Why Harry would not wear a poppy
In the late seventies I joined the Upminster Bach Society where I sat next to Harry who was some half century my senior. One November I asked him if there was a particular reason why he did not wear a poppy; he was of an age to be an ex-serviceman and a poppy was worn by virtually every other man in the choir. Harry told me why; his story came out, in three sessions, the flatness of his telling it an important part of his story. Harry was not bitter, but the anger of his younger, teenage years lingered in his voice.
He had been born in 1900, in Hastings. Soon after the start of the First World War, late in 1914, there were jobs on the trams because the drivers had joined up so he left school and took to tram driving. For Harry and his schoolmates it was great fun, initially. By 1915 the novelty had worn off and tales of the early days of the war reached them from older friends so these boys lied about their ages and joined up. Their statements raised no questions on the part of the recruiting officers and they took the king’s shilling. Harry remembered the encouragement they received and the pensions promised.
For the first part of his war, he was engaged in infantry fighting on the Western Front where he realised that there was no particular enthusiasm for killing Germans amongst his unit. They were driven from behind, rather than led from the front and at this time he began to recognise the cowardice of some officers who forced them out of the trenches with threats that they would shoot them in the back should they not advance. Then there was Gallipoli and the strange understanding he encountered there between the British troops and their Turkish enemies. Each side made sure that it marked its progress along the trenches with much banging of saucepans and other noisy items. In this way confrontation was avoided, and the need to shoot at one another; it was only when they came face to face that they had to open fire.
Back in France, and then on leave at home when the armistice came, Harry and one particular friend were relieved at first; they had signed up for the duration and the war was now over. Surely there was no need for them to re-join their units in France.
Gradually word reached them from the front that they had been posted missing, absent without leave, and they realised that they had better return. They found Victoria Station surrounded by military police checking papers. Those who were AWOL were being arrested. Harry and his pal knew what that had led to earlier in the war – the firing squad. The two lads did know however that if they could return to their units undetected they would probably not be questioned once they got there. Harry’s friend had worked on the railway and led the way alongside the tracks, away from the station, until a hole appeared in the fence. They scrambled through and walked back along the tracks into the station, avoiding the red caps.
But it was not the end of the story, indeed far from it. Back in France their questions about discharge were met with incredulity for, to their horror, they discovered that the forms they had signed in their boyish enthusiasm three years before had been for the regular army and that they had signed up for twelve years. Notwithstanding their being under age when they had signed up, they had to remain with the colours. Soon, they were on another troop ship heading for Suez and other parts of the Empire with another nine years to serve.
At eighty, Harry remained angry, for comrades who had become invalids, comrades for whom jobs had been hard to find, comrades for none of whom were there pensions and of course for the families of comrades who did not return. While he was pleased that the British Legion could do its work of caring for ex-servicemen and their families, he was contemptuous of its title. As Harry saw it, the survivors were allowed the title of royal when they took upon themselves the government’s responsibility for those to whom pensions had been promised, those who had answered the call to serve king and country. The title royal was, in Harry’s view, a sop, a cheat.
I always buy a poppy when Armistice Day approaches and the days grow shorter, but when I can, I tell Harry’s story.
What encouraged Harry to join up?
Should Harry and his friend have been obliged to remain in the army when they wanted to leave?