Why I wear a poppy
By Alex Wood
As a young man I wore my CND badge, rather than a poppy, on Armistice Day. For very different reasons, my father, a regular soldier from July 1939 until 1946, also avoided both poppies and Armistice Day: ‘I don’t need a special day, I remember my pals who died every day of my life.’ My father’s father had enlisted in the TA in June 1914 and re-enlisted in 1939. He also, I am told, was contemptuous of the Earl Haig Fund which he saw as providing military funerals for veterans but of having failed to support veterans when they hit hard economic times.
Today I wear my poppy.
It is partly because I visited France and Flanders. I saw High Wood where my paternal grandfather attempted to rally the remnants of two companies after all the officers had fallen, only to be wounded himself and for the advance to peter out. I visited Brown’s Copse Cemetery where my maternal grandfather lies, with countless other Scots. I visited the vast, austere German cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast, powerful also because of the graves of Jewish German soldiers, marked by the obligatory pebbles. How, I wondered, did the occupying German servicemen of the second world war view these reminders of sacrifices made by men whose children were then being sacrificed quite differently? On the day on which I visited Neuville-St Vaast I also visited Cabaret Rouge Cemetery where lies Sergeant David Glen, M M.
Glen, like my grandfather, was a Brechiner who played junior football for Brechin Hearts. He then signed for Brechin City on its foundation in 1906 but also played briefly with Dundee and Millwall. Glen worked in the stone quarries, on the farms and in the bleachfield at Brechin and at road-mending. Glen might have been another anonymous casualty but for his football.
Old soldiers, Jimmy Gillies and Batch (Frank) Hannaway (above) at Levengrove cenotaph in Dumbarton in days gone by. And war veterans enjoy a parade and a day out in Dumbarton. Pictures by Bill Heaney
with Glen was a physical footballer in the days when that was no disgrace but when diving for a penalty would not have been imagined. Glen’s fame was as the man who cycled 20 miles to play for City. As a boy I knew that story but imagined it was a player who lived in the country: far from it. In the days when the working week was five and a half long days, labouring men loused on Saturday lunchtime. While labouring on the roads, Glen would cycle to work and home on a Saturday prior to playing. On one occasion, while working at Invermark, his bike broke on the return journey. He walked part of the way but still turned out for City.
Glen was a local worthy, shrewd in his judgements, highly respected and humorous. He was awarded a testimonial by Brechin City in 1912 and was a regular for Brechin every season from the inaugural campaign of 1906-07 until 1913-14. He played in the Brechin teams which won the Northern League championship in 1907-08, which contested the final of the Qualifying Cup in 1908-09 and which won City’s first ever silver-wear, the Forfarshire Cup in 1909-10. His Qualifying Cup finalist’s medal and his Forfarshire Cup winner’s medal have a deserved pride of place in the boardroom at Glebe Park.
Davie Glen was described as ‘a gentlemanly player, feared by all his opponents for his robust style of play.’ In a match against Dunfermline Athletic, the Dunfermline centre half was one Brown, who ‘jumped to head the ball at the same time as Glen…Brown was carried off the field unconscious. Glen rose to his feet, put his hand to his head, gave it a shake, went off – at first in the wrong direction! – with his clumsy but determined stride, to play out the game without a finger raised for remedial attention.’
Davie Glen enlisted in December 1914 in the 13th Royal Scots and arrived in France in August 1915. On Easter Sunday, 1917, the British and Imperial forces launched their offensive around Arras. Glen, by then a sergeant, was killed on the first day of that battle.
Artist Tom McKendrick (left) and Service personnel whose portraits appear in the exhibition currently running at Clydebank Town Hall.
David Glen had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery (notification of which award only reached his mother a few weeks after his death) and had been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal on several occasions. The major commanding his company wrote to Glen’s mother after his death. ‘It did not take me long to see what a magnificent soldier your son was, and I always was confident that he would do his duty. He not only fulfilled the duties of a platoon Sergeant, but he took a keen interest in the welfare of the whole company. One always found him working or supervising work in the trenches to improve the bad conditions for the men. It was not necessary to tell Sergeant Glen what to do every time we went into the trenches, for he had so carefully studied how to improve existing positions to be able to carry on. He was a tower of strength and many a time I have seen him helping others to carry their loads, when they were exhausted. We played football together, worked and fought together and I always found him a most capable and fearless leader.’
Almost accidentally, some remnant of the story of Davie Glen remains and I wear my poppy for him. I wear it with some sorrow to mark the disappearance of the solid, small town virtues and loyalties of men such as Glen. I wear my poppy for the countless dead on all sides for whom there is no known story. I wear it for the German (and the Jewish) Davie Glens in Neuville-St Vaast as much as for my grandfather’s compatriots in Brown’s Copse. I wear it for the human potential, obliterated in war after war before it could be realised. I wear it, not to glorify war, but because I stand humbled before suffering and endurance beyond any ever asked of me.
The photographs alongside the by-line in this article by Alex Wood is of paintings and people at an exhibition currently running in Clydebank Museum and Art Gallery. The paintings are by West Dunbartonshire artist Tom McKendrick. This article was first published in the Scottish Review in 2009