I was sitting on Friday night and had settled down to watch the TV news and was treated to some glorious repeat footage of the Green Brigade card display which I am sure stunned Barcelona.
But then came a story that was so touching I sat and cried – if Rod can do it so can I. The news item was about the devotion of a 90-year-old Dutch woman who had tended the grave of a Scottish soldier for 60 years. She knew nothing about him except his name and gravestone details but had kept her faithful vigil because, like countless other Dutch people, she had ‘adopted’ the grave of a fallen soldier who had fought to free her country from Nazi tyranny.
It got me thinking about Remembrance Sunday when I always spend some time contemplating the price paid by our military personnel in answering the call to duty when our Nation has been under threat and, in particular, my relatives and their friends.
And in that strange way that the mind sometimes works, I began to think about the wearing of poppies and Remembrance Sunday and the differences of opinion they have created at Celtic Park.
I recognise how very personal a choice it can be for every individual whether to wear a poppy or not and how it can influenced by a variety of factors which may well be unique to some people or groupings within our society.
I think it really important when viewing the above to read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Flanders_Fields as the poem written by a Soldier War Poet in 1915 was attacked for its call to continue the fight although early war poetry tended to be much less cynical than what followed as the casualty count inexorably mounted.
There is no doubt that, in recent years, the wearing of poppies has struck a note of discord for a number of reasons and I will return to this but firstly I would like to recount some personal experiences.
I am old enough to have had the privilege and honour of knowing both my grandfathers who fought in the Great War – The War to End All Wars – and other male relatives as well as their friends and neighbours who also served.
Discussions of wartime experiences just didn’t happen as far as I could see except between ex-soldiers although sometimes the women would mutter, mainly under their breath, strange phrases like: ‘never been the same’. Only as I grew older did the missing bits begin clicking together and I started to see and understand bits beyond the veil. It is to my everlasting regret that I never tried harder to learn and understand more from ordinary people, especially my relatives, who experienced either war directly or its consequences.
I also came to realise the suffering of the generation of ‘Old Maids’ who had never married after losing their soldier sweethearts to the Western Front or Dardanelles but this was only ever referred to in hushed almost reverent tones. One of my first primary teachers, a beautiful person, was an ‘Old Maid’ and I can still clearly summon-up her image, warmth and vibrancy to this day and feel a deep regret at the waste of her remaining unmarried and never having kids of her own. And yes, she was my first love 🙂
But I was also growing-up surrounded by servicemen who had fought in WWII and there was a bit more openness about their experiences but not a lot and my own dad was well into his 50s before he began to recount some of his experiences and how they had changed lives.
One thing basically missing during a large period of my early life was the wearing of poppies by these ex-soldiers and their families. As I matured I began to think that they had no need to wear poppies for a few short days as they remembered fallen comrades and their own experiences, more days than not, for the rest of their life.
With my grandads and their generation it was a deeper more visceral reaction with neither allowing a poppy in the house. Eventually because I was a pain in the arse – yea even then – my maternal papa explained to me it was because the poppy had the letters ‘EH’ on it for ‘Earl Haig’ and as he said the name he spat on the black range and let rip with a few choice words with my granny getting really annoyed and telling me tearfully: ‘Now look what you’ve done’.
And what had I done? I had brought back all the horrible memories of the utter squalor and extinction of so many of his mates in the trenches and he got terribly drunk that night. Oh what a callow youth I indeed was on looking back. However, I researched and came to understand Haig’s role in that terrible war of attrition on the Western Front and slowly understood the revulsion for the symbolism of the poppy forged in my grandfather’s mind although revisionist history now paints a different picture of Haig.
OK let’s move on. As I grew older and the WWI generation faded away I began to remember those I knew on Remembrance Sunday and as the WWII generation also started to disappear, and has now all but gone, I almost religiously watch the annual Cenotaph Ceremony from start to finish.
Watching the proud veterans remember their old pals, who never aged, I too remember my relatives and people I knew left seared by the deep psychological scars of war and the emotional damage it caused to my own dad as shown when he threw his WWII medals into the fire after being demobbed and returning home.
So, after a long journey of understanding, I look upon the words: ‘Lest We Forget’ in a possibly different light from some others because to me it means ‘Lest we Forget’ that there is nothing glorious in war and that remembrance has nothing to do with glorifying military exploits’.
‘Lest We Forget’ is all to do with remembering the sheer loss, waste and tragedy of those who gave their life in answering the call of duty and the pain and hurt of those left behind. Since the Vietnam War era I have also been able to look further than our own military casualties to those of indigenous populations and even ‘enemy’ soldiers and it only multiplies the sheer futility of it all.
Reading the words on the Ari Burnu Memorial near Gallipoli makes me think that perhaps the Turks are much further down the road to realising that the dead and injured come from more than one side and their loss and suffering is ultimately a tragic waste which would have better been avoided.
I accept that there can be ‘just wars’ but the more widely read and educated I became I started to see that the roots of conflict are often deeply rooted in economic and territorial expansionism when looked at in the cold light of day long after the Jingoism has faded away and the only remaining testament are white crosses, war memorials and grieving friends and relatives till they too fade away.
And even more disturbing has been my growing unease that the routes to war when examined tend to throw-up deep misgivings in me as to whether there had ever been genuine attempts to prevent the conflict or whether all that was on show was an elaborate tick-box PR exercise designed to ‘persuade’ the populace at large that every possible avenue to give Peace a Chance had been exhausted and that the only alternative was war.
This is no reflection on the courage of the brave men and women who answer the Nation’s call but more an indictment of the poppy-bedecked politicians who use the powerful symbolism involved as a cloak for their diplomatic failures, lust for carnage and sometimes a harking to return to the Great Days of Empire.
