I am writing this in the early hours of the 11th day of the 11th month known as Armistice Day and traditionally marked by the wearing of a red poppy, a symbol of remembrance to signify those lost during the First World War. As long as I can recall poppies have been integral to November as we wore them at school, through childhood and as adults; ‘wear your poppy with pride’ was a well-known slogan. For many, this year’s remembrance will include millions who have lost their lives to Covid, another horrific world phenomenon.
Poppies always make me catch my breath. Decades ago my family moved from London as my father had been made a consultant physician, one of the youngest in the UK at that time (not bad for a young brown man from the Commonwealth). It was at the hospital where he would become Lead Clinician, head up the ICU, work and train others for nearly 5 decades and, sadly, eventually die. But on that first sunny visit to the place we would make our home I remember the fields of poppies and, on our return to London from our soon-to be new landscape, my Daddy, (ever one for heartfelt gestures) stopped and picked me one. I put it in some water by my bed and was dismayed the next day seeing it withered and deflated. ‘That’s the nature of poppies,’ my Father told me the petals are fragile but they are hardy.
A few months later we had moved temporarily to the Royal British Legion village which was used as hospital accommodation before settling into our new permanent home. The British Legion was established to help members of the Army, Navy, Air force and their families and has a poppy as its symbol. I took it as a good sign for our new life. Much of the World War One conflict took place in the
muddy trenches and scarred battlefields of Western Europe. The exception was Flanders, the site of the bloody battle of Ypres where the fields of poppies grew. Like the lotus these flowers, though
delicate, are resilient, growing in their thousands symbolic of resilience and bloodshed. They inspired Lieutenant John McCrae (another doctor of the Commonwealth, this time Canada) to write a poem
about the war torn poppy fields with the immortal lines “We are the dead/ Short days ago we lived,/ Felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/ Loved and were loved’. These words are so apt now. Inspired, the US academic Moina Micheal campaigned for poppies to be the official symbol of remembrance. The British Legion, which celebrates its centenary next year adopted it as their emblem and thus poppies made of paper or material are sold each year to raise funds and to show a recognition of the sacrifices that were made for freedom.
Laying a wreath of poppies is synonymous with Remembrance Day services across the world. The British monarch lays a wreath at the cenotaph in Whitehall (just outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), which was unveiled on 11th November 1920. 100 years of wreaths. It is also
the burial date of the unknown warrior, an anonymous soldier, of unknown rank or age, who represented all the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the First World War (said misguidedly to be the war to end all wars). His body was laid to rest amongst royalty, in Westminster Abbey in London. Last Sunday in England, due to the pandemic and national lockdown a much scaled down, socially distanced Remembrance service took place. Tradition held and a minute’s silence was observed for ‘the glorious dead’ the words carved on the cenotaph. The playing of ‘The Last Post’ on the bugle is so poignant and brought a lump to everyone’s throat, as it always does.
It was not until recently that the sacrifice of Indian soldiers and their contribution to World War One was acknowledged. This has an added meaning with Covid, in a stark historical irony the First World
War and the Opium Wars (literally a war over poppies), commemorating those in the front line who lost their lives in public service. I don’t just mean medical professionals although undoubtedly they are
heroes, but also those in public transport, the bus and train drivers and shopkeepers who continued to work throughout the pandemic. A disproportionate number of health care professionals and essential
workers in the UK are from black, brown and ethnic minorities and have died from Covid-19 serving the British public; a salient reminder of the black and brown soldiers form the Empire and the US who were conscripted to fight for an Empire that had subjugated them. An added irony with the Black Lives Matter movement as a backdrop in the US and UK this Summer.
Each year my family attends the service of Remembrance at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Delhi. An image of a lone bugler under the shade of the enormous tree in the cemetery grounds is strong and the pin-drop silence, something of a rarity in India’s capital city. It is often ‘foggy’ due to pollution which strangely adds to the sombre contemplative mood. In London this year Prince Charles, looking into the November sunlight and dressed in full military uniform, laid a wreath on behalf of the Queen. Last year HRH (His Royal Highness) was in Delhi at the Commonwealth Cemetery for the service of Remembrance, starkly different from this year’s distanced proceedings. It happened to be his birthday and my friend’s daughter from Canada who was 6 years old at the time wished him ‘Happy Birthday, Prince Charles!’ Mangoli’s very own Carla, accompanying her father-in-law, an esteemed member of the Indian military, was there too.
I have met Prince Charles in Brazil and again in Delhi where my husband has organised round table discussions with Indian captains of industry and he was approachable, funny and charming.We had a short conversation about the Commonwealth (I am from Sri Lanka after all) and I got the impression that he genuinely cared about the institution and its nations. This year, away from Delhi, my family and I watched the broadcast and went out into our first lockdown Sunday for a contemplative walk. The sun shone brightly and in our bubble of four, we visited a country churchyard, where we saw poppies laid for the memory of those villagers who had given their lives to the cause. I recalled this Summer when unexpectedly came across a field of poppies and a hundred jumbled recollections: when I was a little girl, my Daddy, heroes, remembrance and freedom. I share the simple image I took of a poppy field in Europe with you.
Poppies, as a symbol of peace and remembrance are red like the blood we all have, but heroes come in many different hues. Their petals may be fragile; nonetheless, their hearts and spirits are strong and live in our memories always.