Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Poppy
What should be  a straightforward matter of showing respect and support for servicemen who fought and died for our country has become more complex. 
Poppies thrive on disturbed ground. No ground was more disturbed than the narrow slice of land over which most of the battles on the Western Front in World War 1 were fought. In several places land was captured and retaken several times. Conditions were grim. There is a story of a regiment arriving at such a place and being ordered to dig trenches, only to find that as they dug, they exposed the decomposing bodies of former casualties. Grim indeed. And out of this carnage the poppies bloomed.
Every village, town and city in the UK has war memorials from that war. 760,000 men from a population of 46million were killed. Many, many more were wounded and damaged. The dead were aged between 18 and 41. Within that age group the effect was shattering. 
In the immediate aftermath of the war and as comprehension grew, there was a need to honour the fallen. The Unknown Soldier was given a state funeral and laid to rest among the great and the good from our history. Huge memorials to the missing such as Tyne Cot, Thiepval and the Menin Gate, were designed and built throughout the twenties. 
The first Poppy Appeal was launched by the British Legion in November 1921. It was based on the poem written by John McCrae in 1915. 
                                                          In Flanders' 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.
Armistice Day and remembrance services, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, were rigorously followed for many years. Everything stopped. Everything. Everywhere fell silent. Everywhere. And then over the years came the erosion until the day was held on the Sunday nearest to the 11th. Not the same. It gave an insight into the way governments pay lip-service to their troops. It also gave pause for thought about what exactly should a country do for its wounded and damaged veterans. Having been prepared to pay the ultimate price, why should these brave men and women rely on public handouts. Being prepared to risk other peoples lives should be a fiendishly difficult decision. It should also involve accepting the consequence of looking after what comes back - if necessary for the rest of their lives. 
Harold Wilson upset the Americans by not getting involved in Vietnam. In his cabinet there were many who had seen combat at first hand and understood the implications. Compare that with Blair’s supine cabinet who seemingly were marginalised over the Iraq decision. None of them had war experience.
And as our wars have become more unpopular and illegal there are extra complications. Many people support the troops but not the war, particularly Iraq and less so Afghanistan. 
Our recent actions have stirred up hostility, particularly in the middle east. Not surprisingly certain groups want to let us know. The decision to ban a group who included burning poppies among their tactics is worrying. Troops gave their lives so we have the freedom to cause offence. 
This mornings leaked memo suggests that this current crop of politicians are following in Blair’s footsteps. While they publicly laud the bravery, quality and integrity of our troops, they secretly plan to make them redundant, including the wounded. 
Last week had a report of an ex-veteran and his wife committing suicide together because they could not face life on a meagre pension.
“Wear your poppy with pride?” Maybe.

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