I read with surprise (and heartfelt disappointment) Harry Leslie Smith’s account in The Guardian of why this year will be the last he wears a poppy (8 November 2013). As a 90 year old war veteran, Smith argues that the significance of Remembrance Day has been eroded by modern politics and corporate institutions, that wealth is now confused with wisdom, and that the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers is now being used to justify conflict.
He explains that next year he will ponder Remembrance Day in private. Not only is this a travesty for those of his generation that share his horrific experiences of war, but for future generations who will never know the scale of the horrors he has survived.
My grandfather, Richard John Booth (aged 93), volunteered for the RAF in 1940 when he was just 19. A Bedworth-born only child, he had never been abroad prior to taking up service. He trained at Cheadle as a Morse Code Operator, and many of the messages he decoded were forwarded to the world-renowned Bletchley Park for use in operational intelligence. In 1942 he was deployed to Egypt, and there began a three and a half year period abroad which also saw him serving in Syria, Benghazi, Italy and Austria. Throughout his time at war, my grandfather kept a diary. Transcribed recently by my Father, the memoirs within his notebooks depict a lonely, deprived, and fearful world.
During the war, my grandfather had only sporadic contact with home, spent Christmas Day sleeping in a port susceptible to bombing, and was forced to wash in the sea due to lack of clean water. He recovered in makeshift hospitals from broken bones and dysentery, survived severe weight loss and jaundice, slept beneath lorries where they could not erect tents, spent days sleeping with 14 other men in ship cabins designed for just 2, and worked in the desert with no protection from mosquitos or stifling sun. He tolerated torrential rain and winds during lengthy tours of duty, with little provided in the way of nutritional sustenance. He was promoted to Corporal in 1943 and notes in his diary on 6 June 1944 : “Invasion starts in France. Things going well”. The significance of the understatement could not have been comprehended at the time.
My Grandfather returned home from war in January 1946 having lost much-loved friends and comrades and witnessed unspoken atrocities. He had travelled in unthinkable conditions around areas of the globe that endangered his life on a daily basis. He spent over three years cut-off from friends and family and enjoyed none of the simple luxuries that typified his life at home. Yet his diaries contain nothing but hope and humour. My grandfather was of a generation willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in, without recognition, for themselves and on behalf of others.
The poppy represents the establishment and promotion of these values and the acceptance of an existence that to young people nowadays would be not just unacceptable but unthinkable. To wear it is a demonstration of thanks to those who suffered and gave up their lives without complaint or question. It is not about modern political policy, or the fighting between left and right wing. It is about the ULTIMATE fight that young men like my grandfather took on with unfaltering courage to afford myself and my family the comfort of living without fear or suppression. It is a symbol of honour, of success, and of freedom. A symbol of a better, brighter future. A symbol of respect for service men and women still being deployed on tours of duty to places like Afghanistan.
The struggles of Harry Leslie Smith and his comrades ought to be recognised, and their survival celebrated. By not wearing a poppy, he is contributing to the erosion of a legacy other surviving veterans strive so hard to uphold. By lamenting the passing of soldiers in private he is missing an opportunity to educate our children about the significance of war. For it is only with an understanding of what was lost before that we can be truly thankful for what we have now.
Today my family attended the Remembrance Day parade in Whitehall. My 7 month old daughter wore a poppy on her coat in acknowledgement of the sacrifices made which have enabled her to grow up in a world so very different to that of our war veterans.
And as for my grandfather……he watches the Remembrance Day coverage on television each year. Quiet but contemplative, he speaks nothing of the sadness and loss he experienced, only of the happy memories. He remains the most positive, inspirational and kind-hearted man I have ever known. He takes nothing for granted, and exudes gratitude and positivity. He is a man who has seen the most ugly side of humanity, yet harbours no resentment, fear or bitterness. He has a beautiful, gentle nature, sees the best outcome in any situation, and never has a negative word to say about anyone. He is the reason Remembrance Day will always be special to me. I am blessed that he lived long enough not only to share his tales with me, but to meet his great granddaughter. Because for my grandad, she represents a future in which anything is possible. And that was the future both he and Harry Leslie Smith fought so very hard to secure.
My grandfather in his military uniform.
My daughter, Isla and I at The Cenotaph. 10 November 2013.