Remembrance: A sea of poppies, a river of people, an irresistible urge to remember

Millions of Britons will pay their respects this weekend to those who died in the First World War

John Lichfield
Friday 07 November 2014 19:12 GMT
Members of the public stop to look at the ceramic poppies which form part of the art installation 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins
Members of the public stop to look at the ceramic poppies which form part of the art installation 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins (PA)

We are in the midst one of those mass displays of emotion with which Britain sometimes startles itself. By the time the installation closes next Tuesday, more than 4,000,000 people will have queued to see Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the river of ceramic poppies which appear to surge around the moat of the Tower of London.

When Sir Winston Churchill lay in state in 1965, Vincent Mulchrone famously wrote in the Daily Mail: “Two rivers run through London tonight and one of them is made of people.” This weekend – Armistice weekend in the 1914 centenary year – London will have three rivers: water, people and poppies.

The First World War does not grow old, as other wars grow old. Scores of other commemorative events, in Britain and on the continent, are planned in the next four days. One of the most moving, on 11 November itself, will be at the French war memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette in northern France. A new, circular, sunken panel carries the names of more than 600,000 soldiers – French, British, German and many other nationalities – who died in this one region of France between August 1914 and 11 November 1918.

For the first time on any war memorial anywhere in the world, the names of former comrades, former allies and former enemies will be listed together, alphabetically, with no distinction of rank or country. President François Hollande will open the memorial. Both the Prime Minister David Cameron and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, were invited. Neither, sadly, will attend.

Other events in London over the next few days include the traditional Remembrance Sunday cenotaph parade in Whitehall, attended by members of the Royal Family, politicians and current and ex-servicemen (from 9.20am); two matinee concerts of remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall from 2pm; and free children’s workshops at the Imperial War Museum until 11 November.

There are similar events in almost every British town and city. In Edinburgh, there will be a service at 10.50am tomorrow on the Garden of Remembrance next to the Scott Monument. Wales will hold a national observance of remembrance in Cardiff.

Today the Royal British Legion unveiled a 20ft high brass statue of a First World War soldier – Every Man Remembered by Mark Humphrey – in Trafalgar Square. The statue will go on a four-year tour of Britain to promote the legion’s campaign to ask the public to write a message of commemoration for each of the 1,117,077 Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the First World War. The sculpture was unveiled by Mr Humphrey and Serena Alexander, whose marine son Sam Alexander MC, died in Afghanistan in 2011.

Three months after the centenary of the war’s beginning, there is no sign – yet – of the British public suffering from commemoration fatigue. Rather the opposite.

The Every Man Remembered sculpture in London (Rex Features) (Rex)

Interest in the First World War has been steadily rising since the 1970s. With the centenary, it is climbing to new heights.

Huge crowds have besieged the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation by the ceramic artist Paul Cummins at the Tower of London. There were renewed calls yesterday from senior politicians, including the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, for the exhibition to be prolonged beyond its scheduled dismantlement on 12 November.

Charities including the British Legion, which will benefit from the sale of the 888,246 ceramic poppies at £25 each, disagree. They say that the whole point of the exhibition is that it should be ephemeral – not just another tourist attraction.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, on his LBC radio show has suggested as a compromise that the display should be extended by a few days. “It has really struck a chord. It is extraordinary and very moving to see,” he said. “I think it is speaking to something very, very profound in people… They want to trace their own family’s history to this huge act of national self-sacrifice at the time of the First World War.”

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the interest in tracing family history is one explanation for the renewed grip of the First World War on the popular imagination. The number of people visiting the 2,400 British First World War cemeteries in France and Belgium has been rising year by year for the past two decades.

A decade ago, the Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendaele in Belgium (the largest British Great World cemetery) attracted about 200,000 people a year. Last year there were about 300,000 visitors. This year the CWGC expects Tyne Cot to receive 460,000.

To help newcomers to comprehend what they are seeing, the War Graves Commission has invested in high technology. This week the Duke of Kent, the president of the CWGC, opened an interactive panel which allows smartphones to access the life stories of some of the soldiers buried in the cemetery.

An obvious question remains. There are still four years of commemorations to come before we reach the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 2018. Will time and repetition eventually weary us of the First World War?

The crowds of people queuing outside the Tower of London cannot not be dismissed as jingoism or a mob frenzy. After 100 years, and a score of other wars, there is still something about the First World War which gnaws at our collective conscience.

Main events: How a nation remembers them

London: Silence in the Square, Trafalgar Square, tomorrow, 10am. A two-minute silence led by the Royal British Legion. Cenotaph, Whitehall, Tuesday 11 November, 11am. Until 15 November, a special statue will be on the plinth: Mark Humphrey’s The Centenary Soldier.

Scotland: National Remembrance Parade, Edinburgh, 10.30am, led by the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Edinburgh Garden of Remembrance, 11 November, 10.50am. A service will be held in Prince Street Gardens next to The Scott Monument.

Norwich: Historic civic service at Norwich Cathedral, 11.40am. The annual service of remembrance will take place at City Hall, and will then be followed by a parade of veterans and members of the armed forces down to the iconic 12th-century cathedral.

Newcastle: Eldon Square Memorial Ceremony, 10.45am. The Lord Mayor of Newcastle will lead tributes at a commemoration ceremony at Eldon Square War Memorial.

Wales: Cardiff City Council and the Royal British Legion will host a parade from King Edward VII Avenue to the Welsh National War Memorial to arrive by 10.40am.

Liverpool: St George’s Hall Plateau, 10:30am. Danielle Louis Thomas, Jack Topping and The Band of the Duke of Lancaster Regiment will perform before a remembrance service led by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool.

Broadcast on Monday: The Historic Royal Palaces will broadcast a live national school assembly from the Tower of London to be screened across the UK, US and Canada at approximately 2.30pm.

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