak and after a group discussion they decided simply to drop the mines where they were and turn for home.

Most of all I remember my father in law.

Elenwe’s dad was a lovely, frustrating, irritating old man. When I first met him he was a fit 84 year old. He did not talk much about his experiences but from what he did tell us he joined the army in 1939 to see the world more than from any great sense of patriotic duty. He was trained initially at Catterick before being sent to Singapore to the garrison there as a motorbike despatch rider. The defence of Singapore was very poorly organised and the British should have been able to put up a vastly better military response. They completely failed to appreciate that the Japanese would come down the Malaysian peninsula on the roads the British had made rather than mount a sea borne invasion. In addition they betrayed arrogance and were dismissive of the Japanese soldiers fighting abilities. Churchill was obsessed with the war in Europe and would not spare troops and most importantly equipment to mount a proper defence.

Anyhow this is not a history lesson. Elenwe’s dad had no involvement in fighting, the closest he got was that he always claimed his deafness in later life was related to being near the 15” sea guns when they were being fired (as opposed to great old age which seemed the more likely explanation). He was captured along with all the others and sent north, not to the camp on the River Kwai, but to a camp building the railway to it. He recounted having a pint of milk stolen on the journey which greatly annoyed him, little realising what lay in store. The work in the camp was extremely heavy, the food abysmal in both quantity and quality. The guards (who were themselves treated pretty badly) beat them regularly. A favourite form of torture involved pouring large quantities of water into the prisoners’ mouths and then repeatedly kicking them in the stomach. The event he complained about most though was the time a soldier used a sword to behead a dog: funny what people take exception to. He recounted that the local people, little better treated than them, tried to help the prisoners.

So many people died that the guards knew and could whistle the last post from it having been played so frequently. Elenwe’s dad got some sort of tropical ulcer and was in what passed for the camp hospital. After he recovered, the doctors kept him as an orderly in the hospital which saved him some of the ill treatment. Later he worked in the cook house making food for the Japanese soldiers which got him slightly more and slightly better food as sometimes they let the cooks have a bit of the guards’ food. I asked him once about his faith in that place and he simply said that he trusted God to keep him safe.

Eventually after 3 ½ years they heard rumours that the British and Indian forces were advancing towards them. This might well have resulted in them being killed by their captors. However, the nuclear bombs and Japan’s surrender intervened. He said that one day the Japanese commander simply told them that Japan had surrendered. In some camps a Union flag was found and run up but I think little changed and they essentially all sat about and waited to see what would happen. After a few weeks the British duly arrived.

The most seriously unwell were airlifted in a series of hops back to Britain (usually via India). The healthier ones like Elenwe’s dad were sent to the sea and back on ships. He said that this helped him adjust a bit to freedom. So eventually they arrived at Southampton and he was demobilised and sent back to Northern Ireland. He initially stayed with relatives near Lisburn and one of the surviving cousins recounts that he was an ill looking and frail man who spent most of the time in bed only really getting up to eat. However, eventually he went back home and arrived at Clones on the train and then had to walk home as they were too busy on the farm to collect him. Then he restarted the life of a Fermanagh farmer who did nothing terribly strange and finally married at the age of about 50. All I can say is that I am extremely grateful that we were (to quote the Bible) able to show him his children’s children.

So I am in no way trying to force anyone to wear a poppy but that is why I wear mine.

  • fin

    Turgon, I must say I tut tutted when I saw your post, geez not another Poppy thread (it seems to vie with Gerry for popularity on here at the moment)

    However, and its a big however, you have probably hit the nail on the head with this one and it really highlights both sides of the debate on this subject.

    I’m guessing as a war ‘hobbyist’ you are well aware that Lt.Gen Percival would have been your father in laws commanding officer and responsible for the surrender of Singapore.

    Percival was regarded as one of the worst British officers in the Irish war of independence, with a reputation for brutality and torture with his ‘Essex Battalion Torture Squad’ as well as the extreme torture of Irish prisoners ‘Hales and Harte were ‘stripped, dragged for miles after a lorry, their hair was pulled out and their nails pulled off with pincers.’ Harte was transferred to a mental hospital and remained insane until his death a few years later’. I’ve also read that a pastime was driving along country roads in an open top staff car taking potshots at farmers in their fields.

    When Percival surrendered it is alledged that Tom Barry sent him a message ‘Remember Cork’

    So you’ve put it in a nutshell Turgon, you wear a poppy because of the horrific experiences of Lt Gen Percival and his troops in the Far East.

