Right now, the BBC, and other media, are exercised by the great problem of whether a memorial to the British military dead of world war 1 should be dismantled on 12 November or should be allowed to stay for a few weeks, such is the great desire of the British public to visit it.
It is clearly a brilliant idea and must be overwhelming when seen in the flesh. (Google Images has lots of pictures.)
Called Blood swept lands and seas of red, it consists of poppies. Over the past months, ceramic poppies have been “planted” into the moat and parts of the Tower of London. The last one was planted on 11 November by a child, bringing the total to 888,246.
Paul Cummins and Tom Piper created this work: Cummins the ceramic poppies and Piper, who is a theatre designer, the concept, for want of a better word.
Both stress that the transience of the installation is itself meaningful, representing the transience of human life. Hence the tussle between ”the public”—who, as ever, seems to have found a voice in politicians eager to jump onto a populist cause but who, had the public hated the whole thing, would have been equally vociferous in denouncing it—and the creators.
Some sort of compromise appears to have been reached.
What’s wrong with that?
Taking my cue from Jonathan Jones, an art critic writing for The guardian and one of the very few prepared to point out a fundamental problem with this installation, let me amplify his point.
A century after the start of the first world war, this installation commemorates the British military dead.
The Wikipedia article on world war 1 casualties, if we can assume it is correct (and it looks plausible), defines the 888,246 figure as “United Kingdom… Military deaths (from all causes)”.
But hang on, what about other countries that fought with the British, are their dead to be ignored? Apparently so:
- France, at least 1,357,000
- Russian Empire, at least 1,700,000 (one reliable source puts the figure at 2,254,369)
- The total for the “Entente powers” (the side the British were on) is somewhere between 4,866,317 and 6,349,352.
Had the war ended ten years ago, such an inward looking concept as this installation might have been understandable. But it ended a hundred years ago. A hundred years is a very long time in what we laughingly call our civilisation. Are the British people still so insular, so lacking in grace and thankfulness that we cannot acknowledge the help (essential help) given by soldiers of other countries?
Seventeen countries, other than the UK, were part of the Entente powers. In addition to France and Russia, Italy, Australia, Canada, India, Romania (at least a quarter of a million) and the USA each lost at least 50,000 military lives.
Are the British still clinging on to some notion that “we did it all by ourselves”? Probably, yes.
But what about the British civilian casualties? 107,000 of those. Oh well, I suppose they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so they don’t count.
The “enemy” (Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, German empire, Ottoman empire) lost between 4,866,317 and 6,349,352 military personnel.
Why aren’t these represented in the Tower installation? After all, the overwhelming majority of these soldiers were also teenagers, like the British soldiers, equally reluctant (like the British soldiers) to fight a war they didn’t understand, a creation of self-interested politicians and self-interested generals with what can best be described as dubious motives.
And we—the British—killed many of them.
Aren’t they worth a few poppies?
Even after a hundred years, the British cannot bring themselves to admit that seeking some sort of rapprochement with Germany is better than sitting in a little ivory tower proclaiming our superiority.
I think the poppy installation, in itself, is superb.
But, as the pseudo-political statement which all politicians have made it (and not a few of the public), it is reprehensible.
> “The Tower of London poppies are fake, trite and inward-looking – a Ukip-style memorial” [external link]
> video: “Tower of London poppies artist says transience is crucial to the installation” [external link]
> video: “Cameron plants last two poppies at Tower of London” [external link]
© 2014 Jeremy Marchant . image: Free images
Jeremy, your comments (and those of the Guardian) are interesting and give pause for thought.
Politicians particularly do tend to get hold of these things and rather miss the point in their enthusiasm to take a stance they believe will win them votes – which, conversely, makes us trust them less and dislike them more.
However, I wonder if we are not jsut debating semantics here.
I went to the Tower in October and was incredibly moved, indeed it brought me to tears. But, while the number was specific, I took it at a more symbolic level: to remember the futility, the stupid rationale used by politicians to justify their actions, the waste of life in general.
If we get too specific, where does it end? Once you start adding all military lives lost, all civilian life lost, the numbers very quickly become difficult to manage.
Of course other countries were involved and not just military lives were lost, but we have to remember and I think one country’s military dead is a good place for that country to start.
That then leaves a little to the beholder to interpret in a more globally passionate way and ignore the pathetic political soundbites.