11 Nov

From the end of October, Royal British Legion poppies start appearing, in our shops, schools, pubs, garages and workplaces - it's easy to find one when you want one. I remember at school, we eagerly awaited the poppy monitor's arrival in our classroom  and hived off some tuck money, to buy a poppy - often every day for a week - well, we were young and careless and lost them on the playground! Not to wear a poppy was to lay ones self open to being picked on, for not conforming. Then - I'm talking the '60's and 70's of my school days, the paper poppy was all we had - now there's an array of things from wristbands to rulers, available to buy. How much  peer pressure is there, I wonder, is there to collect the lot! 

I like to think we had an understanding then of the significance of the poppy. I don't recall being taught the meaning of Remembrance and the poppy, at school - may be Brownies and Guides were the source of my knowledge. I do remember being part of a vigorous campaign to be allowed to parade from the Guide hut to church and back  - as the Scouts and Cubs were allowed to do. We were successful, my generation, as we were were allowed to take part - but NOT, we were told, to "march", we were to walk in a ladylike fashion! If you've ever tried not to fall in step with a hundred odd marching feet, you'll know just how unsuccessful that order was!  A couple of years the honour of carrying the Guide flag fell to me and I was so proud - my mum maintained I polished my shoes every day for a week before hand - a foretaste of what my future was to be - but I think she may have exaggerated, a bit.  In those days, Remembrance was reserved for Remembrance Sunday - the original marking at the 11th hour of the 11th day, of the 11th month having fallen to the wayside. How good it was to see this return for the Millennium  - although it will never be as my mum told me, all the traffic coming to a stand still, people getting out and standing heads bowed in the street, but it's a good thing, to me, all the same.


Of course, for my mum's generation - the "Greatest Generation" as they were known, war was something they, and their parents had experienced 1st hand. They knew the people they were honouring and not to have done so would have been unthinkable. Mum was a Land Army girl, told she wasn't strong enough to serve in the Armed Forces - she did the physically  hardest job possible instead! For a little scrap of a thing from Peckham, a Somerset farm was like another planet, but she loved it, thrived at it and said her Land Army days were the happiest days of her life. When she died last year, aged 100, the lovely poem, "Land Girls Out To Grass" was read at her funeral.

My maternal Grandfather  went through both the 1st and 2nd World wars. In 1914 he was part of the East Surrey regiment. He saw action in many of the famous battles, and saw many, many friends die, often in the most horrible of circumstances. He was moved from unit to unit, as people were wiped out, but he, miraculously, survived. He came back, as so many did, a changed man, in a changed world. For a start, he must have felt so lost and friendless, back in Peckham, away from the camaraderie of his field unit - because all of his friends were dead. I only remember him  as a silent and somewhat scary figure, sitting in his chair, rarely speaking but staring in to space, lost in thought. I was only 3 or 4 when he died, and a girl - he wouldn't have shared his memories with me, and he rarely spoke of what he had seen. My brother was one of the very few he ever talked to about his days in the trenches - and it sparked a lifelong interest in World War 1 for my brother - who is something of an expert on the subject now. He is the custodian of grandad's memories and his medals.  These days we would realise that Grandad was suffering form PTSD, after what he had seen and gone through - but then? There was no support for the former "Tommies" - they just had to get on with life as best they could.

But getting on with it can be incredibly hard - for serving personnel and veterans alike. For an increasing number, it's too much, the living, daily nightmares they are subjected to become too much and they decide they can't go on. I know this happens - have experienced it - but the sheer number of people who suffer from these unbearable, unseen wounds has been brought home to me by social media. On Facebook, I follow a page called Fill Your Boots. Most of the time it's a mix of humour, banter, advice and camaraderie. This year "Alfie" who runs it, decided to give people the chance to post photos and memories of fallen colleagues. He's been inundated for days. I've read as many as I can but it's hard to keep up - and something has leapt out at me, which I have never seen before; tributes ending with "lost his/her fight with his/her demons"  - a euphemism for someone having taken their life. For every one "KIA", accident or death from illness, there are about 4 suicides. I'm shocked and saddened. Operations  Corporate, Granby, Telic and Herrick   have their "traditional"  list of casualties - killed in action, or died of wounds sustained, but they also have a terrible legacy of almost hidden victims, who were so tormented by what they had been part of, they could no longer live with it. Rarely are these casualties acknowledged, few are recorded on city, town or village war memorials -  thank you, social media, for giving people the chance to make sure these casualties of combat are given the recognition they undoubtablely  deserve. 

So this year, when you pin on your poppy, attend a service of Remembrance, or just spend 2 minutes in contemplative silence, if you haven't in previous years, please spare a thought for these new, modern Fallen. 

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning - we will remember them."

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