"The Old Contemptibles"

Before the outbreak of the First World War, the British Army was quite small, numbering around 250,000 men as opposed to the French and German Armies which were substantially larger (~775,000 and ~870,000 men respectively). Kaiser Wilhelm is said to have referred to the British Army as that “contemptible little army” in an order issued 19 August 1914. Naturally, the British soldiers began to call themselves “the contemptibles” which quickly became “the old contemptibles” and when used in historical writing is a specific reference to the 250,000 men of the Regular British Army at the beginning of World War One.

The Old Contemptibles. “A” Company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) on 22 August, 1914, resting in the square at Mons, Belgium, the day before the Battle of Mons. Minutes after this photo was taken the company moved into position at Nimy on the bank of the Mons-Condé Canal.

In spite of Kaiser Bill’s contempt, these men were as good as any men in the Prussian Army. Because of their long term enlistments of 12 years, British regulars were well trained and disciplined professional soldiers who excelled at what was then known as “musketry.” Unlike other armies of that era, the British Army spent a lot of time on the firing range. During their off duty hours men could practice their shooting as much as they wanted with all the ammunition supplied by the army.

Numerous awards were available to men who could shoot well and consequently British regulars could fire an average of fifteen aimed rounds a minute from their .303 caliber Lee-Enfield rifles. Many could fire more (the rifles had a ten round magazine). Given their ability to lay down highly accurate and rapid fire, small groups of regular British soldiers often held off much larger formations.

This was particularly true in a series of engagements which took place during the First Battle of Ypres in Western Belgium. German infantry were constantly being held up solely by rifle fire from British units who were suffering from a shortage of artillery. Time and again the Germans charged only to be repulsed. Nonetheless, the British took heavy casualties because of their constant and disorganized movement directed by an incompetent high command which had the effect of exposing the British soldiers to punishing German artillery fire.

At an engagement close by the Belgium village of Langemark, the British infantry, firing their rifles like mad, mowed down the attacking Germans. Later the Germans called this engagement “the Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres,” claiming that most of the German soldiers killed in action were young and inexperienced reservists, most of whom were deeply idealistic university students. That begs the question: “if they were so idealistic, what they hell were they doing in Belgium?”

Langemarck was destroyed during the 1st Divisions repulse of the German reserve infantry on 22 October. Stories that German student soldiers marched into battle singing songs are myth, although heavy casualties, owing to inadequate tactics, were suffered.

The Boer War had taught British soldiers to dig and dig deep whenever they had the time to do so. At Langemark, much of their trench line was shallow but other parts were deeper. In memoirs, we learn that often the young German soldiers with Rilke in one hand and binoculars in the other, could not even see the British soldiers. But if one were foolish enough to step out of cover to get a better view, then one ended up shredded by English bullets. I’ve never been to the battlefield but a number of German families later built memorials to their sons killed in the engagement at Langemark during the First Battle of Ypres in Western Belgium. It is said to be a place of great melancholy.

It would take another war for the Germans to learn to stay on their side of the border.

The British Regular Army, “the Old Contemptibles,” was destroyed in the first year of the war.

British trench near the Albert–Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

How Did the Gay Symbol of the Red Poppy Come to Symbolize Veterans Day?



The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London, in November 2004 (with wreaths laid down on Remembrance Day). Photo Chris Nyborg.


The British Legion, a veterans organization created after World War One, known then as the ‘Great War’, began the tradition of selling red poppies once a year to assist veterans. The first British Legion Poppy Day was held in Great Britain on 11 November – Armistice Day – 1921. Several organizations for veterans in the US including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars quickly adopted the symbol as did veterans’ groups throughout the British Empire.

The red poppy came to symbolize youthful death in battle because of the haunting poem, In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by Surgeon-Major John McCrae, MD, First Field Artillery Brigade, Canadian Expeditionary Forces.



Surgeon-Major John McCrae, 1st Brigade CFA, Canadian Field Artillery, Canadian Expeditionary Forces.  

McCrae had been operating on wounded soldiers for seventeen days in a row during the terrible slaughter of the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between 22 April and 25 May 1915 near the Belgium city of Ypres in the province of West Flanders. This furious struggle, now long forgotten, was fought between the French Army, with their British allies, against their common enemy, Imperial Germany.



German storm troopers, led by an officer, emerge from a thick cloud of phosgene poison gas laid by German forces as they attack British trench lines. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Courtesy of the Guardian of London.

This battle was fought over control of the Belgium city of Ypres and lasted for thirty-three days. It merits a footnote in history because it was the first battle on the Western Front where the Germans used poison gas. The use of such gas is a war crime and had been forbidden by the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. Germany was a signatory to both treaties.


poppy-field in France

Red poppies blew across the battlefield during the slaughter.

The poppy is a flower whose seed lies dormant in the ground. It only blooms in warm weather when the soil is rooted up. Because the ground of Flanders had been rooted up by days of artillery fire, there were red poppies blooming in profusion all over the battlefield. There were so many poppies that the wind would often catch the fragile flowers and blow them in waves over the blasted soil.

Hence the first line: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…” (not ‘grow’ as many seem to write)


Major McCrae was deeply pained by the death of a young friend, killed the previous day by random artillery fire. Sitting outside his field dressing station the next day, McCrae was looking over the cemetery in which his young friend had been buried. He took a pad and wrote what became the most famous poem of the war. The poet himself died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918 and is buried in France.



Surgeon-Major John McCrae’s grave, Wimereux Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France


“In Flanders Fields”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Because this poem is often thought to be an anti-war poem, expressing the futility of war, the third stanza is usually left out. You will understand the reason when you read it:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.



Paul Fussell, the distinguished American scholar and expert on the literature of World War One, writes about this poem in his magisterial work, The Great War and Modern Memory:

“Things fall apart two thirds of the way through…and we suddenly have a recruiting poster rhetoric…We finally see – and with a shock – what the last six lines really are: they are a propaganda argument – words like ‘vicious’ and ‘stupid’ would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace.”

Fussell also points out the symbolism in England long associated with the red poppy: homosexuality. In the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, Patience, which opened in 1881, he calls our attention to the following lyrics:

“…if you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand,
everyone will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
…what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”

One need not be a gay man, such as myself, to immediately understand the symbolic reference.

Fussell’s erudition as a scholar of English literature is never more evident than in his parsing of Two Loves, a poem written in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas, one time lover of Oscar Wilde. In a dream, the poet discovers in his garden a beautiful naked youth who has lips, ‘red like poppies’. Desperate to know who this lad is, the poet beseeches the youth to tell his name and finally the youth says, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” This last being the polite way of saying ‘homosexuality’ in decades past.

So decades before the red poppy became the symbol of youthful death in battle, it had long been associated with homosexual love. Professor Fussell suggests the poet unconsciously expresses a certain homoeroticism in connection with his young friend in the poem.

“…Short days ago…We lived…Loved and were loved, and now we lie…”

Professor Fussell was a combat veteran himself. He was drafted into the US Army in 1943, at age 19. In October 1944 he landed in France, as part of the 103rd Infantry Division. He was wounded while fighting in France as a second lieutenant in the infantry, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and Veterans Day in the United States take place on 11 November because this is the yearly anniversary of the armistice which ended the actual shooting in World War One. The peace talks and the Controversial Treaty of Versailles came months later.

The armistice went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year of Our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred Eighteen.

Ten million young men had perished in the war, never to write the poetry of their lives.