I wore two poppies to today. Let me explain why.
Remembrance Day is a time to reflect on the devastation caused by war. I think the scale of this first became clear to me as a teenager driving through northern France. It was night, and there was a thunder storm. As we drove through the area around Arras, the lightening echoed the bombardments of the first World War. We passed field after field of neatly ranked crosses, the graves of those who died in the first world war campaigns around the Somme.
My grandfather was conscripted into the army during the first World War took a role as a stretcher bearer. I have a chocolate tin which was sent to him by “the Lord Mayor and Citizens of Bristol [where he grew up]” to wish him “Good Luck in the New Year and a safe return home”. Inside the tin are various mementos: his badges from the Gloster regiment, great coat buttons, and a Red Cross medal. But the thing which chokes me up every time is the bell. A wee brass bell like you might get on a ribbon round a teddy bear’s neck. A wee brass bell that stretcher bearers carried so that those who had been blinded by mustard gas could hear them coming and move towards them. This is the futility of war. There are also other things in the tin. A medal with an Italian ribbon, and an epaulette that doesn’t come from a British Army uniform. What are they doing there? I don’t really know, but my guess is that they might be things entrusted to the stretcher bearer to by casualties, perhaps as a thank you or perhaps in the hope that they could be sent on to their families. This is the humanity and the tragedy of war.
The traditional red poppy became part of our remembrance in 1921 to raise funds for those harmed by the first world war. Yes, the fund is named after the odious General Haig, but the work it does for disabled ex-service personnel is valuable and necessary. Particularly when we have a government which is quick send forces into conflicts of dubious legality, and reluctant to properly care for those who are harmed physically and mentally as a result. I am happy to to buy my red poppy to support this cause, although it galls to see the hypocracy of Cameron, Blair et al as they lay poppy wreaths at the cenotaph in expensive coats. Full of faux remorse for the results of their decisions, they try to conflate the futility of war with some concept of patriotism and national glory.
Those who sign up for the military don’t get to say which wars they fight. In most cases they don’t sign up because they’re spoiling to fight. A relative’s only son was killed in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. He was 18. He came from Stoke on Trent. The job prospects for young people in Stoke are pretty much zero, so he joined the army to get out and get a trade. He paid the price for living a country which doesn’t value our people enough to give them decent prospects. Hundreds of others who sign up see the army as a way to escape no-hope towns and get a trade. With a bit of luck they’ll get an HGV licence or an HNC in catering without running up huge student debts. Surely we can do better for our young people than this?
The white poppy then? The peace poppy. What does that say? It says no more. Never again. We can do better. It is not disrespecting those harmed by war to say this. It what many of those who have fought would say. They know that they have seen things that they would not wish anyone else to see. They know that while there can be bravery in war there is no glory. My grandfather made it back from the first world war in one piece and was then an active fund-raiser for the Red Cross because it was an organisation which worked to end suffering regardless nationality. I think he would have approved of both poppies.