Unlike many people I haven’t been directly affected by war. My father wasn’t in a war, I have no close personal friends who are or have been in the forces and I never enlisted myself. I did once admire the uniforms and considered a career as a WREN, although options in those days for women were quite limited.
My dad was a child in WWII. He was gas mask monitor at school – can you imagine that? Gas mask monitor?! They had drills to evacuate the school to show the children how to get into the bunkers. He told stories about how a plane crashed in woods nearby and all the children in the town ran up to the woods to see the Gerry, some got a piece of the plane as a trophy. My late father in law grew up next to an Italian PoW camp and told funny stories of how the local children used to run errands for the PoW’s.
A more distant figure in my life, my Grandad, enlisted in a Pals Regiment for WWI. He was 16 years old when he signed up. Four friends went together to join for King and country, in response to their local landowner and employer parading on horseback through their village, in uniform with a band playing and flags flying. Two of them came back. Grandad’s friend wrote a book about it. That’s how I know his history. He never talked about it. Not at all. He just came back and picked up his life, married his sweetheart and raised a family.
An uncle, who I saw maybe twice a year, who was invalided out of WWII was in the volunteer fire service in his village. In spite of being somewhat distant, his relatively small experience of war impacted on me the most. He told me he remembered being at work – he was a farm manager for several estates – and he heard the village siren sounding and sure enough there had been a plane crash. He had been deeply affected by finding bits of a man’s body scattered about the field, he couldn’t erase the image of tht man’s severed hand just lying there.
These aren’t huge or heroic stories. These are the stories if ordinary people who lived their lives…but when my uncle told me about his experience, he was crying. I was around 7 and was in church with him on Remembrance Sunday and I asked him why he wasn’t singing. We were supposed to be singing ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ and he didn’t sing. The answer was, he couldn’t. I can still see the look on his face as he turned to me and the tears spilled over his eyes. He gestured for me to shush and dried his eyes as we sat down. Afterwards, after the laying of the wreaths and the last notes of the last post had died away, he sat me down in front of the war memorial and told me about all his friends who had died, how he lost everyone he knew and wasn’t with them. Instead of being there he was picking up severed arms in fields, and he cried. I’d never seen a man cry until then and his pain was so real. He impressed upon me the belief that we must never, never forget.
And I haven’t forgotten. As I’ve got older I’ve become much more left wing than any members of my family, joined CND and the Stop the War Coalition. I’ve learned the history of the White Poppy and the Purple Poppy. I’ve considered how I should still remember without glorification of war and the military and how I could show that I sought peace without insulting those who have suffered.
I am asked, occasionally, why I wear three poppies. Not many are aware of the purple poppy to remember how we have abused animals in the name of war and that is easily explained, but people seem to think that I should choose the red or the white. I should choose between remembering and a belief that killing should stop. I ask them who they think would go through war again; the old boys and girls who lived through WWII and parade with their polished medals remembering comrades who didn’t come home? Those who stayed here and lost friends and family? Those who came back with life changing injuries? What about the Falklands veterans who have told me their own horror stories or the young men now, returning from Afghanistan having seen things that humans should never have to witness and endure. Do they still think it’s a good idea for more people to go through that? I don’t and it’s my right not to want that to happen again. My white poppy represents both remembering the loss and pain, and the desire for peace.
So why wear a red poppy at all? Because my white poppy offends people. Because wearing a red poppy has become almost compulsory, and not to wear one is thought to spit on the memory of the fallen. Because it can be seen as an affront to all those old boys and girls who think I hate what they did. And because I do remember them.
Because I am anti-war, doesn’t mean I am anti soldier/airman/sailor. Because I want peace, doesn’t mean I don’t realise that sometimes we are told that war is a necessary evil and because I wear a white poppy next to my red one it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect and remember the dead and injured from conflicts past and present.
As the mother of four sons, who cried as ships set sail for the Falklands with my baby son on my knee, so sad that some mothers babies wouldn’t be coming back, I empathise with families today who are still facing their terrible loss. And not only for people who have lost their lives, but for those who didn’t, like my Grandad who never spoke about his experience but who’s friend’s book told it all, and explained why Grandad didn’t sleep. And my uncle who’s relatively minimal experience of war affected him and subsequently me, so much.
I now wear three poppies, to remember and to wish it never happens again. I no longer attend Remembrance Sunday with its military and quasi-military parades encouraging children to march – even the Brownies – to glorify the war dead. I go instead on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to a small handful of graves in the corner of the local cemetery and I stand there in silence – well, not always silence, I must admit, sometimes my sobs can be heard.
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