I now seriously question what makes the Nation make that call to arms on certain occasions and I feel sure Iraq and Afghanistan have pushed the British public to a tipping-point and I really hope that people power will ensure no more such wars are waged in our name because IMHO our intervention in these countries wasn’t worth the life of one British soldier.
Whatever the reason given for Iraq intervention it was in reality about oil and regime change which we achieved only to leave behind an unstable murderous vacuum which shows little signs of ending. Also worth remembering, looking back in time, that Britain created this artificial State and thus sowed many of the seeds which led to the recent Iraqi wars.
And Afghanistan – I have given up trying to figure out why we are there and what we are supposed to be doing except reinforcing a corrupt Kabul regime and trying to change a culture stretching back to the mists of time. The country is producing more poppies than ever as we, with our Western superiority, try and change an ancient male-dominated tribal culture to mimic a western democracy where women have equal rights.
How long will any of this last once we have pulled out? How long will the corrupt government last before decamping to Switzerland where they have stashed billions of dollars? And how many dead and injured soldiers will be left to mark our failure to think this through before becoming entrapped in an unwinnable war more to do with geopolitics than saving Britain from narcotics. And how many civilians, who allowed themselves to believe our PR, will be left, literally swinging in the wind, when we abandon them as we have done repeatedly throughout history and the world when it suited us.
Our Brass Hats failed to read not only the British history of military failure in Afghanistan but the terrible failure of Russia whose actual military losses there are still kept secret from the Russian population.
So what has all this got to do with Remembrance Sunday and poppies? Quite simply, we should all beware of Establishment attempts to glorify failed military exploits by shamelessly using our dead and wounded as a diversion. I personally will always support our troops and remember that they can’t question the orders given and if they do it doesn’t just mean possible imprisonment but walking away from their colleagues and risk exposing that tightly-knit group to increased danger through removing expertise and cohesion.
And I reject the line that soldiers know what they are getting into, are well-paid for what they do and no one forces them. Sadly, economic necessities have driven many of our youngsters into The Forces over the years with the dole queue the only alternative.
In recent years there is no doubt that the branding of the Poppy Appeal has become highly professional and the terrible losses and injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan will stretch charity resources for decades to come. It’s easy to point the finger at the Government and say it’s consciously ‘using’ our military casualties to deflect public attention and scrutiny away from the failed politics that have landed our troops in a deadly morass where ‘victory’ is impossible.
I suspect that to be the case but have no proof other than my gut feelings and a healthy disbelief in what the vast majority of politicians claim to be true. Meanwhile we are left praying and fingers-crossed for the day when our troops can march away with their heads held high not for serving a political dictat but for keeping the faith with their comrades.
And I can never remove the constant thought from my mind that if the politicians really do appreciate the sacrifices of our troops then why is it so important that the financial assistance required to rehabilitate and support them has to be raised through charity? Should our grateful Government not be the one to dig deep financially as their failures or ego, in the main, led to the troops being deployed in the first place?
I am well aware that there may be an anti-war demonstration against St Johnstone today and our enemies are already salivating at the prospect and ratcheting-up their internet campaign of hate. Our club has experienced many attacks since its foundation and has no illusions about how some in Scottish Society have viewed it and we will weather further storms and collectively be strengthened by arguing for the right of individuals to reach their own decisions on this issue – I honestly believe those who have laid down their lives for this principle would have no difficulty in finding agreement with that.
The poppy link with football is fairly recent and personally my Remembrance is a very deep and personal experience and not one to be ‘celebrated’ at a football match. I firmly believe that the decision to remember or not and in what way must always remain personal and because someone does remember or wear a poppy does not mean it is wrong for others not to do so.
Obviously Celtic has historical links to Ireland and it has supporters from there. It would be disingenuous of me to deny that some fans have no love for some of the actions of the British Army and because of my own family connections with Ireland I well understand these feelings.
A lot of Celtic fans, while recognising the club’s linkage to its Irish Heritage, have no problems with the British Army and are proud to wear a poppy and indeed many have served and still do in that army and others have given their life fighting in it. Many former players and supporters now rest in foreign fields and care nought for the religion or lack of it of the comrades who remain beside them forever.
I don’t regard differing opinions over Poppies and Remembrance as a sign of weakness or division in our support but part of the strength of our club which encompasses a very broad spectrum of society, bound together by a love of football and Celtic; a hatred for needless wars; and compassion for all of those adversely affected by the carnage they create.
I have added some songs and links which explore some issues on Poppies & Remembrance much much better than I ever could and I hope you will find them interesting.
I’m a big fan of Eric Bogle and I often listen to his “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” I like the imagery of the June Tabor cover and the haunting quality of her voice is well suited. But if it is gritty you want you’ll find that in the Pogues version.
And Hamish Henderson – one of the most beautiful and gentle of Scots it has ever been my pleasure to know and spend a little time with. His music is an inspiration to all – check out especially: “Freedom come all ye” sung by Arthur Johnstone at:
And, of course, the D Day Dodgers penned by Hamish while serving in Italy in WWII inspired by Lady Astor’s jibe accusing the Eighth Army of deliberately avoiding the Normandy invasions by taking things easily during the Italian campaign where my own dad served in the Royal Navy so again it has personal significance for my remembering. This version was sung by Hamish Imlach – what another great Scot and like Hamish a sad loss.
And if you want a beautifully irreverent version celebrating the Canadians presence in Italy still with the Lili Marlene tune:
Historical & Modern War Poetry:
Origins & History of Poppy:
Alternative Views on Poppy & Remembrance:
Posted by Ecojon