Poppies on Veterans Day

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Armistice Day was established to commemorate the end of World War I and to honor those who died in war. After World War II the name was changed to Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth Nations. In the U.S. the day evolved to be a day to honor all Veterans alive or dead since we honor those who died in war on Memorial Day, a day established after the Civil War.

In France Armistice Day is a major holiday. My first visit to Paris many years ago was over the Armistice Day weekend. The city was quiet. Shops were closed, businesses were closed. The afternoon I went to see Napoleon’s Tomb there was a light snow falling. I was the only person there. It was kind of eerie. I had never heard of Armistice Day but later I made the connection to something much earlier in my life.

Volunteers at the Tower of London
Volunteers at the Tower of London

I went to a British grade school in Mexico City. We wore a uniform. It was a grey skirt, shorts or trousers for the boys, white sox, black shoes, a white shirt, a green tie (both girls and boys) and a green blazer with the crest of the school sewn on the upper left hand pocket. My brother would get into trouble because his badge kept getting ripped and he would take it off. That crest had to be on there. I learned to tie my own tie at 7 years old. Some kids wore clip-ons but most of us tied our own.

In November my first year, kids started showing up with red paper poppies pinned to the lapel of their blazers. I had never heard of Poppy Day but I loved the color added to the otherwise mundane clothing. I bought one and wore it even though I didn’t understand why. I looked forward to it every year. That splash of red.

This year a major art installation marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of British involvement in World War I. The exhibit will end on November 11, Armistice Day, at the Tower of London where 888,246 ceramic poppies representing the British soldiers who died in World War I have been on display since August 5. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a creation by Paul Cummins, ceramic artist, and Tom Piper, stage designer.

Paul Cummins said he was inspired by a soldier’s will found on his body in Flanders early in the war. As he lay surrounded by the dead he wrote “The Blood Swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread”.

Poppies bloomed all across the fields in Flanders, Belgium where battles were fought and lives were lost. Writers at the time of the Napoleonic War also mentioned poppies. They bloomed on the graves of the dead soldiers. Waterloo, the site of the last battle, was in the Netherlands, right next door to Belgium. There was so much damage done to the land due to these wars, they had an increased amount of lime in the soil and poppies were one of the few plants that were able to grow in the region.

The ceramic poppies were all handmade in Mr. Cummins’ studio using the same techniques used during World War I. Volunteers planted the poppies on the grounds of the Tower of London over a two-week period. There were so many volunteers, the recruiting office had to close and re-group. The poppies covered the 16 acre Tower moat. Every evening from Oct 26 to November 11, the Roll of Honour was read at a nightly ceremony. These were names submitted by family and friends of the dead soldiers.

Ceramic poppies
Ceramic poppies

The poppies were for sale so I went to the website to find out how much they cost and they were sold out. All 888,246 of them. They went for 25 Pounds each (about $40). You do the math. The money will go to support six service charities.

Eight thousand volunteers will start to dismantle the exhibit on November 12. Segments of the display will be on view until the end of the month. It has just been announced that a portion of the flowers will go on tour to different parts of the country until 2018 to allow more people to see it. At the end there will be permanent exhibits at the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.

The tour was made possible due to donations from the Backstage Trust and the Clore Duffield Foundation, as well as government funding underwritten by the fines assessed from the Libor financial scandal.

In the U.S. poppies are assembled by disabled and needy veterans in Veteran Hospitals. The poppies are given in exchange for contributions. The contributions provide financial assistance in maintaining these veterans’ rehabilitation and service facilities as well as the Veterans’ of Foreign War National Home for orphans and widows of the nation’s veterans. They aren’t as common here as they are in Britain but you can find them.