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The poppies in the fields.

October 29, 2012

Edinburgh’s Comely Bank Cemetery, like many from Victorian times, possesses a calm and peaceful atmosphere, especially in Autumn, when the mature trees shelter the graves in shades of brown and green.

There are around 300 Commonwealth War Graves on the site, some in a formal lay out, others scattered, small and neatly uniform, amongst the varied family memorials around them.

Near the entrance in a pleasingly irregular circle are a dozen or so headstones, grey granite rather than the white Portland stone so familiar from the Western Front cemeteries. By chance or design, these are mostly commemorating members of the Royal Flying Corps, as the RAF was known until 1918. Edinburgh and the Forth was a training area and also contained many military hospitals; death from wounds on the front and flying accidents account for their presence here in the Capital.

Like many of my generation, the children and grandchildren of those no longer here to talk first hand about the two world wars, I feel strangely connected to the conflicts. They provided many of the stories of our childhood and the explanation for relatives mentioned but never known. They are like a permanent shadow over our early years – blotting out positives with an unused ration card found in an old suitcase, or a tarnished medal in a dressing up box.

I’ve visited many War Cemeteries and, invariably, the simple headstones, the administrative details of name, regiment, date of death, and the added inscriptions, paid for by family at threepence ha’penny per letter, combine to bring tears. At Tyne Cot, Arlington, Virginia, and Omaha Beach, I’ve been numbed to hopeless silence by the sheer acreage of heartbreak.

However, I had not been to Comely Bank before, and, as I note increasingly in such situations these days, sorrow was edged out by anger. The ages of the airmen on the graves before me read: 18,19,19, 18, 20.

Since they joined up a century ago, mankind has moved from the horse and cart to space travel, from steam to laser, from cats whiskers to the internet – and yet, still, governments have no better solution to the world’s ills than sending off young men and women to die.

Nobody can doubt the bravery of these soldiers, the fortitude of their families, or the gratitude of ordinary members of the public. What is up for debate, however, is the role of politicians, and manner in which their memory is manipulated.

Until about fifteen years ago, it seemed as if Armistice Day and what it represented might quietly die away with the generations who had first hand memory of war and loss. However, there was a resurgence in interest; formal commemoration seemed to become important again and young people became aware of the veterans still in their midst and the lives they had led.

Unfortunately, as awareness grew, and with it a widespread desire that those who died in the two world wars should not be forgotten, the remembrance was, to an extent, hijacked by contemporary political manouevering. What began as a commemoration of those who fell in the early 20th century became extended to all who have died on active service since and, almost surreptitiously, to a support for government military actions and the establishment line.

While it is clear that many who wear the poppy do so in support of Armistice commemoration, there has grown up a body of opinion that not to wear a poppy is somehow unpatriotic or ‘letting down’ servicemen and women currently on active service. This is a huge insult to the men who died in 1914-18 and in 1939-45; it is co-opting them to a political position they may, or may not have agreed with, and it is a convenient smokescreen for politicians who may not be confident about defending aspects of military deployment in recent times.

There is no connection between honouring those who died in two world wars and supporting later or current government actions, just as disagreeing violently with UK actions in Iraq or Afghanistan does not indicate a lack of support for the soldiers serving there. There is a hideous echo of ‘lions led by donkeys’ when politicians demand support for their actions while expecting young men and women to pay the price.

On a visit to Flanders, I went to the underground bunker near Ypres which served as the advanced dressing station where Canadian medic John McCrae was based during the 2nd Battle of Ypres in May 1915. It lies under the levees of the Ypres-Yser Canal, about 2km north of Ypres and yards away from what is known as the Essex Farm Military Cemetery. From the doorway of what was at the time little more than a line of dugouts, Dr McCrae could see the crosses on the hurriedly dug graves at Essex Farm; among them was that of his friend, 22 year old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, whose brief burial service the medic had conducted.

In evening Spring sunshine, McCrae noted the poppies growing in the mud around the rough wooden crosses, and started to scribble down the words which would become his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

Ultimately, this led to the adoption of the poppy as the symbol of remembrance. Its deep red, symbolizing spilled blood, against the chalk white of mangled farmland, is a stark reminder of the reality of sacrifice. It endures as a symbol; even coming across a clutch of these flowers on the edge of a peaceful country lane in the bucolic Hampshire downs can bring a catch to your throat.

The poppy, as a symbol, deserves far better than to be appropriated as a political gesture; the men who died “In Flanders Fields” deserve to be remembered and commemorated in a manner that is divorced from current political posturing. To do otherwise, to quote McCrae’s poem, would be to ‘break faith’ with them.

You should not instruct people – be they members of the public, politicians’ or media representatives – to wear a poppy, neither can you tell them not to. Commemoration is a personal decision, not a corporate choice.

So, if you try to sell me a poppy, and I walk past with a far away look in my eyes, imagine that I am seeing a young Canadian medic, far from home, leaning against the sagging wooden prop that forms the entrance to his dugout, gazing across a mud filled canal towards the crosses of a makeshift cemetery. As he focuses on the red spot of the poppy against the spoiled chalk, he tries to understand why his young friend was blown to pieces by a German shell. On the back of a battalion order sheet, his hands shaking with the fatigue of futility, his overalls stained with the detritus of death, he scrawls in pencil the words that will make up his poem. Meanwhile, outside Edinburgh, an 18 year old body is being pulled from the wood and wire wreckage of a battered biplane.

McCrae thinks about the scary lie of sacrifice and prays this will never happen again;

That’s what I’ll be thinking about.

And don’t dare tell me I’m not remembering.

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