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The Book of the Poppy

The Book of the Poppy

Chris McNab
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Every so often a book comes along that not only entertains and informs but actually makes one think. This is just such a book. This edition is a reprint of the book which had been commissioned and brought out in 2014 to commemorate the start of WW1; as we approach the 100th anniversary of its end the book has been reprinted.

The book is the story of how the lowly Poppy became the symbol of Remembrance, especially in the UK and Dominions. However, the Poppy as a symbol is not a British idea. This poem by Lt Col John McCrae, a Canadian doctor used the poppy as the symbol for the men who had passed over and through the poppy fields never to return and it is from this that the Remembrance Poppy emerged.

However, there is a lot more behind the actual poppy and this author takes the time to explain the casualties, on all sides, that the First World War incurred but makes the very strong point that there were many bloody campaigns and battles prior to WW1 and certainly after it, all of which really come into the circle of the Poppy. To this end, the book does not get round to the actual Poppy itself until half way through the book, the first part being taken up with background information, much given in graphical form – the author skilfully using the theme a picture is worth a thousand words. There are interesting bits such as the manpower mobilised during WW1 by all major participants, WW2 casualties from the major participants, 45 countries(!) some of whom are not normally thought of as participants in WW2 such as Brazil, 2,000 casualties, Dutch East Indies up to 4 million people. The numbers are fantastic and these in themselves are thought provoking. To get this level of casualty list requires a level of method and although there are many non-battle causalities the weapons used have increased in firepower over the years, again explained by the author.

After all this background the author brings us to the act of Commemoration and especially where it involves the Poppy. As I said, the Poppy as a symbol of remembrance is not a British idea. It was an American lady Moina Belle Michael who, having read McRae’s poem came up with the idea and she took this to the USA Veterans organisations and suggested that the Poppy be used as a symbol of Remembrance. She went round the USA and Canada, talking to ex Servicemen groups promoting this. At one of these she was heard by a French woman Madame Anna E Guerin who in turn took this idea with her when she visited countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain. The idea was well received; her next target was to get to speak to Field Marshal Haig who also took to the idea of the Poppy. So there we have it, a very basic outline of how the Poppy came to be the symbol of Remembrance.

But that is not what this book is about. It is about asking you, the reader, if you actually think why you are buying and wearing the poppy. Is it because you are remembering a family member or friend, is it because it tis that time of year or just because everyone else is wearing them. This is the crux of the book and the author does a great job in jolting the thought process and I believe that this book could easily become a must read for many schools studying wars as part of their syllabus.

Sprinkled throughout the book are little vignettes from people saying what the Poppy means to them. The Poppy itself came from the poetry of McCrae so the author has added in several other pieces of poetry such as Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen and often held up as the ultimate anti war poem and the poem which probably few have read or heard all the way through but most know a few lines from it: “For The Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon, the lines:

They shall now grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them.

McNab makes the point, strongly and severally, that Remembrance is not just about WW1; little snippets of facts such as during WW2, the casualty rate for Bomber Command was 44%, greater than almost any other branch of the Services. The life expectancy for bomber crews in 1943-44 was about six weeks – less than that of an infantry officer in the WW1 trenches. To remind us that Remembrance embraces such a wide range of conflicts this is a bit “Forgotten Voices” from the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava 25 Oct 1854 and a page with a graph showing the number of amputees due to landmines – reminding us that not all casualties are service related. This is reinforced with a note of the number of people who died in concentration camps.

For such a small book, just 150 pps, it packs in a huge amount of information, detail and thought provoking ‘jabs’. The book concludes by admitting that not everyone is behind the idea of the Poppy but McNab reminds us that war is a constant visitor, so the Poppy will remain relevant by reminding us that by not forgetting those who died due to conflict in the past are laid the seeds for hope for the future.

I generally don’t urge readers to get a book as I leave that to them to either take from the review and think it is something they would like to read, but in this instance I would certainly suggest that you get this, if you don’t already have it, and read prior to the plethora of Remembrance that will be with us in November of this year. This book is an absolute gem and does get one thinking “Why do we wear the Poppy?” rather than just popping a couple of quid into the box and pinning one to the lapel. Believe me, I have not been able to do it full justice in this short review.

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