Back in 2014 we were involved in one of the most incredibly touching experiences of our lives, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red‘ at the Tower of London. To commemorate the beginning of World War One exactly one hundred years before an art installation had been commissioned to remember those servicemen that gave their lives and we had volunteered to be a small part of it.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red
Designed by Tom Piper the plan was to have a sea of ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London with each poppy representing one life tragically lost in the Great War. These poppies were hand-made in the traditional way in Derby and shipped down to the capital to be planted by a huge team of over 17,500 volunteers, of which we were a tiny part, over a four month period leading up to Armistice Day 2014.
The number of poppies was absolutely mind-blowing and it was shocking to think that each one represented a single life. During our day’s work at the Tower we learnt that if a ceramic poppy was damaged then it was repackaged and returned to the factory in Derby for repair. The exact number were planned and the feeling was that a damaged one was actually representative of an individual fallen soldier so had to be repaired and replanted.
Exactly 888,246 poppies were planted to remember those that gave their lives.
The first poppy was planted on 17th July 2014 to commemorate Britains entry into the war and the final one would be planted on 11th November. The finished installation would exist for just a single day before more volunteers began dismantling and redistributing the poppies which had been sold for charity. Over £15million was raised for forces charities.
Our Tower Experience
When we first read of the planned commemoration and heard that volunteers were required we signed up immediately. Ten times the number of people actually needed applied but luckily we were both selected and given a day to attend. On August 30th we took the train from Maidstone, Kent where our family home was, up to London. We had obviously visited the Tower of London many times and seen it on hundreds of occasions but this time we entered by the side door and found ourselves in briefing with perhaps 30 other volunteers.
It was touching to learn that there were people from all over the British Isles along with several overseas visitors as well, a real mix which I believe was exactly what the organisers wanted each day. After a brief security briefing and a lesson in how to put the poppies together (they were packed in various pieces) we were each handed a t-shirt and led out into the moat.
Unfortunately my t-shirt was designed for a small child and took me at least five minutes to stretch and pull and eventually squeeze into leaving me looking most podgy but it was a small sacrifice to make (I suppose).
We were pointed to a particular part of the moat to continue planting but given specific instructions NOT to plant the poppies in lines or in a uniform way. The designer wanted it to be as random as possible with the odd gap and the small clumps of poppies in exactly the same way groups of soldiers might stand.
At sunset on each day of planting the names of 180 fallen heroes was read out by a Yeoman warder followed by the last post.
Planting the Poppies
Our first three of four poppies were so stressful to build and then plant as we were terrified of breaking or damaging the ceramic petals and stems. Carefully placing all the parts together and then slowly finding a spot to plant it we were approached by one of the supervisors who calmly informed us ‘not to be scared of breaking them and to go for a it a bit more as there were only 400,000 more to plant‘. Ok then. So we did.
Any broken petals meant the poppy had to be handed to one of the staff and logged for return to the factory where they would personally repair it. We loved this idea as it really did make it real that each one actually represented someone. In fact Jo amused herself continually by saying ‘this one’s for Fred‘ or ‘in your memory Albert‘ as she planted each one. Funny but quite touching too.
Chatting to the other volunteers and sharing stories it was only after an hour or so that we looked up and noticed the massive crowds of tourists and locals watching us from outside the tower. It made us realise what a huge project we were part of and I have to admit I played to the crowd a little and waved and bowed a bit more than I should have.
The title of the piece was taken from a poem found in the pocket of an unknown soldier.
Embarrassing Myself Again
As we chatted and worked away I noticed one of our fellow planters moving a couple of stems and I mentioned to him that he shouldn’t be messing with them as the Beefeaters might be watching. He laughed and introduced himself ‘it’s okay I think, I designed all of this‘! Whoops. He was the guy behind the whole thing and I was telling him what not and what to do. Seemed to find it funny though.
After several hours of backbreaking work that we actually hardly noticed at all it was suddenly time to finish. The time had flashed by and we were so sad to be leaving. The crowds were even heavier as we all tidied up and people wandered down to the briefing room to leave. Obviously Jo and I were the last two volunteers to leave the Tower of London moat and as we looked back on the sea of poppies behind us we were humbled by the fact that so many people had volunteered to be a part of it. A tiny part but that was the whole point.
When the final poppy was planted just before 11am on November 11th by a 13 year old cadet from Reading, Harry Hayes, there were 888,246 poppies filling the moat and cascading out of the tower. It looked absolutely stunning. The effect was spellbinding and we can’t begin to describe how pleased we were to have been a small part of such an important event.
“The blood swept lands of seas and red
Where angels fear to tread”