The human toll of war is hard to appreciate or understand in cold, hard statistics. Probably because nobody wants to think about what they truly mean. Sometimes, it actually takes seeing the number fleshed out in a meaningful way to realize each one of those digits is a person. Last fall, 9,000 soldiers were etched into the sand of the Arromanches beaches to commemorate all who perished on D-Day. Now, the first day of Britain’s involvement in World War I is being marked with a similar display of casualty-visualization–this time with bright red poppies to remind us of the blood spilled.
August 5 will mark exactly 100 years since the first day of Britain’s entry into the war. On that day, an installation will open at the Tower of London, in which 888,246 red ceramic poppies will be arranged around the tower, honoring the precise number of British and colonial soldiers that died between the outbreak of war in 1914, and 1921 (the war ended in 1918 but the artists are recognizing those who died of their wounds after returning home). As dreamed up by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” flows out of the window and into the Tower’s moat, a seemingly endless stream of crimson. Cummins told the Guardian the installation’s name was inspired by the words he found in the will of a fallen solider: “I don’t know his name or where he was buried or anything about him. But this line he wrote, when everyone he knew was dead and everywhere around him was covered in blood, jumped out at me: ‘The blood-swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.'” The last poppy will be “planted” November 11, the date WWI ended and the poppies will be available for purchase.
Unlike a number in a news story, such a sight that so quickly and thoroughly conveys the human cost of war, should help Britons, and others, appreciate the sacrifice it represents.