Armistice 100: how the government has remembered World War One

Over the last four years the government has quietly and successfully delivered a four-year programme built around the UK’s turbulent relationship with continental Europe. History probably won’t remember Sue Owen, the permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the government’s First World War centenary will probably not stand out in future histories of Brexit. But in this season of remembrance we can reflect on the sacrifice of the Fallen, and register our gratitude that (despite all that is going on in the world) we live in a period of unprecedented peace. And we can spare a thought as well for the small government team who have marked and minded the key moments from the outbreak of war in 1914 to the armistice of 1918.

Remember 2014? Three parties of government, a tightly fought election on the horizon, an establishment winning a referendum. In August 2014 the “Nation’s candle” – a huge beam of light in Westminster – marked the start of the four years’ events. Key to the government’s mission was to create events that worked despite the fact there are now no living veterans from the First World War. As DCMS’ own guide says: “We commemorate the four years because of the sheer scale of sacrifice which saw nearly one million Britons lose their lives. The war had a considerable impact on the development of Britain and the world today. It helped define us as a nation and gave birth to a number of very significant advances in particular the emancipation of women and improvements in medicine and technology.” Rightly activities have linked the terrible events of 1914-18 to prevailing issues – women’s suffrage, and the legacy of Empire, the troublesome history of Britain and Ireland. Front and centre have been reminders of the role of soldiers enlisted from India and the Caribbean, the coming of age of the armies from Australia and New Zealand. These commemorations have not descended into attempts to crowbar modern concerns into hundred-year old settings – instead they have drawn out the big historical trends that continue to shape our nation and the rest of Europe. And they have done so in the best tradition of remembrance – honouring the dead, while having the courage to question the decisions that lead to such awful slaughter. Commemoration of the First World War has never leant itself to jingoism and the dignity of commemorative events have been their hallmark.

Some stand out. In June 2016, after the EU referendum but before David Cameron left No.10, the Queen opened an all-night vigil in Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Cameron’s fate seemed to hang in the balance, and the nation was reeling from the 23rd June poll. In his address the Bishop of London did not miss the opportunity to allude to the risks of nationalism, perceived exceptionalism and antipathy to one’s neighbours. But the atmosphere softened as, in silence, small groups of schoolchildren, scouts and cadets, formed up around the Unknown Warrior. At dawn cannon shook Parliament Square. Later that day Boris Johnson said he could not be a candidate for prime minister.

100 years ago there was no ceremony at the Cenotaph. 11 o’clock on that November 11 was indeed marked by silence – although horrifyingly the last victim, an American Henry Gunther, was shot and killed at 10:59am that day. In 1919 a temporary cenotaph was put up for the victory parade and so popular was Lutyens’ memorial that it was commissioned in stone and opened in 1920 by the King at the funeral of the Unknown Warrior. As the cortege entered Whitehall from Trafalgar Square it is said one could hear a collective whisper from the crowd; every woman there was watching to say goodbye to their son, brother or husband, surely carried in the union-flag-draped coffin. And every year since it has been at the heart of our very British, very simple Act of Remembrance.

In 100 years there has been little innovation – the supreme image is that of our dear Queen bowing her head in silence; how amazing to think that as she watches on 11 November this year she (uniquely) can remember her father, who served in that conflict, her grandfather who was the King-Emperor.

Not so in 2018. This year the president of Germany will join the Prince of Wales, the prime minister and others in laying a wreath. It is a remarkable culmination of four years’ of remembering. A fitting tribute to the sacrifice made, to the victims of war on all sides.

As the history of the First World War leads with horrible inevitability to the uneasy inter-war years, the rise of Fascism and the horrors of World War Two, so too do the government’s plans. Last week the Chancellor announced additional funding for the commemoration in 2019 of 75 years since British soldiers liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In reflecting on things past we should tip our hat to DCMS – a programme of remembrance deftly undertaken. But more importantly we should look to our prevailing political challenges and reflect how much less painful they seem set against Britain and Europe in the 20th century. We should give thanks that as a German president stands alongside an English prince, the precious inheritance of peace is ours to treasure.

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