Many of us have been surprised by the response to the installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. The 888,246 ceramic poppies that fill the moat of the Tower of London will have been seen by over four million people by November 11, and all of them have been sold for dispersal around the country – and to benefit veterans’ charities.
It’s almost as if the war memorials of individual villages and communities have been brought together in one corporate and vivid expression of the loss that this nation suffered. The scale of suffering and destruction in the 1914-18 war led to what has been called ‘a landscape of loss’ – from now on there are always people who are missing.
The response to the poppies in the moat suggests that this is a landscape that resonates deeply with people everywhere.
Reflecting on the response, a number of thoughts come to mind.
There is the importance of the collective. Ceramic poppies gathered together in one place speak more powerfully than if they were scattered far and wide. In the same way, it is our remembering together on Remembrance Sunday that gives us a more effective voice.
Imagine being the only person wearing a poppy, or the only person keeping quiet for two minutes – both would lose any meaning or significance.
Allied with the need to do things together is the sense that whatever we do, it is inadequate. We are unable to do justice to the immensity of what we are remembering. For this reason the most eloquent part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is its transience.
The fact that the installation will begin to be dismantled on November 12 is recognition of the truth that remembering the war dead from one conflict, let alone all others, is beyond our grasp.
Churches in Marlborough and the surrounding villages will be full this weekend. This leads to a final reflection, namely the need to place incomprehensible aspects of human experience in some kind of context.
Humans themselves ‘cannot be present’ at all 888,246 British and Colonial deaths, let alone the two million that Germany suffered in the First World War or those of France and other nations. We seek some sort of depository for the emotional bafflement which is prompted by our shared remembering.
Remembrance Sunday offers an opportunity to bring the bafflement to God and, without seeking to have everything explained, find that God can accommodate our indebtedness to lives lost as well as our sorrow at the human frailty that led so many down such anguished paths.
Marlborough News Online’s photographic record of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red can be seen here