The blood-red poppies pour out of a window, and the stain has spread and spread over the weeks and months of this year, 2014.
The scarlet sea of poppies at the Tower of London fills the moat that surrounds the Tower. The sea is still growing. It consists of thousands and thousands and thousands of poppies, each one cast in red ceramic, with a thin green stem. The final one will be planted in the moat at 11 am on November 11th. By that time, there will be over 800,500 of them. Each one is for a man from Britain or her Commonwealth killed in the Great War of 1914-1918.
The Queen went there with the Duke of Edinburgh, and walked silently through a little lane cut as a swathe through the poppies. Prince William went there with his wife and with Prince Harry. And hundreds and hundreds of Londoners have come, and people from all over Britain, and tourists and holidaymakers from abroad. And when I went there with a group on Sunday afternoon as dusk was falling, there were thousands of people there, moving about rather quietly or just standing still, or explaining the thing to children, or taking photographs on mobile phones. We couldn’t make our way around the moat, the crowds were much too thick and so we joined the great throng and just looked and looked, and the moved back and prayed together, and others nearby bent their heads too and no one thought it odd, it was so obviously the right thing to do…
Every November Britain commemorates her war dead. The Queen lays a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, in an action that is echoed at every suburban war memorial, and in churches and schools and city halls and railway stations. The bright red poppies make a splash of colour against the granite, and in the grey of November twilight. That mix of scarlet and gloom is something that has been part of Britain all the Novembers of my life, and for my parents’ lives too.
The project of planting ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London didn’t quite “catch on” at first. We read about it and heard about it on television, and saw the first poppies planted, and were told that we could each buy a poppy, with the funds raised going to charities that help today’s war-wounded (yes, from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as from older conflicts…). But then as the red tide grew larger and larger, and November drew nearer, it all became, quietly and persistently, more important and more real.
The 1914-18 war completely “changed everything”. There had been nothing on this scale of horror in previous wars. Whole families of sons were obliterated, whole villages bereft of young men. Nothing would ever be the same: war was mechanised, Europe’s royal thrones toppled, mass communication used on a scale previously undiscovered. Before 1914, you could travel around Europe without a passport, and whole vast territories were being farmed in ways that had remained unchanged for centuries, the oxen pulling the plough, people living according to ancient rhythms of fasting and feasting, of seed-time and harvest. Most people knew songs and old sayings passed on through their families and neighbourhoods, and never imagined learning such things any other way. Church clocks chimed the hour, and church bells proclaimed Sunday and feast-day worship, and parents’ voices taught children prayers, and no one imagined there would really ever be any other way to mark the days and hours than that.
Not all change is wrong: lots of things in everyday life are much, much better than they were for most people in Europe in 1914: health care, dental care, attitudes to the mentally and physically handicapped, opportunities for education and for enjoying music and drama and sport. Old prejudices about race and religion have been usefully challenged, along with many “old wives tales” about ways of treating people and illnesses and animals and more…
But the slaughter of 1914 – not to mention the fact that there came another slaughter just two decades later – lies like a thick layer of sorrow across Europe and the world. The poppies at the Tower of London are there for individual men: boys, teenagers, young married men in their thirties with families, young men in their twenties engaged to be married…men with sweethearts, men with sons and daughters, men who were brothers, friends, sons, cousins, schoolmates, grandsons, who were loved and needed, who were members of football and cricket teams, and Scout troops, and drama clubs and stamp-collecting groups and a hundred boy-things. Men who should have lived to shape the 20th century.
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord…”
If you are in London this week or next, visit the Tower of London.