Amid the apparently endless series of packages coming to our house, each containing some item that we’ve bought online in the run-up to Christmas, one package was a little bit different. Inside was a ceramic poppy; one of 888,246 that had formed a part of the commemorative art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I’m proud to say that Mrs F. was one of the volunteers who spent a day assembling poppies and putting them in place in the moat at the Tower of London.
All the ceramic poppies had been sold to members of the public (at £25 each, plus £5 for postage and packing) long before Remembrance Day, after which the installation was broken up. Our poppy arrived in a commemorative box that was just the right size for its contents at 450 x 145 x 85mm. Nicely done… but an enormous job when you realise that there must be almost five thousand cubic meters and 450 tonnes of the things to ship.
The vision of the artist, and those who managed the project, is impressive indeed: to depend upon volunteers (17,500 involved in construction, and 8,000 during dismantling), to have everything go to plan, and to strike exactly the right note such that five million people went to see the piece… it was an impressive undertaking.
It’s particularly poignant as we approach the 100-year anniversary of a time when soldiers on the British and German front line (and also some parts of the French lines) stopped trying to kill each other for a while, and traded food, smokes and souvenirs instead. If you’ve ever been to a football match where a fight broke out, you might enjoy the symmetry of a fight where a spontaneous football match erupted… in fact, a number of football matches, and other diversions, up and down a fortified line that stretched from Nieuport on the Belgian coast, all the way to the Swiss border.
Stories of that Christmas Day tell us that for a few precious hours, the fighting ceased. The reality is even more remarkable: on some stretches of the front line the peace lasted right through until the new year. There’s more: the Germans tried to initiate a truce again at Easter, 1915… and Christmas that year was once again marked by a cautious peace. On that occasion the artillery kept on firing, but both sides were careful to target empty land, and cause no casualties. (And if firing upon empty fields seems like a ridiculous thing to do, that’s the army for you…) It wasn’t until 1916 that a Christmas truce generally ceased to be observed, the widespread use of weapons such as poison gas putting an end to any empathy between the opposing forces.
If you look at the British troops of Christmas 1914, you might notice that they weren’t equipped the way they appear in memorials and war films. For one thing, they didn’t have ‘tin hats’; the Brodie helmet wouldn’t be designed until the following year. Meanwhile they simply wore caps, desperately inappropriate for trench warfare though they were. The gas mask didn’t exist yet, either, nor the ‘Mills Bomb’ grenade. Tanks weren’t introduced until 1916 – and neither was conscription, so most of the troops that first Christmas were professional soldiers, if poorly equipped. The war was still getting into its stride in that fifth month: turning volunteers into soldiers and beating their ploughshares into swords was going to take time.
The scale of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was stupefying; still more so when you remember that each poppy represented not just a death but also months of training, pairs of boots, rations, record-keeping, ammunition, letters from home, pay, bars of soap… you name it: and not just for the 888,246 British and Colonial troops who died but for everyone who served, including many who returned wounded. Whole nations were transformed to conduct war on a scale never seen before, and they changed forever in the process.
Logistics isn’t a term that Quartermasters used back then, although it was emerging: the French had logistique by the late 19th Century (from loger which means “to lodge”). It has nothing to do with logic – as many an old soldier would probably attest.
Wherever you may be this Christmas, here’s wishing you a peaceful one.