Richard, my Godson was a UN Military Observer in Bosnia in the 1990s. In 2008 Richard was summoned to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to give evidence at the trial for war crimes of three Croatian generals.
He writes of his first day on the job, ‘When I was driven across the front line into Bosnian Serb territory surrounding the enclave of Sarajevo, I was shocked to see how primitive the “confrontation” or “front line” was. The trenches were hand dug and reinforced with tree trunks and we entered make-shift wooden huts with slits in. There were remnants of stoves, campfires, military ammunition boxes, empty bottles of slivovica and beer, and dirty plates with leftovers. A Bosnian Serb soldier, ammunition belt slung across his chest, invited us into the trench just 50 metres from the (visible to the naked eye) Bosnian Muslim army trench on the Sarajevo side. “But there’s no one here?” I observed, wondering if I should duck and stay low in case the other side started shooting at us. “No, no,” said the soldier. “They went home to rest. We were fighting this morning. They will be back later. They are our cousins, our family, Muslims, Serbs, Croats. It’s politics. It’s all just politics.”….One minute they were trying to kill each other, the next they literally waved at each other and asked how friends and family were doing inside and outside of the Sarajevo enclave. It reminded me of the Christmas Day truce in World War One when German soldiers climbed out of their trenches to toast, meet and play football with French and British soldiers.’
Richard’s great uncle, my father, was a teenager in those trenches. Wounded at the first Battle of the Somme in 1916, he recovered and fought at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Wounded again, he was invalided out, sent home and spent the rest of the war as an instructor. He seldom spoke of his experiences and had nightmares for the rest of his life.
The red poppy, a symbol of remembrance of those who have died fighting for their country, was first adopted by The (Royal) British Legion in November, 1921. It raises about £50 million a year. “Wearing a poppy is a show of support for the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, veterans and their families”, (Royal British Legion website). The white poppy was first distributed in 1933 by the Co-operative Women’s Guild. In 1936 the newly formed, Peace Pledge Union (PPU) began to distribute it. The PPU emerged from an initiative by ‘Dick’ Shepard, Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The white poppy symbolises remembrance for all victims of war throughout the world, civilian or military. It also symbolises a commitment to promoting peace. Sales of the white poppy in 2020 raised £44,926.