Until this weekend, I’ve never bought a poppy for Remembrance Sunday. Not a red one anyway. In the nineties, I used to buy white peace poppies but I always thought of the red ones as too patriotic, jingoistic even.
But that all changed forever when I moved to France. Try living in the heart of some of the bloodiest World War I battlefields and not changing your mind. From my window where I sat and worked on my novel every day for almost two years, I could see across town to the battlefields beyond. Every time walk I took, every bike ride, even driving out of town it was hard to avoid them.
So it was inevitable that I would explore those beautiful and terrible wide open spaces. Bike rides could be treacherous – I slowed down once after I spotted a glint of metal on the trail – and bent down to examine a bullet case. When I was there shells and bombs were still being discovered, and there were occasional rumours of tourists armed with metal detectors who if they were lucky survived the blast when they got up close to a great war souvenir.
The area around Verdun is full of the bones of the dead. Whole villages that were destroyed in bomb attacks. There’s the ossuary (there’s no English translation for a building that contains the bones of 120,000 unknown French soldiers and countless German soldiers) at Douaumont. The outside walls are covered with the names of the regiments who lost men in the battle of Verdun, and inside the names of those missing in action cover every square inch of space. And yes, you can see the bones through windows in the outer wall. It’s a sobering sight. Outside in the cemetery, 15,000 of those whose names were known are buried in rows of graves that stretch on into an infinity of crosses. The Muslim soldiers are there too with arched grave stones that point towards Mecca. The Jewish soldiers are commemorated on a wall nearby. There’s no prejudice here – they all ended up dead, no matter what religion or nationality.
And there’s the bayonet trench where you can still see the bayonet tips and rifle butts protruding through the soil where a detachment of infantry was buried alive by a mortar attack. More immediate than the horror of all those bones piled up in the ossuary when you realise that the bodies of those men are still buried under the soil, it’s possibly the saddest sight I have seen.
And there are so many more stories, so many it’s impossible to comprehend or even imagine. Half a million men died in the battle of Verdun, half a million fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. When I was confronted with all that, I had no choice but to change my mind.
Not about the futility of war, not about the poppy-wearing flag-waving thugs on the political far right. But now I don’t think about that when I see the poppies worn on lapels in supermarket car parks. I think about all those souls piled up in ossuaries, buried alive in trenches, or in the cemeteries of Verdun and Ypres. War is stupid – all it leads to is killing. But for the men who had no choice but to fight, or those who believed it was right, they all risked their lives and we need to remember that.
But though I had changed my mind I wasn’t ready to buy a poppy and wear it with pride, until Wednesday when I was having lunch in my local cafe. It’s a small town and everyone knows each other so I wasn’t surprised when two elderly men walked in, and stopped to chat with a pair of ladies who were enjoying a hot meal and a strong cup of tea. When they’d finished and were ready to leave, one of the ladies stood up and addressed the customers.
“These two gentlemen have been outside Morrisons’ supermarket selling poppies all morning and I think they deserve a round of applause.” They got it, but that wasn’t the end of it. One of the men at the next table started chatting to them, making no bones about showing his appreciation, especially when the old gentlemen said, quite modestly, “I’m ninety, and he’s ninety one.” Ninety years. Soon there will be no one left who remembers what it was really like, but these men were still doing their best to ensure the memory lives on in our minds.
So I went to the supermarket on Saturday and quietly, without a fuss, I did something I never thought I would do – I bought a poppy and pinned it to my lapel.