Saturday 7 November 2015 – Weeping Window Poppies at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool

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I went into Liverpool city centre today to see and take some photos of the poppy tribute to the soldiers who died in the First World War. It went on public display at St. George’s Hall today. The display, made up of several thousand ceramic poppies is called Weeping Window and is made up of poppies that were used in the Tower of London exhibition last year. The poppies are draped over the steps of the Hall and creep up between two of the columns. The poppies, which are surrounded by sandbags, are illuminated at night.

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The poppies in Liverpool today will be travelling the UK over the next three years before being given a permanent home at the Imperial War Museum. The remaining poppies from the Tower of London displays have already been sold off for charity. Sadly, many of these are now being sold at grossly exaggerated prices online.

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The original displays in London last year, called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, were comprised of 888,246 ceramic poppies – each representing an individual British or Commonwealth soldier who died in the 1914-1918 War.  The displays were designed and created by ceramic artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. Both men have since been awarded for their services to the commemorations of the War.

Paul Cummins expressed concern that the original Tower of London displays may have not happened because of the massive pressure to complete it. At one point he, Tom Piper and the volunteers were having to create and deliver 60,000 poppies a day.  Tom Piper added that “It was a big, big risk. We only had 20 volunteers on site at the start. Obviously, the Royal visits helped. But actually we were really fascinated by the individual stories.”

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After a bidding process from several cities to host the smaller displays, Liverpool impressed the organisers with its plans for the display, beating out dozens of other bids.  The tour of the poppies is aimed at allowing people around the UK to see the poppies and highlight that culture is not confined to London. A condition on getting the display was that it must be free to view.

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Tom Piper added that: “It’s very exciting to think of the work we’ve done being in a very different location. It’s somehow in keeping with the essence of the piece.”

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Above: Artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper with volunteer Lyn Newsham, Mayor Joe Anderson and a 14-18 NOW director Jenny Waldman. (Photo: Liverpool Echo/Gavin Trafford)

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Tomorrow’s Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph will use the Weeping Window as a backdrop, which is near the poppy display on St. George’s Plateau (above).  St George’s Hall and the Plateau outside has been a focal point for demonstrations, protests, memorials and celebrations of all kinds for most of its 160 year history.  The Hall was also once a court and many notorious killers were sentenced to death there.  The Hall became the focus point for the enlistment of men at the start of the First World War. More than 1,500 had joined up in two days and tens of thousands would go on to enlist at the Hall. Many formed the Pals regiments – groups of men from the same companies or the same community enlisting and serving together.  Some 13,000 men from Merseyside were killed during the War.

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….all photos included above, except the Liverpool Echo one, are mine and were taken today.

Link: 14-18 NOW poppy commissions

Link: Yorkshire poppy display

Link: Tower of London poppies

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In other news related to the First World War, this week saw the 97th anniversary of the death of the war poet Wilfred Owen. Although born in Oswestry in Shropshire in 1893, he moved with his family at the age of four to Birkenhead. His family’s move was forced upon them through financial difficulties. His father took a job at the town’s railway comapny.

They briefly moved to Shrewsbury but were back in Birkenhead quickly. This time  his father became a stationmaster at Woodside Station – the town’s principal station. Wilfred went to the Birkenhead Institute before going to the Shrewsbury Technical School when the family went back to Shrewsbury in 1907.  He discovered his love of poetry in 1903 or 1904 while on holiday in Cheshire. He was influened by the Bible and by the Romantic Poets, notably John Keats.

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Owen also attended classes at what is now the University of Reading and in 1912 worked as an English and French tutor in Bordeaux, France.  When War broke out in August 1914, Owen was in no rush to enlist and even considered enlisting in the French Army. Finally he returned to England and enlisted in October 1915. After training he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He initially showed contempt for his men’s loutish behaviour, calling them “expressionless lumps” in a letter to his mother.

A series of traumatic events changed his perspective on life, and on his poetic imagination. He suffered concussion, was blown into the air by a trench mortar and spent several days stranded on an embankment with the dead body of a fellow officer. He was diagnosed with shell shock (neurasthenia) and it was while recovering in Edinburgh that he met his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon. This was to have a transformative effect on his life.

He socialised with intellectual types and did some more teaching while in Scotland. He was then considered fit for regimental duties and spent a contented winter in 1917/1918 on light duties in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, before being transferred to Ripon in March 1918.  He turned 25 while in Ripon, spending his birthday at Ripon Cathedral. It would be his last birthday.

He finally returned to active service in France in July 1918. It seems that he had the option of staying permanently on home-duty but decided to return to France. Siegfried Sassoon had been shot in the head in France and was now back in England on sick-leave for the remainder of the War. Owen felt that he had to return to France to ensure that Sassoon’s voice continued being heard – revealing through his work the horrific realities of the War.

At the start of October 1918 he led units of the Second Manchesters to storm enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. Owen aspired to win the Military Cross in order to justify himself as a war poet. The medal was awarded posthumosuly in 1919 with the citation reading:

“2nd Lt., Wilfred Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantry.”

Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal. It was a week, almost to the hour, before the signing of the Armistice. He had been promoted to Lieutenant on the day of his death. His mother, to whom he was devoted, received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day – as the church bells were ringing out in celebration. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

There are memorials to Wilfred Owen in Gailly, Ors, Shrewsbury and in Birkenhead Central Library. His name is also on a slate plate in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner which commemorates 16 great war poets. The inscription on the slate is from Owen’s Preface to his poems: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

There are also two small museums to Owen. One is co-dedicated to Sassoon and is at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, now a Napier University building in Edinburgh.  The second museum is in Birkenhead, on Argyle Street close to Hamilton Square and not far from the site of the former Woodside Station where his father worked.  Owen’s former home Maison forestière in Ors (where Owen spent his last night) has been transformed into an art installation and permanent memorial to Owen.

Link: Wilfred Owen Association

Link: War Poetry

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