Great War Centenary in the United Kingdom

‘The Great War centenary in the United Kingdom’, Honest History, 5 November 2013 and updated

[Links checked and present, 26 October 2017. HH]

Update 8 August 2014: There is British material in our ‘Review note‘ of events and articles during the ‘outbreak centenary’ week.

Update: 4 August 2014: David Hayes rounds up what is happening in Britain, particularly in Great War-oriented broadcasting and publishing, while John Jewell recalls the war-urger role of Lord Northcliffe and the general run of war propagandists.

Update: 20 May 2014: There is a proposal to switch off the lights later this year to commemorate Sir Edward Grey’s famous statement of 1914. Critics have pointed out that most people have their lights off anyway at the proposed time (11 pm). It might also be suggested that the real point of Grey’s remark was not electrical but metaphorical. More.

Historian Neil Faulkner, author of the pamphlet No Glory: The Real History of World War One, has done a 30 minute video, explaining how the UK government wants people to commemorate the centenary of the first world war by ignoring its real history. Strong on how governments today try to manipulate history.

Update: 15 March 2014: There is more radio recollection on BBC Radio 4 and a multimedia collection at

Update: 25 February 2014: The British Library has masses of material on World War I as part of official commemoration.

Update: 5 February 2014: Historian Tim Stanley makes a balanced assessment of the way history is being used and misused in relation to the Great War centenary, with 600 comments and a link to a similar article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian.

Update: 29 January 2014: BBC radio and TV are going ‘over the top‘ with commemorative programs in 2014 though there are accusations that the UK is ignoring the Anzacs.


Note: This article was first posted early in November 2013.

The centenary of World War I will offer many opportunities for international comparison. Australians and New Zealanders will travel further to visit the battlefields; people in Britain will have more battlefields to visit. The Americans may not be particularly interested until 2017; the Russians are unlikely to be interested after 2017 and perhaps not even before. The French and Belgians will play host and the Germans will play it down.

On the expenditure side, too, there are comparisons to be drawn. Britain is spending £55 million (about $A94 million) on the centenary; Australia is spending at least $140 million (about £82 million), far more in per capita and absolute terms than Britain is laying out. Many people will try to understand why this is so. Does it say more about Britain or about Australia?

In this initial foray, we will look at how the centenary has been presented and received in Britain in the first 12 months since Prime Minister Cameron announced the program. Much of the article simply extracts paragraphs from the sources or supplies links to relevant material. We are not so much trying to make a point as to provide information.

Tyne9493759430_0fc97cab8e_cNurses and patients in the garden, Longshaw Lodge Convalescent Home for Wounded Soldiers, Grindleford, near Sheffield, ca. 1916-17 (source: Tyne & Wear Archives DF.BGS-4-9-8)

Prime Minister Cameron announced British plans in a speech at the Imperial War Museum on 11 October 2012. The commemoration program is to be in three parts:

  • refurbishing the Imperial War Museum;
  • events to mark key dates such as the start of the war, Gallipoli, the Battles of Jutland, the Somme and Passchendaele and the Armistice;
  • an education program, directed particularly at secondary schools, ‘to create an enduring legacy for generations to come’.

The third part includes ‘the opportunity for pupils and teachers from every state secondary school to research the people who served in the Great War, and for groups of them then, crucially, to follow their journey to the First World War battlefields’.

As well, there is money for local community heritage programs relevant to commemoration, particularly for projects involving young people.

I think [said the Prime Minister] we should get out there and make this centenary a truly national moment, but also something that actually means something in every locality in our country. Our duty towards these commemorations is clear: to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever.

Behind the specifics lies the rhetoric. There is a sharp focus on the young.

The centenary will … provide the foundations upon which to build an enduring cultural and educational legacy, to put young people front and centre in our commemoration and to ensure that the sacrifice and service of a hundred years ago is still remembered in a hundred years’ time.

But the commemoration is for everyone.

Our ambition is a truly national commemoration, worthy of this historic centenary. I want a commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.

The strength of the government’s and the Prime Minister’s commitment related to the reasons why the centenary was important.

