The poppy has become the defining symbol of remembrance.
Each year well over 40 million Poppies are sold in aid of the work of the Royal British Legion. Poppies are now worn on lapels, football shirts, wrist bands, cars. They are projected onto buildings. They form the basis of powerful acts of public art: be they the 888,246 ceramic poppies were used in Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s instillation “Blood swept lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London or the several dozen poppies knitted by the Women’s Institute of Bardon Mill used to ‘Yarn Bomb’ the War Memorial in Bardon Mill last year.
But it was not certaint that Poppies would develop such ubiquity.
In his book, Where the Poppies Blow, the historian John Lewis-Stempel maps the experience of the soldiers of the trenches through their engagement with the natural world which they experienced through the horror, and boredom, and filth, but sometimes unexpected beauty of the trenches.
It came as a surprise to me, and perhaps to many of you, to read that many of the British Tommys spent a good deal of their time in the trenches cultivating gardens. Some of these were for the laudable and practical needs of food production. In fact by the end of the Great War it is estimated that the British Army was self-sufficient in the fruit and vegetables they grew.
But greater pride and interest was spent on small flower gardens they would cultivate on the rear ramparts of their trenches.
Will you please send as soon as possible two packets of candytuft and two packets of nasturtium seeds?
Captain Lionel Crouch wrote to his father in Chelmsford in 1915.
Some of the reasons for this growing was understandable. In a life which often crushingly boring, the cultivation of a small garden was something to do. Some stretches even running their own version of Britain in Bloom - or perhaps Flanders in Bloom - to add a level of competitive edge. At a deeper more level these little gardens could be a powerful remembrance of home, and in a life which was callously random, they offered some semblance of control and order in a disordered and distorted world. In a comment which could be true of many of us here today, Lewis-Stempel suggests that:
Love of flowers in the trenches was similar to love of religion. Few British soldiers declared it, almost everyone had it.
It is in and through this unique environment that the Poppy emerged as the defining memento mori for the British society.
As I suggested earlier, it was not certain that this would be the case.
In the untilled soil of northern France and Belgium the Poppy would not normally thrive in the way that the blue cornflowers - which filled something of the same role in the French popular imagination as the Poppy does in the British - do.
But this was a unique environment, and in this unique environment the Poppy - which reminded so many of the English cornfields of home thrived. The artillery barrages of both sides turned Isaiah’s vision on its head, ploughing and churning no-man’s land. The explosions of ordinance helped spread the poppy seeds around the mud churned land. And the nitrogen of the explosives as well as the rotting remains of fallen animals and soldiers created a uniquely fertile environment for these poppies to blossom and bloom. So it was not a poetic image, but a reality of this beauty in a seemingly God-forsaken place which led Gordon McCrae to write, the day after leading the prayers at the ad hoc funeral of one of his dearest friends.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row…
From those words written in 1915, through the first Poppy Appeals of the 1920s, through to the millions we see in our public remembrance across this country today, the simple red Poppy has become the most eloquent expression of the deep sorrow and gratitude that so many feel for those who have given their lives in time of war.
In the Poppy we are remember the sacrifice of those who, with the names from this community we will hear read in a few moments time, fell in both world wars. Those in whose veins, to quote the poet Isaac Rosenburg, the Poppies found their root. In the Poppy we glimpse an image and picture of the bravery and brutality of war. Seeing in this simple annual flower, and in its short and brilliant flowering, the image of a generation cut down all too soon. But rather than simply looking back in the Poppy we also points us forward. In the trenches flowers became a sign of hope and deep spiritual epiphany. That in these simple flowers emerging through the rubbles of that seemingly God-fosaken landscape of no-man’s land something good, something beautiful might and could and should emerge.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew we heard the beginning of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In these Beatitudes, from the latin for blessing, we hear the promise and blessing that God reveals to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
What is striking is that these blessings begin not in the comfort of life as we might know it, or the happiness that we might desire. Blessing emerges instead for those, like the soldiers of the trenches, who dwell in darker places of life - the sorrowful, the persecuted, the hungry. And it is through these places that we know the promises of God for comfort, for mercy, for the kingdom of heaven.
In the simple Poppy we are given again this same picture, this same movement. That even in the blasted broken reality of the trenches something new might and should emerge.So as we wear our Poppies, as we lay them in remembrance we not only look back with sorrow and thankfulness, we look forward with hope and recommit ourselves to the truth and blessing that we might be peace makes, that through that we will become children of God.