Despite being born in the Capital, I cannot remember ever having visited the Tower of London. So, armed with an invite for a friend’s 50th Birthday party, Mark and I had our excuse to head off ‘down South’ for the weekend, with a plan to pay the Tower a visit. The Tower is currently home to a commemorative installation of ceramic poppies, ‘planted’ in memory of members of the armed forces who died during the First World War and I wanted to take a look.
I am still struggling to get my head round the logic of commemorating 100 years since the start of the War, as opposed to 100 years since the end, but I do think that it is important for us all to learn about the Great War and the way it shaped our lives today. Like most people, I studied the wars during history lessons at school. My memory is hazy but I remember a sense of the horrific conditions that the soldiers were exposed to and, when I let my mind wander, I find myself imagining the fear that everyone at the frontline must have experienced, whatever their nationality. I cannot begin to comprehend what it must really have been like; for the soldiers, many of them just young boys, and for the people back home, waiting for news of their loved ones, many of whom would themselves have been caught up in a very different terror caused by air raids and the hardships of rationing.
Whilst wars continue to rage around the world, and with Britain on the brink of joining the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the reality of wartime is still very much with us. However, it is unlikely that any other war will have the same impact on daily life in England as the combined effect of the two World Wars. For that reason, it is important to ensure that the Great War is remembered.
The ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation at the Tower of London was created by artist Paul Cummins, with the setting designed by Tom Piper. From 5 August 2014 (100 years after England declared war on Germany) to 11 November 2014 (Armistice Day) more and more poppies are being planted. 888,246 poppies in total, each one representing a British military fatality during the war. Information on the Tower’s website suggests that “The scale of the installation intends to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary, creating a powerful visual commemoration.” Having experienced the exhibit myself, I have to say that it does just that. The poppies are displayed as if to come pouring out of the tower, like blood, gradually filling the moat in a sea of red. You can’t help but take a moment to think about the extent of the bloodshed during the war; it’s staring you in the face.
The poppy is now the ubiquitous symbol of Remembrance. 1914 saw the fields of Northern France and Flanders damaged in conflict. When the war ended, the red corn poppy was one of the only plants that grew on the barren battlefields. The poppy was immortalised as a symbol of remembrance in poet John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and eventually became the symbol that we see each November to mark Remembrance Sunday.
The Tower has used the opportunity to commemorate the start of the Great War in other ways as well. An entry fee of £22.00 not only buys you the Crown Jewels, well a chance to look at them, but currently includes access to commemorative displays, which portray the significance of the Tower of London during the War. The Tower was used in the recruitment, deployment, and training of soldiers. We viewed photographs depicting the moat, where the poppies are now planted, as the place where new recruits swore their allegiance to King and Country before starting their training. The significance of the moat now being the place where those soldiers are remembered is not lost.
There is a collection of photographs which show images of the troops at the Tower, superimposed over images of the Tower today, with members of today’s forces standing in the same positions. The pictures reminded me that so many people are still training to fight throughout the world.
Whilst we took part in the very English pastime – queuing, waiting for about half an hour to see the Crown Jewels, we were treated to an historical re-enactment entitled, “Your Country Needs You”. We noticed a lady in period costume standing by the wall.
Her purpose became clear when two men dressed as soldiers joined the scene, seeking ‘recruits’ from the crowds. Unfortunately, because we were moving forward in the queue, we didn’t hear the whole performance, but it brought to life the methods used to encourage men to join up and fight for their country.
We were able to appreciate the full effect of the poppies without paying for entry to the Tower. However, it is easy to go to London and miss the tourist attractions that depict the history of our country, so we both felt it was worth going inside.
You get a slightly different perspective of the poppies – I was struck by the juxtaposition of the poppy alongside the Shard…
…and the commemorative events do help to bring the war story to life. However, for me, the true impact of seeing the poppies came from standing and quietly contemplating them; the increasing number of poppies, representing the increasing number of deaths as the war continued.
I am sure that each person who visits will have a different experience. Some will remember family who died during the Great War, some will think of loved ones involved in conflict today, and some will just appreciate the artwork. Whatever your experience, there is no doubt that the Great War had an impact on each and every one of us. And this exhibition is an innovative, and moving piece, which helps to ensure that the war is remembered. It is a vivid, visual representation of just how many people lost their lives.
You don’t need a ticket to experience the poppies, but one thing’s for certain, you can’t appreciate them properly from a photograph. So, I would thoroughly recommend that you visit if you can.
An ‘off peak’ train ticket to London from Manchester can cost as little as £39.80, including a one day travel card for use in London. thetrainline.com
An adult ticket for entry to the Tower of London costs £22.00.
And if you can’t go at all, visit buzzfeed.com for a striking, albeit digital, representation.
photos by Mark Johnson and me