Four years, three months, and two weeks – a war that was four years, three months, and two weeks too long.
The wearing of a poppy, and the act of remembrance has recently fast grown to be a semi-contentious issue. I’m an advocate of the right that we all bear to have our own opinion, whether it’s thought to be wrong or not, what makes our country the democracy that it is, is that you do indeed have that right. What upsets me is that something that is supposed to be of the utmost dignity, respect and grace, has become another area for debate and critique. When it really shouldn’t.
The premise is simple, and it should be kept that way irrespective of the vastly differing and ever broadened views and opinions people have; and it as such: Many have died throughout war, conflict and suffering. Those that served and those that didn’t. The poppy, in no manipulated or preconceived agenda, has become a symbol in which we remember that, and hope that so many lives are not lost that way again.
I believe I have a great privilege. I serve as part of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, within the Royal Air Force, as a reservist. With that, I have the benefit of being both a civilian and a member of service personnel, because of this I can pursue every avenue of a life and career outside the Forces, enjoying the freedoms of being able to do anything I want, and to be anyone I want. And when I put on my uniform, dressed sharply in blue with perfectly polished shoes donning a peak cap, I feel nothing but pride and a deep sense of honour for being part of something bigger than just me. It unites my beliefs, my hopes and my aspirations bringing my whole life in to sync, it gives me purpose and it gives me strength.
When I wear that uniform I often think of those that have come before me, have worn the same outfit, and died in it. And with this the centenary of the first world war, I will wear my uniform for this years remembrance and wear it with the pride and honour that all those who have fallen wearing it too, would expect.
I’m not blind to the ideal that the world would be a better place without war, but I’m also not ignorant to face the reality that in the world in which we live, whilst as long as there are those that will stand against freedom, democracy, equality and fairness, inspiring hatred, tyranny and terror, there will constantly be the potential for war. Because the flaw in humanity, is that we have to fight for what is right.
But when I read the articles of those that explain their defence for not wearing a poppy, or wearing a white one, or going above and beyond to indelicately lay down the facts of how remembrance, the poppy, and war is just a mechanised part of this country now, and that we have become too emotionally open, I can’t help feeling a severe indifference to such nonsense. Which is being polite.
Kate Bevan wrote for The Guardian saying ‘I feel that the wearing of a poppy has become part of our national obsession with visible grief.’ My instant response to reading this being, what’s wrong with that? Is it such a repugnant thing to be overtly commemorative, and if so stirred, emotional too?
She adds that she has gratitude and respect for what was given, but still draws attention to ‘wear[ing] our hearts on our sleeves’, comparing remembrance day and the poppy to shootings, deaths of royalty and missing children. To which I allude to my original and first point. This is different, it is not the same, and as such should be untouchable. There is no comparison, missing people and other current tragedies do not fall under the same umbrella as 37 million lives affected by the atrocities of the first world war, 16 million dead, 20 million wounded. 888,246 British and colonial lives lost. Period.
Whilst I appreciate the nerve it takes to publicly stand against something that is practically part of the furnishings of British tradition, it doesn’t make her right. However in her eyes, neither am I, and part of the legacy of all those lives lost is her right to chose not to wear a poppy.
I spoke to The Royal British Legion and discussed this latest surge in poppy rebellion, and with style, they gave me a dignified response, which I think shows once more, that they hold the moral high card.
“We take the view that the poppy represents sacrifices made in the defence of freedom; and so the decision to wear it must be a matter of personal choice. If the poppy became compulsory it would lose its meaning and significance.
“We are thankful for every poppy worn, every shop that allows poppy collections, and every employer that permits the poppy to be displayed — but we never insist upon these things or claim a natural right. To do otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of Remembrance and all that the poppy stands for.”
An important word used there, freedom; which was sacrificed by so many that we can today make choices, like, not wearing a poppy.
Another point to be made, the poppy transcends symbolism, with every purchase each year meaning more funds that go in to The Royal British Legion. So although they’re flimsy, they turn to mush when it rains, and you have one on every single coat – that’s part of it! They’re quite rightly not designed to last, and even if not done by purpose, it’s a rather fitting aspect of them. However that being said, I am not against the metallic pin badges, the plastic ones, or even the this-years popular choice of crocheted poppies. One importance that is above all others is the wearing of it, because your poppy, might just be the one that reminds even the one person you walk past in the streets of the time of year, and to recall what is synonymous with that little splash of red upon your lapel.
To return to the point of ‘open emotions’ I will gladly admit that at some point each and every year, the poppy appeal catches me out, either welling up, or shedding a tear. And so it should. If it fails to promulgate an emotional response then it isn’t doing what it should be.
And with that, I can’t tolerate the idea that poppy wearing is some kind of ritualised robotic action of a nation obsessed with emotional outpourings. We’re just incredibly respectful of those that laid down their lives, truly giving their today, for our tomorrow. That poppy stretching beyond the First World War, the second, the Falkland’s, the first gulf war, the second, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is all encompassing, and in honesty, it can be representative of any aspect of remembrance, of any conflict, to anyone.
A large part of why we’re perhaps seeing more ‘poppy harassment’ this year is because of the First World War centenary. However most are embracing the Poppy Appeal flocking to the Tower of London’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation with one of their spokespersons saying that an estimated four-million have travelled to see the spectacle. A truly beautiful and equally poignant ensemble of 888,246 ceramic poppies progressively flooding the towers infamous moat, commemorating the war, and all lives lost. If you haven’t been, it’s a must-see, and at the very least worth a search engine image check.
I’ll conclude with a short story.
In June 2012 I had the privilege of being a part of the Royal Guard of Honour for Her Majesty, The Queen, at the opening of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London. As many surviving veterans of Bomber Command as possible were invited, and once the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony had died down, as personnel we were free to wander through the park. I came across an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair with his wife, she was struggling to get him down a step from the grass verge, I went to help. They couldn’t have been more grateful and we got talking. He had been a co-pilot in a Lancaster bomber, and he and his wife had been married since seven months from meeting in 1943, sixty-nine years of marriage. Beat that in today’s society. As we stood talking, myself in awe as they joyfully explained how they’d managed all that time together, A Lancaster bomber from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight roared over head, its bomb-bay doors began to open and as it swooped aloft the tree tops of the park, thousands of poppies fell from its belly. As they danced through the sky covering the park ground, I looked at the man and his wife, their eyes fixed to the sky, and as tears ran down the cheeks of both their faces, so did they run down mine.
I will forever remember that moment, it will never leave me, and for me, that is the pure essence of what defines the meaning of the poppy and the period of remembrance. I’d encourage everyone to find an experience of their own, and claim a memory that for them defines what it means to bear a poppy.
So this year and every year to come, please take pride in being part of a nation that fought tirelessly for the liberties and freedoms you enjoy, wear a poppy and remember.
Please share this article with as many as you can, and help spread the word for the betterment of all those whom have served and still are. There’s more than meets the eye to the poppy!
Some facts about the Poppy Appeal:
•300,000 staff and volunteers organise the Poppy Appeal each year.
•More than 30 million Remembrance poppies, 500,000 poppies of other types, 5 million remembrance petals, 100,000 wreaths and sprays, 750,000 Remembrance Crosses and other Remembrance items are made at the Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey, each year.