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 That didn’t happen, and the post remained unfinished and unpublished.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.