Today is officially Remembrance Sunday here in the UK. The day of the big parade and service in London. It is also known as Poppy Day, as people buy poppy emblems to wear, donating to service charities in the process.
I woke up thinking about this. After hosting a lunch for British Legion veterans yesterday, it was naturally going to be on my mind. But what I was actually thinking about was the fact that for many years, I steadfastly refused to celebrate or support this day. Given my change of heart in later life, this is a memory of a time I would perhaps rather forget. But like many things in life, it might be better out in the open.
When I was younger, I read a lot of books about wars and conflicts. A lot. I began to be appalled by the wasted lives, the wars fought for Empire, big business interests, and capitalist expansion. The betrayal of so many brave men who believed the propaganda, and went off to fight and die for their country. Whatever country that was. That realisation made me inclined to the politics of The Left, and I embraced those as a teenager, becoming a staunch supporter of the Hard Left here, and an advocate for social change, and radical causes.
At the time, (and probably still today) the position of such political thinking was that Poppy Day simply glamourises and glorifies war. So we were opposed to such commemorations, and refused to be involved in them. I would not buy or wear a poppy emblem, and refused to make a donation to the charity that it supports. I went so far as to debate the issue with poppy-sellers in public, even urging others not to buy one. I was young, and I had certain beliefs that were strongly held. Despite having a father who had served as a regular soldier in WW2, and many relatives still serving in the forces, I would not be shaken on my point of view.
Then I went to France and Belgium.
If you have never been to the war cemeteries in those countries, I urge you to go and visit them. Walking among the thousands of pristine white headstones, reading the inscriptions, the names, and the ages of those killed, or seeing the acres of small dark crosses in the German cemeteries, I had a moment of realisation. It was not about the war, but about the people. We were not commemorating conflict, territorial ambition, or even the spirit of Empire. Nothing was being glorified, nothing at all. Here was the reality of it, for all to see. It was those men and women we were remembering. The lives they never had, the bravery and selfless comradeship they showed, and the expectation of a better life for all that they believed would be achieved by their sacrifice. I stood before those stones, and before the larger memorials showing the names of countless thousands with no known grave.
And I cried unashamedly.
I finally got it. That November, I bought a poppy, and I wore it for them.