November 11th marks the centenary of the First World War. There are many ways in which those who fought are honoured by their countries. In London, for example, there is a commemoration that is both spectacular and poignant: the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation at the Tower of London.
This installation consists of gradually filling the Tower’s moat with handmade ceramic poppies, a certain number per day until November 11th, when the last of the 888,246 poppies will be installed. Each poppy represents a dead British soldier. The poppy became the symbol of dead soldiers in the UK and Canada thanks to the poem In Flanders Fields by Lt. Col. John McCrae.
People were able to buy a poppy for £25, thought they are sold out. The proceeds will go to six service charities in the UK: Cobseo, Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and SSAFA. The installation will be progressively dismantled after Armistice Day and the poppies will be shipped to their new homes all around the world. A friend of mine from Dallas bought one, for example.
Every day at sunset, the Last Post is played and names from the Roll of Honour are read during a ceremony. These are Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died in World War I.
Since sunny days are a rare commodity in the English autumn, I decided to go to London to see this once-in-a-lifetime event. The trouble was that thousands of people had the same idea. It was sunny, it was lunchtime and it was half-term, an explosive combination of factors. The Tower Hill underground station was closed, they only let passengers out. A human tide waxed and waned along the moat walk. I didn’t realize I could have walked down the street until I was in the thick of it.
I eventually reached the ticket office. The lines were very long. Once inside the Tower, the queues were still very long: for the toilets, the café, and each attraction (an hour and a half’s wait to see the Crown Jewels!) I really am a glutton for punishment. As it turned out, the best place to see the poppies was along the moat walk. I didn’t need to fork out 20 pounds to get into the Tower of London.
To me, the poppies were a poignantly beautiful art installation. The afternoon sun cast its golden rays on the stone walls of the Tower and the blood red of the poppies really stood out. The effect was mesmerizing. But it all got a new meaning when I overheard a young dad explain to this son what this all meant. He added “your great great-grandfather died in this war.” That brought home to me that many of these people had a relative who fought in the war and were here to pay their respects. Their connection was deeply personal.