Poppy Wars

Reading Saturday’s Guardian, I became aware for the first time of a bit of a spat between a Guardian columnist and the Daily Mail. These spats are not particularly unusual; the Mail specialises in splenetic outbursts and is notoriously sensitive to any assaults on anything it identifies as national pride.

So although I have some sympathy with the columnist who found himself accused of sneering at the poppies in the moat, I don’t think he should have been surprised. I didn’t see his original piece, just the response to the Mail’s denunciation. Think popes of middle ages and threats of eternal damnation and you get the picture.

The columnist feels the poppies are essentially saccharine; a comfortable ‘toothless’ display that sweeps the murderous truths of war ‘under a red carpet of artificial flowers’.

Predictably the Mail thinks this disses the dead. The lines are drawn up in drearily familiar style.

Short of banging their heads together in the hope that some of the molecules will be knocked into life and get these two protagonists to see sense, it’s probably best to ignore them. I freely admit I haven’t read the whole of the Mail’s outburst. Reading anything bar the weather in the Mail is something I prefer not to do. As a publication (like Linda Smith, I cannot bring myself to call it a newspaper) it depresses me enormously. That said, the columnist Jonathan Jones doesn’t exactly make me want to watch out for more of his writing. Without the picture by his byline, I could have thought him an adolescent; grimly serious about his views, convinced that these are the correct ones, the rest of us idiots, and quick to condemn others. Rather like the Mail in fact.

I think he has just missed the point that this one of many commemorations to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Each commemoration remembers the war in a different way. This one uses the poppy, our symbol of remembrance to bring home the size of the losses suffered by the British and Colonial forces; 888,246 people. A big number on paper, but the reality of that number is shockingly and movingly made real by the sea of poppies. I have met Germans who wish there were something similar in their country; voluble Italians rendered speechless by the sight (and that was over a month ago where there were fewer poppies); French visitors asking where they can buy their own paper or enamel poppies to wear. As we see more deaths around the world, as our troops continue to be deployed, the poppies touch a nerve. For the men these poppies represent we know there are many many more, both here and throughout the world. Wars mean death on grand scales.

I believe you reach more people, make more people aware of the savagery and ravages of war by this poppy display than by shoving pictures of worm infested skulls in their faces. People stand silent and solemn. Of course there is the selfie crowd, grinning inanely into their phone cameras to prove they were there. There, but quite missing the point.

Last week we had our poetry group and the theme was remembrance. It struck me reading the poems written by First World War poets how angry many of them were. Sassoon is my favourite war poet, and he sears the jingoistic supporters of the carnage he has witnessed at first hand. Yet I cannot imagine him spurning Paul Cummins’ installation. Rather I can imagine him sorrowful and mourning, angry for the loss of life, and fiercely proud of the soldiers who died so needlessly. To remember and to honour them is not to sanitise the war.

For those of you who have no idea what I am on about, the moat at the Tower of London has slowly been filling with handmade ceramic poppies. In the UK we wear poppies as our symbol of remembrance each year. It started as a symbol to remember those who died in the First World War which was supposed to end all wars. However we human beings do not learn lessons easily, and wars have continued to feature. So now poppies commemorate all those who have perished in conflicts this country has been involved in from 1914 to the present day.

My work takes me to the Tower on a fairly regular basis and each time I go I take photographs. Each time I see the installation I am struck by the huge loss of life it represents. Yet this is just a fraction of the number of lives lost in the First World War.

If that doesn’t make you think, nothing will.

22 thoughts on “Poppy Wars

  1. I have some sympathy for the notion that after a certain point the once poignant symbol becomes a cheap and easy way to acknowledge support without actual emotional input. Thinking here of the endless colors of ribbons which may be our poppy for the range of contemporary crises, each receiving a color, a recognition, a “respect” instead of “disrespect” and then we can go on about out business.

    Also thinking of the Japanese origami cranes made by survivors and descendents of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How could those symbols ever become “toothless”?

