The Final Remembrance
With Remembrance Sunday approaching, the Tower of London has chosen to stage another respectful, spectacular display commemorating the fallen of WWI. Its astonishing installation of handmade poppies, forming a sea of scarlet around the Bloody Tower was named ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, a public art installation created in the moat between July and November 2014, commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. It consisted of 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each intended to represent one British or Colonial serviceman.
Now, four years later, we reach the conclusion of that commemoration. This year the Tower is lighting thousands of candles each night to do the same thing, and the effect is equally startling. This time the message is different, bringing closure to the conflict. A century of remembrance is coming to an end as the final participants have now gone. The last living veteran (28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918) was Florence Green, who served in the Allied armed forces, and who died 4 February 2012, aged 110. There were approximately 9,750,103 military deaths during the conflict. The war will be remembered, of course, but more in terms of what it represents.
Understandably, our feelings about the First World War have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. The war, caused by complex factors including an all-but-accidental assassination in Sarajevo and the domino effect of European alliances that required each nation to defend its partner, is now considered to have been entirely avoidable had the parties involved only hammered out their differences in conference prior to the commencement of hostilities. For four years the fighting played out like a series of formal gavottes, propped up on the British side by the idea of attrition, a military strategy consisting of belligerent attempts to win by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and weapons.
Although it started as a radio play in 1961, Joan Littlewood conceived a grand theatre project of restaging the war from officer classes to foot soldiers via the hindsight of history. The production became a landmark that altered the nation’s perception of the war, removing its supposed glories and revealing it to be a series of threadbare diplomatic disasters.
Richard Attenborough rose to the challenge of directing the film version of ‘Oh! What A Lovely War!’, unfolding it like a surreal tapestry filled with horrors and paradoxes. He was the least likely director to create such an immense, bitter Fellini-esque satire, but the cumulative effect is devastating, and the high point of his film career. A gallery of British stars featured; Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Maggie Smith and at least three Redgraves. The ending, shot without special effects, is rightly celebrated but the lead-up to it is equally memorable. After the shelling, a lone soldier seeking answers follows a literal red tape through the maze of the battle…