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Why I wear a remembrance poppy: The story of Private John O’Leary

Press clipping from the family archives (Jones-Lewtas-Owen) - special thanks to Alan and Sue Jones.

FRANCE 24 journalist Mark Owen explains why each year he wears a red poppy on his lapel during the anniversary of World War I.


“What’s the flower about, Mark?”

This is a question that's been asked of me many times over the past few days here at FRANCE 24.

FRANCE 24's Mark Owen wearing his remembrance poppy

It’s nice that you all seem to think that the poppy pinned to my lapel is cute, quirky, and sort of a British thing.

So here’s a brief explanation.

It all began in World War I and was inspired by the resilient poppies of Flanders, the scene of one of the war's bloodiest battles.

I wear a poppy in the run-up to November 11 in remembrance of the war dead.

Commemorating those who died is also very personal, as my grandmother’s brother was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Private John O’Leary of the 9th King’s Liverpool Regiment was 21 years old. He was one of more than 70,000 soldiers killed.

The story of John O'Leary

The telegram that his mother received, at her humble terraced house near the Liverpool docks, gave a stock account of the battle in cold military language. I can’t imagine the loss she felt, the sense of powerlessness. My grandmother never spoke of her brother, she only told me of his death once. I was a little boy but I can still remember her beautiful face overcome by a profound suppressed sadness.

John O’Leary was awarded two medals for his sacrifice and his name is engraved on the monument at Thiepval in northern France. His entire family carried the pain of his loss throughout their lives.

The poppy, which is typically made of paper with a plastic stem, is essentially a symbol of remembrance for all those soldiers killed in battle.

My grandmother married a man who was one of nine brothers who all served and saw action during World War II. In the photo from the local newspaper, he is in the centre of the back row.

These boys are in the record books because no other family had contributed more siblings to military service during wartime. They all served and they all came back alive. Somebody must have been watching over them.

My grandad - Billy - was an example to us all. He was one of the oldest men serving in World War II and one of the youngest volunteers during World War I. He was what you might call a “character”.

Youth taken away by war

My own father - Lenny Owen - was a merchant seaman during World War II. Taking supplies from the United States to the UK was a risky business. He told me stories of how the German U-boats would lie in wait in the mid-Atlantic and torpedo the merchant convoys. He survived the war, including the Battle of the Atlantic of 1941. He received no medals for his essential service despite his youth having been taken away by war.

There is only a small monument in the port of Liverpool to those killed in the merchant fleet. I am glad he came back - because I would not be here now if he had been killed.

Each year in the UK the British Legion holds the Poppy Appeal, when a small donation is asked for in exchange for a poppy.

It all began with a Canadian doctor who served in World War I. Lieutenant Colonel John McRae wrote a poem on his experiences called, “In Flanders Fields.”

British Legion raising cash

Silk poppies were first made and sold for remembrance in the US (by an academic, Moina Michael), then brought to the UK by a French woman (Anna Guérin).

In 1921 the British Legion was formed in London, which ordered 9 million of the poppies - thus launching the first Poppy Appeal.

It continues to this day and the British Legion uses the cash to help war veterans.

I used to think that the poppy idea was a glorification of war. Now I see it differently. It’s about remembering those whose sacrifice enables me to report openly and honestly, to hold to account the people who declare war and send young people into battle.

Would John O’Leary have chosen to go to war? We know the answer.

Personal tragedies

I feel for my colleagues at FRANCE 24 who come from places like Syria. Their lives have been torn apart by the conflict there. What they are going through is unimaginable, but happening before our eyes. Each news report we broadcast, each statistic, concerns people, families - their personal tragedy. We must never forget that.

I urge you to read Samar Yazbek’s account of her journey through her homeland, an eyewitness account of the horrors inside Syria right now (Samar Yazbek, The Crossing: My Journey To The Shattered Heart of Syria).

And I think of colleagues who went through civil war in Lebanon. And Gaza filmmaker Radjaa Aboudagga. And of the ongoing conflicts in Africa… Why is the list endless?

So on November 11, there will be a moment's silence. Think about why wars are still happening. Think about who has the power to stop it all. Think about those who have given their all so we can have the lives we enjoy.

You know whom I will be thinking about.

Recommended reading:

Samar Yazbek, The Crossing

Wilfred Owen (no relation) 'Dulce et Decorum Est' (poem written in World War I about a gas attack in the trenches)

Laurence Biyon 'For The Fallen' (1914 poem)

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