Take up your quarrel with the foe.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with those who die.
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McRae, Canadian Expeditionary Force
This week I will wear my red poppy cufflinks with pride, pride that my paternal grandfather fought and was gassed out of the front.
And returned to Scotland to marry an Irish nurse.
If he hadn’t my father wouldn’t have come along and wouldn’t have met his own Irish nurse.
Who herself hailed from a proud Irish Nationalist family who gave two sons, my Great-Uncles, to the cause.
My story will be a familiar one, a heroic one, of extraordinary, ordinary people, Irish, Scottish, English, Canadian, American, German… from all around the world.
I stood by my Great-Uncle Willie’s gravestone in Ypres, the first of my family to pray by his cross since he fell.
I found Great Uncle Patrick’s name too among those of the missing on the Thiepval arch.
And I also visited Canadian and German cemeteries, a lake made out of the crater from the bombs, and a trench.
I have had to defend my wearing of the red poppy while living these past 13 years in Ireland, which I’m happy to do, for my Grandpa and my Great-Uncles.
A symbol of peace
The objection is that the red poppy is worn for the fallen of all British soldiers across all conflicts.
Which includes the Troubles and also raises the thorny subject of Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.
I understand the difficulties for some over that, my Grandfather having lived a large part of his life there.
Many of my aunts, and an uncle, having been born there, and Grandpa having run pubs there over a period which also covered The Troubles.
I have also fielded criticisms from friends (they’re still friends) who say the red poppy has been appropriated by big commerce and narrow nationalism.
I can only say that I have had similar journeys of conscience regarding the red poppy.
But my visit to Flanders and the Somme have focused me on the universality of the human sacrifice there.
How all the crosses regardless of social status are the same size and pristine white.
I was touched by the respect shown by the youths of so many nations there.
And was honoured to be picked with my good friend Dominic Burke, MD of Travel Centres, to present the wreath at the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ieper.
I will light my candle on Sunday and watch it flicker, blow it out and then reflect on the fragility of life and the permanence of death.
And the greatest sacrifice any human can make, to give up their life for their friends.
Here is my tribute… In Flanders fields.