LONDON — It's a spectacular sight: an ocean of red poppies filling the dry moat surrounding the imposing Tower of London. From a distance, they look like a river of blood circling a building whose 1,000-year history has been written in blood.
These poppies, however, are not real, but made of enamel, an art installation by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Each of the 888,246 poppies represents a British or Commonwealth soldier killed in World War I.
The exhibit, which will remain until Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, the date the war ended in 1918, is a reminder of just how much the Great War permanently changed the landscape of Britain.
As poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen wrote, it took the best and brightest of the island's young men, devastated the economy, and drastically changed the privileged lifestyle of the aristocracy (as any fan of Downton Abbey knows), ushering in a new era of equality between the classes.
In this, the centenary of the war's onset, London is pulling out all the stops to pay tribute to Britain's role in the Great War, nowhere more so than at the newly re-opened Imperial War Museum's World War I exhibit.
If the Tower poppies are meant to commemorate poetically the spilt blood of innocent youths, there is nothing in the least poetic about this exhibit, part of a $67 million restructuring of the museum. Here, the brutality, atrocity and futility of war are on full display.
Ironically, the exhibit's showstopper — a Spitfire fighter plane, suspended from the ceiling of the atrium — is associated with World War II rather than World War I. The redesigned plane, which appears to float in mid-air, flew more than 50 combat missions during the 1940 Battle of Britain, in which the RAF bested the German Luftwaffe, thus turning the tide of air combat in favor of the Allies.
Other parts of the museum, however, are devoted to the 1914-18 conflict, with perhaps the most jarring exhibit being the gallery depicting the 1916 Battle of the Somme in France. For five months, British and French armies fought the Germans along both sides of the Somme River. At its conclusion, more than one million were dead or wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The museum is unflinching in its treatment of the battle. Shells shriek and mortars shatter in the background; a silent film documents a steady stream of stretchers carrying the wounded, and an artificial trench gives visitors an idea of the terror experienced by those crouching there, dreading the thrust of a German bayonet.
Considering the subject matter, I can't say I enjoyed the exhibit, but I can say that the galleries, which feature one of the richest and most comprehensive WWI collections in the world, have a powerful impact.
A more intimate exhibit was one at the British Library, Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour. Two famous British characteristics — a stiff upper lip and a dry wit — are on display here in a collection of Christmas cards, love letters, cartoons and posters, as well as the manuscripts of war poets such as Brooke and Owen. They illustrate how both traits were needed to cope with the enormity of the war.
Anyone who is in London on a World War I itinerary must make his or her way to the New London Theatre on Drury Lane to see the critically acclaimed play, War Horse. By now, almost everyone knows the story of Albert, a young Devon farm boy, and Joey, the horse he raises from a foal. The two form an unbreakable bond, and when Joey is requisitioned by the British Army and shipped to France as a cavalry mount, Albert leaves for the continent to bring his horse back.
Joey and several other "horses" in the production, are life-size puppets, and with every whinny and wheeze, the audience is caught up in their peril. They become, as one critic noted, "as rounded and complex as any of the human characters on stage."
England at war
Fans of the PBS series Downton Abbey know that the majestic manor was turned into a hospital for the treatment and care of wounded soldiers returning from the continent. Downton's real-life counterpart, Highclere Castle in the bucolic Berkshire countryside, served in the same capacity.
The magnificent castle, which is open to the public in July and August, occupies 1,000 acres of parkland and has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. The most famous was the 5th Earl, who partnered with archaeologist Howard Carter to uncover the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922.
It was his wife, Lady Almina, however, who is credited with transforming the palatial estate into a hospital for the wounded arriving from Flanders. She became skilled at nursing, and hundreds of letters displayed throughout the house from grateful patients and their families are testament to her hands-on effort.
Another remarkable woman who turned her stately home into a hospital was American-born Nancy Astor, wife of Waldorf Astor whose father had left him Cliveden, imposingly situated above the Thames River in Buckinghamshire.
The current mansion, replacing the original built in 1666, dates from the 19th century and was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. During the 1920s and 30s, the Astors formed the political equivalent of London's literary Bloomsbury Set.
At glamorous weekend house parties, Lord and Lady Astor lavishly entertained the glitterati of the day: Joseph Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and Winston Churchill, Lady Astor's sparring partner during her years in Parliament.
It was at one such party that the two had one of their famous set-tos. As it goes, Churchill, after too many martinis, was behaving boorishly. Lady Astor remarked, "Sir Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea," to which Churchill is said to have replied, "Madam, if I was your husband, I'd drink it."
A few years before, at the outset of World War I, Nancy Astor had offered the use of the grounds to the Canadian Red Cross who built a hospital. The hospital is gone, but a lovely Memorial Garden provides a final resting place for Canadian soldiers who died of their injuries.
Today, Cliveden is the property of the National Trust, which has leased it out as a 5-Star hotel. Visitors can roam the exquisite gardens and grounds and on certain occasions, tour the public rooms.
Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the rare English Baroque style between 1705 and 1722, is another stately home with a World War I connection.
Originally built as a gift to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough in gratitude for his distinguished military service, his fortunes waned after his wife Sarah had a falling out with Queen Anne. The house might have been lost, save for the 9th Duke's fortuitous marriage to American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt (shades of Downtown Abbey.)
The most famous name associated with Blenheim is that of Winston Churchill, who was born here. It was Winston's aunts, aided by an indefatigable nun, Sister Munn, who established a convalescent hospital during the war. As you make your way through the splendid Great Hall to the magnificent State Rooms, imagine that at one time they were filled with hospital cots lined up side-by-side, all occupied by grievously wounded men.
On the eve of World War I, Britain's Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, after a speech to Parliament, confided to a friend, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
On this 100th anniversary of the Great War, the lamps are lit again across Britain and especially in London. They will remain shining brightly right up to November 11, Remembrance Day. On that day, everyone from the youngest school child to the oldest pensioner; from television presenters to the Queen and prime minister will sport a blood-red poppy in honor of those who spilt their blood on continental battlefields.imperi