Robert Fisk and the New Contemptibles
From Brother Ivo:
It has begun. Our “liberal progressive” friends have embarked upon a scheme to shape the narrative for next year’s commemoration of the Great War.
As those who plan the year prepare their contributions, it is hoped that scholarship and perspective will be the dominant virtues, especially when it comes to the men who won the war. None bears the brunt of insult and disdain more than Field Marshal Douglas Haig.
His reputation remains controversial: all military leaders will - and should - have their actions scrutinised to learn the lessons of their successes and their failures. There is little doubt that Sandhurst will have studied such matters with care and proportionality, but Brother Ivo’s fear is that that the popular media may still be stuck in the Oh! What a Lovely War/Blackadder mode of leftwing agitprop.
Such is the shallowness of much popular culture, however, that Brother Ivo saw one young man asserting that he could not wear a poppy because it derived from John McRae’s famous poem, and had been selected as the symbol of remembrance by Douglas Haig’s wife.
That it had been hallowed and accepted by generations of heroes, and that McRae was a serving officer who gave his own life for his king and country seemed to have eclipsed all else. There was no suggestion that there was anything wrong per se with the field poppy symbolising the lost generations, or that there was a better one: the simple fact that it could be linked to the Field Marshal rendered all further intelligent consideration redundant.
Brother Ivo subsequently realised that the young man was parroting the line of Robert Fisk in a piece published in The Independent which had Yasmin Alibhai-Brown praising his “bravery” for writing it.
It is not in the slightest brave: it is weapons grade, highly self-regarding, pseudo-moralistic cant of the highest order. And doubtless it will not be the last.
If one has the stomach to read it to the end, it should be done, for it sets the bar for the level of ignorance and prejudice from the liberal establishment with which we shall have to contend in the months ahead, as we enter the time of commemoration.
When the relatively small British Expeditionary Force stopped the German Army in 1914, the Kaiser famously referred to them as the “Old Contemptibles” - a appellation they wore with pride for the rest of their lives.
In the likes of Mr Fisk and Ms Alibhai-Brown we have the ‘New Contemptibles”, who will tread on the sensitivities of the grieving, and who cannot allow remembrance and mourning to be untainted by political controversy as they impose their spiteful worldview upon an activity that most would prefer to keep open and inclusive.
Those who intrude into our remembrances and adopt a term like “poppycock” to describe the holy moments of honouring the sacrifice of our military are indeed beneath contempt.
There is neither time nor space to assess Haig’s military merits in depth, but there are a few obvious correctives to the popular view that are worth noting.
Haig pursued objectives set by politicians: all soldiers do. Despite the losses, the British public was determined not to lose its war with Germany after expending so much blood and treasure, and Haig delivered what was required of him. He, like so many others, discharged his duty.
At the end of the War he was judged well by those in a position to know.
Luddendorf saluted him as “Master of the field”; US General George Patton had high regard for him, having served in those conditions as a young officer before learning lessons and becoming a notable Second World War leader. Winston Churchill said of him: "If there are some who would question Haig’s right to rank with Wellington in British military annals, there are none who will deny that his character and conduct as a soldier will long serve as an example to all."
What is little known by the generations educated by left-wing academics is that his funeral attracted more mourners than lined the streets of London for the funeral of Princess Diana. His men respected him and honoured his passing. That is not insignificant, and ought to give pause for thought to those whose judgements are formed by their own prejudices or popular culture.
Not all of his alleged mistakes were irrational.
We need to remember that the Great War, above all, confirmed Napoleon’s dictum that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. That was especially the case in the first war fought with 20th-century firepower directed by 19th-century communications.
If Haig instructed his 1916 citizen army to walk towards the enemy it was as much to do with his concern that they might rush into their own barrage as over-confidence that he had mastered the artillery lessons from German successes at Verdun. Even when the very real possibility for the much-hoped-for cavalry breakthrough occurred at High Wood on the 1st July 1916, there did not exist the communications to exploit the planned opportunity in the time available. The war was fought on an unprecedentedly vast scale with command structures that no one could have directed significantly better.
On the frequently referenced issue of the executed soldiers, Haig commuted 90% of the 3000 death sentences passed, and 37 of the 309 shot at dawn were executed for murder which would have seen them hanged in a civilian Court. This generation may differ in its values, but the man was no Judge Jeffreys.
Because of his leadership, the British Army held its discipline and cohesion throughout the agony of the conflict. Unlike the armies of Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Turkey or Austria, the British Army never broke, and neither did it significantly mutiny. Every military professional of the time and since counts that a remarkable achievement.
