In New Zealand our poppy day and day of remembrance is Anzac Day, a public holiday on April 25. While we recognise Armistice Day, it is Anzac Day (the anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli landings of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in 1915) that sees millions of people from both countries gather at their local cenotaph or memorial for dawn services and, later in the morning, the parade. While the military campaign failed and serves as our reminder of the high human cost of war, the actions of those soldiers created what became known as the Anzac Legend, something our two countries are proud of. But I don’t remember any rules for how a poppy should be worn (I’ve been told the leaf is meant to point to 11 o’clock here?) or any looking down on those who choose not to wear one at all.
During this past week I’ve read about newsreaders who have received hate mail for not wearing a poppy and about an MP criticising an internet search engine for not making its page “spectacular” enough on Remembrance Day. There was a sense among many on twitter that people should show their remembrance in the “correct” way, whatever that is.
I don’t like how wearing a poppy seems to be expected. I don’t like how people are made to feel they have to “prove” they care about remembrance. For some people remembrance is a very private thing. My grandad, who was awarded a DFC in the RAF in 1944, never marched in his local parade until I was in high school (and even then I think it was because we encouraged him to). Perhaps remembrance was painful or there were other reasons for his reluctance. I don’t know. I like the ceremony and the parades but, for whatever reason, being a part of them wasn’t the way my grandad chose to remember. And that’s ok.
While in Afghanistan I met a young officer who had lost a friend, killed in Helmand a few weeks earlier. That wasn’t the reason for our interview but we couldn’t ignore it. The young man’s bedspace was just metres from us and, while his cot had gone, the other soldiers in the tent had posted photos of him in the space and made it a little makeshift memorial to him. They walked past it every time they left or entered their tent. Remembrance was obviously very personal to them and was not limited to one day a year.
On Remembrance Day I think of those soldiers and the friend they lost, a friend they still miss. I think of great grandfathers I never met who served in the First World War and witnessed waste and slaughter on an almost incomprehensible scale. I think about grandparents who served in the Second. I think of those who fought and died alongside them.
I think of those I have known and those I have not who are still fighting or have fought “over there”. And I think of those who feel as if they’re fighting a battle even after the tour is over. I give what I can to the RBL collection tin because I think those who served should be looked after when they need it.
But you won’t know any of that from whether or not I’m wearing a poppy.
It doesn’t matter if someone wears a poppy and how it is worn. Those soldiers of the past, those who fell where the poppies grow, taught us there are more important things. One of those is remembering why we have this day in the first place.