    I won’t wear a poppy because of the horrific experiences of Lt. Gen Percival and his troops in Ireland.

    They are opposite experiences, in Ireland they were the torturers, and in the Far East the tortured.

  • DaithiO

    Turgon

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading your very personal post. I respect your decision to wear a poppy, and fair play to you for respecting my decision not to.

    My great uncle died during the senseless slaughter of the 2nd Battle of Gaza in March 1917. He is mentioned in dispatches and was eulogised by his men and his commanding officers. His sacrifice, however noble, was in my opinion futile. Especially given the disaster the was to befall that area subsequently.

    Also if I were to remember my great uncle by wearing a poppy I would also be commemorating other “noble” British military actions like Bloody Sunday and the policy of Shoot to Kill, the killing of innocents by plasic bullets, the Ballymurphy Massacre, the list is endless.

    I hope my great uncle understands.

  • west belfast

    My Great Grandfather died at the Battle of the Somme. He lived on the Falls Road and left his young family to enlist. I have been to his grave which is just outside Amiens in France. I remember him with pride for his courage in what were unimaginable surroundings of death and disease.

    I will not wear a poppy because my personal experience of the British Army is completely negative.

    I agree it is a personal choice and I have no problems with anyone wearing a poppy or not.

  • I appreciate Turgon’s honest and heartfelt post. It’s good to read that misgivings exist on the other side of the fence and it’s a pity that the Poppy season prompts such cynicism and animosity on the other side.

    I have never worn a poppy and probably never will. Poppies aren’t that plentiful here in West Cork.

    The one thing that has above all else given the poppy a bad name over the years, especially recent years, is the wearing of poppies by public figures, politicians and TV personalities, at a ridiculously early stage every year. It’s worn from mid October to some time in November – that has devalued the Poppy in that it dilutes the Remembrance that it’s supposed to commemorate.

    It’s all well and good to display the public badge of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday and for a few days on either side – but what would people think of me if I wore the shamrock for the full month of March?

    I know the shamrock represents the Holy Trinity and therefore is strictly speaking not a badge of religion. But it seems to me that if I were to wear it for a month that people would think I was making a point about something other than my faith.

    So the Poppy has come to be seen as a badge not so much of ‘Prodish’-ness but of Britishness and Unionism….

    But the matter reminded me of a line from Hamlet which I studied for the Leaving Certificate and I searched it – the internet is a great resource – would that I had it when I did my English exam. As Claudius said to the Hamlet, the son of the King whose throne and wife he had usurped:

    to persever
    In obstinate condolement is a course
    Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;

  • Sammy

    I have no objection to anybody wearing one. Nor would most reasonable people. What I object to is the poppy facism we see this time of year. In today’s Sun (I borrowed a copy) there are complaints that the dancers on Strictly did not wear them. I kid you not that some RAF bloke stated that if it was not for the forces “there would be no freedom to dance”. Also the fact that the Beeb forces it staff to wear them. The RBL is a charity-lets remember that and with all charities comes the right to not donate. I personally would not give the Sh*t of my shoes to them because I got to very bad beatings from the Army in the 90’s.

  • Excellent piece Turgon

    I dont think its important where or why they fought or who they fought for. 35,000 Irishmen died in the first World War alone. This is a staggering mumber. We remember the 3000 killed in the troubles. We remember the 300 killed in 1916. Whats the problem with a harmless symbol of remeberence for the 60,000 killed in two world wars. Refusing to do so reeks of political and national insecurity.

    fin, I’m sure you’re aware that Tom Barry fought in the British Army during WW1

    Ted

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Turgon,

    excellent post. Presumably not many prisoners with reservations about Hisoshima.

    Fin, although I agree with the sentiment in your post which serves as a timely reminder of the often competing and moral complexities of history and particualrly of Irish/British history we cannot seek to equate the behaviour and attiude of the Japeneese to that of the British during the War of Independence* not just in terms of scale but in terms of the systematic barbarity visited upon defenceless British soldiers as a matter of policy – detention at her Her Majesty’s pleasure any day.

    *I went into the old library in the centre of Belfast about 5 years back and asked for a book on the War of Independence – and the library chap, looked a bit puzzled (must have been a prod) and then directed me over to the Amercian section.

  • exile

    Turgon, thank you. I really enjoyed reading that.

