Lest We Forget: The Way Britain Chose to Remember its War Dead, and Why

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 marked the official end of the Great War. It also proved to be a watershed in how Britain would honour its soldiers and commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 28 Jun 2019, 12:50 BST
The 'Weeping Window' installation at the Imperial War Museum in Salford was one of several by ...
The 'Weeping Window' installation at the Imperial War Museum in Salford was one of several by artist Paul Cummins and exhibitor Tom Piper – marking the lives lost during World War 1 with the use of ceramic poppies. The flower is just one of many symbols of remembrance that came into being following the 1914-1918 war.
Photograph by Premos, Alamy

Even at a century’s distance, the figures are chilling. More than 700,000 British soldiers died during the four years of the First World War conflict, the greatest loss of life suffered by this country in any war. As the early skirmishes of the Western Front atrophied into the attrition of trench warfare, the harrowing task of commemorating the war effort and the dead soon ran into challenges.

The need to maintain national morale during the war kept showy or elaborate displays of mourning at bay, but when silence finally descended across the battlefields in November 1918, the unimaginable horror of the conflict demanded a commemorative response unlike any seen before. This tribute somehow had to make sense of the war, pay respect to the dead, honour those who fought and provide solace for the bereaved.

Moreover, commemoration somehow had to bridge the divide between aching individual grief and a wider community sense of loss. The fixed formalities of Remembrance Day in the 21stcentury bear no relation to the fluid, fast-changing environment of the immediate post-war period that eventually saw London’s Cenotaph, the two-minute silence and the poppy establish themselves as central pillars of the war commemorations. Victorian rituals for dealing with death simply proved inadequate to cope with the unprecedented number of fatalities and the brutality of their last moments. 

Prior to 1914, wealthier sectors of Victorian society would have taken their final breaths at home, under the watchful eye of their loved ones.

Soldiers go 'over the top' during the Battle of the Somme. Conditioned by conservative societal customs, the violence and magnitude of the loss caused by World War 1 was too much for post-Victorian society to comprehend.
Photograph by Shawshots, Alamy

The Ritual Void

Laura Tradii, a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, says, “In general, at the turn of the century, families had a central role in the whole ritual process. They are many depictions of the ‘good death’, which was for a person to die at home, to be washed and dressed by the relatives, and to be displayed for several days so friends and family could come to visit. Embalming was also part of the process to preserve the physical appearance of the body for a few days so it would look as though it was sleeping.”

The First World War destroyed these customs. Deaths occurred remotely, in overseas territories, denying families the chance to pay their final respects and grieve over the dead body. 

Casualties await transportation back to Britain aboard a train from the Western Front. Some soldiers died in convalescence on home shores, surrounded by family: the vast majority most weren't so lucky.
Photograph by George Munday, Alamy

“Universally it seems to be the case that a body needs to be present for proper ritual to be performed,” says Tradii. “It’s very important for the sake of the soul.”

War conditions, however, destroyed any possibility of a regular burial ritual, and in March 2015, just seven months into the fighting, the British Government took the contentious decision not to repatriate Imperial soldiers. It claimed that to do so would have been unsanitary, but its decision also reflected the terror of the trenches, where many cadavers were no more than a pitiful dis-assembly of body parts. Between the opening shots of 1914 and the armistice in November 1918, about one third of those who died had no known grave; at the Battle of the Somme alone, the bodies of 73,000 British and Allied soldiers were never found.

Marking sacrifice

In previous campaigns, soldiers who died in battle were buried in mass graves, but practices pursued for professional troops in the Crimea War against the Russian Empire and the Boer Warin South Africa, proved unpalatable for the volunteer and conscript army that fought in Belgium, France, Italy and Turkey during the First World War. These were the sons of parents who never expected to outlive their children. They were civilians first and fighters second, a status that demanded a different approach. 

“The loss was unprecedented; civilians had died and they deserved a very particular kind of commemoration. They deserved more than to end up in a common grave,” says Tradii.

The result was the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission (IWGC), established in 1917, which channelled the spirit of a line in Rupert Brooke’s famous poem The Soldier

“If I should die, think only this of me,
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.”

Today’s neatly tended lawns and flowerbeds of Commonwealth war graves belies the radical nature of their design. Row upon row of identical headstones, rather than crosses, expressed an equality in death that was so absent in both life and home front cemeteries, where grand headstones attested to the wealth and status of the deceased.

