Remembrance 2019: Poppies

In November 2014 I visited the art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London. In the days that followed I drafted a post inspired by that visit. I had the best of intentions to finish the draft and publish it as a post at the time. That didn’t happen, and the post remained unfinished and unpublished. I then entered an extended and unplanned hiatus from writing and publishing. I intend to end this hiatus – a process that I fully expect to be akin to re-learning how to ride a bike, wobbly at first and with a stuttering rhythm – and will begin with publishing this post which is long overdue.

The Wave, part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London

Between July and November of 2014 Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was installed at the Tower of London. At the time I was working close-by and remember seeing the poppies growing in number as the days progressed from Summer into Autumn. The final poppy was planted on Remembrance Day 2014 before the installation was removed and the Wave and Weeping Window commenced a tour of the UK. Two years later I would visit the Wave at Lincoln Castle.

Conceptually it was an intelligent, intuitive piece of art. It spoke to, and resonated with, a hugely diverse audience – no small or mean feat. Planted in this installation were 888,246 poppies, each representing a fatality of the Great War from the UK and colonies. They represented 888,246 men which were buried in foreign soil, repatriated to their home soil, or lost in the melee of war. This number does not include dead of the dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Newfoundland), France or Belgium. It doesn’t include the rest of the Allies, nor does it include the Germans and other Central Powers. It doesn’t include the physically and mentally wounded. It doesn’t include the civilian dead. In truth this seemingly behemoth of a number is only a fraction of the final human cost of the war.

As the days in the Great War trudged on, the names of the dead which started as a trickle, progressed into a stream, before surging into a flood of souls who had joined those ‘Glorious Dead’. Similarly, the poppies gradually filled the moat of the Tower until Armistice Day 2014 when the 888,246th poppy was planted.

Poppies fill the moat at the Tower of London

At first glance the poppies appeared homogeneous – a mass of individuals of that size has that effect – and it seemed to be uniform. However, if one took the time to look at the poppies differences would appear, and the mind was then able break the homogeny into its individual components. The poppies sprouted at different heights which gave the mass an undulating vivacity. The shades of red varied in hue yet remained cohesive, contrasting with the pale of the Tower, the green of the grass and the autumn tones of the fallen leaves.

Poppies in the moat at the Tower of London

In the spring of 1914 the field of Flanders lay fallow and were not sown with trenches, men and madness. By the Autumn of 1918 men had made their home among the trenches and were living and dying in the mud of Belgium, making what they could of home and comfort there.

The poppies too were incongruous in their surroundings, tumbling out of windows, sprouting from crevices, and crashing over walls. They filled the moat like a biblical river of blood. Like the mass of humanity they represented, despite their incongruity the poppies had made the Tower their home.

It wasn’t the Trevi Fountain and yet tourists, the curious, and those seeking maybe something else entirely, had thrown coins amongst some of the poppies. A Classicist (with Romantic tendencies) to the end, it felt to me that the living were hoping to pay passage to Charon for the dead to cross the Styx into the fields of Elysium. In reality the dead had no use for these silvers and coppers, their passage had long since been paid.

Poppies, Silvers, and Coppers

For the generations that followed this human cost of the war steadily became more distant. The empty seats around family tables were filled by the generations that followed. People have remembered but Society has moved on. The generation that followed are receding into the shadows. Today we can read about the Great War, watch footage, visit sites and cemeteries but we remember the war as history and not a living memory. If nothing else the poppies at the Tower gave the dead a body, a form, a substance on this earth that they had long ago left behind.

For me, this was the power of the work. Who can imagine 888,246 people? The apparently simple act of representing each casualty with a poppy was a powerfully poignant way to express this number in a way that could be comprehended by today’s generations regardless of who they were and where they came from. It is a universally understandable concept, and it resonated profoundly. It was an example of apparent simplicity achieving more than an ornate, complex, or overly-intellectual piece of work.

