The period running up to Armistice Day (November 11th) usually produces a little crop of poignant stories, including both official British Legion publicity to news stories deemed apposite at this time of year. The Poppy Appeal this year featured McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, the original inspiration for the adoption of artificial poppies after the Great War (at first, it seems, by an American woman who arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-ravaged northern France to help provide for children who had suffered because of the war). The Legion understandably wanted to use McCrae to support the Poppy appeal, not his appeal on behalf of the dead to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’. Background from the British Legion or, for an alternative view, the Peace Pledge Union (this link is to the education section on the Great War: Sassoon was an early sponsor of the PPU).
Two memoirs by men who served in the war were in the news. Pipe-smoking Captain Alexander Stewart recounted the “Horror and dark humour of the Somme” according to the Guardian. Better-known J B Priestley wrote of ”trenches full of heads’ in his letters from the front, again reported in The Guardian.
Two poets also drew re-evaluations: Ivor Gurney, whom Adam Thorpe describes as ‘one of the finest of his age’ in The Guardian’s review pages. Before the month was out, Vernon Scannell had died; he served in the Second World War but wrote movingly about the First in ‘The Great War’. Alan Brownjohn’s obituary appeared in The Guardian, as did a less predictable glowing tribute from Simon Jenkins, who was taught by Scannell and concludes: ‘Scannell was even better than a good poet. He could teach.’
Finally, the BBC carried the touching story of how 89 years after Stanley Cubiss drowned when HMS Opal sank off the coast of the Orkney Islands in 1918, his wedding ring was returned to the family by divers who found it at the bottom of the sea.