Red is and always has been my favourite colour. I am by no means unusual in this: red is one of the top two favourite colours. It is also a colour which represents so much. Red is the colour of love, fire, blood, the sun, energy, life-force, violence, danger, anger, adventure and extremes. It can be associated with the least reputable area of a town, but also with the most significant days on a calendar. For the ancient Greeks it was a magical and religious colour, and symbolized super-human heroism. The colour of the Christian crucifixion, it is also the colour of sacrifice. It happens to feature on the flags of all four of the countries I most love and associate myself with. Again, hardly surprising, as red is used on 77 per cent of all national flags. Red is also the international colour for ‘stop’. The poppy is red.
During my many years working for the Royal Navy as a civilian ‘academic’ I was expected to participate in some military parades, including the Remembrance Day parade: I did indeed remember with pride, and a lot of emotion. It was for me an appropriate way of commemorating my namesake uncle, whom I never met. He had given his life flying for the RAF in 1944, a few years before I was born. Being in a ‘reserved occupation’ when war broke out, he had to volunteer to join the RAF. My father was not called up, for complex reasons, so he volunteered for the British Army; another uncle volunteered to serve at the age of 17, a year before he would have been called up. It was a similar story in my wife’s family, a story of bravery, sacrifice and loss. All chose to fight against the forces of extreme nationalism, and for freedom, justice and cooperation in Europe. My paternal grandfather had done the same when he served in 1916 until the end of WW1 under a different flag but with the same mission.
I rarely experience as much sheer indignation as when certain factions claim exclusive ownership of the victory won at the end of WW2; they seem to believe that the war was won by the British alone, and quote that victory as justification for turning our backs on our immediate neighbours. My grandfather, my father and my uncles would be horrified. Such deluded people should consider that men from at least eight nations fought on the Gustav Line across central Italy in May 1944, and ten nations in the Normandy landings in June 1944.
To quote the example of one such brave nation: the memorial outside the Polish war cemetery at Montecassino states, of the thousands of young Polish soldiers who died there:
“For our freedom and yours
We soldiers of Poland gave
Our soul to God
Our life to the soil of Italy
Our hearts to Poland”
I well remember Michal, a Polish gentleman who had met and married his English wife after serving in Sherman tanks during the war. He came to live locally with his daughter for his last few years. Another acquaintance recently revealed to me that his Polish father had been a Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain. My wife and I both remember that when we were at primary school in the 1950s, we had classmates who were the sons and daughters of Polish servicemen who had fought alongside British soldiers and fliers; some of the survivors settled in the UK, and they were given much government support to do so. There is still a home for elderly Polish servicemen at Ilford Park, near Newton Abbot.
A friend of mine has researched and written a book about Spanish volunteers who fought with the British Army. The father of a lady I know was an Italian partisan, risking all to undermine the occupying enemy. And I must mention my French son-in-law’s great-grandmother, dear Mamie Marthe, who risked her life sheltering British airmen on the run from the Nazis, hanging an item of clothing on the farm gate to indicate that hers was a ‘safe house’.
So, when I wear a poppy, it is not as a jingoistic symbol of nationalistic pride, but it represents the sacrifice of all these people, and so many others on both sides of the conflict who suffered and lost so much. And, as for the poppy itself, it is RED, the international colour for ‘stop’. So, when we see the poppy and think of all the suffering it commemorates, let’s also think of the significance of its colour, and the need to bring an end to war forever. Red means STOP.