12th November 2017
Parade and Service of Remembrance
Every community has its natural “gossip points” – places where local information is exchanged and where the latest innovations and scandals can be shared and argued over at leisure. Here, depending on our age and personal taste, that may well be The Bear, or one of the many local Coffee Shops, among one of the groups that meet at the Community Centre; it might be on the top deck of the of the bus to school or perhaps even in “Sprinkles”, in town, when you’ve missed the bus home! One way or another, we tend to find our own sources and outlets of local intelligence – reliable or otherwise!
For me, one of those places is Wilton Barber Shop – although, sadly, I don’t need to visit quite so often these days! But when I do, I’m always confident that some interesting snippets will emerge in the conversation and that strong views will be freely expressed!
This week, the talk was about poppies – and the increasing reluctance of many people to wear them. For around 11% of the population, it seems, that reluctance is due to a concern that wearing the poppy – and attending commemorations like this one – actually glorifies war.
Some of those in the Barber’s were quite angry about that suggestion – seeing it just as a selfish excuse for not joining in and honouring those who fought for our freedom.
I have to admit I just feel rather weary with the same circle of arguments that seems to surface every now and then: and, rather than fuelling the conflict of ideas that is buzzing away just now, I think we should all simply get on and observe Remembrance with integrity – with a careful balance of pride and regret.
The Poppy is a symbol like any other – to which we can attach positive associations or negative ones – it’s up to each one of us what we make of that symbol.
The poppy CAN glorify war if want it to, it CAN say more about those who wear it than about those who died, if we let it – but it doesn’t need to.
We know that our national flags – the Union Flag and the St George Cross – have been appropriated by the Far Right as symbols of their distorted nationalist pride. But rather than abandon those emblems, because they CAN be misrepresented, we would surely do better to reclaim them by offering a better interpretation of civic pride and national identity.
The Union flag preceded this morning’s Parade – of youth organisations and Councillors – and, back on St George’s day, as several hundred Scouts made their way into this Parish Church, it was behind both national flags – not as assertions of nationalist aggression, but of solidarity with each other and our patron saint.
Poppies, like national flags, CAN point to a narrow, triumphalist vision of national insularity and nostalgia – or they can represent a broad vision of shared national values and of continuity between the generations.
We should, I think, wear our poppies with pride – as the slogan went – and also with a tinge of regret.
And if we really do need a corrective against the glorification of war, then it’s in the very act of Remembrance – of remembering the grisly reality of past wars and present conflicts that we’re most likely to find it.
It’s a very sobering thought that, among those Scouts who paraded back in April, were young men who, had they lived in 1917, would have been wearing a different uniform and worrying not about A levels and acne, but about the much starker challenges of the trenches.
This year marks the centenary of one of the bloodiest battles of WW1 – the “Third Battle of Ypres” – which raged from July to November 1917, culminating if the capture of the village of “Passchendaele” – the other name often given to this conflict. 1917 was the wettest summer for 40 years – and Passchedaele stands out in the history of WW1 not only for the huge loss of life – around ¼ million casualties on both sides – but also the dreadful conditions in which the men fought – sometimes described as a man-made swamp.
Recalling the loss of so many young lives and the lost potential of that generation is very far from “glorification”.
It is, in fact, a reminder that war really is only a last resort – that war is itself a sign of failure – necessary only when political will and diplomacy have proved inadequate.
The point of Remembrance services, the point of wearing poppies is precisely that – is the regretful admission that war is sometimes necessary, in order to defend what we perceive to be right and good, but never desirable.
If we wear our poppies with pride – it is in recognition and gratitude that when the need did arise – there were so many who were willing to put the needs of their country ahead of their own personal ambitions.
Perhaps not all of them knew what they were letting themselves in for – especially back in 1914 some of those young men may well have marched off with unrealistic expectations of a quick skirmish and a return home as conquering heroes – but they were quickly disabused of that notion and the many who followed them did so with grim determination, not jingoistic enthusiasm.
And it’s for that determination, for that personal sacrifice –that we honour them all each year.
In doing so, we’re called to renew our own determination to ensure that we don’t squander the freedoms that they fought for – that we don’t simply pursue our own personal ambitions at the expense of our neighbours – that we are always prepared to do what is necessary to defend and promote what is good and just in the world of our day.
A final thought from the world of football.
I’m not a great soccer fan, as it happens – but it would be hard for any of us to have missed the protest that greeted FIFA’s attempt, last year, to ban the wearing of poppies by players because, it was said, they were a political symbol.
That ban has been lifted, and on Friday poppies were very much in evidence as the national teams of England and Germany faced each other at Wembley Stadium,
with its new statue commemorating the Christmas Day truce of 1914.
Both teams wore black armbands with poppies on them. And before the match began, representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force of both nations laid wreaths and players and fans of both nations kept a respectful silence in honour of all the war dead.
In that moment the poppy became a symbol, not of division, but of reconciliation – and in that united gesture surely there is hope for the future.
Let us continue to wear our poppies then – let us remember – with pride, with sorrow and with hope.