Arty tribute that beats history books

(Article published in Hindustan Times Next)

Most of us grew up learning about the First World War through history books and documentaries. Around a million Indian soldiers from colonial India also fought in the war on European lands and many more millions of European soldiers lost their lives. In the UK and all over Europe, remembering war soldiers is a national tradition and also a moment of reflection.

It has been 100 years since the Great War began in 1914. To mark the centenary year and to honour the British and commonwealth war dead soldiers, London exhibited a massive art installation at the Tower of London, a fortress located alongside river Thames with great political significance in Britain’s history. Nearly 900,000 poppies were planted in the moat of the Tower of London creating a visual impression of the “Blood swept lands and seas of red,” true to the title of the exhibition. Each ceramic poppy represented a British or colonial soldier who had lost his or her life during the First World War. The installation process driven by volunteers lasted a few months the last poppy was planted on remembrance day, November 11, itself.

The massive display reminded one of the scale of loss in a way history books never can. The number of visitors that turned up for the Poppy display over a few months surpassed the number of visitors received by popular tourist spot London Eye in a year. On the day of my visit, crowds of people across nationalities had gathered outside the Tower of London to watch the poppies. Notably, the atmosphere was largely serene and reverent despite the huge crowds that had gathered.

The poppy ‘s association with remembrance day goes back many decades. According to a BBC report, the poppy is the only flower to have grown on the barren battlefields of Northern France while the war lasted. It is believed that the excessive amounts of lime from rubble mixed with the soil and allowed red poppy flowers to bloom. Apparently, the growth of poppies dwindled after the war was over. It was in 1921 that a charity dedicated to the armed forces adopted the artificial poppy as a symbol of remembrance and created a Poppy appeal to help returning servicemen and their families.

The symbolic association of the poppy with remembrance has clearly carried on to this day. For a few weeks up to the Remembrance Day, people wear artificial red poppies on their clothes as a sign of respect for those who lost their lives. Everyone from politicians, news presenters and the locals can be seen wearing remembrance poppies during this time.

Wars or conflicts have a devastating effect but forging a connection is sometimes difficult for those who did not get directly impacted. A public tribute as a mark of respecting the war dead connects everyone to the fallen and gives them a moment of reflection.

column Nov 2014


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