History is the greatest of teachers. It is invaluable. To know your history is an incredibly powerful tool. Yet it can be disregarded, misrepresented, and manipulated into a form and substance that doesn’t reflect the moment which is being discussed. Often it is viewed through the beliefs and sentiments of the present without regard for the beliefs and sentiments of the time. In this circumstance, how can we see clearly the reflection of our past when we distort the mirror?  The scope and magnitude of the First World War demands an honest reflection of the past.

The tip of the Wave at the Tower of London

It has been five years since Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I do not remember how I had planned to close out this post in 2014. If I am honest, the gravity of the Great War and its human cost – part of which was represented in Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red – is greater than I could ever hope to capture in a blog post. I am not sure I could capture it even if I were not constricted by the relative brevity of a blog post. However, I can say with complete sincerity that the impact of 888,246 poppies engulfing the Tower of London has not left me.

I will end with this observation. While writing this I came across quotes from newspaper articles written on 12 November 1919 about the two minutes silence held on the first Remembrance Day. The first was from the Manchester Guardian:

The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.

The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.

Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.

The second comes from an article reprinted online by the Guardian:

A soldier writes:— At eleven o’clock I chanced to be at Oxford Circus. It was a most impressive moment. There was a loud detonation, and immediately the restless traffic was silent, every male head uncovered, and all flags on the house-tops slackened in the leech until they were half-mast high. I have never before assisted in a pause so reverent. It was possible to gauge the thoughts of the crowd. Many themselves had served, and will have been flung back, like the writer, to the memory of those fine fellows with whom they had lived in the closest union until the fatal scythe of war snatched them away. Of the others, who does not mourn a vacant chair?

For two brief minutes I saw again the distorted horizon of Northern France, and the last resting-place of so many of my gallant comrades. One by one the dearest of them were visualised during those brief two minutes. It was a great and sacred idea.

At 11am today I was undertaking the mundane task of grocery shopping. The intention was to undertake this task earlier, but the course of the morning transpired differently than planned. Standing in the local grocery store an announcement was made that two minutes silence would be observed. The exhortation was read and two minutes of silence followed. The movement in the store stopped, the checkout went quiet, and silently I remembered those affected by – and lost to – conflict. Across the UK, this act was repeated in workplaces and churches.

The profundity of this act still being observed 100 years later is not lost on me. It speaks to the human ability and desire to remember – and through that act of remembering we have the ability and chance to honour our history.

A century ago the memories of the Great War were still painfully and vividly fresh. It speaks to the strength of the human soul that we choose to continue to remember, that in our two minutes of silence we unite a century into a single thread, all through one simple act. It is a lesson in not doubting the power of a simple act, it is a lesson in power or remembrance, and it is the lesson in the strength of human soul.

Passing of a Generation

I’ve already written about how much of powerful force history is, that it teaches us much about who we are and what we can be. I’ve also mentioned about how the Second World War presented a paradox for me as a child growing up in New Zealand. It felt very distant in space and time and therefore removed from my generation and day-to-day existence. However at the same time it felt very real and very close. Both my Nana and Grandad served in the conflict. My Grandad passed while I was a child but my Nana remained as a tangible link to that past. Only one generation stood between her and me and then I was there: no longer a spectator of history, instead I was touching the past. This changed in May as my Nana passed on and with her my tangible link to that generation, that period of history and that chapter in her and my life. The 70th anniversary of D Day brought home just what a loss it is to lose her, both personally as my Nana but also as one of that generation of veterans.

Growing up surrounded with history (literally we had books dating from the Sumerians to the Second World War in our house) there are names, places and events that were etched onto my consciousness from an early age. D Day was one of those: the beaches, the striped wings of the Allied planes and the beginnings of reclaiming Europe from Nazi Germany. It is an event in history that is so powerful that it only needs to be told truthfully and unadulterated to have an impact.

The Battle of Britain is another such event in history. There is a passage in Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead, where he speaking of the Battle of Britain, which is so poignant that I had to stop once I had read it, just to let the full force of what he said register.

