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Purpose of poppies

07 November 2014

A FORMER Canon of St Paul's, the Revd Sydney Smith, addressed Queen Victoria in a sermon on her accession to the throne. Her task, above all else, was to guard against the "frantic folly" of war: "Extinguish in your heart the fiendish love of military glory. . . Say upon your death-bed, 'I have made few orphans in my reign - I have made few widows - my object has been peace.'" Remembrance has become a season. First confined to 11 November, then to the nearest Sunday, then to both, it has spread earlier each year from the first blooming of a poppy on a lapel in mid-October. Politicians, newsreaders, and all in the public eye depend upon their personal assistants to protect them from the ignominy of appearing without a poppy. Smith's admonition of Queen Victoria is apposite. The draw of military action is an ever present temptation to a government. Often the motives are of the best. Many areas of the world are broken, in the grip of evildoers who use military might to impose their will. What better remedy than to use our own soldiery to face down the bullies and rescue their victims?

But what better reminder of the cost of such a course than the symbol of a red wound near the heart of every politician? In this way, the dead of past wars can still have a voice in contemporary politics, doing their bit to protect the lives of their children and grandchildren. What those voices say is not straightforward: although monuments have begun to be built for civilians, the poppy is a symbol associated with combatants. The dead are honoured as soldiers, and yet they are also victims. It is important to believe that their lives were lost in a good cause; yet it is acknowledged that many died as a result of political and military blunders of the highest order. Their message to politicians is subtle, too. Remembrance Sunday is not a great anti-war rally, though this would be a perfectly logical development. Certainly it should be nearer this than a celebration of military prowess, which it sometimes too closely resembles. Instead, its message to the Government of the day is this: use your weapons of peace - your economic power, your wiliness, your ability to make alliances, your long-term strategic planning, your intelligence-gathering, your example - and you might still have to use military power; but only very occasionally, and as a last resort.

It is fitting that the iconography of national remembrance stems from the First World War. The numbers of dead and injured were so vast, the impact on whole nations so great. In 1915, the nation did not mourn the dead of the Battle of Waterloo, 100 years earlier. Total casualties suffered by both sides in 1815 were 47,000. The British alone lost 60,000 in one day on the Somme. The installation at the Tower of London works because it reminds spectators of the great cost in lives. Acts of remembrance help to ensure that disregard for human life on such a scale will never recur.

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