My earliest memory of Remembrance Sunday is of trooping out from Sunday School to stand around the Cenotaph in Armagh and then shivering with cold while very old people, wrapped in black and with what looked like Christmas tree trinkets pinned to their coats, laid red wreaths and wiped reddened eyes. Later, along with my class, I followed those shuffling, snuffling ranks to church and then drifted into my own world as the minister droned on and on and on about ‘sacrifice and the not forgotten.’ I was twelve years old. I was cold. I was bored. What was I supposed to remember?
Five years later, in the autumn of 1972, I began my A Level English course with an introduction to the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the task of interpreting the line: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”
As part of my research I visited an old peoples’ home to interview two men who had served during the First World War. I have never forgotten that interview. To my surprise neither James nor Sandy (both 78 and friends since childhood) had memories of glory and gung ho to share with me and neither of them wanted to dwell on the reasons which had driven them to volunteer in 1914 rather than wait to be conscripted.
What they wanted to do was remember and name the friends who had not returned home. As they mentioned them—and it was astonishing how fresh their memories of them remained—it was as if they were purging themselves of a sense of guilt about their own survival. These two old soldiers still carried a relentless and ever present grief; a grief, I sensed, which would not be lifted from them until they had rejoined those friends.
I was also surprised by the fact that both men admitted to a sense of shame about having taken the lives, or even injuring Germans and Austrians: “they also had families and children, Alex.” And yes, both of them were very angry that my generation didn’t understand the nature and scale of the sacrifice made by young men and women—on both sides—who had no part to play in starting both wars.
Death is the ultimate leveler. Poets, idealists, patriots, pals, volunteers and conscripts are all victims of this common enemy. The dead win nothing for themselves and share no spoils of victory. The dead, as Sassoon put it, are “face downward, in the sucking mud, wallowed like trodden sand bags loosely filled.”
The dead have no memories to haunt them. There is no glory in being dead and very little glory in escaping with your life when, scarred with nightmare recall and flashback for decades afterwards, the horror never leaves you. Survivors live to learn that sacrifice is often unrewarded, ill-remembered and then squandered when governments adopt new policies to suit new interests.
So yes, I am glad that we have a day of remembrance to honour those who served and still serve their country. I honour those who, out of an uncomplicated but rarely simple sense of patriotism, offered their lives for others. Yet, I do feel a sense of discomfort and hypocrisy when I remember them and honour them. I am a coward. I can imagine nothing more horrible than becoming one of Owen’s ‘cattle.’
I am fifty-eight years old and too old for service or conscription if a war did break out between the United Kingdom and some other country. I am grateful to those who served in the past, and to those who still serve today, that my cowardice was never put to the test and exposed. The wearing of a poppy and a few minutes silent reflection each year seems almost too small a price to pay for that gratitude.
I cannot begin to comprehend the arguments of those who claim that Remembrance Day glorifies war. It reminds us of the loss and horror of war. It reminds us that history occasionally produces madmen with whom it is impossible to have peace. It should remind us that the freedom to criticize the poppy, Remembrance Day and almost anything else we don’t like is a freedom secured for us by the sacrifice of others. The freedom to wear a ribbon or badge in memory of, or in support of a political, social, charitable or moral cause, is a freedom won by those in whose memory we wear the poppy.
But there is another point that too many people seem to forget. The freedom to reject the wearing of the poppy, and the freedom to chastise those who do wear it as glorifiers of war, is exactly the same freedom as that exercised by those of us who do choose to wear the poppy.
In my experience the only people who glorify war are people who have never served in any army, police force or reserve force. The only people who are gung-ho about war are the armchair generals who wage war on terror from the comfort of a Twitter account. Indeed, the people who do the greatest disservice to the poppy and the whole purpose of the poppy are those who use it as a symbol for their own prejudices and hatreds: those who use the sacrifice of 1914-18 and 1939-45 as a way of point-scoring over their political opponents in petty little propaganda squabbles.
I’m not a religious person and I don’t invite God’s blessing ‘upon the fallen.’ I don’t attend a church service or stand at a cenotaph. I do wear a poppy—albeit for only a few hours on Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday—but not with any smug and hollow feeling of victory or misunderstood glory. I don’t wear it as a political commentary on my views of Northern Ireland, nor to identify myself with the unionist community.
I wear it because I was given the freedom to wear it, a freedom which has enabled me to enjoy something never taken for granted by my parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, nor by James and Sandy: I haven’t had to go off to war.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” The dead grow old when we forget them and in forgetting those who died for our freedom we can, far too easily, forget the reasons and roots that led to their sacrifices. In forgetting that, we increase the risk of repeating and magnifying the horrors. We should neither forget, nor be allowed to forget.
