But on this centenary year, two British artists, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, have offered the public a new — and moving — way to look and listen and reflect on a war whose "guns of August" would kill or maim almost 1 in every 10 Britons. "Blood Sept Lands and Seas of Red" is a reminder that the best art can imitate life — and death. Their idea was simple: plant a ceramic red poppy, long a national symbol of the commemorated fallen; then plant another and another, until you fill the giant moat surrounding the historic Tower of London with a sea of red poppies, each representing a service member killed in action in World War 1 — all 888,426 of them.
''It's not pretentious, and what you see is what you get,'" Piper, a set designer, told Britain's Channel 4 News. And what the people got has been — in a word — electrifying. Since July, when the first of 19,000 volunteers began planting the poppies, tens of thousands of Britons and tourists have come every day to marvel at the beauty of the snaking swath of red clay flowers. One older British lady dressed in red from neck to ankle summed it up: "It's so humbling isn't it? To see it all, really, it's so different."
Still, it hasn't stopped some critics from complaining that the work is too beautiful to remind anyone of war's brutality. Speaking to the London newspaper The Observer, Piper begged to differ.
"This is not an illustration of violence and barbarity; it is about loss and commemoration, and has given individuals a unique way to tap back into their own family history and appreciate some of that human cost," Piper said.
And Britons seem to have gotten the message. The exhibition has struck a chord with the public that has left organizers and government officials agog. By closing day — Armistice Day, Tuesday — about 4 million visitors will have seen and been touched by the extraordinary work of art. Now, pressure is growing for an encore, so much so that Prime Minster David Cameron has extended the display beyond Nov. 11 until the end of the month, allowing more Britons to come and experience what he called a "much loved and respected monument."
After that, some poppies will be housed in the Imperial War Museum as a permanent tribute to the fallen. But the rest will earn their legacy: Cleaned one by one and sold for about $40 each to bidders around the globe, they will raise an estimated $24 million for military charities.
In the end, both artists resisted growing calls to keep the poppies beneath the Tower of London for good. "The installation is transient," said Cummins. "I found this poignant and reflective of human life, like those who lost their lives during the First World War. I wanted to find a fitting way to remember them."
Indeed, the display has gone so viral — and public reaction has been so visceral — that pundits are now talking about a collective "sense of bereavement" after the flowing red poppies are plucked from the moat. Says London's mayor, Boris Johnson: "Yes ... that is sad, and inevitable; and it is also fitting and in perfect keeping with the message of that field of mortal flowers.
View the video reportReport Courtesy of NBC News