Friday, 10 November 2006


The BBC's Jon Snow is getting some flak for his refusal to wear a poppy whilst reading the news. He says that it is a personal choice and resents what he calls 'poppy-fascism'.

I have mixed feelings on this. There is something poignant about Remembrance Day, but there is also an association with flag-waving and militarism. And like the revival of St George's flag, there is a sense of nationalism and a pressure to conform.

I know that Remembrance covers veterans from all wars, but inevitably it is still the two world wars that stir the emotions most. I don't think that this is simply because of the sheer scale of loss from these conflicts. It is that those who faught were very much civillians in uniform rather than professional servicemen. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. To remember them with marching bands and military parades is somehow to miss the point.

Like many families we have the bronze memorial plaque sent to the next of kin of those who died in the First World War. Ours is of my great uncle, Albert. I was given it when I was a kid, and sadly as the years have gone by, there are no living relatives left who can tell me anything about him - he exists only as a name.

A few years ago I tried to research Albert's past by contacting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his regimental association. I have visited France often and am always moved by the cemetaries there; whether it is the unimaginable scale of the graves at the Somme or Verdun battlefields, or just one of the numerous small graveyards that are scattered amongst country villages. I imagined myself visiting Albert's grave in such a place. In fact, what I found out was both more haunting and more ironic.

Albert had served as private in the Hampshire Regiment and he was killed in action in February 1917, aged 19. He has no known grave but is commerated at the Commonwealth memorial just outside Basra, in what was known at that time as Mesopotamia and is now more familiar to us as Iraq. The memorial has only recently been restored as it was damaged when it was in the middle of a tank battle in the First Gulf War.

Even amongst the horror and carnage of the First World War, the Mesopotamian Campaign stands out as a tragic waste. Faught for no clear strategic purpose; it was one of the last adventures of empire, in which poorly-led, disease-ridden and ill-equipped British and Indian troops struggled against the conditions of fighting in the desert.

The lowest point came with a disasterous siege at Kut-al-Amara in 1915-16, when the British garrison surrendered. It rates as one of the largest mass surrenders in military history. There was a public outcry at the mismanagement of the campign, and the fate of the prisoners of war in Turkish camps whose treatment was not unlike those in Japanese camps in the Second World War.

So I will be taking a few moments to remember Albert and others like him tomorrow, but without any sense of nationalism, and, like Jon Snow I resent any pressure to wear my feelings on my sleeve.

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