At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1918, hostilities ceased in World War 1. Every year since then it has been customary to observe a two minute silence for the fallen dead in that and other conflicts. Around three weeks prior to that, it has been customary for people to wear poppies as a mark of respect.
I have generally observed that tradition by wearing a poppy on my outer garment for as long as I can remember and, come 11am on the 11th November, I hope to observe the two minute silence, and I will think of those who fell in all wars, in all capacities and from all sides.
Last week, my wife and I decided to spend a day in London. The highlight of the day was to visit the poppy display in the dried out moat that surrounds the Tower of London. The display is made up of 888,246 ceramic flowers, one for each British or Commonwealth soldier killed during the First World War. The display was a moving and poignant reminder of the sacrifices that had been made.
Buying and wearing of poppies, with proceeds going to service charities, is something I, like many others, have done for as long as I remember, and is part of the British tradition. I see no reason to stop doing so now, given the significance of what wearing a poppy represents, and hope the tradition will continue.
Sadly, however, what may be seen as an innocent gesture and mark of respect can sometimes be surrounded with controversy. For example, some have qualms about the worthiness of the charities that benefit when we buy a poppy and then what about all the symbols for other good causes we might want to wear? It can also becoming a rallying point for political propaganda or jingoism.
When a Facebook friend recently posted a picture of poppy on her page, that had the message “wear your poppy with pride“, I was inclined to share it on my page, until I saw the message “share” and the originator of the post was the far right group, Britain First, who no doubt sees this as a way of attracting publicity.
It has often struck me that in the media, specifically television, wearing of poppies by those being filmed appears to be mandatory and I have sometimes felt uneasy and questioned the motive, for it should never be a matter for pride, ostentation or one-upmanship. I have recently learned of a newsreader who got abused on social media for not wearing a poppy, and this form of bullying I see as being wholly unacceptable. Some years prior to that another well known newsreader attracted a similar reaction.
Neither were being awkward even though both had good personal reasons for wearing a poppy, yet chose not to given their public role. But there is evidence to suggest that both had in other ways, in their own private lives, shown respect for the people we are supposed to be remembering. One of their arguments for not wearing a poppy seemed significantly reasonable, making mention of those who gave their lives and one of the reasons for doing so was that we would have the right to wear or not wear the symbols we chose.
My own ultra non-conformist background meant scant attention was given to observing special days. I later discovered that for others observing special occasions was very important. My plea is we respect each other in the decisions to observe or not observe. I do think though, to remember, for a short time each year, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure our freedoms, is a good thing.
When it comes to observing the two minute silence, the thoughts that will go through the minds of those participating will be many and personal, for that is how it should be. War has sadly always been with us and it looks likely to continue to be so. I hope though we can all remember and do so respectfully and with gratitude, especially to those who sacrificed their lives to secure our freedoms. As with most readers, there are those in my family who died in these conflicts.
I still think of the great uncle I never met who died in a submarine in World War I. The church I attend still has a memorial board of those who died in World War I, as does my old school. As far as I’m concerned, wearing a poppy is not about glorifying war or misplaced nationalism (although I believe there remains an argument for a just war); it is about remembering. I will be thinking of all those who died in all these conflicts, whatever their nationality or role.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.