    Although I don’t envisage myself ever choosing to wear a poppy – for reasons similar to those mentioned by other posters – I fully appreciate why the vast majority of others choose to do so. I also remain mindful of the profound sacrifice millions of Irish and British men and women have made in years gone by and continue to make today.

  • Jonrus

    I stopped reading when you called Ash wednesday a ‘badge’

  • fin

    Gubu, I do indeed know Barrys background, I also know the reasons why many Irishmen fought in WW1 and it generally wasn’t for King and Country. Its also worth remembering how they were treated, not allowed to form their own regiments etc.

    Sammy, I find the Japanese bit of WW2 fascinating, the Americans did actually consider them to be more ape than human, Jap skulls been a trophy sent home by many, the Japs fought so hard and didn’t surrender because of reported American atrocities.

    The Japs themselves been no angels. But it cuts both ways.

    A friends grandfather fought for the Brits in the Far East and I’d say the conditions were worse than the Russian front, apparently jungle fighting was akin to trench warfare, been 100 yards from the enemy and dugin for days or weeks shooting at each other, and because of the climate the dead rotten very quickly and smelt very bad.

  • If the objection that people have to the poppy is that they are giving money to the RBL, which I can wholly understand, then why not wear a Canadian poppy? They look different, and the money goes to a different set of veterans, but they too commemorate those that died in war.

    Obviously, there are other objections, but if that is your objection, then there is an alternative

  • fin

    or an Afgan Poppy, you can smoke it afterwards

  • I think its wrong to keep going into the wrongs and rights of the different wars. Who was more brutal, the Japanese, Americans or British is another debate. As Turgon said he even feels that its right to remember Germanys WW2 dead. I see the poppy purely as an act of rememberence.

    I cannot understand how any Irish person whether they be an Ulster protestant or nationalist Catholic would not be moved by the stories of the hundred of thousands who left Ireland seeking adventure only to get slaughtered at the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, Gallipoli and elsewhere. If you are offended by the poppy then you are not a very confident republican. Its just a flower !

    Ted

  • respectforall

    Turgon – Very eloquent, moving and rational. I recognize and respect that you will remember your war dead with pride and with a sober sense of profound loss. Despite the fact that my Irish nationalist grandfather fought in France in 1917, I could not wear this poppy emblem, because of the horrors inflicted on Ireland by Britain’s soldiers. As I respect your sensitivities, all I ask is that please respect mine. I will wear an emblem at Easter to remember those who have fought and died for the freedom of a small country in an imbalanced struggle against a large mighty empire. And no-one should cause disrepect to the wearer of either emblem, nor take offence. And no organization should mandate the wearing of either. It is a personal choice.

  • DK

    Personally, I stopped wearing a poppy years ago. In Northern Ireland it’s a divisive symbol, almost akin to dandering around in a Rangers/Celtic top.

    However, I still believe the RBL do a good job, so I’ll put some money in their annual collection tin, but not take the poppy. I’d have no problem wearing it if I was in England/Scotland/Wales.

  • Brian MacAodh

    “Sammy, I find the Japanese bit of WW2 fascinating, the Americans did actually consider them to be more ape than human, Jap skulls been a trophy sent home by many, the Japs fought so hard and didn’t surrender because of reported American atrocities.”

    Sorry to change the subject, but this can’t go unchallenged. Are you aware that surrender was the ultimate form of dishonour among the Shintoist Japanese? It would put their whole family in public disgrace. Even after the first A bomb, a coup to take over power and stop talks of surrender was narrowly averted (with help from an errant American bomb). In short, their fanatical resistance had nothing to do with Allied atrocities.

    In a war at vicious as the one fought in the Pacific, “atrocities” occurred. But whereas one side’s was systematic and common, the other’s was not.

    Just take a look at the survival figures for American POWs held by the Japanese.

    Imperial Japan and the USA were not moral equivalents.

  • Panic, These Ones Likes It Up Them.

    Is there any chance that we could stop having new wars to commemerate.

    On and on it goes, when its going to stop nobody knows.

  • Brit

    Well said Brian M.

  • fin

    Brian (and Brit) I’m well aware of the Japanese culture and the ‘code of honour’ and I do not seek in anyway to defend them, however I do take issue with anyone who tries to defend British military history, or American or Soviet or the Nazi’s been honest it hard to fit a cigarette paper between them. What Stalin did to his own people, what Britain did in India, America dropping two nuclear bombs, the Germans under Hitler, are all unforgiveable and count as the gravest crimes in the history of the world. All these nations should be made to teach their real history to their young and pass laws to ensure they never commit such crimes again.

