A month ago my friend Tom sent me this photo of the memorial poppies at the Tower of London. He said that they were ‘an impressive and moving sight… one of those things that rather takes one’s breath away.’
By now the impact this monument has had on the country is well known. The ceramic poppies were created by artist Paul Cummins and the whole scheme was laid out by theatre designer Tom Piper. The title, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ comes from a the first line of a poem by an unknown soldier of the First World War, ‘Blood swept lands and seas of red, Where Angels fear to tread.’ There is one poppy for each of the 886,673 servicemen killed in the war.
I wasn’t able to see them myself until Tuesday this week, Armistice Day. By chance I got to the Tower just before 11 o’clock, and as I walked up towards the Tower past All Hallows I could heard the Yeoman Warder reading out the name of one of the fallen.
During my whole visit the crowd was so dense that I saw very little of the poppies themselves; I had no idea, for example, that the final poppy was being planted just before eleven by a young cadet in memory of one of his family who’d been killed just before the war ended.
But the feeling in the crowd itself was extraordinary. The only other time – and I’ve just mistyped ‘rite’ which is not inappropriate – I can remember London crowds so quiet and purposeful and thoughtful was in the days just after the death of the Princess of Wales.
I was standing by the North East side of the moat coming up to eleven, and a steady stream of people was making their way over as close as possible to the wall on all sides, a total cross-section of London, city workers, old soldiers in regimental ties, tourists and groups of builders from construction sites. I had expected the solemnity of their respect to the fallen, focussed on the solid mass of poppies I got occasional glimpses of through the crowd. What I hadn’t expected was the universal politeness of the crowd, hushed apologies for treading on feet or blocking people’s view, the considerateness and total awareness of other people. It was quite beautiful.
On my way back I passed a woman saying to her friends, ‘Do you think it’ll happen again.. not in France, but with everything happening?’ At the top of the steps from the moat-walk there was a couple handing out leaflets. I thought they might be pamphlets about the poppies, but they said: ‘Is Satan real?’
I thought of CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. I’ve never read them, but I’ve heard them talked about on the radio. They’re written between an apprentice devil and his mentor. At one point the apprentice says that presumably a devil ought to encourage war. Not at all, says his master: for all the monstrous harm it does, war also provokes humanity’s best qualities, love, loyalty, sacrifice.
CS Lewis fought in the First World War and was wounded, so he was speaking from experience; as a civilian, I would leave comment on that to those who’ve fought in wars, or the people in those parts of the world where war means humanitarian disaster. But what I witnessed on Tuesday in the crowd’s response to the sacrifice of others was an expression of pure selflessness.