We arrived in London on August 4 at the beginning of a two-week European vacation. In an effort to keep ourselves awake after an overnight flight, we hopped on an open-air bus tour. It was a magnificent sunny day. The Tower Bridge, the church spires, the Houses of Parliament, and the dome on St. Paul’s Cathedral all stood out in sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. What a welcome.
As the bus rose up the hill past the Tower of London, we caught a glimpse of something red in the moat below. I tipped the view finder on my camera and lifted it high over my head so that I could capture an image:
When we got back to the hotel, I downloaded the photos from the day. The poppies around the base of the tower were lovely, but at the time we didn’t realize how monumental they were. As it turned out, the spectacular installation that was just completed today (November 11), had just been started.
The next day, we returned to the Tower on foot, much more informed about the poppy project and hoping for a closer look. A large crowd had gathered along the wall; they were waiting, it turned out, for a ceremonial appearance by the Beefeaters.
The red coats, the brilliant ceramic blooms, and the significance of the display combined to powerful effect. One stem for every soldier from England and the Commonwealth whose life was lost in The Great War. Every flower was placed by hand, for someone who fell in a field in Belgium, or in a trench in France, or in a haze of mustard gas. Young people fighting for an ancient alliance, giving their lives for a new century and a new world. We are all the beneficiaries of that sacrifice. We didn’t know about the flowers, but we will not forget.
Last month, we brought our French exchange student to New York City to see the sights. There, at the foot of another tower–this one brand-new and gleaming in an autumn sky, we saw another memorial.
Again, a moat–or, more accurately, two moats–waterfalls, in fact. Rather than the protective boundary of a Medieval castle, these pools define spaces that are no longer occupied. Around them are low walls listing the names of nearly 3,000 people, most of whom perished on a single day as part of a war for which they had not enlisted.
The monument is striking. There are signs encouraging visitors to touch the engraved letters, and on that day, many people did. Fingers traced the grooves, brushed across the titles of engine companies, counted the firefighters from individual ladder trucks.
Some names were marked with flags or small mementos. And in some names, there were flowers. Roses, their stems clipped short so that the blossoms stood just above the surface, and the bright pink color reflected off the smooth stone.
We didn’t know about those flowers, either.