The 100th anniversary of the end of World War I was marked this Nov. 11, 2014 and London found a unique way to commemorate the event. Poppies are a traditional symbol of Armistice Day, the day that the war ended, and many in the Commonwealth and Europe, especially in France and the UK, don the cheerful bloom on Nov. 11 each year to honor those who fought and fell. This year, London decided to set the symbol in stone—almost literally—by placing ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, one of its most beloved historical sites. The long-term art installation is titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.
Poppies were first associated with fallen WWI soldiers in a poem written in 1915 by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the now-famous “In Flanders Field.” McCrae saw poppies growing thick over the graves of soldiers, the hearty flower (sometimes called “the red weed”) is so tough, he said, it grows even surrounded by death. In the 1920s American professor and humanitarian Moina Michael read McCrae’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal and sewed a silk poppy in tribute.
The idea quickly caught on, and Michael realized she could monetize the whole production. She began making paper poppies on a large scale and selling them as remembrance poppies, donating the proceeds to soldiers’ causes. The American Legion made the poppy the official symbol of WWI remembrance. Great Britain wasn’t to be outdone though, and in 1921 held the inaugural Poppy Appeal (now held annually in the UK) raising over 106,000 pounds for charity.
The symbol has spread far beyond the United States and the UK, with poppies now worn across the globe in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and much of Europe, all sold in support of soldiers’ causes.
This year, poppies were made in more than just silk and paper. London created a crimson sea of beautiful, hand-crafted ceramic poppies that fill the once-barren moat of London’s famous tower. Each of the 888,246 flowers represents a fallen British soldier, a young life that never grew old. The tower seems a fitting backdrop for the morose work of art, having, of course, also been associated strongly with death and tragedy over its history.
Though grand in scale, this was no thoughtless enterprise, nor was it created in one go. The installation has taken months to complete, having been started in July 2014 and added to every day leading up to Nov. 11. Each ceramic blossom was placed individually and with great ceremony and respect. The final poppy was placed in the ground on Nov. 11 culminating in a traditional two-minute silence that is observed across Europe at 11 a.m. each year on this day.
What happens to the flowers when winter sets in? Some will go on tour and some will be sold to benefit soldiers’ charities. Once picked, they will be cleaned, packed, and shipped. Those sold went for 25 pounds (about US$40) all proceeds benefitting the UK’s six armed forces charities. Those that weren’t sold will tour the UK, bringing a smaller version of the moveable memorial to towns across the country before finally settling in at the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.
The commemorative work of art was open to the public until Nov. 12 and drew over five million visitors before a veritable army of volunteers began to dismantle it one poppy at a time. It will take a while to take it all down, though, and the two most designed elements, a weeping widow and a wave, will be removed last, meaning they will be available for viewing until the end of the month. Though many loved the visual commemoration and called for its permanent installation, the artist, Paul Cummins, explained that the “transient” nature of life was reflected in the temporary artwork.
If you’re in Europe this month, try to make it to London for the last chance to see the final days of this mammoth project.