I see lists of names. Long lists carved on the Menin Gate, and the Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire; shorter lists on war memorials in towns and villages throughout Europe, and in churches and churchyards like ours. Names of some of the almost 900,000 British dead commemorated by the poppies around the Tower of London; and of the 16 million who died all together during World War 1.
And I see individual names. Names in my family tree, like Herbert Alfred Peat, born May 1886, married September 1916, killed in France, May 1917; and Arthur John Jordan, born 1891, called up 1916, discharged wounded in the left leg and with gas lung, March 1918. And names in the papers of people I don’t know, of service personnel killed in the many conflicts this country has involved itself in since World War 2.
I see faces. Faces of young conscripts in the trenches, and on the landing craft off the beaches of Normandy, reflecting the fear and the horror of what they are going through. Oil stained faces of sailors pulled from the sea. Faces from the Battle of Britain, and the Falklands conflict burnt beyond recognition; faces of emaciated prisoners from the far East and Siberia and Korea; the sad faces of elderly men as they remember what they went through in their youth, and their comrades who have fallen; the tear stained faces of men and women and children, mourning members of their family who will never come home; and the empty eyes of those who did come back, but with broken bodies, or, like my father, with hearts and minds which will never again at peace, because they have seen what no human should have to see, have done what no human should have to do, have experienced what no human should have to experience.
And I see places: the battlefields of Flanders and Gallipoli, The Ardennes and Normandy; ships ablaze and sinking; aircraft plunging to the ground; and rows and rows of white stones marking the graves of the millions who died; I see the destruction of Coventry and Liverpool, Cologne and Hiroshima; and memories of the bomb sites in Dover and Plymouth which I played in as a child.
When you look at a poppy, what do you feel?
I feel immense and overwhelming sadness: for all the young lives lost, for the futures that did not happen, for the family lives that were broken apart; sadness for the grief of those who remained, for the disfigurement of bodies and minds; for the hatred and resentment that resulted.
I feel shame at the waste of precious resources and the destruction of so much that was beautiful and of historical significance.
I feel penitence that 2000 years after Christ told us to love our enemies, 100 years after World War 1 started, nearly 70 years after World War 2 ended, after so much loss and destruction, governments and nations still have not found a better way to resolve their differences than to send their young men and women to kill and be killed, to maim and be maimed.
When you look at a poppy, what do you say?
I say ‘thank you’ for all those who were prepared to go, and give their lives, and risk their health, and their future, and their peace of mind, in order that I and others might live free from the threat of Fascist dictatorships and foreign invasion.
I say, “We will remember them”, especially those who died in World War 1, in what Harry Patch called ‘a pointless exercise’.
I say “Father, forgive us” that we have so often fallen short of the standards Jesus showed us, that we have hated our enemies, that we have not found it easy to go the extra mile to find peaceful solutions.
I say “No more”; there must be a better way than this.
And yet: when I look at a poppy I remember the poppies that flowered in their millions after the guns were silent in the brown fields of Flanders where the trenches once were.
So I see the city centres of London and Plymouth rebuilt; I see the buildings of the European Union and the United Nations, housing organisations that work to prevent war; I see the faces of the many people who work for peace; and I see the new Cathedral at Coventry, built beside the ruins of the old, and symbolising peace and reconciliation after the conflict.
And when I look at a poppy I feel hope in the possibility of resurrection, and faith that death is not the end, and confidence in Christ’s promise that love and goodness will triumph.
And when I look at a poppy I say to myself: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted; what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love mercy; blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
When you look at a poppy,
what do you see?
what do you feel?
what do you say?