For me there are three reasons. The first is the sheer scale of the sacrifice. … Out of more than 14,000 parishes in the whole of England and Wales, there are only around 50 so called “thankful parishes”, who saw all their soldiers return…

Second, I think it is also right to acknowledge the impact that the war had on the development of Britain and, indeed, the world as it is today. For all the profound trauma, the resilience and the courage that was shown, the values we hold dear: friendship, loyalty, what the Australians would call “mateship”. And the lessons we learned, they changed our nation and they helped to make us who we are today.

There is a third reason why this matters so much. It is more difficult to define, but I think it is perhaps the most important of all. There is something about the First World War that makes it a fundamental part of our national consciousness. Put simply, this matters not just in our heads, but in our hearts; it has a very strong emotional connection.

The Guardian responded with a reasonably balanced editorial.

That the first world war should be properly commemorated as the centenaries arrive can hardly be disputed. It was the war that was supposed to end war, but it became one of the largest acts of military carnage in our history. Nearly a million Britons died on the battlefield, and nearly a quarter of a million more than that if empire losses are added in. The losses in other nations, allied and enemy, were even greater.

The war changed Britain in ways with which we still live today, some for the better, but many not. It left a Europe utterly transformed, but which went to war again, with even greater loss of life, a generation later. Mr Cameron spoke the truth when he called the first world war a fundamental part of our national consciousness.

The paper felt though that there needed to be more public consultation on the form of commemoration and that some former enemies needed to be included in the program.

The war was of course a military conflict. But it was not just that, and the commemorations should not be about honouring those who fought. That happens already each year on 11 November.

It would be a betrayal of the seriousness of the centenary moment if the plans were to consist predominantly of the usual military parades, royal pageants and religious ceremonies. These may have their place. But a truly patriotic commemoration should not glorify what Mr Cameron still calls the Great War. That would be absolutely the wrong lesson from the European tragedy. The commemorations should also reach out… Above all, what about Germany?… [T]he single most resonant thing that this country could do is to find ways of sharing these events with Germany. Where are those plans?

This editorial provoked 280 comments from readers, the balance sceptical of the plans. This would have reflected the paper’s reader demographic; we have not looked at overall British public opinion. Columnists Richard Seymour and Seumas Milne were savagely critical, Seymour seeing the proposed commemoration as an example of nostalgia diverting Britain from its modern problems and Milne linking it to governments seeking support for modern military adventures. Both columns drew hundreds of comments.

On the other hand, the Daily Mail gave saturation and largely patriotic coverage, quoting supportive voices, as did the Daily Telegraph.

As the Custodians of Remembrance The Royal British Legion remembers and honours the sacrifices of those who fought and continue to fight in Service of our nation. Founded in the aftermath of WW1, the Legion has faithfully kept Remembrance and reminded the nation of our collective debt to those who Serve, which we express in our on-going support and campaigning on behalf of the Armed Forces family. We will be working alongside partner organisations to ensure that the epochal events of a century ago, and their enduring relevance for today, are not forgotten.

The Telegraph noted suggestions that Britain had been slow off the commemorative mark, compared with ‘its international rivals’ because it had been preoccupied by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics and the Paralympics.


British Prime Minister, David Cameron, school children, and a Sopwith Camel (source: Daily Mail)

Views pro and con polarised over subsequent months, provoked by plans for commemorative re-enactments of football matches held at Christmas 1914. The divide among historians and others was represented in May 2013 by a published argument between Sir Hew Strachan and AL Kennedy, while letter writers, public intellectuals and artists, editorial writers and columnists weighed in, particularly in The Guardian, which had taken up the issue with some heat.

In his polite joust with Kennedy, the military historian Strachan, an adviser to government on the centenary, took issue with the £55 million figure, pointing out that only £10 million was ‘new money’, as distinct from previously announced commitments, supported by £6 million from lottery proceeds. (While this claim makes the comparison with Australia’s proposed expenditure of more than $140 million even more remarkable, it should be noted that the Australian spend also needs to be closely examined against the ‘new money’ criterion.)

Nobody in government is using the word “celebrate” [Strachan went on, addressing the general issue]. There is a natural and proper sensitivity with regard to any triumphalism, about the first world war as about any war. But there is of course an educational and historical challenge… The real challenge of the centenary will be whether we take the opportunity provided by the controversies that the first world war still generates to debate that point. If we can use this war to understand war better, to think through when we may – albeit reluctantly – have to fight and when we should not, we shall have given the commemoration of the first world war a purpose that will honour those who served in it.

