Blood Swept Lands & Seas of Red: A visit to the Tower of London

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Even though the installation has been around since August I only managed to get down to see the poppies at the Tower of London properly this weekend when some friends came to stay.  I had attempted a visit the previous week but I left it too late to head down and Tower Bridge was completely packed so by the time I made it to the Tower it was dusk and the light had all but disappeared.

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DSCF0017We headed down on Remembrance Sunday, together with thousands of others, hoping to catch a glimpse of artist Paul Cummins’s 888,246 ceramic poppies.  If you’re not familiar with the installation, each poppy represents the life of a member of the British military who died in the First World War, 1914 – 1918.

A sea of crimson surrounds the Tower, ebbing and flowing around the brickwork, waves of ceramic poppies spilling out from turrets like tears saturating the ground below.

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It was humbling to walk with people from all corners of the world that day, all of whom paid their respects to relatives and unknown military personnel whose lives were lost in the Great War.  Most visitors wore paper poppies which they fastened to their lapels while some favoured more intricate, even handmade, designs.  Along the railings people had left mementos and markers to commemorate fallen relatives they never got to meet.

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As we wove our way along the path, in amongst groups of tourists taking selfies and families on days out the mood became sombre as it neared 11am – the time of the two minute silence.  When the time came the whole crowd fell silent.  Cameras stopped clicking, nobody moved a muscle.  It was quite an emotional experience to be there during the silence, reflecting on the lives lost in the First World War, and those lost in all the wars since.

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Over the past few weeks it seems that everyone has had an opinion on wearing – and not wearing – the poppy, which is widely regarded as a symbol of the British lives lost during WW1.  Personally, I always wear a poppy, irrespective of various parties’ attempts to politicise it’s meaning.  For me, it’s a reminder that war is gruesome and cruel and not something to be entered into lightly.  I wear my poppy as a mark of respect, to remember all those lives lost, from John Condon, the child soldier from Waterford who died in Ypres after a mustard gas attack to octogenarian Lord Roberts who was recalled to service in his 80s and everyone else who bravely fought, shoulder to shoulder, until the very end.

A horn signalled the end of the silence and, out of nowhere, the crowd came back to life with rapturous applause.  Before we dispersed, to different corners of the city and beyond, we remembered the sacrifice that strangers made for us so that we might be able to go about our business freely, as though the war had never happened in the first place.

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For the fallen

For The Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

-Laurence Binyon, 1914