Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Weeping Window

During the summer of 2017 a rather unusual and striking artistic feature came to Derby. A large, multi-pieced imaginative work depicting one assumes, the tragic loss of war. The Weeping Window was a touring exhibit created by the artist Paul Cummins and the designer Tom Piper, other locations besides Derby were Cardiff, Belfast and Hull. Their other creation the Poppy Wave, visited Southend on Sea and Plymouth.

The display consisted of several thousand ceramic poppies, all were formally part of the exhibit at the Tower of London. There streaming from an upper floor window, millions of poppies flooded the now dry moat, each poppy representing one single British life that was lost in the 1914 to 1918 conflict. The exhibit was installed at the Derby Industrial Museum in the Old Silk Mill, itself an historic factory site and place of the very first industrial strike in history. Today the factory green is overlooked by a modern statue of the Bonnie Prince, Charles Edward Stewart.

Now in November 2017 we look back on the horror of this Great War, with confused and often contrary emotions. We look forward to the centenary of that conflict and find ourselves asking many deep, searching and disquieting questions. Why did it happen? How did a continent and then the world, slip into such turmoil? Was it necessary and could it have ended sooner? These questions have been asked by historians, amateur and professional for decades. These questions have been the source and subject, of much scholarly conflict, less bloody but still often vitriolic.

Millions of people, mainly young men went to war. From the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Pacific Coast of Australia and almost everywhere in between. Millions sacrificed their lives in a European war, that became a global conflict; wastefully, needlessly and often horribly. I offer no opinion on who was in the right and who was in the wrong, during that shameful and costly conflict, because there was no right or wrong. All the major powers of the time have blame, all the major powers of the time share responsibility.

All those who fought in battle or toiled on the home front, all those that died, did so for their country. Whether they fought and died for their king, their emperor or their president is unimportant now. They all fought because they thought it was the right thing to do and they all thought that they were in the right. Discussions of who was and was not in the right are now, as futile as the war itself. It is better to remember that people died.

We find ourselves facing the equally vexing question of how to mark the events of that war as each centenary passes. Do we celebrate, commemorate or mourn each battle, each skirmish and each death? How can we mark such events without glorifying the conflict and the tangled causes of the war?

Debates on the colour of the right poppy to be worn continue and they are often as aggressive, as the scholarly debates pertaining to the war itself. Does a red poppy glorify conflict? Is a white poppy disrespectful? To ask these questions is to perhaps misunderstand the reasons for wearing either. A red poppy should be worn with pride. A red poppy should be worn to show respect for those who die in conflict, to mourn them and to honour their memory. A white poppy should be worn not to insult the dead but to show how shamed we are, that such conflicts happen.

Harry Patch who was briefly the oldest man in Europe and the last surviving combat soldier of that first global conflict from any country; famously left us with a haunting quote. “War is organised murder and nothing else.” At the end of conflict in 1918, many a general and many a politician, should have faced the hangman but they did not. It was they who got away with murder.

Wear whatever colour poppy you want, wear them both together if you have to but remember. Remember the dead, remember the cost of war. Light a candle, say a prayer, set aside a moment of silence but most of all, remember.

Harry Patch biography:

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