A Modest Poppy “For Those Hemmed In With The Spears”

A couple of days late with my traditional tribute to my father, who survived one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War One and, like millions of others in that and subsequent wars, carried some grievous wounds to his grave. 

I never heard him complain about the loss of his left eye, the smashed shoulder blade or the upper left arm repaired and reassembled to give him the deceptive appearance of an able-bodied veteran. Like so many warriors, he rarely talked about his experience on W Beach at Gallipoli. In fact, I remember only one occasion listening to my father tell the story, with a snort of derisive laughter, of how he was part of a three-man machine gun crew. “I don’t think we got more than 50 feet up the beach before a shell burst took all three of us out,” he recalled.

He just remembered the flash and explosion and “the flies” as he and hundreds of others lay bleeding on the beach. They went in at dawn, and it was close to dark before they could get organized relief. “Thirst was a big thing, but the flies buzzing and walking where you’d been hit were the worst.”

It sounds funny now, but we didn’t have flies in my home when I was a child. Regardless, I remain as paranoid about their presence today as my father was after W Beach at Gallipoli. One blue bottle intruding in our living space then, or my living space now, is a call to arms until the intruder is silenced. Forever.

My world was well into WW2 when my father began to seriously teach me how to behave when nations started throwing high explosives around. I was part of a stretcher crew when I was 15 and 16. A crew included an ambulance driver, two first aid and stretcher-bearers and a runner – a young lad who could run back and forth with messages. My uniform was an army issue gas mask, an armband to make me official, and, the greatest prize of all, an army-issue steel helmet.

When the air raid sirens sounded, I was the only kid on our street with an army issue gas mask and steel helmet reporting to Nuneaton General Hospital. Mother wasn’t too impressed; Dad thought it was okay as long as I took care. “That means,” he lectured one evening as the siren sounded, “you don’t run anywhere, whatever they call you. If you do run, always remember you may be running into danger, not away from it. When you hear a bomb screaming down, get yourself down, behind a wall if you can. And add an unbreakable water bottle to your gear. You’ll be surprised how thirsty you get when you can’t get a drink.”

I have told the story before about the long November night of “Coventration,” a word coined when a crowd gathered at the head of the street watching Coventry pulsate with fire nine miles away as the explosive bombs of German bombers found their target. The crowd was a mix of older men like my father, veterans of WW1, and young boys eager to get on our bikes and ride into Coventry to help where we could.

But the old Vets stopped us. “You don’t go back in until the barrage lifts,” was the wisdom of the elders. And they were right, of course, even if they were confusing falling bombs with big guns firing the creeping barrages of WW1.

One final story. When I was a child, we never wore the poppy around home. My father, a soldier badly wounded in a poorly organized war, was dismayed when the poppy was introduced two or three years after WW1 ended. In its early days, the poppy fund was often referred to as the Earl Haig Fund. My father and the group of Lancashire Fusilier veterans he stayed in touch with throughout his life were not endeared to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who once boasted that Germany regularly lost more men in battle than England and France “therefore we won.”

When Armistice Day came around, my mother would give me and my brother and sister a penny to buy a poppy to wear at school and church choir practice and service. “Don’t forget to take it off when you come home,” she cautioned. Ninety years later, I still wear the poppy – but not for Douglas Haig and the generals who never heard or felt the flies in their wounds.

I wear it, as John Masefield wrote, “for the men hemmed in with the spears … the men with the broken heads and blood running into their eyes … Others may sing of the wine and the wealth and the mirth … mine be a handful of ashes … of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and cold. ” Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales told and my poppy worn. (I’m sure Masefield would want to add “women” if he was still writing today, and my father would grump a bit but not disagree.)

3 comments

  1. Your mention of Field Marshal Haig, a commander blamed for the deaths of 750,000 British soldiers, brought to mind the problem of automatically commissioning aristocrats who seemed not to care about men in lower ranks.

    Those men knew a thing or two, as you point out, and perhaps should have been in on the planning.

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