Fallen leaves amongst the fallen: Field of Remembrance

I HAVE LIVED in London for well over 60 years, but it was only this November (2021) that I first became aware of, and experienced, something that has been happening annually on the north side of Westminster Abbey since November 1928 (www.poppyfactory.org/about-us/history-timeline/#). For eight days following the Thursday preceding Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the 11th of November, the day on which WW1 ended, the field bounded by Westminster Abbey and its neighbour, the church of St Margaret’s Westminster, is covered with a myriad of mostly tiny wooden memorials hammered into the grass. The memorials are mostly cross-shaped, but some are in the form of crescents, six-pointed stars, and other shapes including some that bear the Sanskrit symbol representing ‘aum’ (or ‘om’). Each of these tiny wooden items commemorates a fallen service person or other victim of war. The shapes of the wooden pieces denote the religion of the person or persons being remembered, be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Moslem, Jewish, or of no religion. Many of the wooden memorials have red poppies attached. Oddly, few if any of the Islamic crescents had poppies on them. The small wooden memorials are arranged in groups, according to which service or regiment or organisation the remembered people were members of, or associated with. The whole ‘event’ is organised by The British Legion Poppy Factory. This annual garden of memorials is called The Field of Remembrance.

The Poppy Factory, a charity, was founded in 1922 by Major George Howson (1886-1936) to provide employment for veterans injured during WW1. He bought a site in Richmond (south-west London), where he established a factory to manufacture Remembrance poppies and other related items to be sold to raise money for The British Legion’s Red Poppy Appeal, a charity that supports the Armed Forces community.

Apart from the small wooden memorials, there are many badges and emblems of the groups in which those remembered were members. Looking at these and the small wooden memorials is both fascinating and extremely moving. The fascination lies in the huge variety of regiments and organisations, too many to list, which lost people during military conflicts (and terrorist incidents) since the onset of WW1.

One group of memorials interested me because of their emblem that incorporates a heraldic creature, which has fascinated me for several decades. The creature is the double-headed eagle (‘DHE’), currently used as an emblem by countries including Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, the Indian state of Karnataka, and Russia. The DHE appears on the crests of some of the various regiments of The Royal Dragoon Guards. The Dragoon Guard regiments were first established in the 18th century, in 1746, and consist of mounted infantry. While the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed, it also used the DHE. In 1896, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) of Austria-Hungary was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, some of whose members are remembered in the Field of Remembrance. The emperor allowed the regiment to wear his empire’s emblem (https://web.archive.org/web/20130303033912/http://www.qdg.org.uk/pages/Uniform-1843-Onwards-81.php), the DHE. In addition, the regiment adopted “The Radetzky March” as one of its official march tunes; it is still used today. It was sad that in 1914, Franz Joseph, became the ruler of one of the powers against whom Britain and its allies were fighting. Some of those who fought in the British Royal Dragoon Guard regiments with the DHE on their headwear were killed by allies of the emperor in WW1, who had earlier been appointed their C-in-C. They are commemorated the Field of Remembrance. Judging by the small wooden memorials planted in the Royal Dragoon Guard’s section of the Field of Remembrance, members of at least four religions fell while serving in these regiments. I wondered why the DHE was retained even after Austria-Hungary became one of Britain’s opponents in war.

Returning to the Field of Remembrance as a whole, it is a poignant sight to behold. Although war is both horrific and ugly, this annual memorial is both moving and beautiful. The Field is laid out beneath trees lining its northern edge. Seeing the dead leaves from these trees lying fallen amongst the thousands of tiny memorials to victims of war seemed most apt to me.