The duress part. The adult band I just joined played a "Lest we Forget" concert last Saturday and we were told to put a poppy on our suits. 40 or so years of band-geekdom have led me to blindly accept the commands of my conductor and I wore a poppy on the left lapel of my suit, which I learned is the correct way to wear it with suit.
However I put a poppy on my winter coat today when I went out.
During the last year or so I have read a couple of books about WWI and have thought about my two grandfathers who fought in that war.
For Christmas last year I got Margaret MacMillan's excellent book, "The War That Ended Peace." All senior politicians in the world should be locked in a room and not let out until they have read this book (they may need to make a comic book version for Republicans and Canadian Conservatives). As I read it, the central thesis of the book is that none of the great powers in Europe really wanted to go to war but they were all convinced that the other countries did and so gradually and inevitably everybody went to war. The WWII is really just the end-game of WWI, the Cold War was the end game of WWII and all the little and bigger wars since then are really just the end game of the Cold War.
Just recently I read "Into the Silence" by Wade Davis. This book is about the first 3 Everest expeditions culminating in the disappearance (and death) of Mallory. About a quarter of the book however describes the first world war which had a marked effect on the mountaineers almost all of whom were veterans that war. This is one of most vivid descriptions of the horrors of the first world war. Events like patrolling no man's land and stepping on rotting corpses or of horribly maimed and unidentifiable dead being thrown into mass graves with orderly crosses being placed on top to give the illusion that the soldiers were buried intact in individual graves. He also talks about the British Commander General Haig who lived the war in a French chateau miles away from the Front, which he never visited.
I grew up in the 1960s when there were still a lot of WWI veterans alive and when practically everybody's father had served in WWII. I read a lot of war literature in that time and the impression I got of conditions for soldiers in WWI is a lot different from what we read in Davis' book or in many of the excellent books about WWI which are now being published.
The impression most of us, as children got of WWI was that it was a pleasant war with smiling soldiers who sang, "It's a long way to Tipperary" and met French girls. The trenches were pleasant safe places and if conditions were a little rough, they were not that much rougher than your last Scout camp. If a lot of people were killed, came back missed parts of their body or with minds that didn't function like they did before, that was a side issue.
I have been thinking a lot lately of the two grandfathers I never knew. Both my grandfathers survived but didn't survive WWI. One grandfather was in the first chlorine gas attack of of WWI. He was later blinded when a grenade blew up in his face. He returned to Canada later moved back to England, was trained as a masseuse, got involved with British Fascist party and died of respiratory disease in the 1930s.
My other grandfather was wounded at Vimy Ridge. He too had been gassed earlier in the war. He married an English nurse and moved back to Nelson where he had lived before the war, surviving on his army pension. Like my other grandfather he suffered from chronic respiratory disease having been gassed, contracted TB and died along with his wife in the 1930s.
My parents never talked much about their fathers. I never even saw photographs of them until I was an adult. My mother had her father's medal ribbons (her brothers had the actual medals) which I took to show and tell once a year. I do remember once when my brothers and I were talking about WWI, my mother saying, "if it wasn't for that war my parents would both be alive."
I still think about what lead my grandfathers to enlist. One grandfather had already been in the British army serving in South Africa and Afghanistan. It is a little unclear how he ended up in Vancouver where he enlisted but it is quite likely that he was at loose ends and maybe welcomed a return to the military. My other grandfather was a miner, so I am not sure what lead him to enlist. I suspect that compared to mining in the early 20th century, a military life seemed pretty pleasant; steady salary, 3 square meals and a warm place to sleep. Plus you were joining the British Army which had a pretty good record of success since the American Revolution. People talk about King and Country, however I wonder how patriotic Canadians in that era were. There was of course peer pressure and of course a sense of adventure.
The other thing I have been thinking about is how disconnected we are now from the military. Unlike WWI and WWII which were fought by teachers, farmers, clerks and miners who returned to their jobs after the war, the army now predominantly composed of career soldiers who enlist as teenagers. We now see where the army is a family profession with sons and daughters serving because their father served. (There is true, a reserve army as well.) This leads to the army being disconnected from the community. This makes it all the easier for politicians to order them into danger and unfortunately makes all of care a little less because we really have no connection with them.
I often think of how the 20th century would have unfolded without WWI. I get the impression the world or at least Europe might look a lot the same as it does now. I also get the impression things just might have been a lot better. No Hitler, no Stalin for example but who knows what other monsters might have arisen.
I remember in the early 1990s when the Cold War ended looking forward to a peaceful 21st century where all the resources devoted to killing people could be turned towards the betterment of our planet and our species. How horribly wrong I was.
So when I wore my poppy today, I wore it for the poor soldiers like my grandfathers who endured horrible conditions in a stupid war, for the relatives who lost or got back damaged loved ones, and for the civilians in the war zones whose lives were turned upside down.
And the poppy-wearing -war -mongering- politicians and generals can go fuck themselves.