Last weekend was one of the most sensitive times of the year on our campus. You might have noticed many of us have been wearing a certain red flower that grows in Flanders Fields. I have never felt the need to apologise or take steps to hide my pride in the symbol that means so much to my family and me.
Growing up, I had been raised to understand the risks my family and countless others have taken in service of their country. The bravery my great-grandfather exhibited in the First World War embarking on the Arctic convoys to Tsarist Russia during his service in the Merchant Navy inspired my grandfather to serve during the Second World War. I remember the stories he told about the D-Day Landings and his experience delivering munitions to American soldiers on Omaha Beach during the liberation of Europe.
Respecting the service and sacrifice that so many made is an obligation I feel is one of my most important duties to appreciate. Yet my decision to wear a poppy has become increasingly demonised, the determination of Cambridge Students Union to reject the poppy on the ground that this symbol glorifies war. Such claims about a symbol which means so much to myself and countless others is something I cannot remain silent about.
Central to this dispute surrounds what this little red flower represents. Since 1921, the Royal British Legion has distributed poppies across the United Kingdom, with sister organisations distributing the symbol in Australia, Canada and many other nations. The demand for this symbol was so large that there was frequently not enough to supply poppies to Scotland which lead to none other than Lady Haig, wife of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig forming a factory in Edinburgh which continues to offer support to disabled ex-servicemen to this day.
What troubles me most is the defamatory comments the poppy received from certain sections of society. The symbolism of the poppy can only be fully understood by reading the words of Lt Col John McCrae in his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. McCrae notes that the flower in question sway with the wind “between the crosses, row on row”. The narrative that the poppy as symbol glorifies war could not be further from the truth. , this flower is a representation of the sprawling cemeteries in a distant land where the slaughter of a generation occurred.
However, the poppy represents much more than this; the flowers are sold in a two-week window before the service to commemorate the armistice which drew the Great War to an end. For those who have never been a part of an event on Remembrance Sunday, I can assure you that it is no Caesarean triumph nor a Napoleonic exercise of glorifying the great battles. Simply put, the service is an atmosphere of genuine sadness. It resembles a funeral for those who never made it back to be buried by their loved ones at home.
In the Church I attend, a wreath is laid at the memorial to the eleven parishioners who never returned from the fields of Belgium and France. This is followed by the playing of the Last Post. No matter how many times you hear the groan of the bugle, nothing can prevent the hairs from standing up on the back of the neck. I still struggle to believe how much this lone instrument can consume you. It inspires thoughts of how many fellow humans who could just as easily be members of your congregation laid down their lives in conflicts.
I struggle to see how any individual who has made an effort to understand what the poppy and the act of remembrance truly represents can conclude that this commemoration glorifies war. Having attended these ceremonies throughout my life, I am yet to experience a service which is not a sombre, solemn event where the sacrifice of few is remembered.
Yet if the poppy has this superior purpose of glorifying conflict, one must ask where the money which is raised from this appeal goes toward? Surely for such a claim to be valid, it must be reinvested in the army to support future conquest? The opposite could not be truer. The 1921 appeal sought support veterans return to as normal a life as possible after the Great War supporting them with employment opportunities and housing.
This desire to support those who gave so much for the is embodied in the Legion’s Aylesford factory where millions of poppies are produced to this day. The factory has no aspiration to be a thriving commercial venture; instead, it continues to be a hub of social and emotional support for veterans past and present to whom we owe so much.
However, my poppy not only symbolises my respect for those directly related to me who bravely risked their lives. The respect and honour groups such as those who represent the memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who commemorate their bravery each year on the 25th of April. ANZAC Day pays tribute on the anniversary of the first day of the Gallipoli landings in 1915 which claimed the lives of 56,000 allied soldiers, 11,430 of whom from Australia and New Zealand.
All of those from what is now the Commonwealth fought gallantly, and their sacrifices are what I feel we must all remember during our festival of remembrance on the 11th of November. However, there is a nation which is not part of this organisation which has seen the service of its men and women neglected for too long.
It should come as no surprise that I am referencing the 27,405 Irishmen who died during the Great War. I wear my poppy in pride of the bravery and gratitude that those who gave their lives in battle. There are countless examples of chivalry which I could highlight in the 37 Irish recipients of the Victoria Cross.
However, what I wish to highlight is an example all communities in Ireland ought to be proud of. As the brother of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, Willie Redmond had no reason to go to the front and fight. But in the belief that the war could bring Unionists and Nationalists together, Redmond enlisted and became a Major in the 16th Irish Division.
In June 1917, Redmond’s division joined the 36th Ulster Division at the frontlines in preparation for the Battle of Messines Ridge. Leading his men over the top, Redmond was immediately wounded and tended to by Private John Meeke, a stretcher bearer in the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers. Meeke was a Protestant from Benvarden, County Antrim and a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
It would have been easy to leave Redmond lying in the Belgian mud reflecting the sectarian divisions of the time. However, Meeke did not only care for Redmond’s wounds, but he defied Redmond’s direct orders to retreat which lead to him being wounded. While Meeke would survive the war, Redmond would pass due to his wounds becoming one of 23 MPs to make the ultimate sacrifice.
In Flanders Fields these men were neither Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, they were human beings who cared for one another, irrespective of background. The example set here and in countless other situations is what the poppy remembers, is why it is so important that we remember those who served from our communities. Their example predates the schisms and divides we face today; their example should be recognised as what we can achieve when we pass our sectarian differences.
Speaking at St Anne’s Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday 2018, Archbishop Eamon Martin rightly noted that the sacrifice of Catholic and Protestant servicemen who fought together is neglected as individuals “cling on to a history of difference and separation, rather than recognise and embrace our shared story of common suffering”. The poppy does not act as an exclusive symbol. It is a symbol that all are entitled to wear in recognition of those across Ireland who fought and died together.
Whether you support or loathe the British Army, the poppy seeks to remember those individuals from our communities who went to a foreign land in the belief they were fighting for a noble cause. Just because this does not comply with your views formed with the luxury of hindsight is no justification to dismiss or discredit a symbol which seeks to remember their courage. To assume your opinion is absolutely correct to the extent you believe the sacrifice of so many should be neglected or forgotten is indicative of little more than ignorance.
For our tomorrow, so many gave their today. Thousands of those of similar age to us should not be written out of history simply because we believe the principles of today make it mandatory they be forgotten. Much of the criticism and objections which surround the poppy originate in phantom tales of what the poppy must implicitly represent based on who wears it. However, when you next see someone wearing a poppy, their reason cannot be associated with the glorification of conflicts, but with the words of Binyon’s Ode:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.
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