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Remembrance Day - the story of The Poppy

Each year, the Remembrance Day service is held beside the War Memorial at Scalasaig, and a Wreath is laid on behalf of the community, followed by the Exhortation:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
We will remember them.

The Exhortation is the fourth stanza of a poem, "The Fallen" by Robert Laurence Binyon, published in September 1914 in honour of the British Expeditionary Forces; although too old to enlist, he served as a medical orderly for the Red Cross.

Many of those who attend Remembrance services wear a poppy, red or white, or have supported the Poppy Appeal, or have placed a cross at one or more of the war-graves in Colonsay or Oransay, adorned with a poppy. The symbolism of the innocent poppy arose from the devastated landscapes of the Western Front in World War I, in northern France and in Belgium. Amid the mud and horror of the battlefields, the poppy flowered again each year, a sight that was deeply moving to all who saw it. One of these men was Colonel John McCrae, a doctor serving with the Canadian Armed Forces - a glance at our own war memorial will reveal the names of Colonsay men who gave their lives as members of the Canadians, having enlisted after emigration. Dr. McCrae was inspired to write a poem:

IN FLANDERS FIELDS

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow  
In Flanders' Fields.

John McCrae died shortly afterwards, in a military hospital, but his poem survived and was published in Punch magazine. The armistice came into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, and in the aftermath McCrae's poem moved Miss Moina Belle Michael, an American teacher, to start selling poppies in aid of ex-servicemen and their needs; such was her enthusias, that she became famous as "the Poppy Lady" and wrote her own tribute:

We Shall Keep the Faith
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.


From this arose a tradition which was adopted in 1921 by the newly-formed British Legion. In 1922 the Disabled Society was founded by Major George Howson MC, who started the first factory dedicated to poppy-making by unemployed ex-servicemen, the fore-runner of the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory.

The poppy is a symbol of remembrance and of hope, it has no political or religious significance and it does not indicate a support for war or militarism; funds raised by the British Legion are used solely for welfare purposes. In 1933 an ex-army chaplain, Harry Fosdick, gave an "Unknown Soldier" sermon, in which he said "I renounce war for its consequences, for the lies it lives on and propagates, for the undying hatred it arouses, for the dictatorships it puts in the place of democracy, for the starvation that strikes after it." His sermon inspired the charismatic pacifist, Canon Dick Shepherd, who founded the Peace Pledge Union. The first white poppies were distributed by members of the Women's Co-operative Guild in 1933, and the concept was adopted by the Peace Pledge Union in 1934.

The poppy, of either colour, helps one to remember the stark simplicity of the the fourth commandment and the horrifying destruction that arises from political ambition. The flavour of commemorative ceremonies can trouble some observers but the simple memorial service in Colonsay unites everyone in an act of Remembrance, a tribute to all who gave their lives or who lost loved ones in circumstances which were no part of their own devizing.

 

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