    Which brings us back to should you wear a Poppy or not?

  • Fitzy

    just to add to brian’s #16… the word Jap is regarded as a highly offensive slur by the Japanese. its essentially the equivalent of fenian or hun.

    no big deal, just thought i would point that out.

  • Dave

    I don’t wear a poppy for much the same reason that I don’t utter a communal chant of “Grito de Dolores” as the President of Mexico rings a bell in the National Palace on September 15th of each year (as Wild Rover might know): the national affairs of a foreign state have nothing whatsoever to do with me.

    I don’t see why British people would not appreciate the sacrifices that their state’s army have made to maintain their national rights, and I would think it disloyal of them not to show such appreciation. They should not have to explain their patriotism to their fellow countrymen just because those on the left are critical of the British state’s armed forces.

  • fin

    Fitzy, he was actually quoting my previous post so that was my bad, apols

  • Brian MacAodh

    I would disagree that America’s dropping of the A-bombs was one of the biggest crimes in history.
    But I’m sure at one time or another in our lives we have both been involved in a debate/argument over this issue before, so let’s not bother about that one.

    As for poppies, I have no problem with them. I don’t think anyone should feel pressure to wear them, however.

    Also, it should be a one day thing. Stretching out the whole poppy wearing to 2 weeks just cheapens it, in my opinion.

  • BonarLaw

    DK

    who decided the Poppy was divisive?

    If they decided any other symbol or expression of identity was divisive would you jettison that too?

    Grow a pair and decide for yourself.

  • HeadTheBall

    My family lost 3 men in WWI and 2 in WW2, so for me it is personal and I would wear a poppy if the opportunity arose. We do things differently here in Australia, but I stand with head bowed as Binyon’s Ode is read aloud at my place of work on November 11.

    Soon the wartime generations will be lost to us and it is timely to consider how we should continue to remember their service and sacrifice and why that came to be necessary.

    The poppy is indelibly associated with Flanders’ fields and it is difficult to think of a remembrance symbol that would be equally powerful (Richard Gadsden’s suggestion noted). The problem is that it has become associated, too, with the British Army, the British Empire and Unionism. The efforts of the BBC also seem directed at using the poppy to capture an elusive (to them) sense of “Britishness”.

    In an ideal world I should like to see poppies made by schoolchildren in their classes, presented and worn by children on 11 November (only) and all military ceremonial restricted to military premises (I am a sucker for brass bands, flags, formed bodies of men marching in step, etc and would miss all that, but for the greater good in NI it should go).

    Dave,

    It’s not about patriotism. The thousands of Free State citizens who served in WWII were not defending the Free State (although at one remove, of course, they were fighting for the survival of the IFS).

  • greagoir o frainclin

    That’s a lovely variety of the poppy flower in the photo!

    Folk should wear their poppies all year round if they want too.

  • Gerry Mander

    The war criminal Percival headed the biggest and most shameful surrender in all of British military history. The heroic Japanese forces under the gallant General Yamashitas, the Lion of Malaya, liberated Singapore from the terrorists who wouldn’t even put up a fight.

    The war criminal Percival was present on the Missouri when the gallant Japanese High Command surrendered to the war criminal McArthur, who gave Lap dog Percival one of his pens. The other went to the Yankee dog who surrednered the Philippines.

    Yamashita was later unjustly hung as a war criminal as revenge for the ignoble surrender of the Philippines and Singapore by these cowards. He was hung for war crimes committed by General Homma for events that were not even under his control.

    When the Japanese told the Brit scum to jump to it on the Burma Railway (I have been there and it looks like a hoiday camp and more natives died anyway – and Japanese troops, denigrated as monkey men by the Brit racist cowards. They would still be at it if griot was the only metric.

    I see another five imperialists got it today. Should Britain’s long suffering Muslim community wear poppies for them?

  • Gerry Mander
  • Brit

    Fin, the crimes of Britain and the US, and the far greater crimes of Stalin do not mean that there was a broad moral equivalance between the axis and the allies in WW2. Nor do the British and US crimes of Empire and subsequent foreign policy come anywhere near to the Nazi holocaust.

  • Brit

    So Gerry what would your stance have been in WW2?

