On Friday, 26th September, Ben and I were lucky enough to make a special trip to the Tower of London. About a month previously, I had signed us up for a volunteering session at the Tower, planting poppies to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. I’m sure you’ve all seen the sea of ceramic poppies surrounding the Tower, part of the epic installation entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, it’s still a work in progress, and will continue until Armistice Day on 11th November. There are to be 888,246 poppies altogether, one for each British military fatality during the conflict.
Both the concept and the effect of this installation had intrigued me and captured my interest, so when I saw (via Londonist) that there were still places available, I leapt at the chance to play my own little part in history.
On the day in question it was cloudy and a bit breezy, but still warm: a perfect temperature for working outside all afternoon. We were on the afternoon shift, and Ben and I seemed (by quite a margin) to be the youngest volunteers there. But with our shift patterns we get days off in the week (for which I am eternally grateful!) this was hardly unexpected.
We lined up at the entrance to the volunteer centre, all in good spirits, and having signed in were issued with our volunteer t-shirts, badges, and water bottles. This was followed by two induction videos, one of which talked us through the process of poppy-making, and one of which gave us the means by which to put together the poppies on their stems. The poppies are all handmade, so are all as individual as the men they are dedicated to. The method of fitting the poppies to the stems seemed a little complicated to me initially, but it’s a repetitive process and you soon catch on – especially as we had 16,000 to plant that afternoon!
Walking through the moat to our workstations, we divided up into two groups – one for stems, one for planting. Whenever a pair who had been planting finished with their box, they would switch with a pair making stems, so a steady rotation would occur to make sure everyone got a fair turn. It was more difficult work than I had anticipated – we were kitted out in gloves and forcing rubber spacers onto metal stems, which pretty much wrecked my gloves by the end of the afternoon! – but it was so worth it.
The atmosphere was cheerful and everyone pitched in to do their part. There were a wide range of people in attendance, from middle-aged couples to pairs of friends to a woman who had come down to visit her son, drink in swanky bars by night, and make two visits to the Tower for poppy planting! Everyone was friendly and helpful, and the whole experience put me in mind of my experience working during the Olympic Games in 2012. I found myself working in Bexley during the torch relay, and the crowd were in such a good mood the whole day. It was so positive and good-natured, as I found the entirety of the Games to be and I was heartened, then and now, to see such a demonstration of the goodness of humanity.
The afternoon was a wonderful experience. To see our little corner taking shape. To step back and survey the rows upon rows of poppies already in place, their blood red hue shining against the grey stone outer walls and the vivid green grass and bright blue sky. All too soon our shift was coming to an end. We packed away our spacers and stems, and then were given free rein to wander around the moat and look at the poppies close up. As visitors aren’t normally allowed into the moat, it was a privilege to have the chance now. Ben and I strolled around the two thirds of the moat available to us (the other wall being river side and currently not being planted in).
It’s a magnificent sight, but it’s also far more powerful than just being something pretty to look at or take photos of. In fact, you feel almost guilty when you think about the fact that each of these represents a life stolen, a candle snuffed out too soon. For each of those beautiful poppies to exist, somebody’s husband, father, son, brother, friend, had to give their lives. They paid the ultimate sacrifice so we could have the chance to make the world a better and safer place.
I caught a glimpse of the televised Cenotaph Remembrance proceedings this evening on TV. A procession of grim-faced politicians, solemn members of the Royal Family and a wide assortment of the Armed Forces turned out on mass to honour and remember the tremendous sacrifice paid by so many. It is difficult for us today to see beyond the tragic beauty of the ceremony to the harsh realities of war. The concept of toiling in flooded, muddy, festering trenches in foreign fields, constantly risking life and limb just to steal back a stretch of land, seems so far removed to us today. But, as those whose loved ones are part of the various conflicts in the Middle East today can attest, it’s far closer than we think. War may wear a different mask today, but throughout it all runs the same undercurrent of tragedy and needless waste.
The minimum that we can do, as the descendants of those who suffered for freedom and liberty and the friends and family of those who still do, is remember. By remembering, we can try to make those shockingly high death tolls seem a little less futile, and their great sacrifice even more worthwhile.
“When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
– John Maxwell Edmunds, 1916
To donate to The Royal British Legion, who run the Poppy Appeal every year and use the proceeds to offer a lifeline to serving and ex-Service people across the generations, please click here