Philip Jeays

the great war [background notes]

Written: 1999
Released: 2000 on 'Cupid Is A Drunkard'

Sometimes, when people hear this song 'The Great War'
at a gig, they come up to me and ask questions about
it. Perhaps the two most frequently asked are 'So
don't you think giving money to poppy-sellers is a
good idea?', and the other being 'So what would you
have done in the Second World War?'
As for the first question, the answer is yes, I do
give money to poppy sellers, the money raised helps to
keep those poor bastards maimed, blinded, or
psychologically crippled in decent surroundings and
with good care - so I give money, but simply turn down
the offer of a poppy - I never seek confrontation, I
usually just tell them I've already got one. As for
the second question, I would have fought. More on
these two responses to follow.

So why do I choose not to wear a poppy? In my opinion,
whatever the good intentions behind the original idea,
the poppy is now a symbol used by governments and 'the
powers that be' to reinforce the idea of patriotism
and national pride, to make sure that next time they
need us to go out and fight for them we will be ready,
filled with images of honour and glory, and that there
will be hundreds standing on the dockside waving their
Union Jacks with pride. The centrepiece of the
Remembrance Day celebrations is the Cenotaph in
London. On the side of the Cenotaph, in large
capitals, are the words 'THE GLORIOUS DEAD'. The
Cenotaph was erected after the First World War in
memory of the fallen - just how glorious was it,
climbing out of the rat-infested trenches and walking
into a hail of gunfire? Of course they couldn't put
had to keep up the pretence that it all meant
something - keep the people stupid, you never know
when we might need them again...

As for the Second World War, yes, I would have fought
- the same way that I would fight today if some group
of backward religious fundamentalists (Islamic,
Christian, whoever, they're all fascists) was
threatening to take away my rights of freedom of
speech and personal expression - but I wouldn't be
fighting for Tony Blair or the Queen or my country, I
would be fighting for ME, for the way of life I
believe to be right. The idea that some 50 years later
some repulsive cynical politician would be using my
death as a recruiting tool, to keep alive the myth of patriotism, to
tell children that they were wearing the poppy to honour my 'sacrifice',
would be revolting to me. In my opinion we are all just used by
governments, and if any better proof were needed, remember the first
Iraq war. Before the war started, John Major (Prime Minister at the
time) went out to the Middle East to have his photo taken with the
troops. He spoke of our 'great gratitude' for the job they were doing,
and of how 'we were all with them'. Once it was over, when the men and
women who had taken part in the conflict were coming home complaining of
a mystery illness, the same government didn't want to know. The job had
been done, they were now no longer needed and so became completely
expendable - and the Ministry of Defence certainly wasn't going to be
shelling out a fortune looking after them - 'no proof' they said, 'just
coincidence'. Regardless of whether there was proof or not, wouldn't the
man who had spoken of the country's 'great gratitude' not do something
for them, now that they in turn needed help? Of course not. And this is
not a party political point
- in 1997, when New Labour got into power, the answer
was the same - in short, 'piss off'. The last figure I
saw (and it was in a newspaper so I cannot be sure as
to it's veracity) was that over 490 people had died of
this non-existent 'Gulf War Syndrome' since the end of hostilities. To
then see those same leaders standing solemnly at the Cenotaph, the same
ones that sell weapons all around the world, the same ones that denied
those soldiers help, playing out the role of concerned and thoughtful
patriarchs laying their wreathes, is enough to make anyone puke.

Then we come on to the two minutes silence. I'm not a
sheep, I don't need some moron telling me what to
think about and when - after the Tsunami we had a
three minute silence - why? 'To remember the dead...'
Bollocks. My younger brother Pete was on the Thai
Island of Phuket when the Tsunami struck, and I spent
two hours on that Boxing Day morning thinking he must
be dead. Do you really think I needed some arsehole
telling me to stop whatever I was doing for three
minutes to think about it? Believe me, I'd thought
about it - I'm not a child, it's pathetic. The same
thing goes for the Remembrance Day silence - and now
we get it twice, once on November 11th, and then again
on Remembrance Sunday - thank you for your guidance,
but I'm an adult, I can choose for myself when I wish
to think about these things - and then I get people
frowning at me in the street because I choose not to
join in with this meaningless mass hypnotization. Ah,
but remember, keep the people stupid, you never know
when we might need them again...

