In 1914 they began leaving the slums, taking the King’s shilling, to escape the dirt and the disease, to send some worthless pennies home to feed the wives and children they had left behind in buildings swarming with humanity and rotting with piss, shit, and vomit. You may think I’m being crass, but if we could revisit those dwellings, these rude words would be the least of our worries. The government that sent them to war had caged them like animals in these hell holes to work and to die for the good of the empire and the ruling class.
How could these stories not leave the listener affected? At every stop on our way around the tunnels and underground platforms Paul informed us not only of the stories of the places and the events, but of the people – the ordinary working people of Glasgow, the ordinary working people of the Highlands who came, cleared from their homes, to work in the city, and the ordinary people of Scotland and elsewhere who passed through the station.
Yet the poppy, from the joke it was – no matter how ordinary innocent people feel about wearing it, has been “hijacked,” or so we are told. It has now become the totem of hyper-aggressive, right-wing racist British nationalism. On the football field it has become the weapon of choice to be deployed against non-British outsiders; Irish Catholics and Argentinians – very much victims of British imperial and colonial violence – who play for English clubs. On the lapels of knuckle-dragging thugs it has become a compliment to the Nazi swastika tattooed on their necks.
After four gruelling years of trench warfare in the Ypres Salient nothing was left standing in Ypres. Everything that we now see was painstakingly rebuilt by the people of Ieper in the 1920s, and what an outstanding job they did.
Travelling by land and sea to what was in 1915 the trench system of the Western Front, I will be travelling in the very footsteps of the hundreds of thousands of young Irishmen who fought in the British Army during the so-called Great War.
'Remembering' the fallen of the so-called Great War mustn't be about the power and the glory. It must be rooted in the immeasurable suffering of poor, working men and boys, and tens of millions of innocent civilians.