“It was a great story, of which we should all be proud. Many speeches have been made about the boys concerned, many classic utterances published, such as Winston Churchill’s ‘Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few’. Songs were written and danced to in London night clubs to celebrate the victory, but let us pray, here and now, that those men will be remembered for ever; and especially in ten or twenty years’ time.”

Gibson wrote this whilst the War was happening, he died in 1944 and so did not live to see Allied victory. While there may have been a feeling that the tide in the war had turned and that victory would ensue, he never knew this as fact or experience it for himself. Those words are very much of their time, charged with the electricity of that moment and unaffected by the comfort of hindsight. He wasn’t to know that events of the War were going to be remembered not only 20 years later, but that 50, 70 years later they would still be commemorated.

The Kohima Epitaph is a testament not only the Battle of Kohima and lives lost but also to the power of words. The effect of the Epitaph is greater than its two lines, its 17 words. It is powerful because it is not the living that speak, but the dead:

When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow, we gave our today

It is the dead asking nothing more than to be spoken of, remembered, by those who survived and made it back home. My Grandad, my Nana were two of those who made it back home. Gibson and thousands of others did not make it back. There is power in faithful remembrance. There is power in remembering history and freedom in learning from it.

Each Remembrance Sunday the Kohima Homage is spoken. As a veteran it was spoken at my Nana’s service. It has come to embody all conflicts beyond that of Kohima:

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

we will remember them.

It serves as a response to the Epitaph. This time it is the living that are speaking. It is the generation who have grown old and the generations who have followed that remember those who did not return.

My Nana was a bit of a survivor. In many ways she was a paradigm of strength and charity. When she was a child during the Great Depression her father would invite home for lunch veterans of the Great War. Sometimes they would be missing limbs or have other battle scars, but at their house they would divvy up the food once again so that they too could have a hot meal.

At 14 years old she was made to leave school (which she had won a scholarship for and did very well at) and work in a factory. Though this was not what she would have chosen, she decided that if she were to work as a seamstress then she would be the best she could be. In the end, her best was exceptional. She was a beautiful example that people can not only survive the circumstances of their life but exceed them.

She lived in London during the Blitz. I’ve written of my fascination with the Battle of Britain. I now live in London and every once and a while on a clear day I will look up and try to imagine the sky filled with aircraft: the Hurricanes, Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Heinkels. In the end I can’t get even close. The fighters of the BBMF fill the sky for me and their numbers are infinitely tiny compared to the numbers of that battle. The din of a bomber’s engines is unmistakeably omnipresent in my ears but there is only one in the BBMF, and those nights saw many more with additional threat of bombs in their bellies. She was too young to enlist at the time, but she joined the WAAF the following year.

As a WAAF she assisted consultants for those men who were being treated with plastic surgery for burns suffered while crashing in a burning aircraft. She took notes on the progress of the patients while they were photographed. She served on Bomber stations. Attended the services for men who took off but didn’t return the same. By the time the war drew to a close in 1945 she had seen much more than her 22 years would otherwise suggest nowadays. Her generation grew up quick.

63 years later I watched her for the first time attending the Armistice Sunday service: standing proudly, smartly dressed in a blazer and slacks (she was always smartly dressed – this was one lesson that was passed down from her, to my mother and eventually to me) with her RAF badge pinned to her beret. She was proud of what her generation had achieved and why not? Look at what they stopped. Look at the price they paid. Look at the lessons they learned. Lessons we ought to pay heed to.

So with her passing, with the steady passing of her generation and with the years between now and then increasing, what else can I do but echo Gibson? Let us hope that there is always enough who choose to look back at history and heed the lessons that were learnt. In the final passing of yesterday’s light into the shadows of dusk, that in 20, 50, 70, 100 years’ time from now it is all remembered and remembered faithfully. Then maybe the night won’t be so long, nor the dawn so cold.