Ten years after the war ended my Grandfather gave up wearing a poppy, he never joined the British Legion either – or attended Remembrance Day parades. “Son” he said to me when I was twelve, “I didn’t spend six years fighting fascism to come home and start telling people how to think.”
The poppy didn’t fit Grandad in the end, it had been hijacked. First by the church – deliberately left out of the post-first world war one commemorations, by 1945 it had wormed its way back in by inventing Remembrance Sunday and soon the secular commemoration of the dead of all faiths and none became solely a Christian affair.
Next time you’re at the Cenotaph, count the number of religious symbols carved into it. There are none. God was clearly absent from the killing fields of Mons and the Somme, He had no place in the nation’s attempts to come to terms with what had happened.
After the Church, the military weighed in and suddenly the poppy was no longer a symbol of remembrance, a vivid reminder of the cost of war, of the slaughter of thousands of conscripted civilians. Instead it became a show of allegiance to serving professional soldiers engaged in current military campaigns and, by association, Government Foreign Policy.
You were wearing your Poppy for God, Queen and Country.
Today my Grandad would be considered a hero; joining up when war was declared he saw action on many battlefields. Ending up on the beaches on D-Day, he was in the vanguard of the advance across Europe towards Berlin.
On the way he was part of the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp and even took the arrest of the camp commandant, Josef Kramer (by this time he’d been promoted through the ranks to Major).
Like thousands of others he didn’t consider himself a hero and rarely spoke of the war, instead he returned home to win the peace he and his comrades had fought and died for. He would have stayed in the army but was denied a peace time commission because the army didn’t allow working class Geordies who’d left school at thirteen into the mess, however many stripes they’d earned. They weren’t the right sort, you know. Good enough to kill and be killed, but not for gin and tonic with the Brigadier and his wife.
And now every year – in his name and the names of the millions who fought and the countless who died – the same tired debate about respect echoes hollow through the pages of social media as everyone competes in a less and less seemly brawl to demonstrate who can show the most respect.
TV stations buy thousands of poppies and employ one person to make sure that everyone who appears on the screen is wearing one. Why? Because they respect serving soldiers? Because they want to remind us of the terrible cost of war?
No. It’s because if they don’t people who believe the purpose of war is to be able to live in a society where you are free to tell others what they should think will drag us into the tiresome annual debate on the meaning of respect. Every November 12th is like VE Day to me; I think to myself “Thank God that’s over.”
Be free to wear your poppy, wear it for whatever reason it makes sense for you to wear it. Be proud of it. But If someone else has chosen not to wear one, respect their choice and remember my Grandad, a Pioneer Sergeant on a wetshod landing on that Normandy beach in 1944. He didn’t wear one.
I don’t wear one for him.