“All of a sudden people who would have been buried in anonymous plots were buried in individual graves with a headstone to record and honour their name. That was a privilege which in the past was reserved for generals and commanders,” says Tradii.

Graves in Belgium and France stand identified and anonymous together.
Photograph by Lightworks Media, Alamy left, Jonathan Manning right

The egalitarian spirit of war cemeteries was spelled out by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum, in his 1918 report to the Imperial War Graves Commission. Conscious of the risk that the graves and monuments of the more well-to-do “would overshadow those of their poorer comrades,” Kenyon wrote that a cemetery should not, “become a collection of individual memorials… with a total want of congruity and uniformity. The whole sense of comradeship and of common service would be lost.”

Instead, the IWGC determined that, “where the sacrifice had been common, the memorial should be common also.”

As a result, the columns of headstones that stretch to the horizon should resemble “a battalion on parade” and be “the symbol of a great Army and an united Empire,” wrote Kenyon. 

“It was therefore ordained that what was done for one should be done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, should have equal treatment in their graves.”

In effect, the community of sacrifice would be the overriding factor in commemoration. Each headstone would measure 2ft 6in tall by 1ft 3in wide, and be inscribed in standardised lettering (the font created by graphic designer Macdonald Gill) with “the rank, name, regiment and date of death of the man buried beneath it,” said Kenyon.

Next-of-kin could pay to personalise a headstone with up to three lines of a text or prayer, an offer taken up by 7,000 families.

According to Kenyon’s report, “The place for the individual memorial is at home, where it will be constantly before the eyes of relatives and descendants, and will serve as an example and encouragement for the generations to come.”

The simple pillar that marks so many dead of World War 1 on the battlefields of France and Belgium. The shape was the subject of much debate.
Photograph by Kapil Dubay, Unsplash

“The loss was unprecedented; civilians had died and they deserved a very particular kind of commemoration. They deserved more than to end up in a common grave.”

by Laura Tradii, University of Cambridge

These memorials are evident in the plaques and stained glass windows that decorate parish churches across the country, an opportunity for wealthier families to pay their respects to lost loved ones, in addition to the roll calls of honour on local memorials. In the absence of a body, only a name remained, and these memorials became centres of commemoration that “marked the spot where communities were reunited, where the dead were symbolically brought home, and where the separations of war, both temporary and eternal, were expressed, ritualised, and in time accepted,” said Dr Jay Winter, Charles J. Stille Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, in his book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning.

Their design was not, however, without argument as communities wrestled with the most appropriate way to honour those who had fought and those who died. After four years of terrible attrition, traditional portrayals of heroic warriors and noble knights no longer seemed appropriate. Instead, memorials recognised an army wearied by battle and lost in solemn memories of their fallen brothers in arms.

“Two motifs – war as both noble and uplifting and tragic and unendurably sad – are present in virtually all postwar war memorials,” writes Dr Winter.

A Nation United in Grief

Funded by local communities, memorials also reflected the financial means of donors and sponsors. Obelisks, for example, did not simply avoid the crucifix iconography of Christianity, but were also cheaper to build. And in Cambridge, the soldiers on the striking war memorial were shrunk from their original eight feet in height to six feet in order to hit budget. Debate also sparked over the best use of memorial funds; a statue to the dead or a recreation ground, hospital or scholarship for the living. 

The first memorial to truly capture the public imagination was the Cenotaph, designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, and installed as a temporary structure in Whitehall along the route of the Peace Day Parade in July 1919. The idea of an empty tomb atop a giant plinth proved wildly successful, perhaps allowing the bereaved who were deprived of a grave where they could mourn, to project their personal loss onto a very public monument. Estimates suggest 1.2 million people visited the monument in its first week, and for weeks after the parade people left flowers and wreaths at the foot of the thirty-five feet tall monolith. Such a spontaneous raction swiftly prompted the Government to commission a replacement Cenotaph made from Portland stone, at a cost of £10,000, to replace the original plaster and wood sculpture. This national shrine has served as a focal point of Remembrance Day ceremonies ever since. 

Interestingly, despite certain MPs calling in the House of Commons for the permanent Cenotaph to include ‘some representation of a Christian character’, the monument carries only the words, ‘The Glorious Dead’. 

Whitehall's Cenotaph, London, at dawn – today the focus of remembrance for the loss suffered in all wars.
Photograph by RichSTOCK, Alamy

Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative party and a future prime minister, who had himself lost two sones in the war, insisted that, “the Cenotaph was erected in order that on the day of the Peace Procession the nation should visibly express the great debt which it owes to all those who, from all parts of the Empire, irrespective of their religious creeds, made the supreme sacrifice.”

