Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Poppy

Poppy Scotland
Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

The Great War of 1914 -1919 changed the world for ever. The British Army had grown from a world wide total of just over 450,000 to almost five and a half million, most of them based in Western France. The dead numbered 750,000 and almost all suffered wounds, both physical and mental. The nation at home, for the most part totally ignorant of the real nature of the war, was riven by the suffering and the effects on those at home. Afterwards the loss of so many men, fathers, sons, brothers, loved ones, was heightened by the inability to find a place to mourn them. British troops were buried in the field and not returned home. So many went missing that even now, 90 years on, some 300,000 are still missing, somewhere under the battlefields.
This left relatives with no place to mourn, and when the King ordered a two minutes silence in November 1919:-
All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness,
the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated
on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.

The creation of the timber cenotaph, for the Victory Parade in 1919, caused such a stir that it had to be made permanent by 1920. Thousands marched by seeing in the cenotaph the only place to mourn their dead, not just the nations. The fact that riots in places such as Luton and Manchester in 1919 were caused by returning soldiers being unable to find work, often jobs promised when they enlisted were refused by manufacturers on the grounds of 'time lost,' or 'changing situations.' All lies! Also in 1920, on the 11th of November, the 'Unknown Warrior' was buried in Westminster Abbey. This also brought thousands to London, many convincing themselves that this was their son, husband, brother, father. The sense of loss was deep and a permanent scar left in the hearts of many. My aunts mother in law, who died around 1960, kept the letters her son, shot by a sniper in October 1918, had written to her in a handbag found only after my aunts death. Many others kept such mementoes all their lives.

During the conflict a Canadian Army soldier, Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae, had written the poem:-
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
an American lass called Moira Michael wrote an answer to this

And now the Torch and Poppy Red during the war
We wear in honour of our dead.

She then started to wear a poppy, and sold others to raise money for wounded soldiers. A friend from the French YMCA, Madame Guerin, liked the idea and made artificial poppies to raise cash for war orphans, of which there must have been many in France after 1918. By 1921 the British Legion began to sell them and now raises millions each year through the sale of plastic poppies.

Originally we remembered those who did not return from the Great War, soon we commemorated those from the second war, and by the sixties we lost concern for war and the memory thereof. In spite of the 'Cold War' and the closeness of mutual destruction, we wished to live in the prosperous 'here and now' and ignore the military side of things. Vietnam meant ban war not commemorate it. 'Make Love Not War!' was the cry, although in reality it was more 'Make Tea not War.' However, Ireland, the Falklands conflict, the Gulf war and the Iraq and Afghanistan adventure have once again brought home to us the cost of war and engendered a respect for men of the armed services, whether we agree with the war or not.

However sometimes I wonder if we remember correctly. Those who served will remember what they went through, and the comradeship such difficulties produce. However it appears today we promote an almost idol worship of the dead. The parade through Wootten Bassett, the lowering of flags, while intended as respect appears to enlarge the grief and uses the dead as objects rather than commemorates them. Some also appear to be looking for a remembrance, not of the fallen, but of a situation of their own imaginings. Possibly a longing for the past empire, or a world as they wish it to be rather than the one that is. All are wrong. We need to remember, just remember, the dead. From the Great War and those that followed, and today we can remember also the dead on the other side also. For many who were there 'doing their bit,' it can even seventy years on be hard to forgive or forget, but for us we can remember all the dead. Whether we will regard Taliban dead, or those who attack our forces anywhere in the world today in this way is less likely,but it is time to consider all the dead in conflict, and fight to bring such conflicts to an end, not just to remember.


Strawberry Girl said...

Very well written and thought out Graham. May we always remember and respect our soldiers.


Mike said...

Graham a timely reminder, if one where needed, of the futility of war.

As an ex-soldier I always spare a thought or two on the 11th.

Good post.

Neil Tasker said...

Excellent post. Glad to hear a 'grounded' opinion. Take a look at my post today. I think you'll find it appropriate in a similar way.

Martyn said...

Very well written and a tribute in itself to those who have lost their lives in times of war.

A. @ A Changing Life said...

Well said. Too often it's also turned into a day for flaunting national pride, and that's not the point either.