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Monday 14 November 2011


My father-in-law clocked up 93 last Friday. Yes, he was born on Armistice Day, on 11-11 -1918. Had he been a girl he would have been called Irene. Irene means peace. I don’t know what the male equivalent is. He was called John.

Naturally we went over to see him and found him pretty well, though mildly amused by all the 11-11-11 cards.

He was more bemused by the poppy business, particularly as applied to the English football team’s insistence on wearing what turned out to be arm bands when they played Spain in a friendly match on November 11.

Like many of his generation, he is appalled by what he calls ‘the arm punching’ celebrations of present day millionaire footballers. ‘Arm-punching’ includes somersaults, group hugs and badge kissing.

May I be frank? I don’t think he has the slightest desire to shake John Terry’s hand.

On a wider level, he is also rather baffled by the poppy insistence. On graduating in 1939, he joined up three months before the declaration of war because he knew war was coming.

He considers himself very lucky, despite weighing six stone when he got out of Burma. His great friend John Wishart died on D-Day. My brother-in-law has Christopher as a second name for another dead friend.

But the thing about being 93 is that you get to consider a long life. And while WW2 was an absolute game changer that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it.

We gave him Max Hastings’ All Hell Broke Loose. His first reaction? ‘We’re beginning to bite the bullet’.

Now my father-in-law has thought for some time that the Russians beat the Germans and the USA beat the Japanese. The British, apart from a brave and rather lucky window, were fortunate to tag along.

But one of his standards is the deaths suffered. The Russians lost millions. The Germans lost about half that number. The British? However cruel this may sound, surprisingly few.

John Wishart, for example, had four years of doing nothing very much until D-Day. My father-in-law himself says he rarely experienced danger – he only found out relatively recently that the commanding officer who sent him and others into Burma was summarily relieved of his post while they were tackling unmapped terrain with neither adequate equipment nor medication. They were sent out in leather boots that rotted within days.

To a considerable extent, military mismanagement dominated the lives and deaths of the British troops. When my father-in-law got to Mumbai (then Bombay), the main preoccupation was whether anyone had thought to countermand the order to sail on to Japanese occupied Singapore. The ship ahead kept sailing and the Gordon Highlanders disembarked into captivity.

John Wishart really died. He stepped off a landing craft on D-Day and was mown down. And it’s partly out of respect for an old friend that my father in law thinks poppies have become as fatuous as ‘arm punching’.

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