Friday, 8 November 2013

Poppy Day

It's that time of year again - the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month commemorates the armistice of the First World War and has come to symbolise all wars and conflicts in the Twentieth Century and beyond. In Britain we have the Cenotaph memorial on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of November at which the Queen, her representatives, senior politicians and military bods, Commonwealth representatives and those of the different branches of the armed forces lay wreaths to commemorate those who have died in past conflicts. It'll be the same this Sunday.

I never used to join in what I used to see - and still do - as a commemoration of our past militarism and Empire, dragging the rest of the world into our little European wars. Amongst all the red poppies sold in support of the British Legion I've never seen the white poppy for conscientious objectors.

I saw this article in The Guardian today by Harry Leslie Smith in which he declares that this is the last year he'll wear a poppy.  Part of me agrees with him. He was there, I wasn't. And then there's another part of me that thinks otherwise.

Even this year, this week, I found it hard to buy a poppy from the sellers at the tube station or from the box of poppies in our work canteen. But I went to the garden of remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey at lunchtime yesterday and strolled among the crowds with cameras all looking for specific names on the little wooden crosses stuck in the sodden ground of the lawns outside the Abbey. I look at the map and then stroll to the little area allocated to the Green Howards and I do that for my Granda.

My Granda's name isn't there - he survived the First World War but his left arm was burned and turned to ashes somewhere in northern France. He lost his arm before he was 20 years old. He lost his brothers and his friends and that's why I go, to represent my old Granda who never said a word about the horrors or the trenches like the rest of his generation. What was so terrible that you can't even speak of it 50 years later? The burdens those old soldiers carried must have been awful.

My Granda lives on through us, his grandchildren and through our children and grandchildren. But memories fade and people are forgotten. They become names rather than people. That's life, I suppose, but that's also a reason why I go to the garden of remembrance. All those young men and women slaughtered before they'd even lived because we'd had an industrial revolution and learned how to kill on an industrial scale. Life was cheap - or at least the lives of the common soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  That was part of the Bolshevik argument in 1917 - why are the working classes fighting each other when the real enemy is the master class? Has anything changed?

I'm wearing a poppy on behalf of my Granda this year but whether I'll wear one next year, who knows?

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