Thursday, 5 November 2015

If ye break faith with us who die...

In Flanders Field the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

There is always debate at this time about the poppy and whether it should or shouldn't be worn, whether it glorifies war or is purely an act of remembrance. As with everything that endures over a long time, its meaning can become muddled and incongruous-usually because we have lost the meaning or because we anachronistically place our own flawed interpretation onto it. It has become a political instrument though it was never meant to be and I am a little irked by its detractors.

I am not one of those who dogmatically insists that everyone should wear a poppy, not would I insult or criticize you whether you did or did not! Neither would I post one of those passive/aggressive Facebook declarations which threatens and vilifies for either wearing or not wearing a poppy. To me the essence of the poppy is about choice- when it first began a huge majority of the population was proud to wear one-mainly because they all knew or had lost someone in the terrible war. As time moves on the remembrance is more distant and perhaps more collective, but certainly in my own case I remember the young men in the family (great uncles) who had no chance to live their lives as I have done. I like the poppy for its simplicity, for its symbolism. I don't see it as jingoistic or political and I certainly can't associate it with racism.If it is perceived as such-then the fault lies with those who have tried to use the poppy to promote a right wing nationalistic interpretation-not the poppy itself.

I refuse to abandon it or wear a "white" poppy on the strength of this. The whole point of the poppy is that it is red-to symbolise the blood spent for our freedom. The white apologist poppy is almost an insult-what's the point? Nothing is more poignant than the silent fluttering of the thousands of poppies falling from the ceiling of the Albert Hall at the end of the Remembrance ceremony. Each one representing the fallen-yours and mine... and even the apologists. It has nothing to do with glorification and sentimentality, it has to do with humanity and loss... and remembrance. So, although I would never wish to inflict my choice upon you... please don't try and denigrate mine and many others who are still proud to wear the poppy, in thanks for those long past and in the hope that by remembering we might one day stop the bloodshed and aggression in the world. We have not yet learnt from our mistakes, but if we extinguish remembrance, because it is not always presented in the way we would like then we have lost an important lesson. 

So I will wear my poppy and will not be made to feel guilty because it might represent something it isn't meant to! Flanders Fields by Canadian McCrae is poignant, because he was there. He died of meningitis and pneumonia at the Canadian Hospital in Boulogne-a less obvious casualty of war and buried at Wimereaux Cemetery. He experienced the worst of the war but he believed he was making a difference and believed in what he was doing-as most men at the front did. Who are we a hundred years later to criticise and denigrate the beliefs of a man who was proud to sacrifice his life-not just for his country but for the "Empire"? To do so is not only anachronistic but also a little insulting. We might not hold those views now-but we have no right to manipulate them into a time when things were very different.

"If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields."

In the same cemetery lies my great uncle John Wilkinson-one of three uncles who died. He was rejected at the start of the war due to poor eye-sight, but was recalled in 1917 when men were needed to replenish the human cannon fodder. I am sure he went with the same beliefs as McCrae-I am also sure they must have questioned why they were there, but that is part of the tragedy of war-which is probably as true today as it was then. The poppy still stands for those men and as simple as it is I think it does its job admirably.

In Flander's Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

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