The wearing of the poppy

The following is an entirely personal set of musings about Poppy day and Remembrance etc. I know some people find some of my blogs at times too personal but I wanted to do this one: if you do not like it just move on to the next blog. It is poppy time again and I am back to wearing a poppy and yet feeling a bit uncomfortable about it. My discomfort exists at a number of levels:Firstly I do not want to offend anyone by wearing a poppy. I am aware that there are some people who find a poppy offensive: they may have good or bad reasons for disliking poppies. One can argue that they celebrate militarism and glory in what were actually awful events. I am not trying to celebrate militarism: I am trying to remember the sacrifice and death of the world wars by wearing it. I feel that I am remembering the young Germans who died in the First World War as well: they were not very different to my ancestors who fought on the British side. I even feel that I am remembering the Germans of the Second War as well. Just because the Nazi regime was itself evil does not mean that they were themselves all committing evil by fighting for their country: most had little choice. As such I know why I wear the poppy but clearly I cannot explain that to everyone I see in the street.

I also do not want to be seen as being critical of those who are not wearing a poppy. I remember an elder in our church apologising as he was reading the announcements on Remembrance Sunday but had forgotten his poppy. Not wearing a poppy: be it through forgetfulness, the thing dropping off or refusal to wear one should not be something to be ashamed of. I often wonder if there are a vast pile of poppies in Westminster so all the politicians can pick one up before going on television.

Poppies are sometimes used as a badge of Prodishness: I well remember Queen’s at poppy time and the instant badge of identity which the poppy implied: just as in a way Ash Wednesday provided an alternative badge. I do not really like the way a poppy tends to imply support for one side in Northern Ireland and indeed may be seen as implying a particular political position: one which I of course support. I happen to support hardline unionism and also happen to wear a poppy. I do not wear a poppy in order to demonstrate my unionism. Again I cannot explain that to everyone I meet.

So why do I continue to wear a poppy? Well because at the end of the day I want to remember and mark what happened in the world wars and indeed in the wars before and since: most of all I want to remember the people who fought, suffered and died, especially the ones I knew:

My grandfather who was ground crew for the RAF, my step grandfather who was a navigator on Wellingtons. Most of all I remember my father in law.

Elenwe’s dad was a lovely, frustrating, irritating old man. When I first met him he was a fit 84 year old. He did not talk much about his experiences but from what he did tell us he joined the army in 1939 to see the world more than from any great sense of patriotic duty. He was trained initially at Catterick before being sent to Singapore to the garrison there as a motorbike despatch rider. The defence of Singapore was very poorly organised and the British should have been able to put up a vastly better military response. They completely failed to appreciate that the Japanese would come down the Malaysian peninsula on the roads the British had made rather than mount a sea borne invasion. In addition they betrayed arrogance and were dismissive of the Japanese soldiers fighting abilities. Churchill was obsessed with the war in Europe and would not spare troops and most importantly equipment to mount a proper defence.

Anyhow this is not a history lesson. Elenwe’s dad had no involvement in fighting, the closest he got was that he always claimed his deafness in later life was related to being near the 15” sea guns when they were being fired (as opposed to great old age which seemed the more likely explanation). He was captured along with all the others and sent north, not to the camp on the River Kwai, but to a camp building the railway to it. He recounted having a pint of milk stolen on the journey which greatly annoyed him, little realising what lay in store for him. The work in the camp was extremely heavy, the food abysmal in both quantity and quality. The guards (who were themselves treated pretty badly) beat them regularly. A favourite form of torture involved pouring large quantities of water into the prisoners’ mouths and then repeatedly kicking them in the stomach. The thing he complained about most though was the time a soldier used a sword to behead a dog: funny what people take exception to. He recounted that the local people, little better treated than them tried to help the prisoners.

So many people died that the guards knew the last post from it having been played so frequently. Elenwe’s dad got some sort of tropical ulcer and was in what passed for the camp hospital. After he recovered, the doctors kept him as an orderly in the hospital which saved him some of the ill treatment. Later he worked in the cook house making food for the Japanese soldiers which got him slightly more and slightly better food as sometimes they let the cooks have a bit of the guards’ food. I asked him once about his faith in that place and he simply said that he trusted God to keep him safe.

Eventually after 3 ½ years they heard rumours that the British and Indian forces were advancing towards them. This might well have resulted in them being killed by their captors. However, the nuclear bombs and Japan’s surrender intervened. He said that one day the Japanese commander simply told them that Japan had surrendered. In some camps a Union flag was found and run up but I think little changed and they essentially all sat about and waited to see what would happen. After a few weeks the British duly arrived.

The most seriously unwell were airlifted in a series of hops back to Britain (usually via India). The healthier ones like Elenwe’s dad were sent to the sea and back on ships. He said that this helped him adjust a bit to freedom. So eventually they arrived at Southampton and he was demobilised and sent back to Northern Ireland. He used to recount how eventually he arrived at Clones on the train and then had to walk home as they were too busy on the farm to collect him. Then he restarted the life of a Fermanagh farmer who did nothing terribly strange and finally married at the age of about 50. All I can say is that I am extremely grateful that we were (to quote the Bible) able to show him his children’s children.

So I am in no way trying to force anyone to wear a poppy but that is why I wear mine.