Responding, the fiction writer and stand-up comic Kennedy said she found herself

unable to be so optimistic. It would be wonderful if the government did take this as an opportunity “to understand war better” – but successive governments have now spent 100 years failing to do so. One of the world’s major arms exporters would find it tricky, for example, to really discuss the implications of basing one’s economy on equipment that requires war. Meanwhile, the dead become Glorious, the Cenotaph a clean and noble monument. This happens with any war: initially those who can remember may not wish to, witnesses slowly die, politicians love to appropriate the bravery of others.

The public debates continued to arouse passionate comments from hundreds of members of the public. (Australia is a long way from this point, a deficiency Honest History hopes to help rectify.) One blogger found an apposite quote from Siegfried Sassoon, writing in 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerity’s for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

Sassoon’s remarks resonate today in Britain. Much of individuals’ criticism of the government’s plans has been driven by a sentiment that the projected tone of the commemoration glosses over the divisions caused by the Great War and downplays the war’s real impact on the people. These people feel there is a risk that this part of history will be overwhelmed by misty-eyed and ultimately dishonest ‘remembrance’. As a veteran of a later war said to the blogger above, ‘The more unpopular the war the bigger the parade‘.

By the time of our most recent sounding of British opinion, BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman had taken the Prime Minister to task, particularly for his allegedly spurious comparison of the centenary with the Diamond Jubilee, which Paxman described as an ‘excuse for a knees-up in the rain to celebrate the happy fact that our national identity is expressed through a family rather than some politician who wants the job to gratify his vanity’.

Notwithstanding Paxman, the BBC, government sites (and this one) and private organisations (including the Eurotunnel attracting battlefield pilgrims) have begun to heavily publicise centenary events and provide background information. On the other hand, members of the arts community have set up No Glory in War, though it is a little difficult to find online other bodies opposing the government’s plans or arguing for alternative forms of commemoration.

No Glory has the last word for the time being, though we hope to return to these interesting international comparisons. The following letter was first written on 14 August 2013 and is still seeking signatures.

Open Letter: How should we remember the first world war?

2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Far from being a “war to end all wars” or a “victory for democracy”, this was a military disaster and a human catastrophe. We are disturbed, therefore, to hear that David Cameron plans to spend £55,000,000 on “truly national commemorations” to mark this anniversary. Mr. Cameron has quite inappropriately compared these to the “Diamond Jubilee celebrations” and stated that their aim will be to stress our “national spirit”.

That they will be run at least in part by former generals and ex-defence secretaries reveals just how misconceived these plans are. Instead we believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe, and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded.

In 2014, we and others across the world will be organising cultural, political and educational activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused. In a time of international tension we call on writers, actors, musicians, teachers and campaigners to join with us to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.

Jude Law • Simon Callow • Carol Ann Duffy • Billy Bragg • Janie Dee • Elvis McGonagall • Antony Gormley • AL Kennedy • Brian Eno • Patrick Stewart • Lindsey German • Ken Loach • Dominic Cooke • Robert Montgomery • Vivienne Westwood • Caryl Churchill • Heathcote Williams • Terry Jones • Robert Wyatt • Tony Benn • Michael Morpurgo • Roger Lloyd Pack • Shirley Collins • Tim Pigott Smith • Samuel West • Timothy West • Vanessa Redgrave • Ralph Steadman • Dame Harriet Walter • Kika Markham • Susan Wooldridge• Mike Dibb • Colin Towns • Tony Haynes • Nic France • Barry Miles • Leon Rosselson • Leo Aylen • Jan Woolf • Ken Livingstone • Jeremy Corbyn MP • Duncan Heining • Chris Nineham • Danny Thompson • Neil Yates • Peter Kennard • Evan Parker • Chris Searle • Steve Berry • Lionel Shriver • Mike Westbrook • Kate Westbrook • John Surman • Pete Brown • Neil Faulkner • Janie Dee • Alan Rickman • Liane Aukin • Alistair Beaton • Kate Hudson • Andy de la Tour • Sophie Hardach • Jonathan Edwards MP • Coope Boyes & Simpson • Walter Wolfgang • Hetty Bower

5 November 2013


* Research by Gerry Schulz

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