Why Michael Craig won’t wear a poppy

poppy11th November 2011
The eleventh day of November is a day of remembrance for me, a date of coincidence as well as personal memories, a lot more than could be fitted into that ‘minute of silence’.
Even though some of those who are the subjects of my thoughts are not directly connected to the day of remembrance as it was originally intended, I have not lost sight of that intention.
A poem penned in anguish by a Canadian surgeon on the battlefield at Flanders in WW1, after the death of a comrade, began the association of the crimson poppy with the war dead and a desire for peace.
The poppy was first used as a memorial symbol in America and then France, when paper poppies were made and sold to raise funds to help children orphaned by the war.
The British connection only began in 1921 when the newly founded British Legion started the ‘Poppy Day Appeal’ to collect for poor and disabled veterans.
That the organisation’s main founder had been the Commander-in-Chief of the British armed forces in Europe, the man ultimately responsible for sending hundreds of thousands ‘over the top’ to certain, inescapable death is ironic, to say the least.
WW1 was a battle for territory lost in previous wars between many colonial powers who shared all manner of treaties and alliances, some of the participating countries using war as a convenient way to counter social upheavals in their own jurisdictions. The millions of ordinary working class people of all nationalities who died had nothing whatever to gain by fighting in this war, so while I believe it is right to remember them, the language of the organised memorial denies this truth and glorifies war.
A poet whose words described the horror of WW1 more vividly than any picture, was to be one of its last victims. The young Wilfred Owen wrote;
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
My paternal Grandfather was taken in by that lie, so keen was he to fight for his country that he couldn’t wait until adulthood. Adding a year to his age on the application, the young Willie Craig went to France in 1915 where he soon learned that war was more about brutality than glory. Like most of those involved in the battles of WW1 Willie didn’t talk much about his experiences but here’s one of the few that he did pass on:
One warm summer night Willie was on watch in the trench illuminated by the full Moon. As he crouched, his back against the wall with his rifle resting upright by his side, bayonet pointing towards the cloudless sky he heard a scraping sound coming from ‘no man’s land’, above and behind him. Without getting up or moving the rifle, he reached over and placed his finger on the trigger. Just then a shadow appeared on the opposite wall of the trench, someone was coming over the top above him. When the shadow grew bigger Willie called out, ‘who goes there?’, but when he got no reply he pulled the trigger, the rifle shot rang out followed by the thud of a body hitting the floor of the trench. When the dust cleared, Willie was amazed to find that he had not shot and killed an enemy soldier but a giant rat, which had been feeding on the rotting corpses in ‘ no Man’s land’.
A few weeks after this incident Willie was caught in a gas attack, he was captured and spent the rest of the war in Germany as slave labour in a coal mine. Returning to Belfast at the end of the war, my grandfather with damaged lungs from the gassing and the mine, joined the ranks of the unemployed digging the streets for relief payments, suffering state brutality in the strike of 1932. By WW2 he had gained employment as a sorter in the Royal mail, where he remained until his retirement in the 1960’s.
If the wearing the poppy was about remembrance of people like my Grandfather, I would be happy to wear one, but unfortunately the war to end all wars did not, and the settlement agreed in its aftermath led to WW2.
It could be argued that WW2 was necessary because it was the only way to stop World domination by fascism, but there were many opportunities to prevent the fascists from taking power in the first place, but no will to do so.
Since WW2 British forces have been involved in 60 wars, most of these were imperialist, none can be justified. David Cameron gave the game away in a debate with the football association this week when he said, “wearing the poppy is an act of national pride”.
Jingoist Cameron and Irish nationalists share the mistaken view that the poppy is an exclusively British symbol of remembrance.
As an Irish Socialist I am not anti-British but I certainly am anti-imperialist and anti-war.
Coincidently, my father, a life-long pacifist died on 11th hour of 11th November in 1984!

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Wild about Walking and History

Freelance writer and Spanish tutor working in Ireland. BSc in Computing and Spanish, Post Graduate Diploma in Environmental Economics, Policy and Risk, Diploma in Journalism. With 16 years experience in Scotland, we are well placed to assist with tourism development.

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