    The magnitude of the Great War was eclipsed by the horrors and the triumphs of the Second war, the “Good War”. At the base of this argument, I believe, is an unwillingness to accept the tragic loss of so many many lives over something so stupid even though “stupid” is the cause of almost every conflict among human beings.

    PS – just the first centenary – doubt we’ll be at the hundredth.

    • Yes, and so far we seem stuck with war as the means to resolve conflict. Each time we say ‘never again’ and then when diplomacy fails, out come the guns. It’s the way we let arguments escalate that needs to improve.
      Can’t believe I wrote hundredth centenary. I have scoffed at others saying that. I should do as the teachers at school told us, and reread my work before publishing, then decisions about writing hundredth anniversary or centenary shouldn’t end up as nonsensical mxes of the two.

      • As my partner would say, “chimps or bonobos?” We as a species are so closely related to both and yet human beings choose “chimpanzee” over “bonobo” behavior most of the time.

        But just to keep the conversation really deep and dark, one of the most ugly aspects of the Great War is that it was States, Governments, elected officials who decided to send so many young men on both sides to death with no purpose. There are comparisons with our current adventures in the Middle East that just makes one cringe.

        • I like that question.
          Until we find an effective way of resolving differences without shows of aggression and acts of violence I guess the chimp side of us will win.
          Mother was be of seven, Dad one of four, so there has always been a large layer of their generation ahead. Now only two of Mother’s siblings remain (there are half siblings too, but I don’t know them at all) and one of Dad’s. All are in their nineties.

  2. poppies are worn here too for what we call Remembrance Day on Nov 11, but the symbolism of each poppy representing a single person who tragically lost their life by the atrocities of war seems to be a very poignant and meaningful memorial indeed. the first centenary already. unbelievable.

    • I am wondering what is going to be done in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the war. Like Kathy, I have some sympathies with the columnist’s views, though I don’t agree with him. He is however entitled to an opinion and to voice it, and by voicing it perhaps stimulate debate.

    • Are you on twitter? @MPsinthesky have published amazing photos from their helicopters. Seeing the numbers grow has been a poignant reminder of how the casualties increased. On the 18th I shall be one of the volunteers helping to remove them.

  3. We first went to the Tower in August when they were just starting the installation. We popped in last week & although had to ‘fight’ to see them because of the crowds, were amazed at the sight they now present. If this installation has made even a few people stop & think even for a moment then it has achieved something. The fact that each poppy has now been sold means that something constructive has come out of it. I doubt many people would have bought a bone! We certainly wouldn’t & we have bought 2 poppies.
    Powerful writing Isobel. Mind if I reblog it?

    • Yes, I am glad I have photos from August when they were sparse. I imagine by the time my turn comes on the removal rota they will be sparse once more.

      I have been told that the shard is a great place to view them. On a clear day like today it would be a very good view.

      Do reblog. I should be honoured. Thanks.

  4. I think it’s a grand and beautiful display to commemorate those who gave their lives. But on a similar note, this year I am wearing a red poppy for rememberance and a white poppy for peace.


  5. i have always been moved by the idea of ‘Poppy Day’. I was told that the battle fields of France are covered with poppies every year in Spring and it seemed to symbolize the blood that was shed there. From the photos I have seen of the Tower, I have been really moved once again and only regret that they will not be there when I come in December. The idea of a white poppy for peace is such a good idea.

  6. Spot on, Isobel. I know people who have been to see the poppies and found the whole experience very moving. Far from a “toothless display” each and every one represents a life, a son, a husband, a father. We should never ever forget.

    • I think I am very privilged to have seen the display from the first days onwards. When I returned from Greece I was amzed at how many more had been added in one week. When you see them every couple of days you don’t notice how much the installation has grown. Looking at them, realising that each one represents someone who died, and that for all that the number is huge, it is just a small fraction of the total loss of life is shocking and sad. I find the whole thing intensely moving. A simple and very effective idea.

  7. Reblogged this on Julia's Place and commented:
    I was aware that there had been negative comments about the installation at the Tower of London. This post by my dear ‘virtual’ friend Isobel explains the ‘spat’ and makes some very thoughtful observations.

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