Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Miracle of the Humble Poppy.

The other day I read an article in the mainstream UK press that said the poppy was nothing more than a fashion icon worn by folks seeking attention. Then there was the protest group who said they would be burning poppies on the 11th because they symbolised a glorification of war. And to cap it all there was the insensitive, out of touch with reality, FIFA , who said it could not be worn by footballers because it was a political symbol!

How have we so lost touch with the origins of how the humble poppy came to be the miracle that gave hope to ex servicemen abandoned by their own government? Have we forgotten their sacrifice, the tragedy  of their suffering, their despair, heroism, laughter, humour and their compassion?  These were young men between the ages of 19 and 39,  who were conscripted on all sides of the conflict, forced by law to go and train for 10 weeks and then shipped out to fight in the trenches. 10million soldiers died in WW1 - most of those never found the comfort even of a grave. Although as I found touring the battlefields of Belgium, even today the bones of those men are still being discovered during autumn ploughing, when they are then given the respect of a proper burial .

A few years ago I went to Passchendaele where my Grandfather died on the night of 7th October 1917 , the Somme/Albert where an Uncle aged 19 died on 3rd September 1916 and Jussy in France where an Uncle died aged 23 as the Germans broke through the Canal in the dawn hours of the 23rd March 1918.   No bodies were ever found for these men - all that remains are carved names on memorials. The sisters, wives and mothers were left to just carry on with very little acknowledgement of their loss. Stoicism it was called at the time,. Doing your duty for your country and your family. Politicians weren't very caring. Someone wrote a book entitled Lions Led By Donkeys.  It was true then and it's true now.

Anyway I ended up in Ypres.  It had been flattened in the 1914-1918 conflict and was painstakngly rebuilt after WW1, in it's old image by locals, so that it looks exactly as it did before that War.  It is a beautiful place.    If it suffered any damage in WW2 that also has been rebuilt.

In the perfect replica of the original medieval Cloth Hall I found the amazing ' In Flanders Field' Museum that commemorates every nation that fought in World One on all sides.  I originally thought, no doubt because I was told it as a kid that the Germans over ran Belgium and fought the English and the French.

How wrong I was!  The Museum is a fantastic place . A real eye opener on truth.   Some sixty plus nationalities, all colours , all creeds, all religions, a myriad of languages, amazing customs, intriguing foods,  cooked and shared over the western front campfires, music and instruments from every continent.   Some fighting on one side, some fighting on the other. All suffering the same hopes and deprivations, the same desire to get the chance to go home alive.

Was there prejudice?  I expect so.But from the Museum I got the feeling there was more fellowship amongst the carnage and hardship, than prejudice.

Anyway that brings me to the Poppy and how out of this dreadful war it became a symbol of hope.

10 million soldiers may have died in the conflict but millions more were left, maimed, blinded, traumatised to find their way home to countries that had no plans for how to deal with them.    Returning American ex-servicemen adopted the red cornfield poppy , which had bloomed along the trenchlines snaking through Belgium and France to the borders if Switzerland, throughout the war, as their symbol.

Meanwhile millions of British ex- servicemen struggling home faced a grim task of no jobs, no medical care for their injuries and trauma, no homes in some cases.  The UK government was virtually blind and deaf to their problems and immense poverty and hardship followed.

In 1921, ex-servicemen's clubs across the UK, appalled at what their members were facing, united to form the British Legion to raise money and help those the government was not helping.   An American ex serviceman suggested the British Legion adopt their red cornfield poppy as their symbol and as a means of fund raising.    The British Legion went one better and set up factories in the UK to make the poppy and employ maimed and injured ex servicemen who could not find work anywhere else.

The first Poppy Day Appeal raised £100,000 plus in 1922 - a huge sum of money then.  In 2010 the Poppy Appeal raised £30million and the British Legion has gone from strength to strength now having four state of the art rehabilitation centres that deal with injured soldiers.

The British Legion still fulfils it's original goal which is ' to respect the dead and care for the living' and it is that sentiment that the poppy represents.

So No! it isn't a fashion statement, it isn't a symbol of warmongering and it isn't political. What it is, is the ultimate symbol in how ordinary men and women can create, from compassion, an enduring organisation that   is founded only to care, support and help.

So when you see them collecting for the Poppy Appeal , please give generously.

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