Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
– Moina Michael
All through the city, country, poppies. Poppies on tweed lapels, poppies on collars, poppies tucked into buttonholes, poppies pinned into hair. A pregnant woman reading Tolstoy on the Circle Line, a businessmen with a briefcase and a crumpled tie, a gaggle of American holidaymakers asking the way to Baker Street, a child, a pensioner, a young man hunched over his smartphone, scrolling through Twitter on the pavement. All wear a poppy.
And in the very heart of the nation, in the centre of our ancient capital, 888,246 poppies. Poppies spilling out of windows and garrets, climbing over crenellations. Hundreds of thousands of poppies lining the Tower of London’s moat. Much has been written about the poppy memorial Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red – much of it critical – but when on Remembrance Sunday eve, I stood among thousands on the steps overlooking the moat, built long before the bloodshed its grounds would one day memorialise, I felt filled with hope. So many people, and all had come to remember. Perhaps we have learnt some of the lessons of the Great War. Good memorials evoke discussion, as this one has. Good memorials capture the public consciousness, at this one has. Good memorials implore us to remember, but remind us – always – to hope.
I stood on the steps, 100 years exactly after artillery heaved over the newly-built trenches at Ypres, and I remembered. I thought of my grandfather’s shrapnel collection, gathered as he ran home from school while sirens cried, and his later conscription to a Hamburg in ruins. I thought of the Doodlebug that crushed his house in Golders Green, killing the woman who lived next-door as he crouched under the stairs clutching his mother’s hand. I thought of my great-grandfathers, leaping over the trenches, almost certainly terrified – and how it was purely luck which determined that they survived while others died. I thought of all the great-grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters, mothers left behind. I thought of the sign outside the Victoria and Albert, pockmarked with bullet holes, that reads: The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the blitz, and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum during a time of conflict.
I thought of all the men forced to fight, shipped to the Western Front, as the bugler clad in red played the Last Post and then, in 2014, began to read the names of the fallen: Private A Howden of the Royal Fusiliers. Private C F Green of the Royal Fusiliers. Private W Cuppleditch of the Royal Irish Regiment. Rifleman A J Gaunt of the Post Office Rifles. Gunner J Taylor of the Royal Garrison Army. Who were they? What made them sing? I thought of the named, and all the unnamed – those who still wake to screaming shells overhead, not knowing whether today they might live or die.
Today the final poppy will be planted in the tower moat, totalling 888,246. A sea of red in bloodswept lands. A sea of red, a blanket of blood, a memory, a tribute, a grave, a memorial. 888,246 poppies. On Sunday I took the tube home from the memorial, all 20 stops, surrounded by men in uniform. There were tears in their eyes and gleaming medals affixed to their chests. I took the tube home with hope in my heart and the rhythm of McCrae beating in my mind – we are the dead short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, in Flander’s fields the poppies blow.