Every year on the 11th of November at 11 o’clock, every single person in the United Kingdom stops whatever they are doing to remember the members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces who lost their lives in the First World War that officially ended on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1914. This year was the 100th anniversary of the war, so there was a particular resonance through the whole year. The installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins was placed in the moat of the Tower of London. Cummins and his collaborator, stage designer Tom Piper, put the installation together with the assistance of thousands of volunteers, who each planted a red ceramic poppy, with the final count numbering 886,246, representing an estimate of the number of British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the war.
The red poppy has become a familiar emblem of Remembrance Day in the UK because of a poem titled In Flanders Fields, written by John McCarae in 1915. Poppies were the only flower that actually bloomed and flourished in the war-torn battlefield, their vivid red colour coming to symbolise the valour and bravery of the soldiers who gave their blood to the war for their country and its future generations.
I joined a swarm of people, from the very young to the very old, who had travelled from near and far to view this enthralling exhibit. There was an air of expectancy and excitement, especially as it was expected to be the last day of the exhibit. There were long queues for those daring enough to stand for hours and thousands did – such was the drive, emotion and desire to see the installation.
Upon reaching the Tower, I was absolutely mesmerised. Crimson coloured ceramic poppies were swooping and swirling across the Tower of London grounds. It was as if your senses were all on fire. Some spectators were in quiet contemplation while staring at the sea of red forms, others were jubilant, clicking away, trying to capture the image. In some places the poppies were almost fluid, pouring out of the windows to join the blood red tide lapping against the stonework of the tower, as if the tower itself had been wounded and was bleeding to a slow death. In some places the poppies were perched straight as an arrow, upright in their pride and resilience. It took an “amazing bit of military precision planning”, according to Tom Piper, to create this gallant installation. The installation was designed to be transient, as Cummins’ aim was to both remember each individual soldier but also to recognise the futility of life in such moments.
Words are not enough to describe this show. It needs to be seen, felt, and experienced. As I head back to my life I am glad I made the mad effort to see this gorgeous mass of bright red as it will remain etched in my memory.
The show was extended to the first few of weeks of December due to popular demand