Reflections on the Tower of London’s Poppies

Yesterday was a very emotional day for me when I visited my granddad’s old school, Emanuel School, in Wandsworth, South London, and heard about his life as a school-boy on the eve of the Great War.  As Emanuel’s school historian comments on the board displaying my granddad’s photo.

Cole, George Parnall, 1914 photo used as opening photo of 2014 Emanuel school exhibition

In the summer of 1914 Emanuel boys went about the normal lives.  They played cricket on the field, they sang in a School concert in Battersea Town Hall and they attended prize giving…We broke up in July [1914] under the shadow of Armageddon and reassembled [in September] to find it a reality.

Emanuel at War Exhibition, November 2014

Visiting Emanuel school was intensely moving for me.  Not least, because I never knew my granddad, as I was two when he died.  A man who I’ve spent a great deal of time researching his family history and a man I would have loved to have known. A man I’m proud to call my granddad.  He joined the York and Lancaster Regiment one day short of his 18th birthday in 1917 and returned home, injured, after the Great War to his loving parents and child-hood sweetheart, never to mention those terrible times again to another living soul.

Emanuel School

My granddad, as a 15 year school boy, outside Clapham Junction on the eve of Armageddon, in the school uniform of Emanuel


The whole day was incredible moving for me because on my way through to South London from North Essex, I stopped by the ceramic poppy display at the Tower of London.

I had heard a lot of negative comments about these beautiful poppies before I went, and also heard plenty more negative remarks whilst I spent 2 hours walking and contemplating the exhibition.  Directly behind me, a man commented (clearly aimed at me) “90% of the people here don’t know what it’s about and have come to gawp.”  Well, sir, leaving aside that your comment aimed at me was incorrect because I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching my own local war memorial in Great Dunmow (long before it was “fashionable”),  you totally missed the point about the remaining 89.999% of visitors.

It doesn’t matter that previously 90% showed no interest in the past.  The fact that they are showing interest today, and have stopped during their busy 21st century lives to take photographs, comment, ponder and wonder, means that all those 888,246 lost lives have not been forgotten.  100 years after the start of Armageddon, hundreds of thousands of people have flooded to see this incredible display of lives and families destroyed.

I saw young heavily fake-tanned women taking “selfies”, along with old veterans displaying their medals.  I saw fully kilted uniformed Scottish soldiers, along with twenty-somethings wiping tears away.  Veterans, pensioners, London workers, tourists, young people and children all stood shoulder-to-shoulder.  The fact is, Paul Cummins’ remarkable Sea of Blood is for absolutely everyone to pause in their lives and to reflect back to that terrible time 100 years ago.

The Great War affected all our families 100 years ago, and is now touching their descendants hearts today.

The controversy of the display at the Tower reminds me back to the days even whilst the Great War was still raging when the question of War Memorials started to be hotly debated all over towns and villages of a devastated Britain.  The building of War Memorials were highly emotional with bereaved communities totally unable to decide what was the best way to commemorate their dead.  My own North Essex town of Great Dunmow has a war memorial – but reading the meeting minutes regarding its building shows that in 1918 this was a deeply divided and grieving community.  These are cold-hard meeting minutes reporting facts, but even now, they show unwitting testimony of highly charged and emotional council meetings. No-one being able to decide anything: a community torn apart in their grief and frozen in their clerical indecisiveness.

Back to today, and yes, the Tower of London Poppy display is controversial, and the motives of some of its visitors questionable.  But it is a very visual display of a shattered nation, and a shattered world.

If you have a chance to see the Tower of London’s “Blood swept Lands and Seas of red” before it is dismantled after 11th November 2014, do go.  Take photos.  Put them on Facebook, tweet them, publish them. By doing so those  888,246 lost souls – indeed the world’s lost souls from all the combatant nations – will always remain in our hearts.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Tower of London - poppies

The walls of the ancient Tower of London hemorrhaging the nation’s blood

Tower of London - poppies

In among the poppies, a poignant reminder from a bereaved family

Tower of London - poppies

The poppies and London’s iconic Victorian landmark – Tower Bridge

Tower of London - poppies against The Shard

The old and new icons of London – with the blood of the nation

Tower of London - poppies

Somewhere in this sea of blood lies poppies representing 4 lost lives from my family.

Emanuel School at WarThe ghostly images of Emanuel’s 1913 XV projected onto the school building. Eight of those boys never returned from the Great War.  They were my granddad’s schoolmates and later, his comrades in arms.  Among the 888,246 poppies at the Tower of London, 8 poppies represent the lost lives of these boys.


Lest we forget



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– Memorial Tablet – I died in hell
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© Essex Voices Past 2014.

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One Response to Reflections on the Tower of London’s Poppies

  1. Christine says:

    Such an evocative piece. Your post made me weep, way across the pond in the USA. My grandfather, too, was of the WWI generation. He and three of his four brothers enlisted, and all made it home. (One granduncle went to Europe with a veterans group afterward and boasted his whole life about meeting the King of Belgium.)

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