Three members of my family saw action in two World Wars across two generations. One great grandfather was a driver in the army in France and Belgium and the other was a deep-sea diver in the Navy, while my great great grandfather was a bandsman. No one spoke about their experiences, but it’s not difficult to imagine what they went through.
The experience of my family has always resonated within me. The books and poetry that I studied at school drew me in to something terrible and unimaginable. It was not glorified, but personified. I felt compassion for those men who gave up their lives so that we could have ours.
My family’s history and involvement in the wars fuelled my interest in the Tower of London poppies; I wanted to be part of something historic and memorable. Volunteering with the removal of the poppies felt like I was playing my own small part in honouring and dignifying the memory of these men.
In my group alone, there were around 30 people where almost each age group was represented. Along the stretched I worked on, there were at least four other similarly sized groups. The atmosphere was thick with emotion. Each poppy head was treated as if it was the last physical memory of a soldier, carefully pulled off the stem and placed into its box.
The symbolic poppies will be taken out at a rate of around 75,000 per day where they are cleaned, packaged and sent to people who have purchased them – the sale of which has raised millions for charities. Designed by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, the poppies created the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, an emotive visualisation of each British and Commonwealth soldier who fell during the First World War.
I visited the site in October and the day before Remembrance Sunday. By my second visit the area had very much become a tourist attraction. Nevertheless it was inspiring to see so many people wearing poppies, paying respect and taking the time to share in the awe of the innumerable flowers that swept across the moat.
As we took the poppies out and dismantled them, I got talking to some people. From boys as young as 18, to those a generation older than me, I found that a vast majority of volunteers had also previously attended the memorial. I got to know volunteers whose families were involved in the war in ways that varied from farming, playing the piano to fire fighting.
I spoke to a woman who had also helped put the poppies in back in July. She wanted to help as she had learnt her great uncle had died in Turkey during World War 1 and she had his named read out at the dusk Last Post ceremony.
Another man I spoke to said the memorial made him feel quite emotional. He said: “The first time I saw poppies was back in mid-August from the top of the Shard…we came down and watched them being installed and there was a hushed silence. People were very respectful.”
The atmosphere when I was taking them out hadn’t changed; everyone was respectful of what we were doing and what the poppies represented. As I removed each poppy, I thought about my family. The wet and muddy ground we worked in made me think of how hard life must have been during those years.
My dad was evacuated as a child from East London during the Second World War. I have always been interested in his stories from that period and I hold them close to my heart. Like many people in my father’s generation, he never knew much about what his father’s experience during World War Two and with many men, they did not like to talk about it.
My mother’s granddad was shelled while serving in the army of World War 1. He survived, but when his son visited him in an institution while wearing his RAF uniform, he became distressed thinking he was a German. This story was brought to light by my mother when I studied Pat Barker’s trilogy Regeneration based on the poets Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon, which deals with the experiences and effects of shell shock.
As one of the lucky individuals who had the rare experience of the poppy project first hand, I won’t forget being part of something so moving and meaningful. The visual impact brought significant attention to something that today can seem so far in the past, yet changed the future of our lives forever.