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Such a simple plant, the poppy … and in the allotment ground it can be a pain.

O.K. so it’s pretty. Yes, yes, yes, it’s bright. And easy to cultivate; that’s an understatement, right?

And distinctive? Yeah, I’ll give you distinctive, but it’ll spring up anywhere … and keeps springing up for donkey’s years.

But, immortalised by Canadian surgeon John McRae, it has symbolised Remembrance and the Armistice since 1921 when it was officially adopted by the Royal British Legion and so commenced a long-lived charity campaign. Chosen because of all the scarlet corn poppies (popaver rhoeas) that sprang up in red blossom tides to cover the disturbed ground of Northern France and Flanders in 1914. Once the conflict was over the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.

Indeed, the Poppy factory in Richmond, London has been in existence since 1922, making approximately 36 million pin-on poppies each year and employing around forty full-time staff.

I learned of the symbolic value of the poppy while at school (but also had a teacher harangue me for “putting poppies in a cornfield” painting, when he ranted “every fool knows poppies don’t grow in farmer’s fields”) and go the symbolism immediately.

But this year the poppy has reached a new pinnacle. The Tower of London installation! There has been a most marvellous campaign which has involved the “planting” of ceramic poppies created first in the mind of artist Paul Cummins, then practically in his studios near to Pride Park (the home ground of Derby County) over a period of five months. The poppies, sold to individuals at a cost of around £25 have been displayed in the dry-moat space around the Tower of London. Money raised will go to chosen charities.

    

But the significant and visceral fact is that each poppy represents a British/Colonial service man killed during the First World War …

And there are eight hundred and eighty eight thousand, two hundred and forty six of them!

One time anti-establishment “alternative comedian” Ben Elton is quoted as saying:

“Kids can look at those poppies and get it. Nearly a million dead. Every single one a young man.” And this may be the significance. We all pass the local war memorial (some of us without noticing perhaps), may attend the local annual parade, but to see the scale of the sacrifice is stunning.

It needs must be at least doubled for enemy losses and added to for the Second World War and added still more for conflicts since – of course. But, looking at the pictures (on TV news today) I saw the reality, the waste for the first time – because of those poppies.

The final one placed in a ceremony today ten minutes before the eleven o’clock Big Ben chimes launched the two minutes silence.

Five million visitors have been to see the sight. A ringing endorsement for what might have seemed a risky venture between its commission and Armistice day, 2014: a hundred years since the beginning of The Great War.

So taken to heart by the wider public and a genuine success in carrying a message to new generations the question yet to be answered is:

If this installation worked so fantastically well for the opening of the First World war, what on earth will we do to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty – in four years time?

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by landwanderingland on November 15, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    A very touching post. Looking at the photos and reading your story, I cannot help but seeing the blood that had been spilled.

    Reply

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