Remembrance Day seems to be increasingly controversial – there’s been lots of debate this year over the wearing of poppies and the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The wearing of poppies becomes more and more of a fraught issue every year – does their ubiquity take away their meaningfulness, should the BBC insist on people wearing them, is it hypocritical for politicians who have sent troops to war to wear them?
I have stood in the battlefields of Northern France, now so still and peaceful, bearing few signs of the slaughter that took place there nearly a century ago. As a fourteen-year old to stand in the Commonwealth War Graves was one of the most profound and sobering experiences of my life – particularly when I saw the grave of a boy my own age. That experience is why Remembrance Sunday is important to me – the first hand understanding I gained of all those who died so that I could be free is one of the most significant things I have ever learnt. It is why I buy a poppy and watch the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph whenever possible – not because I feel I have to but because, to me, it is important.
The First World War was a mess, a pointless war caused by rampant imperialism, but that does not mean we should ignore or make less of the sacrifices a generation of men and women made as part of that conflict. The Second World War was perhaps a more just war but I have always questioned whether, without the First World War, Hitler would have had either the motivation or the opportunity to rise to power in 1930s Germany. Rampant nationalism and the need to protect one’s perceived interests at home or abroad have caused wars beyond counting throughout human history – the so-called “war to end all wars” was nothing of the sort. War is futile, it solves nothing and almost always promotes further conflict and instability.
Condemn war all you want but don’t condemn those who remember, however they choose to do so. Wearing a poppy isn’t just a visible symbol of commemoration but an opportunity to support a very worthwhile charity, The Royal British Legion. Equally, however, the wearing of a poppy should never be something that we compel – gestures of this kind ought to come from the heart not as part of a PR campaign. Wearing a poppy, observing a Remembrance Sunday silence or laying a wreath at a war memorial aren’t acts that rejoice in war or of national pride – they are a reflection of shared grief, dulled but not lessened by the passage of time.
As the First World War and Second World Wars become history rather than memory it is more important than ever not only to remember but to understand these conflicts in the hope that one day we might move beyond military force and the death of countless human beings as a way of resolving our differences. The saying “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is as true today is it ever was.