Are people forgetting about the meaning of the poppy?

Photo: Hitler Youth rally. Germany, 1939

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg River Advocate in 2017. To me it seems the situation is not improving. Recent reports that Whole Foods has included the poppy in their ban on political attire, shows that people are missing the point and forgetting the meaning of the poppy.

By Don Norman

I watched a news report last night where CTV had interviewed an elderly veteran and Legionnaire about the declining donations they receive in the poppy fund-raising campaign. The veteran noticed that almost no one under a certain age supports the poppy drive. He puts it down to the mistaken assumption that buying a poppy supports war.

This could not be further from the truth. Buying a poppy supports the organization that supports the veterans who fought and fight for us! But more importantly, poppies are meant to be a symbol of remembrance. And Remembrance Day, isn’t a day to glorify war, it is to remember how awful war is. Young people today are disconnected from the reality that older generations faced.

I was born in 1968. So I too am disconnected from the major conflicts of the 20th Century. Canada hasn’t been involved in any major conflicts since then, so I don’t have any direct memories of an all consuming-war. There is no conflict, in my life experience, that would necessitate me changing anything about my life. But my life has been full of people who were directly involved in WWII and war changed their lives irreversibly.

My Grandfather on my mother’s side was a career soldier when World War II started. When I was a young lad, he didn’t talk much about the war. But one clear memory I have is him telling me about facing a troop of Hitler Youth who attacked his unit. Their average age, he guessed, was about 14. But they were armed. And a bullet fired by a 14 year old is just as deadly as one fired by a professional soldier. As a lieutenant, he had to give the order to his men to fire on the boys. The poorly trained child-soldiers made easy targets. Their assault was over almost as soon as it began.

A couple weeks after that, he was wounded by enemy mortar fire. He was lucky. He was with two other officers. The shell landed closest to him, but he somehow survived while the other two lost their lives. But “lucky” is a relative term. He walked with a cane for the rest of his life and lived with the knowledge that the metal that the surgeons couldn’t remove could one day make their way to his heart.

His daughter (my mother) was born in 1938, her dad wasn’t there for her earliest memories. He was in England while she was being raised by her mother back in Winnipeg. She still recounts nightmares she had of seeing her dad coming up the walkway to her house with big smiles for his little girl, then a hole in the ground would open up and swallow him. She too was lucky. Many of her friends lost their dads to the war.

My paternal grandfather worked as an engineer in the armaments industry during the war, so he didn’t see any combat. Except for the combat that rained down from the skies on his family in London during the Blitz. He and my grandmother had to make sure that their family made it safely to the bomb shelter when the air raid siren screamed its warning. Knowing full well, that the protection would mean nothing if the bomb scored a direct hit. His son (my father) remembers a friend who had lived a few doors down who died in such a direct hit. He still remembers his name. Hell, I still remember his name – Peter Bedding.

The history I was taught, or the movies I watched about World War II couldn’t possibly have left as indelible a mark on my psyche as these real-life stories from people that I know. To have seen the pain in my grandfather’s eyes when he would say the words, “boys about your age,” as he told the story of his encounter with those child soldiers, left its mark. It made me realize that war is awful. It made me live its awfulness.

It’s understandable that young people feel disconnected from the wars that their great grandparents, or great, great grandparents fought in. It’s simply history now; a subject in school, a movie or a mini-series. But it is extraordinarily important that we pass on the personalized message from generation to generation that war is awful.

If your father, or grandfather was in the war, tell the stories you heard. And tell them with grit and emotion. Young people can’t just “know” this history. They have to REMEMBER it.

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