My friend Merrick, a man who holds much the same
opinions as me on many topics, wrote a piece on
remembrance and wearing a poppy. He thinks that,
whatever the attempted militaristic take-over of poppy
day, that we should still wear one, because it's
important to remember the horror of it all.
(Read his thoughts at]
If wearing a poppy really did evoke the memory of the
horrors of war then I would agree, but consider this -
in a survey conducted in 2004 only 55% of the UK's
population had ever even heard of the notorious Nazi
death camp at Auschwitz, and amongst women and people
aged under 35 the figure was even lower, at around
40%. One perhaps cannot expect a poppy to be a history
lesson in itself, but ask those people why they wear
the poppy, and they will come back with the words that
have been drilled into them - sacrifice, patriotism,
honour - they may not know what the war was about, but
we've made sure they know what's important.... and
yes, you've guessed it, keep the people stupid etc

I watched the two recent BBC 1 programmes 'The Last
Tommy', about the last remaining survivors of the
First World War - at the end Harry Patch, a man who
had lost his friends to a German shell in 1917, went
back to visit the War Memorial at Pilkem Ridge where
they had lost their lives. It was the first time he
had returned since the war, and there, having vowed
never to talk to a German ever again, he met a German
gunner, perhaps the man who had fired the shot that
killed his friends - as they shook hands there were
tears in my eyes. He spoke of the utter stupidity of
it all, that we had waited for four years, until
millions had been killed, before we 'got round a table
and talked it out'. He also said 'Armistice Day, you
remember the thousands of others who died. For what?
For nothing.' Are we really still so ready to groom
our children for such horrors all over again, with
words such as glory and honour and sacrifice? If to
wear a poppy was really to express a revulsion with
war and violence, then I would gladly wear one -
sadly, in my opinion, this is not the case.

(Read more about Harry Patch's war memories at]

It was a great war the Great War
The greatest war there's ever been
It was a war to end all wars
It didn't but that's how it seemed
It was a great war the Great War
With the bodies and the blood
The shell holes and the hell holes
The trenches and the mud
It was a great war the Great War
The last war where no-one dared
To question the orders
No-one knew or no-one cared

And you stand there with your poppies
As a tribute to the ones
Who gave their lives for nothing
For the fathers and the sons
Then next day you go out
And buy your kids toy guns
Well go on and why not
You've got to teach them while they're young

It was a great war the Great War
The greatest war we've ever seen
We killed their side we killed our side
We killed anybody in between
It was a great war the Great War
Better still than Waterloo
Better yet than Agincourt
Better still than World War Two
It was a great war the Great War
The greatest chance we ever got
To die for our country
Or if not then to be shot

And you stand there in your silence
Just like we used to do
Like you were waiting for their whistle
For their orders to come through
Oh can't you see you're still doing
Just what they tell you to
Remember what they did to us
They could do to you

In a great war like the Great War
The greatest war we've ever known
We took simple fields made them hell on earth
Turned a million men to stone
But it was a great war the Great War
It was not our duty to survive
We weren't idiots we were patriots
Come on boys keep the myth alive
It was a great war the Great War
But you lead us up the garden path
And still you lead us every year
Up to the Cenotaph

And you stand there politicians
Wiping tears from your eyes
With the hands that shake the hands
Of the dictators you supply
Well I cannot see the honour
Nor the glory nor the pride
And I will not wear your poppy
And I will not stand silent by

© Philip Jeays 1999
Philip Jeays © Sean K

Released April 18th 2016 Take The Slow Train album

© Philip Jeays 2011-2016