POPPY DAY is an annual event that has meant different things to me at different times of my life.
As a seven-year-old Brownie, it meant polishing my shoes and taking part in a special colour parade at our local parish church.
During my teenage years I read the war poets and began to see the poignancy behind the symbolic flower of Flanders’ fields.
As a young adult I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and encountered those who spurned the red poppy in favour of pacifist white. I could never quite share their views because it seemed disloyal somehow to all those who had given their lives in genuine causes, for freedom and to oppose tyranny.
And then a few years ago I visited the National Memorial Arboretum, which just happens to be within walking distance of my brother’s house in Staffordshire.
Since then the arboretum and I have become well acquainted. I make a point of calling in whenever I visit my brother to see what’s new and ponder both the hopelessness and awesomeness of human nature.
I can’t be there on the 11th of the 11th, 2011, but I have already paid my respects.
Walking around the newly-planted forests and service memorials is a quietly emotional experience. Each time we go we discover some previously-unfound tale of heroism, like the four women of the Special Operations Executive who went behind enemy lines in the Second World War to carry out clandestine work, were captured and condemned to death by lethal injection.
During our last visit we also encountered perhaps one of the saddest memorials of all – the ‘forest’ dedicated to those executed by their own side.
The 306 First World War soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion were eventually pardoned and now have a section to themselves.
The name tags reveal a surprising number of teenagers and I couldn’t help but think that many of them were probably severely traumatised young men.
Their memorial statue, of a blindfolded man with hands tied, is both simple and poignant.
There is much at the arboretum that speaks simply and elegantly of bravery, sacrifice and tragedy. It is both inspirational and deeply saddening at the same time.
It is also a place that must be seen, so if you haven’t already been there make a date to go before another 11/11 comes around.