A potent reminder of the bloody sacrifice made by millions, GTW explores why the humble poppy has become such an important symbol the world over.

'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' poppy installation at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of the First World War.

A dramatic view of the art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

As the Tower of London is covered under a sea of ceramic poppies to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, this iconic flower once again blossoms as a potent reminder of the bloody sacrifice made by millions. Recognised across the globe as a symbol of remembrance, and synonymous with loss of life, it was the poppy’s ability to thrive where all else had failed on the ruined battlefields of Belgium and France that first sparked its association with the fallen. Known as the red field, or corn poppy, its seeds can lie dormant for years, sparked into life in springtime when the earth is disturbed, thriving in the ruined landscape of Northern Europe, as battles tore through former agricultural land.

Poetry In Motion

Adding a splash of vibrant blood-red colour to the war-torn ground, it wasn’t long before the poppy came to the attention of Canadian soldier Major John McCrae, who penned the poem In Flanders Fields in 1915 while fighting on the front lines in Belgium. It starts: ‘In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row, that mark our place and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly, scarce heard amid the guns below.

Reports from fellow soldiers at the time say it took John just 20 minutes to pen what has since become one of the best-known war poems ever written.

Its poignancy, and its role in helping to cement the poppy’s role as a symbol of loss, later heightened as the war drew to a close in November 1918. Two days before the Armistice was declared, an American woman called Moina Michael, who was connected with the US military, happened to come across John’s poem in a magazine. Moved by the words, she vowed to always wear a red poppy, and her influence sparked a whole new movement.

So passionate was Moina for ‘poppy power’ she directed all her energy into encouraging the high and mighty in American government to adopt the poppy as a national war memorial symbol. Her work eventually paid off when the American Legion (set up to support American servicemen who’d fought in the First World War) urged its members to wear a poppy on the anniversary of Armistice Day. The word later spread to France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, with the first British Legion Poppy Day Appeal held in November 1921, starting a tradition that has reigned.

Poppies In The Tower

Art installations don’t come any more eye-catching than this, and Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, will see 888,246 ceramic poppies progressively fill the Tower of London’s famous dry moat until Armistice Day on November 11, 2014.

Each hand-made poppy represents a British military fatality during the First World War, and there’s still time to add yours. Poppies cost £25, plus postage and packing, and all net proceeds from the installation – plus a guaranteed 10% from every poppy sold – will be shared equally among six service charities, including The Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and Help for Heroes.

Order online at https://poppies.hrp.org.uk/buy-a-poppy and be part of this iconic project. 

Tower Of London Facts

  • Home to the Crown Jewels since the 1100s, many of the medieval and Tudor crowns were destroyed at the Tower when the monarchy was abolished during the English Revolution (the gold and silver melted down and made into coins). These priceless treasures were then remade for Charles II’s coronation in 1661.
  • Yeoman Warders (better known as Beefeaters) are a detachment of the Yeomen of the Guard, and it’s been their job to guard the Tower since the 1500s.
  • The Tower’s Jewel House is home to the world’s most extravagant punch bowl – the 19th century, silver-gilt Grand Punch Bowl – which, at more than a metre wide and weighing around 248kg (546lb), was originally intended as a wine- cooler to hold 144 bottles.

Tower Of London Experience

By Julie Cousins

“I had not visited the Tower of London since a school trip some years ago, so was eager to see the entire grounds and its Towers. We were greeted by Lesley at the gate and the first thing that hit us was the red blooms from the moat and the wall. Lesley told us some background information and explained that there would be an individual poppy planted to represent each fallen soldier. Groups flowed through the tour at their own pace, with audio guides available on request, priced at £3 per person based on group booking of 15 or more. There are tours available in 10 different languages to welcome international visitors. After climbing plenty of steps and spiral staircases we had a choice of visiting the outdoor seating areas for a great picnic or the New Armouries Restaurant and Café for a hot option. I think that it was a very touching tribute to commemorate the fallen of the Great War 1914-18.”

By Samantha Noble

“Since hearing about the major art installation at the Tower of London, I had wanted to go and visit, so when Lesley invited us to attend, Julie and I were delighted. Before we went, I took the opportunity to do some research into the ceramic artist Paul Cummins and the stage designer Tom Piper who have been responsible for the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower. The video of how each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies has been hand-made is well worth watching. If you take a tour of the Tower it is playing non-stop in one of the rooms, or visit the historic royal palaces website to see it. The poppies that encircle the iconic landmark are spectacular. The scale of the display is mesmerising and provides a really powerful message – attributing to a truly unique commemoration. Well worth a visit before the final poppy is installed on 11/11.”

For more information on group visits to the Tower of London, visit www.hrp.org.uk Email VisitorServices.TOL@hrp.org.uk or call 0844 482 7777