Robert Fisk and the New Contemptibles

In the run up to the century mark since the First World War there are going to be lots of articles, features, postures, and controversies. It’s already begun.

Here’s Archbishop Cranmer’s colleague, Brother Ivo, having a pop at Robert Fisk’s piece in the Independent, entitled “Poppycock – or why remembrance rituals make me see red”:

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.

I fear the author is right, in more ways than one.

He also says:

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.


He adds this snippet (about Haig):

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.

Right. And proper.

You can read the whole thing, here.

If you are too lazy to do that, here’s the final salvo:

…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.

Score one for Cranmer and Ivo. I think Fisk is wrong on all counts. But it will not do his trendy credentials any harm. Unfortunately, there are going to be more pieces like this.