One hundred years is a short period in history but a long one in human lives and memories. It marks a point when perspective is gained on tragic events: for one, thing no-one who participated in them is still alive. Perspective changes meaning and alters commemoration. It took, for example, white Southerners that long to stop voting Democrat because Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican. Today in Spain we see the quiet rise of memorials for the losses of the Spanish Civil War. Time takes its toll of grievances and opens new avenues of generous remembrance.
Perhaps that’s it. The very length of time since the original Armistice – the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 – is the reason we still wear red poppies. The conflicting emotions that originally surrounded remembrance – the grief, the survivors’ guilt, the sense of waste and futility, the bitterness of victory – have all washed away. That leaves us with an awareness of a loss we cannot fully feel, and will thankfully never have to. But it’s a loss we can and must acknowledge.
It is a very British thing, the red poppy: a non-militaristic and utterly unexultant commemoration of the need for military force despite the costs. And it has a typically British origin in being multinational; its current form came into being when Earl Haig adopted a French woman’s design that copied an original red silk poppy created by an American woman inspired by a Canadian war poet’s elegy “Flanders Field”.
The poppy has in it the stoicism of the Londoners facing the Blitz – “London can take it”. We wear it to renew our individual and collective belief that Britain can take it.
Let other countries have their marches and parades. The wearing of the red poppy is the ultimate celebration of Britishness. That was the worry at the heart of the Labour MPs questioning Jeremy Corbyn at his first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. They asked whether he would wear a red poppy because they were worried he might not – you never ask for assurances about something you’re sure about.
No-one doubted Michael Foot’s patriotism, just his dress sense. No-one believes Jeremy Corbyn is a pacifist; he supports physical force. The question is, does Corbyn love Britain? Does he know why we wear our red poppies with pride, not regret?