One in five adults will not wear a poppy this year, rising to one in three of under 25s. The two main reasons given are firstly concern that wearing the poppy glorifies war and secondly because they feel bullied into wearing it. One in twelve report experiencing hostility for not wearing a poppy.
Whilst the Poppy Appeal is in essence just another charity flag day which raises in the region of £43million for service personnel, veterans and their families, the reality is that something bigger is happening here. A jumble of other issues have now adhered to this act of remembrance. It is remembering the fallen, gratitude for their sacrifice but also an affirmation of national pride, an expression of support for the armed forces, a reminder of the importance of public duty and a pledge to work for peace. And perhaps it is these additional messages that have led to a seeming revitalising of the place of Remembrance Day in the public conscience?
Despite the numerous conflicts that have happened since, the focus remains on the two world wars. The very name “world war” raises the stakes in terms of remembrance although there have been other wars that have been equally significant for the peace of this country not least the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic Wars and numerous other wars in Europe but time has faded their memory. But will/should the memory of the two world wars also be allowed to similarly fade?
Perhaps more significant is the fact that the First World War was really the first occasion in which the ordinary soldier was memorialized. In the Boer Wars it was largely the officer class to whom memorials were erected and prior to that in most conflicts it was only the commanders who remembered. In the most recent conflicts the return of each coffin has taken on the significance of a national event as our attitude to the casualties of war has radically changed.
As we move beyond the generations who have any memory of the actual conflict of the first world war – or memories of relatives who served in the conflict – and soon the same will be true of the second world war, the Royal British legion is growing its campaigns in schools and among young people to ensure they do not forget – but what is it we do not want them to forget? And should this not rather be left to the teaching of history in our schools rather than using the valuable resources of the Royal British Legion.
What is it that must not be forgotten? Why do we need to remember? We are told that if we do not learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat its mistakes? So far remembering has not helped this nation avoid a number of rather ill-judged military engagements in the past century. Lloyd George hoped 1914-18 would be the war to end all wars but that hope seems as distant as ever.
A nation standing in silence for two minutes feels important and significant but when it is over and the poppy sellers pack up for another year what will have changed. Money will have been raised in a good cause but will the world be any safer and future war any less likely?
A poppy and shared silence feels like a good start but by itself it is not enough. It is what follows next we need to understand and it is this we need to pass on to the next generation. On 11/11 pause and remember but for the rest of the year do not forget. As the echo of Reveille fades the real task begins; it is discovering and walking in the paths of peace. It is this not just memories that need to be passed on to the next generation – it is the ingredients for peace.