    Pro-Axis, neutral or Pro-Allies?

  • bogexile

    Thanks Turgon – you’ve captured the ambiguity perfectly. Don’t stop being personal. In the end it is the only way we understand the political.

    I come from Enniskillen and I am wearing my Poppy in part to remember those murdered by fascists in my home town in 1987 who in their way are no different than the Brisith soldiers who fell fighting Germany in world war two. So, the Poppy is a visceral symbol of my Britishness and I would want to be honest about that.

    Of course the Poppy has its origins in the Great War and I confess, to my shame, that until quite recently I had no idea of the sacrifice of ordinary irish nationalists who fought for the British often out of economic necessity.

    I’m reminded of the Vietnam war aphorism, ‘there are no athiests in the foxholes.’ I very much doubt whether political differences peroccupied men in the rat infested trenches of Ypres as they stood together to face death. I remember seeing the play ‘My Boy Jack’ some years ago in London which brilliantly illustrated this point when it showed Kipling’s son, a myopic and gentle boy, desperately trying to be a man in front of his terrified irish soldiers as they prepared to go over the top to their doom.

    So I will wear my Poppy with pride this weekend for the Paddy from Dublin, the Prod from Belfast, the Nurse from Enniskillen and the horrifyingly huge chain of people down through the years who have paid their price in the perverted name of war.

  • HeadTheBall

    Bogexile,

    “often out of economic necessity”

    Not just that, though. Francis Ledbridge, founder and commander of the Co. Louth Irish Volunteers joined the British Army, telling his friends (IIRC): “I would not have it said that they [the British] defended us [the Irish] while we merely passed resolutions.” He clearly knew what was at stake.

    Gerry,

    You tell us that General Yamashitas(sic) was a brave man (he was) and a sound tactician (he was) and this, what, justifies the Japanese imperial project in your mind? What about Nanking, then for example. What does that tell you about the Japanese view of their fellow Asiatics?

    BTW, King Billy was a bonny wee fighter, too, as he proved at the Boyne and not a bad tactician at all. Do you support Orangeism on that ground too?

  • HeadTheBall

    “Francis Ledbridge” = “Francis Ledwidge”. Sorry, Gerry Mander got my dander.

  • Observer

    I fully understand why someone who lives on the Falls Road would not be keen to wear a poppy and I do not mean that to sound patronising. I wear mine’s with pride and do not flaunt it as a symbol of either my religious or political leanings or indeed as an endorsment of any war.

    My protestant education didn’t teach me much about the history of Ireland and other events were maybe talked about with a Unionist slant. For years I actually thought that the Battle of the Somme was a war fought by the young men of the Shankill and the Germans. When I had the privilege of visiting the battlefields in latter years and seeing all the various international war memorials and the thousnads upon thousands of names on them I got my eyes opened. India, Africa, Afghan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and all far flung parts of the Commonwealth were represented as of course were the Americans. The biggest eye opener was the memorial at Gillimont remembering the fallen from the South of Ireland. I was saddened to see the disrepair this monument had fallen into and anyone in Government who chose not to do something about this situation should be ashamed of themselves. It said more about the attitude of some people in the ROI than it said about the fallen. I am glad that this situation has now been rectified.

    I know that people talk about their negative memories of British troops in Northern Ireland during the troubles, and I have a few myself, the annual act of rememberance really should be viewed as a tribute to the brave men and women from all over the free world who fought, with many dying, to ensure that we have the freedom of expression that we enjoy not only on Slugger but in every aspect of our lives. I am sorry if that sounds a crass soundbite but it is a reality.

    Soldiers fight wars they do not create them.
    Less we forget.

  • Gerry Mander

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/south_yorkshire/8342191.stm

    Here is a young Englishman being ruined for urinating on the poppies. The judge said the poppies were “sacred”. Lucky he didn’t crap on them and used them to clean himself.

    As regards Enniskillen, let us remember the Leonard and other savage killings done there by fascists who lay wreaths at the “scared” cenotaph planted in that part of the Occupied Zone.

  • bogexile

    Gerry,

    Wow – I thought people like you were an urban myth. Please ‘keep her lit’ we can do with more of this postmodern republicanism – there’s too little to laugh at these days.

  • DerTer

    Gerry Mander

    Your revolting contribution has spoiled what was for me one of the most balanced and interesting threads on Slugger for some time. Shame on you!