“Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”
“Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims”
These are the words which should appear in bold print and be accompanied with clear voice overs for the blind and signed prominently for the deaf and hard of hearing on every single news programme and politics show for the 18 days which lead up to the 11th of November every year.
News readers should inform the viewers at the end of every show that these are the words of a man called Harry Patch https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Patch and the reason his words deserve prominence and repetition at this time of year every year is because he was the last living survivor of the war which has been grotesquely dubbed, The Great War of 1914-18, which stuttered to an inglorious end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of 1918 after consuming the lives of some 37 million civilians and combatants.
There is in truth nothing ‘Great’ about that horrible and unnecessary war that pitted man against man the world over for nothing more than the right of the rich in each country involved to have greater access and control of markets to reap even greater profits to feed their insatiable greed. There was no glory in a conflict that saw conscripted men on all sides slaughtered by their thousands day after day suffering horrific deaths and writhing with agony in European battlefields like the Somme and Ypres.
Harry Patch was typical of the ordinary men conscripted to fight that futile war which is why his words should be given so much attention and prominence now.
He lived to the age of 111 and became not just the last British survivor who fought in WW1 but the last survivor across Europe. He became known as ‘The Last Tommy’ in reference to the nickname associated with British soldiers for several hundred years. His book ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ is a searing condemnation of the brutality of WW1 and the cruel, cold and callous loss of life it caused.
For many years Harry refused to discuss his memories of the First World War as they haunted him so deeply. But after several years of being cajoled he eventually opened up and made many speeches and visits across Europe to promote peace and reconciliation. He received 8 honours for bravery during WW1 and a Defence Medal for service in WW2.
A particularly poignant passage from his book was read out at his funeral service in his Somerset place of birth on 6th August 2009 before the Wells Cathedral bells were rang 111 times from 11am in his honour:
“We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: ‘Shoot me’. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother.’ I remember that lad in particular. It’s an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind”. (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-last-fighting-tommy-9781408897225/)
It is passages like this and recollections of the very real consequences of wars which should adorn our screens and occupy our city centre streets at this time of year not the General Haig associated red poppy.
That poppy has been kidnapped by the military and the politicians as a symbol not of remembrance but of justification for every bloody war and militaristic campaign regardless of cause. It is a symbol of military might and imperialist plunder. Most wear it to show respect for the fallen but the truth is it represents the hypocrisy and cynicism of the ruling classes who couldn’t care a jot about lives lost in conflicts across the world.
World War Two veterans like Harry Leslie Smith refuse to wear that poppy any longer in protest at how bastardised the message it portrays has become. Politicians with the blood of illegal and immoral wars and conflicts on their hands stand at Remembrance Ceremonies without a flicker of contrition and lay wreaths that used to be about ‘Never Again’ and ‘Lest We Forget’ but are now about ‘support us whatever conflict we get involved in’ and ‘don’t question just obey’.
Harry Leslie Smith served with distinction in WW2 as an RAF pilot and used to wear a red poppy every November in memory of his fallen comrades in that war and all the fallen from WW1. He vividly recalls a time in history when actual invasion was a real threat across the UK and how determined millions were to defend their homes and communities against the brutality, intolerance and inhumanity carried in the Nazi swastika. Now he rejects the jingoism and hypocrisy associated with the red poppy.
He believes it is used unscrupulously by politicians eager to manipulate the populace into supporting arms trading and unnecessary conflicts in our name. Writing five years ago in 2013 he said;
“However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith?CMP=share_btn_link .
With perfect precision Harry later blasted the rank hypocrisy of the politicians who insist on uniform conformity to red poppy wearing while they insult its supposed meaning when he said:
“Almost immediately after November 11(2014) the Tower, which had been used to mourn our dead, hosted a dinner for the arms merchants of the world which shows not only poor taste but the sheer hypocrisy of the government that commissioned the commemoration” https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/11/07/veteran-harry-leslie-smith-red-poppy-politicised_n_8498786.html?ncid=other_email_o63gt2jcad4&utm_campaign=share_email .
The same politicians who jostled furiously to be in the pictures commemorating the 100 years since the start of the First World War in 2014 with their bright red poppies on display were within days back to the same venue to sell armaments to any rogue nation or tyrant with the money to buy them.
Pause for a moment in the coming days when you are blinded by the size and brightness of the poppy adorning the Tory politician on the news or pontificating in Parliament that his Government sells missiles and arms with abandonment to the Saudi Regime responsible for the carnage in Yemen and the murder of critical journalists in broad daylight.
Days ago in the European Parliament the Tories refused to support an almost universally supported motion (it was passed by 242 votes to 23) to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia in protest at their involvement in the Jamal Khashoggi murder and the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children civilians in Yemen where their involvement and deployment of UK supplied weapons has left two-thirds of the population relying on aid and 8 million on the brink of starvation https://www.independent.co.uk/news/conservatives-european-parliament-weapons-embargo-theresa-may-saudi-arabia-jamal-khashoggi-a8601591.html.
Weapons they purchased from the UK in 2014 were used by Saudi Arabia to cause carnage and destruction in 2015. So much for the ‘Lest We Forget’ red poppy message they wore with such pride before selling the arms to that regime and many others with deplorable human rights records. In fact the proud red poppy proponents have actually increased arms sales by £5billion to recognised repressive regimes across the globe since 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/09/arms-sales-repressive-regimes-saudi-arabia. But don’t fret they wore their red poppies for 18 days so it’s okay to sell bombs to regimes to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents because they ‘remembered’ our fallen soldiers. Their shame faced hypocrisy fills me with rage.
An example of the hypocrisy and ignorance which pollutes the Tory Party was on display last week when a Tory MP decided to publicly attack those who choose to wear a white poppy as a symbol of remembrance instead of the military associated red one. Johnny Mercer MP accused white poppy wearers of “hijack” and said “White poppies are attention seeking rubbish” https://ppu.org.uk/news/johnny-mercer-mp-reveals-ignorance-attack-white-poppy-wearers .
This idiot was blissfully unaware that the white poppy was introduced by war widows in 1933 angered by the increased militarism and move away from the ‘Never Again’ message originally promoted around Armistice Day celebrations after 1918. The Peace Pledge Union has produced and promoted the white poppy as a memorial to the fallen in every country and every war since 1934 and have unashamedly campaigned against militarism and for a world without wars. If the women in 1933 who were left without husbands, sons and brothers due to the WW1 calamity were seeking attention for anything it was the right to insist on peace instead of constant war. The war to end all wars was how the First World War was described yet within 20 years of it ending conscription was once again introduced.
Of course the war against Hitler and Fascism was at least a just cause and an unfortunately necessary battle but what an insult it is to the many who fell in that war to now regularly witness the thugs and reprobates associated with the English Defence League, BNP and other fascistic organisations openly performing Nazi salutes on streets across England, Wales and Scotland. ‘Lest We Forget’ has been too often forgotten. These are the people who insult the memories of the war dead not the white poppy wearers who promote peace and oppose wars.
Away back in 1995 I was a guest on the BBC Scotland ‘Elaine’ show hosted by comedienne, presenter and actress Elaine C, Smith. It took place in November and the BBC tried to insist I wear a red poppy. I refused. Instead I wore a white poppy as I had done since I was 18 and discovered the Peace Pledge Union at Stirling University, in 1985. Elaine and I discussed the white poppy and the clear message of remembrance of the fallen in all countries and the promotion of peace. To the issue of the good causes which the red poppies raise money for I answered then as I answer now. If a government is going to send men and women into conflicts at their behest it has a legal and moral duty to care for them afterwards.
The idea that veteran soldiers should have to rely on charitable donations for welfare and housing is utterly abhorrent. Instead of buying red poppies for 18 days every year why don’t we sell small Trident Missile badges and whatever is raised can be spent on illegal and immoral nuclear bombs. The £200 billion plus we are currently committed to spending on those nuclear bombs can instead be diverted to proper care for veterans and other needy and vulnerable citizens. If nuclear weapons are as popular as some politicians tell us they are they should have no problem raising the required funds.
Although my arguments were generally well received in the TV studio that night I faced red top newspaper attacks in the days that followed. I was a ‘disgrace’, ‘unpatriotic’, ‘disrespectful’ and mush more besides. All because I refused to wear a red poppy which I associate with militarism and jingoistic imperialism. The one argument which most annoyed the gutter press in heated phone calls that followed was my reference to my Irish heritage. My grandad on my dad’s side came from Ireland and growing up attending a Catholic primary and secondary school I was of course familiar with what was called ‘The Troubles’ and Britain’s role in occupying that island.
My special study in Modern Studies at the age of 14 was that dark period of British repression in Ireland. I was sympathetic to those who were fighting against the presence of British troops. Given the murders of unarmed civilians in places like Ballymurphy in August 1971 and Rossville Street in the Bogside in January 1972 by the British Army how could anyone with Irish heritage or connections support a red poppy appeal so closely allied to the military?
General Mike Jackson commanded the troops on the ground while they slaughtered innocent and unarmed men and women. He then lied to cover up the truth. General Douglas Haig was callous and complicit in ordering hundreds of thousands of men to advance slowly to their horrible deaths at the Somme and Ypres. He was both an incompetent fool and cold hearted butcher http://www.historynet.com/field-marshal-sir-douglas-haig-world-war-is-worst-general.htm. These men epitomise the worst excesses of the British Army. The red poppy appeal is integrally wrapped in a British Army uniform. Those who buy and display a red poppy over the next week or so are entitled to believe they are supporting a worthy cause. I am entitled to disagree.
For me the red poppy is too closely associated with the blood soaked history of British imperialism, in Ireland and across the globe. It is not a symbol of peace and remembrance but of war and militarism. Like an increasing number of others I will remember the victims of all wars and oppose militarism in pursuit of peace by wearing my white poppy again this year.