Speaking English

Poppy day!

Observant watchers may have recently noticed the appearance on some people in the metro of small little red flowers with a single green leaf. If you spotted one, well done: you’ve probably spotted a member of Moscow’s expatriate community.

The red flower is a Poppy, and every year, on the 11th November, at the 11th hour of the day, Britain and other countries that took part in the first and second world wars (mainly those that were part of the British Empire) stop what they are doing to remember those who fought and died.

The poppy was chosen as a symbol of remembrance after a poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, called ‘In Flanders Fields’. He was standing on the battlefield of Ypres in Belgium, where in 1915 one hundred thousand men lost their lives in a bloody battle.

McCrae looked out over the mud, the chaos, the carnage, and observed that amid the death and destruction, wild poppies were growing. Little lights of natural red contrasting against the dark red stains of man’s stupidity.

The popularity of McCrae’s poem helped the poppy become a symbol of remembrance, and in 1921 the Royal British Legion — ​an organisation formed to help and give voice to those who had served their country in the military — ​sold poppies as a symbol of remembrance to raise money for veterans of the war. The sales were an instant success, with lots of money being raised to help the ex-soldiers get houses and employment.

Soon the poppies were produced yearly, with disabled and injured soldiers helping to make them. Buying a poppy was not just an act of remembrance; it was a practical way of giving ex-soldiers an income.

The Commonwealth states that commemorate the 11th November stop what they are doing at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, and spend two minutes in silent respect for the dead and for those who fought for the freedom we now enjoy. It was on 11.11.1918 that the war actually stopped, according to the armistice agreement signed on that day.

Sadly, the First World War — ​the ‘war to end all wars’ — ​was followed by the Second World War and many more conflicts in the twentieth century and beyond. As such, wearing of the poppy has continued to retain strong personal meaning even after the passing of those who fought in World War 1, and any celebrity or politician who forgets to wear their poppy is usually subject to criticism in the media.

Thus remembrance in Britain and commonwealth states remains that: quiet remembrance. It is a solemn time and quite unlike the Victory Day celebrations of Russia, reflecting the rather pointless and futile battles of 1914–1918 in which all sides lost massive numbers of people for very little gain, in contrast to the Second World War and the great struggle against the evil fascist ideology; a struggle commemorated in Victory Day.

Flowers and wreaths are laid in London at the Cenotaph memorial on this day, with the Queen leading ceremonies. All the political leaders of Britain come together and lay their flowers down together, in a rare show of unity.

Earlier this year, a BBC film crew saw — ​and was greatly moved by — ​the Immortal Regiment march in Moscow in memory of those who had stood against the Nazis. One wonders if this great act of respect from Russian culture to its heroes might be adopted — ​against all the political and economic obstacles — ​by the rest of the world; showing a new civilised act of corporate thanks to those who gave so much.

Glen Ruffle