AT the 11th hour of the 11th day, says, Lori Anderson, we must honour the fallen, whether of former conflicts or of more modern war
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
There is no poem more evocative and heart rendering than John McCrae’s In Flanders Field, pity it took a pair of leather thigh boots and the gothic wailing of Siouxsie and the Banshees to finally slip it on to my reading list. In 1979, when the punk rock band put music to McCrae’s haunting words in their single Poppy Day, it was Siouxsie Sioux’s voice that shone a beam of light into what, for our family, was one of the darkest days of the year. As a teenager I hated Remembrance Sunday.
My mum’s father was seriously wounded during the First World War and spent the remainder of his life in Erskine Hospital for war veterans, with occasional weekend visits home. While my father fared a little better in the Second World War, he survived his Royal Navy ship being struck, but his injuries were chronic and blighted the next 50 years of his life.
We never spoke of it. I saw his back only once, a tapestry of scar tissue telling a story of pain, suffering and sacrifice.
Every year on Remembrance Sunday at 10:59 am, I would excuse myself and head to the loo where I would hunker down for the next 20 minutes. I found it simply too agonising to watch the pain my mother suffered at the stroke of 11 each year instead I would emerge after the tears were shed and, like a chatty butterfly, flit to and fro, desperately trying to lighten the mood and move the conversation onto the mouthwatering prospect of the Sunday roast.
Yet as an easily influenced 15-year-old, if my musical heroine had taken an interest in the red poppies of Remembrance Sunday, then so would I.
The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, on 3 May, 1915, in the hours after he had officiated at the funeral of his friend, Alexis Helmer, who was one of the thousands killed during the second Battle of Ypres. The first line – “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row and row” – went on to inspire Moina Michael, an American professor, to wear a red silk poppy in memory of those fallen soldiers destined never to come home, one of whom included McCrae, who died of pneumonia in 1918.
Mrs Michael made dozens of silk copies which she sent to her friends and successfully campaigned for the flower to be taken up by the American Legion.
In 1921, she arranged for them to be put on sale in London a few weeks before Armistice Day where they were spotted by Field Marshall Haig, who ensured the idea was plucked up by the newly formed British Legion.
And so, on Saturday morning, 91 years after the poppy was adopted by the British Legion, I bought a papery one from a stooped and aged member of the Parachute Regiment, his blue eyes dull and clouded but his shoes and medals shining with pride.
His face reminded me so much of my father that I thought I might cry, my voice began to break as I chatted to him and repeatedly stabbed myself with the poppy’s finicky little dress pin.
It’s strange but Remembrance Sunday has become so much more important to me since my father’s death in 1997. I have become so much more interested in what he did with his life before I was a twinkle in his eye. There was a full life before, one I wish I had asked him about when he was still alive to answer.
I have become more conscious of the devastating loss of those parents, brothers and sisters of whom we hear about every few days when, towards the end of the evening news, there is a short report about another British soldier’s death in Afghanistan. Can there be a more chilling sentence in the English language than: “Their family has been informed”?
To the average viewer those words have no impact at all. It is nothing to you or me and everything to the family to which it refers, which is why I think it is so important that for those two minutes on Sunday, we stand with them side by side.
And, with that in mind, the British Legion are to be both congratulated and supported for their attempt to disseminate the two minute silence on to the internet. This week they launched a campaign to encourage Twitter and Facebook users to sign up to a social media tool on their website called the Thunderclap which, once clicked, immediately sends a message to all their followers on Facebook and Twitter which reads: “I won’t forget to Remember on 11.11.11 Will you? #2MinuteSilence”.
At 9 am tomorrow, the Thunderclap will send out a second message, again to all the participant’s followers which reads: “I’ll be remembering the fallen at 11 o’clock #2MinuteSilence #LestWeForget”. The idea is for the two minute silence to become a Twitter trend and so persuade even more people to take part and it would be something of an eerie triumph if Britain’s Twitter timelines all fell fall silent, with no updates at all, between 11 am and 11:02 am.
Social media, with all of its rants and jokes, spiky fonts and links to video clips, is a realm of perpetual din, although we may read twitter feeds or watch videos in silence, the noise still rattles around our heads and at 11 am tomorrow, I think it behoves us all to look up, log off and shut down and focus instead on what we have and what generations of soldiers have lost for our peace and security.
On Sunday I’ll be thinking of my father but also of those regiments of soldiers, sailors and airmen who never made it back to raise a family or watch their children grow, and of war widows young and old.
Lest we forget, indeed.