A year later, the tomb of the unknown soldier, officially called the grave of ‘The Unknown Warrior’ initiated a similar public response. The tomb in Westminster Abbey instantly became a focus of pilgrimage, drawing between 500,000 and 1 million people within a week.

For the hundreds of thousands of families without the wherewithal to erect or influence public monuments, memorials were on a smaller scale but no less heartfelt. Domestic shrines could display the personal effects of a dead relative, returned from the front. A harrowing letterby Vera Brittain, author of the best-selling memoir, Testament of Youth, references the return of the mud-caked, blood-stained kit of her fiance. 

“The smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead,” she wrote.

For other families it was a commanding officer’s handwritten letter that was treasured, a eulogy that provided a welcome emotional uplift to the brief, formal and formulaic notification of death they received by telegram (“Regret to inform you…” “It is my painful duty to inform you).

On Armistice Day, 11th November 1920 at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried at Westminster Abbey. This illustration shows King George V attending.
Photograph by Chronicle, Alamy

“The letters were much more personalised,” says Dr Adrian Gregory, Associate Professor of Modern History, Pembroke College, University of Oxford. “But you do then move into interesting territory. The purpose of the letters was to be kind to the family, so more often than not the message would be, ‘he felt no pain’. The letters were an act of solidarity with the relatives.”

The Silence

A broader act of solidarity was the creation of Armistice Day, a way for the nation as a whole to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the bereaved and acknowledge the sacrifice made by their loved ones.

At the heart of Armistice Day was the radical idea of the two minutes’ silence, an idea brought by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick from South Africa where he had served as High Commissioner. In Cape Town, from 14 May 1918 onwards, a cannon sounded at midday and the city would observe a three minutes’ pause to remember those on the South African casualty list. The three minutes were soon shortened to two, the first minute a thanksgiving for survivors and the second to remember the dead. 

“The idea of the silence actually predates the end of the war,” says Dr Gregory. “The Mothers’ Union start promulgating the idea of a moment of of silent reflection in 1916 to think about the soldiers at the front, which is where the South African idea comes from that is presented to the War Cabinet. It’s less about the silence on the Western Front than we think, but it gets connected with it because it occurs on the 11 November.”

The poppy symbolised the red of blood, the black of mourning – and, some suggest, the opiates of pain killing.
Photograph by Chris Dorney, Alamy

On 7 November 1918 national newspapers carried the news of a national silence as a request from King George V. The two minutes would coincide with the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth. Public respect for the silence appears to have been universal, bringing an unprecedented hush to the clamour and clanging of city life for many urban residents.

The final mark of respect to endure long after a conflict was the poppy. Inspired by a line from the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae: “In Flanders’ Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row…” the poppy symbolised the red of blood, the black of mourning, and, subversively, the opiates of painkilling (although hard evidence for this is elusive). 

The first artificial remembrance poppies were made for American ex-servicemen by women in northern France, before the British Legion decided to copy the fundraising idea by ordering 1.5 million poppies to sell to the British public in 1921. In his book ‘Lest We Forget,’ Dr Gregory recounts how a basket of poppies was auctioned at Sotheby’s for £90, only for the winning bidder to remove a single poppy and resubmit the basket for auction. By the end of the day the basket had raised an impressive £500.

The Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium. On it are recorded the names of 54,000 soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient, who have no known grave.
Photograph by DC Premiumstock, Alamy

“The tragedy is that within 20 years of what the author HG Wells dubbed ‘The War that Will End War’, another monumental conflict forced the country once again to examine how it would remember and pay tribute to those who fought and died.”

“Buying a poppy became an act of support for those who were suffering in the aftermath of war,” says Dr Gregory.

Between the poppy, Cenotaph, silence and Imperial war graves, Britain found meaningful and touching ways to commemorate its combatants and honour their sacrifices. The tragedy is that within 20 years of what the author HG Wells dubbed The War that Will End War’, another monumental conflict forced the country once again to examine how it would remember and pay tribute to those who fought and died.

The Treaty of Versailles at 100
On June 28 1919, The Treaty of Versailles was signed in France marking the formal end of the hostilities of World War One. Many believe the resulting reparations and economic hardship that ensured in Germany gave rise to the Nazis – and indirectly triggered World War Two. 

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