Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Poppy Day

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.

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39 thoughts on “Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

  1. Each year at the Mass closest to Veterans’ Day here(November 11) at the end a solo horn plays Taps. It is incredibly moving and very sad. I think of all the death, injury and loss. I grieve as that tune plays.
    That seems an appropriate memorial and I agree with your honoring the reality of war without espousing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this post late yesterday evening, but did not respond immediately because I wanted a bit of time to think before replying. I appreciated your honesty and wanted to give your post the respect I feel it deserves. I meant what I said on Saturday about offering lunch after the ceremony being ‘a lovely thing to do’.

    That said – and said honestly – I continue to have some very mixed feelings about Remembrance Day.

    These began as an eight-year-old brownie having to attend what felt like an interminably long ceremony, during which every single name on the war memorial was read out in the most frighteningly sombre tones and the slightest shuffling of feet in the freezing weather was rewarded by glares from members of the Royal British Legion.

    They were intensified in my teens following the Falklands war, during which I became a pacifist. I couldn’t bear the one-sidedness that (to me) seemed to suggest that the Argentinian lives lost were an acceptable price to pay for the Islanders’ freedom.

    From that point on, it became rare for me to attend a civic ceremony. Not only had my childhood experiences taught me to view them with dread, but I found it impossible to reconcile my pacifist beliefs with the almost exclusive focus on British service men and women. Some years, I would make myself attend a more informal Remembrance Day service, but only if I was reasonably sure that the focus would be broader and hence allow for a more pacifist stance. At the same time, I developed a stubborn refusal to conform to what has since been named ‘poppy fascism’. Being told I ‘ought’ to wear a poppy became, for me, the last reason why I should!

    Then came the year when I was finally called upon to officiate at a Remembrance Day service in my capacity as a Methodist local preacher. It was not a civic service. Nonetheless, it was the most challenging service I have ever led. As a pacifist, I felt totally inadequate for the role, especially when I discovered, on arriving, that the mother of a soldier in Afghanistan was sitting in the congregation!

    But I did it. I wore a poppy for the first time in years and I talked about soldiers. Then I talked about those left at home. I talked about my grandfather, who was a fireman in WW2 and hence out in the air-raids. I talked about the pain and tragedy and devastation of it all. I talked about poppies and about hope. I talked about Jesus and about the cost of making peace.

    And, that day, I learnt something. I learnt it in the heartfelt thanks of both the young soldier’s mother and a veteran of WW2. I learnt that even those with very different views about the rights and wrongs of fighting for one’s country can stand together on that day and… remember.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that thoughtful and considered reply, and your own history, Ros. As I said , I lived with mixed feelings myself for a long time, and appreciate the different views on that theme of remembrance.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In my case, I guess partly because Spain was not involved (at least officially) in either of the World Wars, and partly because I feel as Heyjude, I don’t buy or wear Poppies (I would feel as if I was pretending to a history that’s not mine), although I feel very strongly about the subject, have read plenty about wars (always more interested in motivations and what happen to both soldiers and the people back home), and have looked after some soldiers in need for psychiatric help. Any attention brought to the survivors and the fallen is good but we need to remember and learn from the mistakes made. Remembering and doing the same… Yes, that’s the definition of insanity.
    Thanks, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. During peace we wonder why there was ever war. During war we wonder if there ever will be peace. We are human.. war is inevitable… but so is peace. It takes one to appreciate the result other. The problem is, somewhere in all that appreciation people must die.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Despite having a son who has served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan I am not one for ‘celebrating’ Remembrance Day. I know, it goes against everything all your other comments say. But I believe we should remember those who died in wars, EVERY day. And as each year passes and the commemorations get bigger and flashier I want to shout ” if we think so much about those who died in wars, why haven’t we learned anything from their deaths?” Instead the death toll rises, year upon year in the name of freedom or persecution or greed. I’m happy to support the work that the RBL do – which should be to support our veterans after their service has ended. I’m not happy to be practically forced into wearing a poppy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a valid point, Jude. The support should be there every day, without the necessity for the annual ‘reminder’. It may help to jog memories, and to introduce the idea to new generations though. So if it does that, then I don’t mind too much.
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pete, I have visited the cemeteries in Suresnes (soldiers from both World Wars) and Château-Thierry, and stood on the beach at Arromanches(-les-Bains). But two experiences at the Suresnes cemetery had a profound effect on me. One was reading the comments in the guest book by Americans, French, and German visitors. I couldn’t read these comments without shedding tears. The other experience was helping to lower and fold the cemetery’s American flag, which was a true honor. I have never served in the military, but I have a deep respect for those who have. As for your post, I found it very moving, and beautifully written.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. When I was young we celebrated the end of a war to end all wars even having just finished another war and were in still another. The day still stands as a day to remember and strive for that goal of that Armistice Day, never again. Never again.
    Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As I started reading this powerful post, I was saying in my head, “But Pete, it’s not about the war.” By the time I got to the end of your post, you had already found that out after visiting France and Belgium. It’s about the soldiers. Beautifully written and well said, Pete. You’ll never look at a poppy again without feeling something. Thank you for this read!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Beautiful, Pete. Yes, even across the pond, here in the U.S., we celebrate Veterans Day, always have. It is about the men and women who gave their lives for the freedom of the oppressed. I don’t know how the veterans in your country are treated but the government doesn’t do enough to help our veterans and that’s what I am angry about. The soldiers follow orders from our leaders, I am sure it is the same all over the world. Do they really care about humanity or is it greed. I wrote the following during the Vietnam era, My brother was in the Air Force at the time.There are many in my family that served our country and helped other countries. I hope you enjoy reading it. Thanks.

    FREEDOM
    By: Patricia Salamone

    They go by air and by sea to a foreign land
    The heat and the dust burns their skin
    They go not to fight but to lend a hand
    In their hearts, they carry freedom on their shoulders
    They carry weapons in their eyes you can see honor
    They leave behind their wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters,
    Aunts, uncles, cousins, girlfriends, boyfriends, the safety of their home, their jobs, home
    cooked meals, holidays with their family and friends, seeing the birth of their children.
    They follow in the footsteps of their ancestors before them, many will not return, but
    they will persevere and in the end, their honor and bravery, and the freedom they carry in
    their hearts will rise up. The ones that have gone before them and have not returned are
    there beside them shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart reminding them that freedom is not
    free. So this holiday season when you are celebrating with family and friends doing the
    things you are free to do, in your heart honor the men and women who have
    made that possible for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well said, Pete… It is about those people whose lives were cut tragically short. I agree with you, there is nothing more sobering than seeing those cemeteries in France and Belgium… Tyne Cot stunned me…..

    Liked by 1 person

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