We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Almost ten million soldiers died. That equates to the entire population of Hungary.
Just under one million of those were British. Imagine now, if a million young men were wiped out of our population. Everyone would know someone who died, and since 1914, the population has risen by a third. Only 52 parishes in England and Wales had all their men returned. No parish in Scotland or Northern Ireland was unaffected. The scale of the devastation is absolutely unimaginable these days, when every dead soldier is reported on the national news, and given full military burial honours. 435 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Over 400000 British soldiers died, or were injured in a 19 week campaign at the Somme, in addition to another 60000 German soldiers.
The only member of my family that I categorically know was involved in the first world war was my great grandad, who was invalided out with a shrapnel wound. The leg was later amputated. I know that all my great grandfathers would have been in service, though that particular one is the only one whose story I know. Your great grandfathers would have been too, because of conscription. Conscription - when you are legally required to sign up and fight - was introduced halfway through the war to try and bolster numbers. However, the sheer weight of moral expectation to sign up made conscription largely pointless. The healthy men had all signed up, only those in poor health and essential work were left.
And the healthy men were decimated.
In 1920, the remembrance poppy was introduced by an American women called Moina Michael, who was inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields. Field Marshall Haig adopted the idea for the Royal British Legion in 1921, and they have been sold ever since, from the end of October until Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. The funds generated go towards providing support and care to veterans of conflict, no matter where or when they fought. The RBL have received criticism for taking donations from the BNP and Tony Blair. The RBL's work, while admirable, is not the reason I wear a poppy.
Some adopt the poppy as an aggressively nationalist tag, claiming it as a symbol of British pride. They argue for the right to wear their poppy, which nobody has ever disputed outside the world of diplomacy and international football. Yearly, the rumour mill claims that Muslims are trying to stop people wearing poppies. Yearly, the rumour mill is wrong, and yet it still inspires so much racism that it makes me ashamed to be British. The poppy is a highly unpopular symbol in Northern Ireland, yet this doesn't create half the ignorant, ridiculous ramblings of idiotic racists, bellowing abuse in the name of 'patriotism'.
Nationalism is not something I identify with. It is not the reason I wear a poppy.
I am vehemently pacifist. I don't idolise soldiers, I don't deify the military dead, I don't glorify war. Neither does the poppy appeal.
The reason I wear the poppy is simple. In 1914, a war started that the common man could get involved in.
So, they were fed into a system of trenches, barbed wire, tanks, mustard gas, shells and bullets. They lived in mud, they suffered from trench foot, lice and diarrhoea. If they suffered shell shock, they were court martialled and shot. Millions died. There was no post traumatic stress counselling for the survivors. Families were devastated, children left fatherless, women left to cope. Those that were lucky enough to survive came home and they carried on. Some carried injuries for life, like my great grandad. Some never recovered mentally. Not one was left without a scar somewhere, in body, mind or spirit.
I wear my poppy to remember that it must never happen again.
- They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
- Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
- At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
- We will remember them.