As we are very much aware, today marks the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the First World War. Many people have taken part in parades and commemorations large and small across the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Commonwealth, and other nations.
Five years ago, I had hoped that today, I would be with some family members in northern France at the British Cemetery in Brebières, near Douai, to visit the grave of my great-great-uncle, Corporal John Edwin Bovey, Royal Field Artillery, who died one hundred years ago today. Unfortunately, I could not make that trip work on this occasion for myself and Andrew as he has been unwell for most of the time since July. Being with, and caring for, each other is much more important that making the trip to visit a grave whatever the significance of the date. We will make the trip ourselves, in our own time, but to do so this weekend was not the time.
My brother, Duncan, and other family members did visit. I am glad that I was able to obtain a poppy wreath from The Royal British Legion (the Legion) for them to lay on the grave. Two sets of uncles and aunts were there as well, along with Duncan’s partner: they were not alone as one French man arrived on a bicycle at the hour “so that there would be someone there”.
Andrew and I were in the Parish Church of St John, Monasterevin, in Co. Kildare. I had the privilege of playing the beautiful organ in the church. I had been asked to go to Islandbridge to the “People’s Remembrance” being organised by the Republic of Ireland District of the Legion. Originally, I had wanted to go, but as I have been playing the organ in Monasterevin for some months, and there was a service there, I felt it was my duty to attend there.
For the first year, I had more than one poppy on my lapel today. Not only did I have the red poppy of the Legion; I also had a purple poppy to remember the animals who served too. Above them both, I wore my membership badge of the Legion. The Legion badge has been a constant badge on my lapel for most of the year. It provokes questions from fellow commuters on buses, trams, and trains, as well as comments from colleagues and volunteers where I work.
I am proud to be a member of the Legion, as I know how much good work with its beneficiaries is undertaken. However, I do wonder if it is time for us to reconsider how we remember. The wearing of a poppy becomes almost compulsory for politicians, news readers and reporters, and television presenters that it feels like the freedoms that were won by those who fought in both world wars are being lessened. The Legion makes it quite clear that wearing a poppy should be a choice. But it seems like that is not the case in many places, particularly in England.
Here in Ireland, wearing a poppy marks one out as different. It is very definitely a counter-cultural act. The Legion has produced an Irish form of the poppy with it superimposed upon a shamrock. You cannot get something much more Irish than a shamrock. But even so, wearing a poppy at all can provoke a negative reaction. This is for good reason.
We get reminded at this time of those who died fighting for King and Country: “our brave boys”. But do we remember that “our brave boys” were called upon to fire shells onto the city centre of a then British city in 1916? “Our brave boys” committed atrocities that nowadays would be seen as war crimes.
Watching the “Festival” of Remembrance (and that feels the wrong name as well), from the Royal Albert Hall last night, we had remembrance extended once again to remember those who died in Northern Ireland, and in conflicts since. I do not doubt that there were many. many good men and women who served in such conflicts, but we also have the men who were involved in the massacre in Ballymurphy as well as on Bloody Sunday (both of them (the one in 1920 and the one in 1972).
With talk of amnesties for soldiers who may have committed offences in Northern Ireland, I feel very uncomfortable. Surely, the law is the law. It was the law of the land that brought them onto our streets. If they broke the law, then they, like everyone else should be held to account. I should have thought that the forces of the Crown should be held to a higher standard than those of the terrorist and criminal gangs that were fighting against law and order in the North.
Of course these topics are difficult. We find them difficult to talk about, difficult to raise without hackles going up on every side. But talking about them, acknowledging what happened, is the only way that Northern Ireland and other countries can move on.
Perhaps, we should consider whether the great big parades and the Poppy Appeal in their current forms should come to an end? Maybe in August 2045, at the centenary of the end of the Second World War, we will be able to take a brave decision to stop them and to get on with living in a (hopefully) much more peaceful world.
The commemorations seem to get more and more elaborate as the years move on. It almost feels as there are fewer and fewer actual veterans of the two world wars, we have to prove our remembrance in some way. Even the “Festival of Remembrance” seems to be turning into a West End Show.
Quite often, less is more. Today, we had a simple commemoration in church, no bugle calls, just a laying of a wreath and a silence. We had four hymns chosen to reflect the day that it is. They were: O God our help in ages past; Judge eternal, throned in splendour; God! As with silent hearts we bring to mind; and For the healing of the nations. Some of the tunes were not known and some of the words were unknown too. But the congregation who did speak to me afterwards, said that they appreciated the words of the hymns.
It would be lovely to get to the stage where we could have a few simple anthems sung by the choir in the church. That may yet come, I am sure we could use the series written by my friend, The Rev’d Canon Dr Peter Thompson. Included amongst these is his setting of For the Fallen, which I end this post with today.