Today is remembrance Sunday. It is one of the rare occasions when the closest Sunday to the eleventh day of the eleventh month is actually the eleventh day of the eleventh month. As always, my thoughts have wandering around war and death.
I have always been anti-war. In fact I have always been anti-violence of any sort. I was born a pacifist. From my earliest childhood memories watching television with my parents I have baulked at violence. Those early black and white westerns, which showed no bloodshed at all, still made me feel sick when one of the characters was shot dead. So, my being a teenager in the flower-power era of the late sixties was not the reason for my ever-so-hippy beliefs that violence is wrong.
This is why I always believed that I did not like wearing poppies. It reminded me of warfare and the wasted lives on the battlefields of Europe during two world wars, the innocent civilian lives that have been taken during the atrocities committed by all sides, and the hatred that is perpetuated throughout the world. But I always felt that there was something else. Today I realised what the something else was.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to disrespect those who have died during these wars nor their families. There have always suffered from this dichotomy. I used to wear a white poppy so that I could be seen to by paying my respects to those who have given up their lives for one lie or another. But even that was considered disrespectful by some. People, and many prominent politicians, derided the white-poppy-wearers, being ignorant of the true origins of the emblem.
The white poppy was first sold by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933 by women who had lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sons in the First World War. It was a challenge to the continuing drive to war. The Peace Pledge Union adopted the white poppy a year later and began widespread distribution.
For a while I wore both the red and the white poppy; the red because those who fell or were maimed deserve to be remembered; the white to remind people that we should strive for peaceful solutions to conflicts.
The white also symbolises those forgotten heroes of all the conflicts; those conscientious objectors who were imprisoned, shot or ostracised because they were courageous enough to stand up for their beliefs in peace – for their determination never to take the life of another; those who were summarily executed as cowards for no worse crime than suffering, what we now know as, PTSD; those untrained boys of fourteen and fifteen who lied about their age so they could join up because they believed the lies they were told; and the families left destitute because fathers never returned.
Today, however, I realised why I felt that wearing a red poppy is so wrong; why Remembrance Day is so wrong.
Every year we see the same thing on TV. A display of our military’s finest at the Royal Albert Hall replaces the usual BBC schedule. American and British military units display finely honed skills with weaponry and musical instruments. Sunday morning services are attended by a procession of bands, army cadets, navy cadets and all manner of military prowess. The parade will march to the local Cenotaph where poppy-wreaths are laid in “remembrance.”
I remember as a teenager, in both the scouts and the St John Ambulance Brigade, joining in such parades. However, remembrance was far from my mind. I didn’t attend the parade because millions of people have died in wars. I attended them because I thought I looked smart in my uniforms and was proud of what I did.
What is today? Today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we stand in a minute’s silence. But why today? November the eleventh nineteen eighteen was the day hostilities ended in WW1. To put it another way, it’s the anniversary of Britain and the allied troops winning the First World War!
On 1st July 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, sixty thousand British Soldiers died. By 18th November, over a million had lost their lives. The allied troops gained just six miles of territory during that time!
At Passchendaele, between 31st July and 30th November 1917, nearly four-hundred thousand British Soldiers and about the same number of German soldiers lost their lives for control of the town, which was completely destroyed.
During the first week of May 1941, four thousand Merseyside civilians were killed during a sustained period of German bombing – this was later referred to the May Blitz.
Between 13th and 15th February 1945, twenty-five thousand people (mostly civilians) died in Dresden as a result of the atrocity (some may say war crime) that was named the bombing of Dresden.
Somewhere between sixty-six thousand and one-hundred-and-forty thousand civilians and military personnel were killed as a result of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945.
So, I don’t need to wear a red poppy to remember those who died during the various wars. I don’t need a pompous display of military skills to remind me that that tens of millions of people died during two world wars. I already remember them. I feel for them. I feel for their families – the husbandless wife, the fatherless child, the childless mother. I mourn for them all.
Of all the possible dates that could be selected to remember those who died as a result of war, the day Britain and allied troops won WW1 was chosen. That is what is wrong with remembrance day and the poppy.