Where his reputation is largely overlooked, however, is in his role after the war.
We are so habituated to our British way of Remembrance that we do not pause to think that alternatives existed. They may have been old style Imperialists, but men like Haig and Kipling ushered in a modern and very egalitarian approach to commemorating the sacrifices made.
All Commonwealth War Grave headstones are identical. Our war memorials list alphabetically and there is no greater respect given to the Major General or the Baronet’s son than the local rat catcher. The red poppy is for each and every one of them, and recalls the sacrifice of non-combatant Quakers and VC alike. It is the intrusion of the white poppy that imports difference and division to the occasion.
In all the traditional trappings of Remembrance, the Commonwealth soldiery from all nations, cultures and religions are accorded identical respect. This is easily overlooked by those who have never seen a segregated War Memorial in the USA.
That tone of Remembrance owes no small debt to the post-war efforts of Douglas Haig and the British Legion, over which he presided from its inception to his death. Haig refused a viscountcy until proper provision had been made for demobilised soldiers. He insisted that the Army stayed in reserve rather than become engaged during the General Strike. He was actively involved in securing housing for the returned soldiers, and the British Legion relief fund bore his name for many years.
We could do a lot worse that restore the original title “The Earl Haig Fund”, which was stripped from it by a subsequent generation more concerned with imposing its own trendy views than accepting and respecting the choice of those better placed to judge.
If Haig deserves no other credit, he should be honoured for his commitment to the establishment of the British Legion as an inclusive, non-political organisation designed simply to support the military folk who had done their duty and suffered so much.
Uniquely amongst European ex-service organisations, veterans in the UK retained their association as a meeting place of old comrades. During the depression years, every European country saw its old soldiers groups morph into nationalistic, fascist or communist quasi military bands, but the Royal British Legion stayed true to its mission.
For that alone we should remain very grateful to the Royal British Legion, and honour its leadership. How many today have ever been challenged by that thought from their history teachers?
We might also usefully remind ourselves that the First World War was recognised as a holocaust before the Holocaust. One wonders if our liberal commentators would feel quite so comfortably cavalier trampling over the memory or sensitivities of the Holocaust victims in the way they now feel able to sneer and pontificate about those who came out of the trenches and sought in some inadequate way to express their sense of loss and pity?
The simple poppy had grown profusely over the fields in which the survivors had served, fought and suffered. Since they accepted that symbol of Remembrance for their families and friends, why do puffed-up commentators like Robert Fisk feel the need to bray and disrespect? They have 364 other days of the year to pursue their progressive agenda.
And therein lies the paradox. Such self-appointed spokespersons for the common man are turning their backs on the judgements of the ordinary men and women who served. From the earliest days of the cynical Bloomsbury Set to its modern incarnation, our intelligentsia are more "sophisticated" than Joe Public. This is what sets egalitarians apart - their innate sense of superiority.
One suspects that none of the Remembrance rituals will have irritated Mr Fisk more than those surrounding the Unknown Soldier, who was accorded the highest honour and respect by all who laid him to rest, including Royalty, the Church, Parliamentarians and the Military High Commands. Doubtless Mr Fisk would describe them all as having contributed to that soldier’s death.
Such was the ritual surrounding the selection of this modern-day Everyman that he could have been Canadian, Australian, Indian, or from many other nations. He was not only escorted to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey by 100 holders of the Victoria Cross, but this occurred in the presence of nearly 100 women who had lost a husband and five sons to the war. The concentration of grief on that day is almost too sad to contemplate.
Those heroes and ordinary women were not deterred from paying their respects by the presence of the highest in the land. Doubtless, in later life, those widows wore their little paper poppies, which Mr Fisk loftily disdains to wear because he has a better perspective and superior judgement. If it was good enough for them, Brother Ivo is honoured to follow their example.
Their husbands and sons were those who made up the ranks of the Grimsby Chums, the Accrington Pals, the Glasgow Tramways Battalion, the Post Office Rifles, and many more groups of patriotic loyal friends. Whenever Brother Ivo comes to remember, he brings to mind these ordinary, uncomplicated folk, and stands before the Cross of Sacrifice in awe with thanksgiving, calling to mind another who shared their path.
Robert Fisk and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown don’t want to be associated with Pals and Chums: they prefer acolytes.
Brother Ivo is Christian enough to assume that Mr Fisk would not have stood before those 100 grieving widows in Westminster Abbey to declare their observance “poppycock”. There are still many grieving today, from both old and newer conflicts, for whom these rituals are their best and most comforting expression of inexpressible loss. If Mr Fisk would not say these things to their faces, he would be best not to say them at all.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers