by Mark Steel

SOMEHOW the first world war has become a natural disaster. It's one of those things about which you're supposed to say "Tut, ooh, isn't it dreadful", like a flock of birds covered in oil, or a hurricane. Maybe schoolkids are now being taught that, in 1914, just as millions of men were rambling across northern Europe there was a freak storm which made the whole region fatally muddy. Then to make matters worse, for the next four years it rained shells, barbed wire and trenches.

So to show respect, everyone has to wear a poppy to remember the unlucky ones caught up in it. For example, the Church goes to great lengths to honour poppy day. Yet when this disaster was happening, the official role of the Church was to help recruit officers, in schools, workplaces and churches. So the local vicar or priest would say something along the lines of: "Last night I had a call from God. And it seems that at the moment, he is particularly concerned that a 20 square yard puddle behind the post office in Passchendaele should come under the British sphere of influence rather than that of the Hun. So if you'd all like to form a queue..."

Another group unlikely to forget their poppies are the royals. Imagine the embarrassment if the Queen isn't wearing one while she's laying her wreath in Paris, suddenly squeaking: "Oh sod it, I've left it in the hotel," and buying one from a passing gypsy.

Every year she leads parades to remember those who died, although the whole thing was fought in her family's name. In fact Edward VII couldn't wait, agreeing with his friend Lord Fisher back in 1904 that the British should destroy the German navy without even declaring war. What's more, they were related to the German royals, so the other side died in their name as well. That was quite a family feud then. I suppose it's lucky they didn't all have to attend the same wedding in that period, or it might have been even worse.

The tabloid press, especially the Sun, is a fervent campaigner for poppies, parades and two-minute silences. Yet the popular press did all they could to start the war, screaming that the Germans were about to invade when they knew this wasn't true. The chief protagonist was the Daily Mail, but only because the Sun wasn't around back then to answer any possible peace agreement with "Take a Hunning Jump", and boast "From now until victory -- Every day on Page 3 -- Wenches for the Trenches".

PADDY Ashdown's poppy will be in pristine condition, as the Liberals know how to respect war veterans. Indeed they have so much respect for them that they created them in the first place. As historian A L Morton wrote: "The attitude of the government in the days before the war could hardly have been more calculated to make its outbreak more certain." Germany was told that Britain would remain neutral in a conflict between them and France. Encouraged, they invaded Belgium, at which point the Liberals discovered a treaty from 1839 pledging that Belgium would be defended by the British. We must declare war at once!

The Liberals, backed by the Tories, had been increasing arms spending at a ferocious rate, preparing to protect its colonies by putting the growing German power block in its place. Either that or they doubled the size of the army on the off-chance that someone would invade Belgium.

But most upright of all are the heads of the armed forces; people with titles like commander-in-chief, which was also the title of one General Douglas Haig at the Somme. Haig refused to promote men from within the ranks above imbecilic upper-class officers, and persisted with tactics which lost 350,000 men. Then he had a furious argument with Lloyd George about which victory coach he should ride in. He completed one other lasting achievement. He founded the practice of remembering the war dead by wearing a poppy.

The dead of that war were thrown on to the battlefield like pieces of coal on a fire, and when none were left their leaders remembered they had another bag somewhere round the back.

They died because people, in whose interests and profits the war was fought, sent them to die. So they should be remembered. But poppy day is like Reggie Kray holding an annual parade to remember those that fell in the East End gangland wars.

So in only one respect was it like a natural disaster. If Clare Short had been around she'd have sent the troops a packet of Woodbines and a notepad for writing poetry, and announced that campaigning to stop the war was an "irrelevance".

Recent Additions
   & Updates
Search the site

Site Information


Norman Collins, still surviving aged almost 100, remembers a long-dead comrade:

I had recovered from my wounds and I’d been given a permanent commission in the Indian Army when the Armistice came along. I was on leave and I was up a bit late that morning, I was shaving, and the sirens went. My first feeling was "It’s too late — all my friends are gone — it’s too late. It’s no good having an Armistice now" I had a vision and I was standing in a trench and at eve level there were feet marching, marching feet going along, and these were all the men I had known who were killed in the war. And they were marching away into the distance where I would never follow. All the people I knew had gone. Except me.

My lance corporal was a Lewis gunner, called Meikle. We got to know each other very well because every night, every four hours, I used to go and visit him in his forward position out in No Man’s Land, because he would be posted there in case of a counter attack or a raid. He was the same age as myself and he was only my height, tiny little chap, a bookmaker’s runner in Glasgow. We got very close, we used to have long, long talks and he would tell me all about his life. After I was wounded in 1917, I heard that he had won the VC, Sergeant Meikle then, and he had been killed overwhelming a machine gun position on his own. He wouldn’t have won it if I’d been there because I wouldn’t have let him do it, I wouldn’t have allowed such a silly thing, my dear old Sergeant Meikle. I went to have a look at his gravestone. I have a lovely picture and there I am, standing looking down, and Sergeant Meikle is young bones, of course, still young bones and there I am, nearly a hundred, standing on top — very old brittle bones with plenty of pain in them, but who won in the end? I mean, who had the better life? Nobody knows. Meikle died. Anyway he won’t know, he has no memory and eventually I will go the same way.

Extract from Richard Van Emden & Steve Humphries

from The Guardian 13th November 1998

Member of the History Channel
visit aftermath books
In association with Amazon

Aftermath - when the boys came home

Tuesday 20 December 2005