Friday, 12 November 2010

What are the poppies for, Mum?


Son, 3, asked me this yesterday, as we walked past the memorial in my home village. It has flags flapping around the cross, in readiness for Sunday. Some of them are Polish, one is American (I live in the land of the airbase). A whole Scheme of Work flashed through my head, from the days when I was teaching the answer to this question to year 9 students. Them, I could stun into immediate submission by showing them, in lesson one, a full 20 minutes of pictures, film and reportage from the Front. That is why. But I can't show a 3 year old that. So what do I say?

That rememberance is about the people, not the war. So when we got home, the photo album came out and I showed him the pictures of my great grans' family, all of them lined up for a group shot. Then the pictures of her brothers, in Uniform, raring to go away,leave that life of shepherding and farm work, get a suit (a free one!) and see the foreign shores. Only one, of 7, came back, 2 boys in one battle. Leaving a depopulated village, women without husbands, brothers, fiancees, or any prospect of one. "They left to fight a war with another country" I said. "It wasn't their war, but they went to help, but they got killed".
Deflecting questions about how, exactly, (mud, guns, drowning, who knows? Only that it was at Mons, and Ypres). I used an analogy about how sometimes, if people are fighting, they sometimes ask for help. If you believe that the person needs help, you help them, and soldiers do it because it is their job. I didn't mention conscription. I mentioned how, when my nan died, we lit candles for her, to remember, and that poppies helped people to remember soldiers who have died. Who are brothers, and daddies. I didn't mention how some wars are not virtuous, how men died for little pay and no reason. I mentioned only that we should remember them, so we don't fight again. I didn't mention how it hasn't worked yet, but only that we should do it, in the hope that it does work.
I will take them to the ceremony on Sunday. They don't, thankfully, have anyone specific to remember in their living memory, as my Brother-in-law came out of Afghanistan alive. But they can think about my great grans brothers, who left a life of shepherding, and farming, and did not come back. And, as every year I taught it, I was moved by the sudden anger and disbelief of my year 9's, who usually didn't care about anything much more than their XBox, I hope that my two will grow up utterly indignant about the wars fought in our name and the losses they resulted in.

In my nans photo albums there are 6 photos of war graves, in France. They are my Great Grans brothers. She never made it to France, but my grandad went and took the photos for her. They are what she had, a known resting place. So many did not. In my pre-kids days, husband and I took our holidays in Belgium and France, trudging the cemetaries, walking the Menin ridge, marking the front lines as we went, noting the piles of shells French and Belgian farmers left by the roadside for collection, even now. The large cemetaries are too huge to contemplate, your eye is stunned by the mass of white rectangles. And then you realise that some rectangles name 2, 3 even more, and the walls behind note even more. Imagine them all standing. And then the next cemetary, and the next. Chinese workers are shoved to the side, Indian soldiers given side rooms. And still, still, many more lie lost and unidentified. Someones son, brother, lover, husband.

In Britain, we are privilged, in one way, not to have these markers on our landscape. But, we have no daily reminder of the loss. In Arnhem, husband and I spent a day walking the route of the Market Garden assault, eventually fetching up at the cemetary. All the way there, there are markers of which soldier held the front, which soldiers were valiant, but fell. It's pitted into the pavement, in metal. Schoolchildren are given dedicated graves to tend, and hold a yearly service of thanks. In France, schools have a gravesite each to tend and look after. It was fought on their soil, they see. We do not. We have the odd white rectangle sent home to country churchyards. We forget, and we should not.

3 comments:

The List Writer said...

6 out of 7 brothers is chilling in its awfulness.

Did you see the Channel 5 programme re-creating the air drop over Arnhem, the last couple of nights? Cam and I watched it - and when they showed the local cemetary and the children laying flowers on the graves he was appalled. It does them good to see these things.

Fenwitters said...

I agree Nancy, it does. We don't see the numbers in the UK, whereas French and Belgian kids do. Arnhem is a fantastic place to visit if he is interested, the whole route is mapped out to be walked, right down to named soldiers on corners. A real memorial. I missed the programme! I must search for it now.

Roy said...

Yes Sheridan, some in our midst burn poppies in the street and get away with it and the BBC don't even mention it on the news.