The forgotten story about the Tower of London Poppy Exhibition, “The Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red”

Posted on September 26th, 2014


London poppy exhibition  - "The blood swept land and seas of red"

This year marks the 96th anniversary of the Armistice which brought to an end the Great War. And, by 11th November 2014, some 800,000 ceramic poppies will be flowing out of the windows and over the battlements of the Tower of London – each one symbolising every single military death brought about by the war.


The installation opened officially on 4th August earlier this year, marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war between Great Britain and Germany. It was opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry each ‘planting’ one of the ceramic poppies. And, in mirroring the growing list of casualties from the opening engagement on 23rd August 1914, the poppy installation known as “The Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red” has continued to grow.

The crowds have gathered over the last month in London, walking around the installation or sitting on the esplanade opposite to contemplate the enormity of the symbolism. Like me, you may have been one of those visitors already: my head reverberated with an alternative title, ‘London Bleeds’. You may have even bought one or more of the poppies (which will only be despatched once the installation has been completed on 11th November 2014).



The Seas of Red

It was whilst I was wandering around recently that I realised that, even as a very keen student of the Great War, all too often I fall into the trap of only considering the Army’s involvement in the war.

After all, it is hard not to respond emotionally to the haunting beauty of the myriad Commonwealth Graves Commission cemeteries I have visited around the world, commemorating all those who lost their lives on land.

But we mustn’t forget that as the war broke out, Britain was primarily a naval power, controlling an immense empire based upon the command of the world’s oceans.

Indeed, one of the reasons given for the outbreak of the war was that Germany was jealous of the power of the British Royal Navy, particularly with the latest naval technology (the Dreadnought) and Germany was keen to challenge it.

Many school pupils have no problem remembering the plucky spirit demonstrated by the extraordinary fleet of ships which rescued the British Army from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940, or the ‘shock and awe’ delivered to the Third Reich on 6th June 1944, more commonly known now as ‘D-Day’.

And even those who claim to have no interest in matters military might well remember that Rod Stewart’s “I am sailing” became the emotional soundtrack to the Task Force as it set sail for the Falkland Islands in April 1983!


But how do we think that the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France in August 1914?

And, although it is now commonly (if incorrectly) believed that most soldiers stayed in the trenches all of the time, how do we think that those lucky few (Officers) managed to get back from their behind-the-lines chateaux to their English castles for a spot of leave?


The answer of course is through the good offices of the British Merchant Marine.



The Tower Hill tribute

So it is a strange quirk of fate that London’s principal memorial to those who lost their lives serving with these fleets (Merchant and Fishing) is situated just opposite the Tower of London, on Tower Hill.

Long before the poppy installation at the Tower however, this understated memorial, to twelve thousand men who have no grave but the sea, was much overlooked.

Heavy traffic crossing Tower Bridge in both directions thunders past, pedestrians take their lives in their hands trying to cross the road just in front of it and those heading for the underground network via Tower Gateway, take a short cut through the gardens without sparing a moment to look.

Yes, the German U-boats conducted a devastating campaign against our shipping, such that rationing had to be introduced and almost a quarter of a million young women were sent to work on the land to help our farmers feed the nation.

But, if those same school pupils could also say that the end of the war in November 1918 was hastened by the British Royal Navy’s successful blockade of Germany’s ports (and as such that her population was being starved), then perhaps we should also remember more closely the men of the Merchant and Fishing fleets who kept Britain from starving.


If you haven’t yet been to the Tower of London to see the new installation – and it will be being dismantled as of 12th November 2014 and the poppies despatched around the world over the next few months – and even if you have been and would like to go again to see the changes – do add a little more time to your schedule so that you can go and sit in the peaceful gardens that are an integral part of this very important national memorial. For, whilst every single one of the men who lost their lives at sea is counted amongst the poppies, they are otherwise unknown and forgotten.



Debbie Coupland

About the Author

Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.