Thursday, 27 October 2011

In which dulce et decorum est

Picture courtesy of the Royal British Legion
Like thousands of schoolchildren the length and breadth of the land, there was a year or so when I was about fourteen in which I was immersed in a curriculum focussed on the First World War. English lessons were spent studying the poetry of Owen and Sassoon, and reading anything war-related from Regeneration to All Quiet on the Western Front. When we were especially rambunctious, the teachers gave up, and let us watch Blackadder Goes Forth instead.

But it was a trip organised by the History department that really touched me and left me with a lifelong interest in the conflict. Deserving of medals themselves for taking on the responsibility of in loco parenting forty girls for three days in a foreign country, the staff spent four days giving us a detailed tour of the battlefields of northern France.

It was one of those trips that’s stuck with me ever since. It’s all very well shedding a few tears as Baldrick’s final cunning plans come unstuck, or sniggering through the terrible sex scene in the library in Birdsong. But it’s quite another to find yourself looking out over a valley of white headstones, some bearing the names of children just a few years older than oneself, and not be able to see anything but graves, right up to the horizon.

And, in a masterstroke that saw a group of, ahem, high-spirited (read: appallingly precocious and horrendously loud) teenage girls pack in their chattering and contemplate a sobering reality, our teachers split us into two groups and made us face, and then walk towards, each other from the two – desperately close-together – sides of the Somme. Suddenly, it hit each and every one girl on that trip just how futile and terrifying that particular Battle would have been.

Which is why, every year, without fail, I buy poppies (yes, plural, because I inevitably lose at least half a dozen by the time Remembrance Day comes round).

I feel an immense and very real sense of gratitude towards the exceptional boys and men who saw, experienced, and did terrible, terrible things in the name of freedom – not only for their countrymen, but for generations that followed.

It’s impossible to know even a fraction of the personal stories, or the tales of individual acts of patriotism and valour that went on in those four horrendous years, and with the death of Harry Patch in 2009, the First World War has now all but passed out of living memory. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be grateful for the collective, incalculable sacrifice that was made so that we’ve got the freedom now to spend our days rushing from pillar to post, or pratting around on Twitter as circumstances dictate.

I have no affiliation to the charity, other than being a huge supporter of their work, but I’d like to remind everyone out there that the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal launches today, and poppies will be available from volunteers across the country until Remembrance Day, 11th November. They even have clever sticky-backed poppies if you’re too malcoordinated to manage a pin. Buy one – or, if you’re prone to losing things, like I am, cough up and buy lots.

And wear them with pride.

A few facts and figures:

• The Legion spent over £114 million on its work in 2010. They spend nearly £1.4 million a week delivering health and welfare support to Service people young and old, and their families.
• People as young as 17.5 years can be sent on active service, so veterans are often much younger than people realise. Nearly a quarter of those helped now are below the age of 44.
• There has only been one year (1968) since the Second World War when a British Service person hasn't been killed on active service.
• The Legion will be needed for as long as people continue to be affected by conflict. It doesn't advocate war but is simply there to support those who have been prepared to make a personal sacrifice through serving in the British Armed Forces.
• In 2010, the Legion raised £115.2 million - including a record £35 million for the Poppy Appeal. Apart from donations, funds come from legacies, sponsorship, corporate support and fundraising events.
• You can donate online here:


Martin said...

Great post, I too was taken to the undulating shell-pocked cliffs of Normandy, and gazed over foggy German graveyards and the seemingly endless parade of white headstones when at school. I fully plan on taking my kids there if their (future) school doesn't step up.

I usually spend these two weeks manning the poppy table in Charing Cross station, and you get a huge range of people, of all ages, who've served, known someone who has, or lost a family member in conflict.

The work the British Legion does is absolutely vital, and I'm always quietly proud of us Brits that, year on year, people are consistently generous towards those who've made all sorts of sacrifice.

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