Thursday, November 11, 2010

Poppies and Martin

In my previous job, today was an even more complicated mixture of issues and emotions than it is now. November 11th is not only Armistice Day, but it's also St Martin's Day, so we tried to mark that each year in the Chapel of the College that bore his name. Legend has it that one of the previous chaplains used to do a firework display to celebrate St Martin and regularly received complaints from people who saw it as disrespectful to the fallen.

Martin himself was a soldier who became a bishop and a scholar. Given that he is the patron saint of both France and soldiers, it is perhaps no coincidence that the Armistice was eventually signed on his feast day, although I have never read of any direct connection being explicitly made.

In the UK, many will pause today at 11am for 2 minutes of silence to remember those who have died in conflict. Likewise there will also be similar observances on Remembrance Sunday with red poppies at the centre and worn by all present.

As in previous years, there has been a debate about poppies. Some people find their association with the casualties of WW1 difficult. The poppies had Haig Fund in the middle - the name of the general widely regarded as responsible for the campaigns where so many British (and other) soldiers lost their lives. White poppies have been available to provide a positive alternative to abstaining.

I don't have a problem wearing a poppy on the day; what I find difficult is that poppies appear earlier each year, and seem to be increasingly compulsory, and sometimes even seem to have become a fashion item. The anti-poppy protest at a recent Scottish football match has clearly upset people, but it does seem odd to me that every Scottish Premier League player will have to wear a poppy at the weekend. What about those players whose native countries weren't involved or were on the other side? More to the point is whether remembrance is something you can impose?

If the controversy focuses on the external symbols of remembrance, then we're missing the point. Wearing a poppy doesn't create respect for those who have died - respect is something that has to come from somewhere deeper than that. For others, remembrance is something they wish to keep discreet and internal, and not be forced into expressing it in a fixed form dictated by society at large.

So I won't judge anyone on whether they happen to be wearing a poppy or not. I will be wearing one today and on Sunday as I remember the tragedy and loss of war, so much potential and possibility cut short and as I pray that wars on such scale are never seen again.

My grandfather survived the trenches. I think he only ever spoke 5 or 6 sentences about it in all the time I knew him. He remembered, and I got the impression that he would have been all to happy to forget most of what he had witnessed. We remember his companions who didn't return, and their suffering and sacrifice in the hope that it will inspire future generations to seek justice and peace in a troubled world.

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Steve Hayes said...

You might find this interesting: St Martin — patron saint of conscientious objectors | Khanya.

Mike Peatman said...

It's an interesting way of putting it. "I am a soldier of Christ; I cannot fight" he is reputed to have said. If only the Crusaders had listened.

Steve Hayes said...

I was once in a St Martin's Church, and all the old soldiers used to gather there for the patronal festival, not realisaing that that was what it was.

In another place, a small country village, the RC priest was invited to lead the service at the village green. He was a German Benedictine, and had been a prisoner of war of the Allies (in Russia). Most of the old soldiers had fought on the other side. It seemed appropriate.