A German friend asked why I was wearing a poppy.
I explained: to remember British soldiers killed in the two world wars… which means, er, to remember how my forefathers were killed by your forefathers.
My friend was taken aback – you really do that in Britain?
I said: well, it depends, er… for me personally it’s all the people who died, never mind which side they were on.
I’m not sure if that was true then. But a few years later, a few years older, it is true now.
The poppies on display at the Tower of London (in November 2014) only commemorate British army casualties – about 8% of the total WWI dead. What about the other 8-9m soldiers who died? I wear my poppy for all of them, British and beyond.
But I think that’s because we’re now several generations removed from those terrible wars. Maybe we’d see things differently if we were closer to, or even part of, the fighting generations.
An Israeli colleague tells me that commemoration of soldiers is much more visceral there. Three of his classmates have been killed in action.
And the billboard at my local train station shows a terrifically sad picture of a modern-day widow and her child – the father killed in Afghanistan two years ago.
Memory is about perspective. I wear my poppy for all soldiers on all sides. But I know that might not be my view if I knew personally some of the soldiers in action today.
I’m sceptical of state-led memorials. But at the British Museum you can see the Ode of Remembrance inscribed on the south-west wall:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
It moves me because if I’d been born 100 years earlier, I would likely have been a soldier in WWI too. And perhaps today I would be a poppy at the Tower of London.
Photo credit: Sgt Steve Blake RLC. ‘A soldier of the Afghan National Army (ANA) wears a poppy out of respect for Remembrance Day and his own fallen comrades’ (from Wikimedia Commons).