My part in the war – the relevance of a poppy

By November 9, 2013Leadership Development

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For the first time in my adult life, I am, by choice, wearing a poppy for Remembrance Sunday. It is a red poppy, with a green leaf behind it. When I was at school, only the teachers got the green leaf, the rest of us just a red poppy! This is just one indicator of how things have moved on!!

Why am I wearing a poppy, and why am I telling you? Why does it matter? For years, I have been very, very emotional about Remembrance day. I have had a definite resistance to wearing a poppy, which I did not understand. The person in my family, who had been in the Second World War, was my dad. We knew it had been really significant for him, that he had been wounded twice, that he had worked in the First Aid corps. He had been evacuated off the beach at Dunkirk, wounded at El Alamein and spent three years in Egypt. We knew he was very solemn on Remembrance Sunday, joined in the remembrance activities, and met up with other people who had been in the war.

He didn’t really talk too much to us about his war experiences. He was a strange mixture of being morose, respectful and evasive on the subject. He wrote some memoirs, but they were so strange, almost of a teenage boy on an adventure, and not very much like the reality of war described by others.

My dad was one of ten children, of whom only five made it to adulthood. He was the second oldest of those surviving. His mother died when he was 10. His father was in the Navy, and I imagine away quite often. They moved house every three years, being in rented accommodation, something he was keen never to do as an adult himself.

He spent seven years in the war, from the ages of 20 to 27. I can think of better ways of spending your 20s. He married my mother after the war when they were both teachers, and they had three children, I was the middle one.

My dad struggled. Drinking too much, usually on a Saturday night, was one of his habits. He brewed his own beer, so we were financially secure, and his home was his castle.

This safety though, was somewhat erratic. Along with the drinking, there was unpredictable, violent behaviour. He was a domineering bully, and ruled the house on his terms. This had an effect on me, and, although I can only guess that my dad’s experiences in the war contributed to his behaviour in later life, this is what I mean by saying that I had a part in, or at minimum was affected by the war, even although it happened before I was born.

To wear a poppy, is to say to myself and the world, as I see things, the Second World War had an impact on me.

My dad’s behaviour, made my life difficult and hard to understand. It impacted my own feelings of security in relationships, my own ability to feel at ease and safe in relationships, and to believe that other people like me and want me as their friend, as I sometimes seemed so unwelcome in my own home as a child.

In contrast, think now, to how veterans of war are treated in America today and the respect and support they gain. How it wasn’t like this for my dad or probably anyone else at the end of the Second World War, whether because of numbers involved, knowledge of what was needed, availability of resources or anything else.

Think now, about the research which suggests that about 30% of us do not recover from significant trauma on our own, without help. I imagine my dad would have been in the 30 per cent.

Think now, also of the recent British research I read about, which suggests that if you had a difficult childhood, (like my dad), experiences as an adult, for example war experiences, have a much more adverse effect on you than if you had a secure childhood.

How much did my dad struggle I wonder, to keep his head above the water, to stay in employment, provide for us both with the home and financially, and yet really, really struggle in his own skin. He has been dead for 18 years, and the day he died, I got rid of my bully.

I want to have compassion for my dad, and to say to him, “Do you know what, Dad, you would be treated so differently today.” And I also want to have compassion for me, my struggles, my relationships, my happiness. I feel I am so much nearer to having compassion for both my dad and me, even with the challenge of having it for the both of us, and at the same time. It seems that as I allow myself to experience things in this way, I can increase my compassion for everyone in my family, but particularly for me, so that change can happen.

It seems to be much more common now, to really acknowledge and talk about the impact of war on all family members. I think this is a good thing. Without such acknowledgement, it seems to me that traumatised people, pass on trauma to their family. It remains unresolved for them and their family and a puzzle.

It is only since breaking my elbow last year and the therapeutic support I have since been receiving, I have understood myself better on this one and no longer feel emotional, distant, separate and isolated about Remembrance day, but a part of it.

It feels like progress, growing up a little bit, and moving on. And as I said, by choice, wearing a poppy. How is it for you?

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Gill How

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One Comment

  • David says:

    It is interesting how such a small object carries such a deep meaning for many of us based on our own personal stories. For example, for me, putting on the poppy is a way of recognising family members who died in the holocaust (and those who survived because the war was won by the allies – which obviously involved many fallen soldiers.

    In addition, being a naturalised British citizen, putting it on is aligned with my wish to integrate in the country that adopted me and that became my home – it is about my pride of being British and wanting to adopt ‘British symbols’.

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