Huge crowds flock to WW1 Remembrance artwork

Remembering the dead: Each poppy in the installation represents a soldier killed in WW1.

The field of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London has caught the public imagination. But does such a beautiful memorial to those killed blind us to the horror of the First World War?

Contemporary art provokes many responses among the public, but overwhelming and heartfelt approval is not often among them. However last week tens of thousands of people visited an art installation at the Tower of London. So many, in fact, that buses were diverted and the nearest underground station closed to avoid dangerous congestion.

The work is made of hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies planted in the dry moat of the Tower. Its title is ‘The Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red’ and each poppy commemorates a British or colonial serviceman or woman killed in the First World War. The first of 888,246 flowers was planted on 5th August, 100 years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the war. The last will be installed on Armistice Day, 11th November.

Each poppy was sold online for £25 and the £15m raised will be divided between six service charities. (After Armistice Day the artwork will be dismantled and each poppy delivered to its sponsor.)

Not everyone admires it however. Jonathan Jones, the art critic of the Guardian newspaper, called it a ‘prettified and toothless war memorial. It is all dignity and grace. There is a fake nobility to it, and this seems to be what the crowds have come for – to be raised up into a shared reverence for those heroes turned frozen flowers.

‘What a lie. The first world war was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.’

Many object to this view. A writer in the Daily Mail observed that ‘I saw the poppies back in the summer and wanted to bring my children before the whole thing disappears. I could think of no better way to impress upon them the enormity of the Great War than to show them this crimson moat and explain that every single one of the 888,246 poppies equals a real person who lived and died for this country.’

Remembering and forgetting

Some think commemorations like this simply disguise the revolting brutality of war. Dressing it up as some holy, national sacrifice hides the ignorance, selfishness and stupidity which brought about the unnecessary death of millions of young people across the world.

On the other hand, many have been deeply moved by this work and feel conscious of the link it makes to those members of their families who fought, and some of whom died, in wars over the last century. To remember them in this way is not to glorify war, but to appreciate what they did to try to ensure peace for future generations.

You Decide

  1. Should war memorials be beautiful?
  2. Is it wrong to commemorate the dead of just one side in a war?

Activities

  1. Research other war memorials from other countries and from different periods. What do you feel each of them is trying to express?
  2. Find out how other countries who took part in the First World War are commemorating the centenary of its outbreak.

Some People Say...

“War is the natural activity of mankind. War and gardening.’Winston Churchill”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it matter that people have different views about an artwork?
A war memorial like this isn’t just a personal expression by an artist, like the painting ‘Sunflowers’ by Van Gogh. It is trying to express a feeling that everyone can share towards an episode in history which may well have had disastrous consequences and brought death and misery to many. Many people get upset that others are unable to share that feeling and take it as an insult to the dead and to the nation. This may be felt even more so when a country, like the UK, has recently had its soldiers abroad risking their lives in controversial actions.

Word Watch

Title
The art work is a collaboration between the ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre stage designer Tom Piper. Its title was inspired by a line in the will of a Derbyshire man who joined up in the earliest days of the war and died in Flanders. Knowing that everyone was dead and he was surrounded by blood, the man wrote: ‘The Blood Swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.’
Colonial
Over 200,000 soldiers from India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa died fighting for the British Empire in the First World War.
Died
Over 380,000 British servicemen and women died in the Second World War. Since then over 4,000 have been killed in various wars and emergencies.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.