Back in 1972 Sandy handed me a piece of paper as I left the interview. He had, by his own admission, snipped it from a book a friend had lent him in 1922. It contained these lines from Christina Rossetti:
“Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no longer hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.”
I remember and re-read those lines every Remembrance Sunday. And I remember James and Sandy. They are worth a poppy. They will always be worth a poppy. War isn’t just about dates, causes, battles and moments. War is about people.
(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)
Well said Alex! About time the politics was taken out of the poppy. I experienced the post-WWII era in the early 50’s as I grew up and saw first hand the personal sacrifices men made with their bodies and minds. It is mere rationalisation that anyone could reject the courage and sacrifice these men showed and either reject the wearing of the poppy as a political statement or applaud it as representing only one (Unionist) community. The poppy grew on Flanders fields where nothing else would grow. It is an evocative symbol of that sacrifice of a generation. And we should all simply accept that.
I’m sure that most sensible people will agree entirely and fully understand the need to remember the hardship of war and the sacrifices made during WWI and WWII. Thankfully, I’ve never heard of anyone attacking the right of people to wear a poppy; I’m sure it happens occasionally, but I don’t believe it’s widespread.
But I won’t wear one. We are all aware that the poppy represents much more than the horror of war on the fields of Flanders or the “courage and sacrifice” quite rightly noted by Jim Masson. The poppy campaign is deliberately conflated with current ‘campaigns’ by local and national leaders, by media and by politicians – it is not flawed logic on my part that does so. It’s a symbol of support for British military action internationally (and domestically), some of which I can support, most I can’t. My decision not to wear a poppy stems wholly from my opposition to British defence policy, not from any dislike of the Royal British Legion or from a failure to recognise the pain and suffering of individual members of the forces.
Alex your article articulates my own thoughts….
Alex, the sacrifice made by those conscripted or in anticipation of conscription cannot be underplayed, however those who wear the poppy must consider that their support doesn’t end with those 2 horrific examples of warfare, but carries on through campaigns in the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland and Iraq (to name but a few) and gives support to those soldiers like the royal marine convicted of murder this week and others who have undoubtedly carried out atrocities when their colleagues knew how to turn off the camera. A symbol which represents all the innocents killed in war (both conscripts and civilians) would be a much more fitting way to remember the sacrifices that have been made. I won’t wear a poppy this year, or ever. I will however remember those whose lives were taken in the biggest imperial power game in history, and those who fought and continue to fight fascism. #NeverAgain
Strength of Army from Britain and Ireland during the Great War 5,702,000 of which 134,202 where recruited in Ireland.
956,700 lost their lives to enemy action of which 36,500 came from Ireland.
2,272,000 where wounded of which 59,800 came from Ireland.
The futility of Imperial War and the loss of such life should never be forgotten.
On Armistice Day the sacrifice of those who served, where killed or where injured especially from Ireland should not be forgotten or politicised.
As a veteran I have my own concerns about the increasing “poppy police” who take delight in ridiculing others for their choice not to wear the symbol of remembrance however their attitude is so far removed from the integrity of those that fought and died that their argument is without foundation, smothered in propaganda.
Let us never forget the horror of war but let us not get hung up on 1 symbol. This year I made a financial donation to the Poppy Appeal and Help for Heroes – I think the charities themselves appreciate that type of support rather than poppy fascists creating negative media publicity around a little flower.
This piece is full of humanity, Alex, very thought-provoking.
However, as Joe Hassit remarks on this page, the red poppy represents more than remembering the terrible sacrifices of the decent in WW1, and the victory over evil in WW2.
It represents all British military endeavours, good and bad. It funds the welfare of, for example, the soldiers who murdered in Derry & Ballymurphy, and it would surely be strange to suggest the families of those victims should buy poppies giving financial contribution to those soldiers.
That’s why the red poppy was for so long actually named for Earl Haig, popularly known as ‘Butcher Haig’, and ‘Butcher of he Somme’. It is why I prefer the white poppy which unambiguously fulfills the same function of remembering that you rightly praise, without the militaristic, sometimes murderous, baggage.
As an additional footnote to this thread I thought commentators would be interested in this piece
Nobody could object to anything Alex has written but I would like to remind readers how Unionists/Loyalists monopolised remembrance services and how Catholic ex-servicemen were treated when they returned to NI after the great war . You can read about it on eurofree3.wordpress.com “Catholic ex servicemen don’t count”
A lovely piece Alex thanks for sharing
I used to wear a poppy but now I usually do not. The reason being that when I give to a charitable cause I do not feel it is appropriate to broadcast the fact to the world. So, perhaps I donate, and perhaps I do not. My business.