Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

image from
image from

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a brilliant anti-war demonstration/installation marking the insanity of World War I. The title comes from a line in a soldier’s will. Each ceramic poppy represents a British soldier’s death — more than 800,000 in all. The organizers hope to fill the Tower’s moat by November 11th — Armistice Day. There would not be room enough to represent all the casualties of that conflict. The total number of military and civilian casualties from the war has been estimated at 37 million.

Horrible fact of life: most people assume it is the soldiers who tend to die in armed conflicts yet children actually account for most of the deaths. And the percentage of civilian victims has been rising steadily through the last hundred years: in World War II it was two thirds, and by the end of the 1980s it was almost 90 per cent. I suppose an installation that represented contemporary slaughter might use teddy bears instead of poppies. Today, it is safer to be a soldier than it is to be a non-combatant.

So before everyone races off to the next police action/round of sanctions/intervention/war it sure would be nice to consider that the Iraq war resulted in:

3.4 million displaced families
1/2 of all Iraqi children becoming orphaned in 2007
116 277 civilian casualties (an extremely conservative estimate constructed from records since no agency bothered to care enough to collect the data)

November 11th was called Remembrance Day in Canada. Each person wore a poppy over her/his heart. Each poppy was meant to represent one person’s death/sacrifice. The whole country spent a moment in silence to reflect upon the meaning of that death. My thoughts didn’t end with that moment of silence. The poppies were fuzzy and I recall touching the soft surface throughout the day. I was also a bit nervous of the sharp point of the pin. The field poppy was an abstract symbol but wearing it made space for big ideas to inhabit even a child’s mind. The serious nature of war became something tangible, personal and real.

photo by Eric Hill
photo by Eric Hill

WWI was supposed to be the war to end all wars and yet a hundred years later we still have elites pushing for wars that bring unimaginable suffering to the ordinary and obscene profits for a few.

At my school, every student was supposed to memorize the poem that follows in a moment.

We were taught that the purpose of remembering was not to glorify war but to end it. I think McCrae’s curse for those who would twist the real meaning of that blood sacrifice is perfect. I only wish his ghosts were more vengeful. Here’s a link to an editorial by Harry Leslie Smith (aged 91) that explains why he will no longer wear the poppy.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

–Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

20 thoughts on “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

  1. Hi Debra. I can’t “like” your post, but appreciate your thoughtful and poignant reminders at the horrible costs of war. I long for peace and humans learning to live in love and cooperation. blessings, Brad


    1. Thanks for saying so. I really do hope that someday wordpress can change that button to say ‘agree’. Here’s to the hope for peace.


      1. Yes, that’s always a stumbling block for people like me who don’t enjoy or endorse the negative things recounted in a post but absolutely agree with the post itself! And yes, this is a potent post. Beautifully said.


  2. insane is the best description. it is utterly shameful that we bear witness to continual justification and honouring of war as a way of resolving issues. here it seems we are constantly hammered by a sick sort of fervour of false respect and honouring of ‘heroes’ to keep us in the market of agreement for war. A friend of mine just buried her dad; he was 92 and said that his going had nothing to do with patriotism.him and his mates and most of those he met along the way all went as a bit of a lark. and then they lived the horror and never wished to see it happen again.
    we know it i wrong but oh those profits they are the driver…
    thank you Debra. read Harry good on him for speaking out.


    1. The WWI veterans always seemed the bravest and most honest to me for coming back and telling us all just how stupid war is. What Harry said about the great war holds true today. It is young people with few prospects who wind up making blood sacrifices for those fortunate few. Thanks, Sandra.


    1. If there is one thing I have learned from history it is that violence simply doesn’t solve problems. So far in this current fight the civilian deaths total 826 Palestinians and 3 Israelis. I was sickened to learn that even after the Gaza fight began the US continued to sell arms to the Israelis. That is not what I want my family’s tax money to be used for.


        1. I do not know what bus you are referring to though really even one death on either side is one too many. Sounds like I missed something this weekend.

          The numbers I have date to July 29 from

          I didn’t mention soldier/militant deaths. Maybe I am heartless but I kind of feel that anyone who signs up for armed combat has given their consent to die that way. There have been 53 Israeli soldier deaths and 275 Palestinian militant deaths. I am not sure how a militant is defined. Gaza of course doesn’t have an army. Maybe they use the Obama administration’s definition: any male older than 18 years.

          I just hope they can all grow up and learn to solve their problems in peaceful ways before more innocents die.


  3. When things started blowing up in Iraq again I was enraged by how the architects of the last war were treated as experts on TV even though they were wrong about absolutely everything the last go around. Plus their complete lack of humility or self-awareness is downright creepy. Are they really all sociopaths, or do they just seem that way?


    1. I totally agree. I was shocked that they imagined we might have already forgotten. I think the word sociopath is fitting.


  4. I am saddened by the reminder that it is always those most vulnerable – the children – who suffer the most in armed conflicts and yet I am glad you brought this back into the public eye. It is too all easy to sanitize our thinking about these “situations” into neat graphic representations and forget these are beautiful messy human beings, whose lives are being disrupted and at times brutally ended.


    1. I think that because these things happen so far away (combined with the way violence is glamorized in popular culture) that war becomes an abstract concept and difficult for most people to imagine. Kudos to the Tower of London for helping everyone picture what war means.


  5. A timely post. Unfortunately, civilians, especially children, are often the ones who pay the highest price during or because of armed conflict. That is a truism that doesn’t seem to have improved with time or “technical” advancement.


    1. I didn’t think of it at the time I bought them but I have a packet of red field poppy seeds in my fridge waiting for fall. I think I will plant them for the next 4 years to stay mindful.


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