In Remembrance: You Wear It Well

Thanks to Simon Kimber for allowing me to use his photograph.

Just over a week ago, it was Remembrance Sunday; 89 years had passed since the end of hostilities in World War I.

a remembrance poppy on a wooden cross

A few days before that, I went to buy a sandwich with one of the other lads from work: someone with approximately the same political background as me, opposed to the war in Iraq, and we both stopped to buy a poppy.

A conversation then ensued where we revealed that ten years ago we would have been unlikely to buy and wear a poppy for Remembrance Sunday because back then we felt that wearing a poppy had militaristic connotations, and now that’s not how we see the poppy.

And that would have been that, except I came across Tom Shakespeare’s post Lest We Forget on the BBC Ouch! site today, where he talks about how injured soldiers may become disabled civilians — but more pertinently where he says:

I am a Quaker, and feel uncomfortable wearing a red poppy in November. I don’t want to be associated with militarism, or a war in Iraq which to me felt wrong from the start.Tom Shakespeare

I too used to feel uncomfortable with the poppy because of the militaristic aspects 10 years ago. But now I don’t. So what has changed — the poppy or me?

Both of us, I think.

I don’t think the militaristic aspect of the “Poppy Appeal” and Remembrance Sunday is emphasised the way it used to be when I was a child. Back then, you’d seemingly hear about how the Brave Tommy™ gallantly fought off Jerry and it felt like Remembrance Sunday was somehow “owned” by the British armed forces.

Firstly, I don’t think the militaristic aspect is emphasised any more (or at least not as much).

Secondly, as I’ve got older I’ve come to realise that remembering those who died or suffered in warfare doesn’t have to be restricted to just those who were British. When I think about the poisoned gas used by both sides in World War I; the fact that my initial and surname returns 27 British casualties in the 20th Century, when I think of the horrendous conditions that the common soldier served in where the choice basically amounted to be killed by the enemy or be shot by your own side for desertion, I can’t help but feel shame and remorse that we allowed people to be spent as though they were simply a resource to use up.

I can’t help but feel sorry for the soldiers on both sides, in all armed conflicts. Generally, it isn’t the people who get killed in the war who’ve made the decisions, who’ve decided to invade. Those generals and politicians get to sit back on their medals mouthing pleasantries about “died serving their country” while in some tent miles from the battle. The ordinary soldiers, on both sides, are just like you and me.

And even those who made it home didn’t always come back in one piece. My great-grandfather Alfred Trotter just about made it home from the First World War, only to die after more than five years in 1923 of “War Service and Wounds” as listed on his death certificate. “War Service and Wounds” doesn’t do it full justice though. Suffering five years of agony as splinters of bone worked their way out of the bullet wound in his skull that never healed and would cause him to scream in pain for hours and would eventually — with his war-ruined lungs — contribute to his death. “War Service and Wounds”?

More like prolonged torture.

And you’d have to be without compassion to honour their memories: it brings no honour to our country (or to other countries) the way we treated people as cannon fodder; it shames us the way the British murdered unarmed people at Amritsar, but every country has their atrocities. We can’t ever erase those.

But by remembering those who suffered and died, by never allowing us to forget the senseless waste of life, maybe we can learn from it. Maybe future generations can end the killing and the bloodshed; put a stop to the genocides and massacres. Maybe we can’t; but maybe if we remember the past we can learn from it and eventually stop making the same mistakes.

It’s not about wearing it for honour; there’s little honour in war. It’s not about remembering glorious victories; each victory in war was bought with the deaths of many innocents (they may not have been innocent when they died, but they were before their countries turned them into killers). It’s about saying we need to remember that war doesn’t have winners: it just has sides who didn’t lose as much. It’s about saying that I’m sorry that these people suffered; I’m sorry they died; I’m sorry their families were left in tatters.

So, this is to Albert and all of the others: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that our country did that to you, that we didn’t look after you properly. I’m sorry that you suffered and died in agony. I can’t do anything that will ever put that right. But I can promise you never to forget.

And thats why I wear the poppy. As penance.

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