My heart leapt when I got the email confirming my volunteer place to contribute to the biggest and most ambitious WW1 centenary commemoration. A once in a lifetime opportunity to remember the lives and sacrifices of so many that we owe so much to.
I am delighted and honoured to help bring Paul Cummins’ WW1 commemorative art installation in the Tower of London’s moat to life. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is going to be the most stunning centennial tribute marking 100 years since Britain went to war at 11pm on 4 August 1914. I’ll be one of at least 8,000 volunteers assembling and planting 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat – one for every British life lost. The last one will be fixed in place on Armistice Day, 11 November, symbolically marking the end of The Great War.
Arriving at the Tower of London with many others who all wanted to do their bit, we donned our red volunteer t-shirts and eagerly headed into the moat for our morning’s work. Some had taken holiday from work to be there, others were groups of corporate volunteers, and one man I spoke to had come all the way down from Rugby. I’m sure there were many more just like him.
Across every age bracket, from so many walks of life and different parts of the country, it was touching to see the time and effort everyone was putting in, and the value they placed on their contribution. Everyone said they felt it was important, some spoke of their family members involvement and we all felt this very visual tribute was a fitting memorial.
Planting began on 5 August 2014, marking Britain’s first full day at war and on the morning of my slot, over 240,000 had already been planted. Each volunteer session plants up to 11,000 poppies depending on the group size, and the usually dry grassy moat was already abundant in bright, striking red poppies. Encircling the Tower of London and just over a quarter complete, I wondered how on earth they will all fit – and how spectacular something of this magnitude would be on completion.
As a group, we pushed rubber washers onto three different lengths of metal rod, then placed the ceramic poppy head on, finishing each one off with a black rubber cork replicating the centre of the flower. I must have been either very productive or quite heavy handed, because I came away with a blister on each thumb (and it probably didn’t help the gloves provided were too big for my small hands)!
As I planted poppies into the soft grass, I was humbled when I thought about the significance of my actions. A traditional British symbol of remembrance, each poppy was unique; just like every single person they represent.
Months of preparation and care bringing the installation to fruition is symbolic of the years families spent bringing up their loved ones, only to see their lives extinguished in an instant; like the installation itself, which will grow and grow until completed on Armistice Day, and then, disappear.
An overwhelming and moving sight, poppies are spilling out of the windows, a swelling sea of red slowly flooding the moat. Walking in amongst the poppies in the moat, I got a real sense of the scale of loss that WW1 brought.
After my shift, I joined a large crowd looking at it from above; this is not one you just walk on past, it is an absolutely epic tribute that anyone who sees it will remember for a long, long time. Touching the hearts of many, people had begun to attach personal memorials to the railings.
There is a bitter irony in the beauty of this staggering public art installation, and the tragic loss of life it is designed to commemorate. I’m so glad to have been able to get involved and show my respect.
There is still the option to volunteer, buy a poppy from the installation or make a dedication. I would like to visit before 11 November 2014 to see the final spectacle, preferably at sundown so I can listen to the Roll of Honour and hear the Last Post played.