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Remembering The First World War
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Remembering the First World War

Plans for commemorating the victims of the First World War were already being drawn up during the conflict. The British government signed agreements with its French and Belgian counterparts (in 1915 and 1917 respectively) that granted to Britain 'in perpetuity' land on which British war graves and cemeteries were located. On 21 May 1917, the Glossary - opens new windowImperial War Graves Commission was created by Royal Charter to create, mark and maintain the graves and cemeteries of every British empire servicemen who died in the war.

However, the process of commemoration did not begin in earnest until the conflict was over. Since 1918, this cult of remembrance has profoundly influenced modern perceptions of the First World War.


War memorials
During the inter-war period, official commemorations of the First World War became so common in Europe that the king of Belgium was moved to remark in 1931 that 'unveiling war memorials' was 'the only job left in my profession'. In Britain, organisations were founded to support the needs of ex-servicemen and their dependants (the Glossary - opens new windowBritish Legion in 1921) and to tell the story of the Great War (the Imperial War Museum, formally established and opened in 1920). Permanent memorials to the war dead such as the Glossary - opens new windowCenotaph in Whitehall and the tomb of the Glossary - opens new windowUnknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey were in place by 1920.
Film of graves in France - opens new window
Watch film of graves
in France

Stills from film - opens new window
Unveiling of Cenotaph - opens new window

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Turkish Gallipoli war memorial - opens new window
Turkish war memorial

Among Britain's allies, Belgium and France led the way in establishing memorial sites. In July 1927, the Glossary - opens new windowMenin Gate at Glossary - opens new windowYpres in Belgium was opened to the public as a 'Memorial for the Missing' from the battles fought there. France unveiled monuments at Glossary - opens new windowLa Ferté-sous-Jouarre in 1928 (for those killed in the retreat from the Glossary - opens new windowMarne in September 1914) and at Glossary - opens new windowVerdun (the Glossary - opens new windowOssuary of Douaumont) four years later. It also permitted former allies to construct their own sites of commemoration such as the giant Canadian war memorial at Glossary - opens new windowVimy Ridge.

For the defeated Glossary - opens new windowCentral Powers, commemorative sites were equally important. Aside from providing a focus for collective grief and remembrance, they were also intended to remind the world that the First World War had been fought honourably and with moral purpose on both sides. As Hindenburg remarked at the unveiling of the Glossary - opens new windowTannenberg memorial in 1927, 'with clean hands we marched... with clean hands we fought'.

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Gestures of regret or reconciliation were uncommon, as both sides continued to invoke a pious rhetoric of 'sacrifice' and 'duty' to justify their reasons for fighting in the first place. Turkey's decision to permanently open the Gallipoli peninsula to visitors from former enemy states was a rare exception.

In the first decade after the end of the First World War, people generally remembered the conflict and its victims in private circles. Widespread public discussion about the war did not begin until the late 1920s, when Glossary - opens new windowErich Maria Remarque's Glossary - opens new windowAll Quiet on the Western Front, a bleak portrayal of the life and death of a group of German soldiers, became a world-wide bestseller and, subsequently, a popular Hollywood film.

Remarque's novel confirmed the arrival of a genre that represented the First World War as a futile, bloody slaughter whose only heroes were the ordinary soldiers cast into its midst. Although such 'mud and blood literature' has deeply influenced modern perceptions of the First World War, it aroused great opposition during the 1930s among veterans' associations and the relatives of individuals killed in the conflict.

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The war's defining role

In the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, genocide and the nuclear bomb temporarily relegated the First World War and its more primitive weapons of destruction to the shadows. Since the 1960s, however, its defining role in shaping the 20th century has been almost universally re-established.

Tourist trips to the battlefields of the Western Front have become hugely popular. First World War poetry has become a fixed part of the English curriculum in British secondary schools. Memorials to the victims of the war are still being visited and even newly constructed - such as the rows of pinewood stakes and commemorative statue (unveiled in June 2001) in honour of Allied soldiers shot for desertion between 1914 and 1918 at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield in Staffordshire.

At the beginning of the 21st century, only a small number of Great War veterans are still alive, and the conflict will soon slip beyond eyewitness recollections. However, public interest in it continues to grow. Preserving and displaying the sources that tell its story helps to ensure that the war and its millions of victims will remain unforgotten.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by the The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at the The National Archives.

CAB 27/52: Various material on the peace celebrations, 1919.
HO 45/11557: Arrangements for Armistice Day celebrations at the Cenotaph, 1919-24.
WO 32/5853-5895: Various files on the erection of battlefield memorials in Belgium and France, 1919-27.
WO 32/9434: Constitution and charter of the Imperial War Graves Commission, 1917.
WORK 17/108: Various material on the formation of the Imperial War Museum, 1917-20.
WORK 21/74: Various material (including photos) on the peace celebrations, 1919.


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