Wednesday, 11 November 2009

11th November - Poppy Day

In a few moments I will switch on the TV and watch the BBC's Remembrance Day programme. Angela Merkel°, the German Bundeskanzler will be attending a memorial service in France. This will be the first time that a German leader will be there. The year is 2009. It's been a long time coming.

Perhaps now we can put World War I (1914-1918) behind us; finally bury it in the archives along with the Napoleonic wars, the Boer War, the Franco-Prussian War, the War of American Independence, and all the cannon-fodder wars that our various ancestors have been privileged to witness.

In 1916 both my grandfathers found themselves in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. This crucial battle, as it was called, cost both sides dearly. It is estimated that more than 600,000 men on each side perished. Both grandfathers survived by the skin of their teeth. But neither man could ever bring himself to say very much about the horror of it all. They preferred to bury the memory. And we must respect their right to do so.

However there is one part of the whole business, for World War I was nothing if it was not a business, that still mystifies me. And it comes to my mind every 11th November or whenever I wander around the remote villages in the Snowdonia mountains, where one of my grandfathers was born and raised, and see the many war memorials with their engraved lists of names, almost every young man in almost every village killed or missing in France. I still have to ask what were they doing in France in the first place?

What was such a naif young man, not much more than a boy really, who lived in a huddled pile of wet slates with just one door and two windows, with no electricity, with no running water, and with hardly any education to his name, a boy who was forced to go to the Methodist chapel in the next village several miles away three times every Sunday, what was such a youth doing in France running around with a .303 rifle in his hands shooting at Germans, or shooting at anybody else for that matter?

Your Country Needs You! lied one side's poster. Your Emperor Needs You! lied the other side's. Lest we forget, the ten million dead could easily have been twenty million if the German Navy had not gone on strike and brought the nonsense to end.

Such is the fog of war; the yellow fog in which the vainglorious generals, the short-sighted politicians, the greedy financiers and their industrialist friends, the press barons and their fogbound editors, the dictators, the various other madmen with too much power, the religious fanatics, the stay-at-home crusaders, the brainwashed mega-multitude, the so-called war criminals, and all the world's two-legged rapacious monsters, nearly all of us that is except for the common soldier and his family, shall safely and conveniently hide and have our being.

Unless mankind finds a safer way to settle disputes and territorial squabbles the war to end all wars will really happen. It will be called World War III.

There will be no need for a World War IV.


°"We should rise above the pain of the past"
- Angela Merkel - today in Paris


The Poet-in-Residence commemorative poem this year is W B Yeats' poem An Irish Airman Forsees His Death and it is two posts below this one.


  1. Lest we forget, Poet.
    I think war poetry is some of the best. I once did the first world war poets with a very difficult class of mainly Caribbean boys of 16 - they were spellbound by the imagery of some of the poetry (the one which made the most profound impression on them was "those who die like cattle") and for a year afterwards they would bring the subject up in our lessons. It was a joy for me to hear them and to know that somehow poetry had taught them the horror and futility of war.
    And now it is happening again. I can't believe there is anyone who thinks it is possible to win a war in that incredible terrain.

  2. Win? What is that, Weaver?
    In war nobody wins. When we resort to war we already lost.

  3. "Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead." I've been wearing my poppy for a week or so, and as I've been travelling I've noticed how, in some places almost everyone wears them, and in others almost no-one. My own grandfather was buried in a mudslide at Paschendale but lived, not to tell the tale, because he never spoke of the war, but at least to come home and get on with life. It's dangerous, I think, to wish the war behind us. Too many people would like to forget, for any number of convenient reasons, both the first and second world wars, but it seems to me they should be held onto, if only as grim reminders of what we're capable of.

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  6. Mairi, When I see a poppy seller I always buy a flower and wear it in my buttonhole.
    But I buy it, not for WWI since everybody concerned with that episode is now dead, but for our brave soldiers who are killed and wounded today in Afghanistan. That I buy a poppy does not mean that I support the politicians (and therefore their friends in the oil and chemicals business and the weapons industry and various other interested parties) who sent them there for reasons of greed - to Iraq for instance. But I support the soldier for he has no choice. He/she must, as they say, obey orders.
    I am saying that we should put WWI where it belongs in the history books because it was the last war that was fought in the old way, where everybody went to an arranged place, as if to an appointment, and shot the hell out of each other.
    WWII is another thing. It is still with us. It's aftermath is still unfolding.

    Sergeants and corporals cursed the men back to their own lines. As Bourne turned back with the others, he looked up at a clear patch of sky, and saw the sharp crescent of the moon, floating there like a boat. A bough threw a mesh of twigs over its silver, and at that loveliness he caught his breath, almost in a sob.

    (Frederic Manning - Her Privates We)

  7. I take your points, both about the difference between the world wars and the difference between them and contemporary wars. There are a lot of things a poppy serves to remind us of.

  8. Mairi, I tend to lump the so-called Great War (1914-1918) with Napoleonic, Boer, Crimea, Solferino etc. for that's how the generals themselves and their paymasters saw it. It was I think the arrival of the tank that began to draw the line between the old wars fought on foot and on horseback and the new wars with bombs and blitzkrieg. Although even in World War II, if I recall correctly, a million horses were killed in battle. So it's a blurred line but I think history must eventually show it as I tend to read it.


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