Blazing sunshine and heat, Remembrance Day out in Africa and I think of my young brother killed so many years ago in a long-forgotten war. And of my great-great-grandfather on my father’s side of the family, who fought on the Somme and lost the sight of one eye, but went on to become a successful Scottish golfer. He referred to the trench warfare of the First World War as a ‘criminal bloodbath‘ and refused until his death at the age of 96 to have anything to do with the poppy-wearing or military processions of Remembrance Day. Too often we opt for sentimentality at the expense of outrage, we forget the carnage and the wasted lives, the political games played while soldiers and civilians die.
You don’t see poppies of cardboard or crepe worn out here very often, but the myth lives on. During the First World War, red poppies were among the first plants to spring up in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground. The more prosaic fact was that the tremendous mortar bombardments of Flanders Fields meant that the chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, so that poppies grew up and blossomed in profusion in the disturbed and upturned earth. After the war, the lime was quickly absorbed, and the poppy began to disappear again
On a bookshelf at home when I was perhaps 14 years old, I found the Collected Poems of Keith Douglas, a soldier and poet who was killed by enemy mortar fire during the Normandy invasion of 1944. He was 24 years old when he died. The last lines have stayed with me since then, the pity and the pathos of it: And death who had the soldier singled/has done the lover mortal hurt.
Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.
The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.
We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.
But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.