Robert Charlesworth has an ambitious goal and a year from this Veterans Day to achieve it.

He needs an artist or two who can work with steel and glass; a prominent, expansive public lawn on which to plant poppies that the artists fabricate; the generosity of Pittsburgh corporations to provide materials; and donors to help him raise $1 million for veterans’ charities by the Nov. 11, 2018, centennial anniversary of the end of World War I.

Charlesworth, chairman of the nonprofit British-American Connections Pittsburgh, says his idea for a “Britsburgh World War I Centennial Appeal” was inspired by “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” a 2014 art installation in the Tower of London moat to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak. (See photos below.) Artist Paul Cummins crafted 888,246 ceramic poppies, each signifying a British and Colonial soldier who perished.

In Pittsburgh, perhaps in a city park or on the front lawn of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, Charlesworth hopes to plant 53,402 poppies to honor U.S. soldiers who died in battle. People could buy the poppies for $35 to $50 apiece, he says, and would receive them after the installation. It would run from the start of the 4th annual Britsburgh Festival on September 4 through Veterans Day 2018.

“‘Lest we forget’ should be an important message over the next year, that so many lives were lost,” says Charlesworth, who was born in Leeds, England, but has lived in Pittsburgh for six years. “The poppy has been a global symbol of World War I and we want to bring it back into American society. In England it was a magnificent tribute.”

The poppy has been linked to The Great War since 1915, when Canadian military doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae penned the poem about the war dead “In Flanders Fields” that begins, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place …” In 1921, The Royal British Legion began selling fabric poppies to help veterans.

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” a 2014 art installation in the Tower of London marked the centenary of the war’s outbreak. All photos of installation by Tracy Certo.

Charlesworth envisions doing the same — to raise money for Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard, the Veterans Breakfast Club of Pittsburgh, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and The Royal British Legion. He would like to plant the first poppy at the start of Britsburgh’s Labor Day weekend festival, and then grow the installation until a Nov. 11 memorial event with dignitaries.

“We’ll get veterans to plant some; we’ll get children to plant some,” he says. “I can imagine lots of opportunities for those who want to get involved.” To help, contact [email protected].

The World War I Centennial Commission notes one of the first U.S. troops to die in battle was Private Thomas Enright of Morningside. An account by former Pittsburgh Press writer John V. Hanlon says Enright was among 508 Pittsburghers who lost their lives in the war; thousands more were wounded.

Pittsburgh was an industrial giant when America entered World War I, and its steel mills produced much of the steel used by the Allies. Westinghouse made millions of shells for the British army, and PPG, then called Pittsburgh Plate Glass, made optical glass for telescopic sights and rangefinders.

Even though PPG has stopped making glass in favor of paints and coatings, Charlesworth is hopeful the company will offer input on paint colors for the poppies.

“This idea is a lofty goal,” he acknowledges. “It’s something that we think the people of Pittsburgh will embrace, and we need a lot of help with that. We need local companies to provide materials. We need an artist to help design it and put it together. We are in Steel City, so why not have that — steel poppies and glass poppies?

“This is a good cause,” he says.  In addition to artists who would donate their time and talent, the organization needs a national carrier to deliver the poppies to people who purchased them, after the installation is removed.

“They will get a unique poppy at the end of the day, probably a foot-and-a-half tall,” says Charlesworth. “I’ve seen them in people’s houses in England. They’re so revered that people display them in cases. They’re very proud of their poppies, which are quite beautiful.”

A series of events would kick off Britsburgh’s yearlong fundraising for the project. Upcoming events include:

  • Nov. 11 — 10:45 a.m. service at the Veterans Breakfast Club of Pittsburgh at Duquesne University;
  • Nov. 12 — 11 a.m. Remembrance Sunday service with a poppy wreath to be laid at the World War I Memorial on the North Shore;
  • Nov. 12 —10 a.m. to 2 p.m., “The Red Triangle — The YMCA in World War I” is a re-creation of London’s WWI Eagle Hut for American soldiers on leave at the Allegheny YMCA, 600 W. North Ave., North Side. The Britsburgh History Society will offer coffee and pancakes, re-enactors, exhibits, music and games;
  • Nov. 12 – 1 p.m. VIP pre-show with Soldiers & Sailors historian/curator Michael Kraus and 2:30 p.m. Prime Stage Theatre performance of “All Quiet on the Western Front” at New Hazlett Theater on the North Shore.