Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Red and White Poppy.

The "eleventh hour of the eleventh day" is a statement that has significant meaning for many different families. The red poppy has been used to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. Some people choose to wear white poppies to commemorate soldiers as a pacifist alternative to the red poppy.

Looking back, I was born at a time that was fortuitous in the sense that - while conflict between nations has gone on all around me. Yet, I have played no part in resolving any of those conflicts. My grandfather served in the first world war. Yet I don't ever remember him talking about his experiences. My father was in a reserved occupation and so did not enter into the armed forces for the second world war. My mother on the other hand had brothers who served in the conflict. One of whom payed the ultimate price by loosing his life. My mother sometimes talked about her brother. But never in the context of the war. It was always what he had been up to as a child and the scrapes that he had gotten himself into.

None of my other uncles felt the need to talk about such issues when I was around as a child. Though I expect there were times when their experiences were discussed with older family members. The war for my generation was coloured by comics, television  and the all action war film at the local cinema. That seemed to be accompanied by the latest propaganda news reels of various conflicts around the World. Like the young men or "pals" of the first world war, we had no real concept of the brutal reality, that the "Great War" was to become.

Some years later I was working on the foot plate. One of the more boring jobs was doing shunting in the middle of the night in the steelworks sidings. Coal, limestone and ironstone going in and iron and steel coming out. One night we were all sat in the shunters cabin having a break. For some reason the conversation turned to army service. One driver had served in the second world war. He was a sort of RAF version of a "desert rat" as he was a member of the ground crew stationed in various places in North Africa. He reminisced about some of his exploits and in the main it was quite light hearted.

The head shunter was a man approaching the age of retirement. The conversation seemed to trigger and draw out of him, a description of his experiences in world war one and the trenches of France. It was spell binding. Everyone went quiet as he spoke. He had that far away look in his eyes of someone casting his mind back as he relived his memories and talked with quiet dignity about his experiences.

He talked of his "Pals" a group of his best friends that had all joined up together.  He talked of the sadness of being the only survivor. He talked with great compassion about a pair of horses that he was initially in charge of, until one of them was critically wounded. He talked of comforting the horse until the animal died before it could be dispatched.  There was a tempered anger in his voice as he talked of the surrounding conditions, the death and destruction and the futility of what they had actually achieved.

Then he raised his eyes up, shrugged his shoulders. It was obvious he could not talk anymore. Then as quickly as it started the spell was broken. He was back in the present. He got up, walked outside, I think he needed a moment to be alone. Soon afterwards he returned to his job as if nothing had happened. No one else in the room said a word, no one needed to. I spent quite a bit of time with him over the following year or so. The conversation about the war was never raised again. I felt to be in a privileged position to have shared in his thoughts. I have never again thought of war as a great adventure as I once did. Certainly not since that time. Thinking back to that evening over 40 years ago. The memory I have of the conversation is - as if it was yesterday - so profound was the effect. It must have been the same crisp clear sort of memory for the old shunter.

A while ago I was watching antiques roadshow. Someone had brought along a letter that had been received by a family member. It contained a white feather and a short note. A white feather has been a traditional symbol of cowardice, used and recognised especially within the British Army and in countries associated with the British Empire since the 18th century. There was no way to know who had sent the note with the feather. I can only hope that when the truth came out about the appalling slaughter of a whole generation of our youth.  They were brave enough to face up and admit to their poison pen deed. Somehow I doubt that they would have had the raw courage though.

FIFA has rejected the Football Association's renewed appeal for England players to be allowed to have embroidered Remembrance Day poppies on their shirts on Saturday. The FA made a special request to FIFA for permission to wear the poppies for this weekend's international friendly against Spain in honour of members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty.

The world body has now issued a final statement' rejecting the plea. "There are a variety of options where the Football Association can continue supporting the cause of remembrance. One of them already was approved by FIFA, the period of silence. FIFA has allowed a minute's silence to be held before the game, for the England players to wear poppies on their training kit at Wembley on Friday, and to stand for the traditional two minutes' silence to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month on Friday."

How out of touch can you be!


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