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We will remember them

09 November 2018

Robert Beaken reflects on the legacy of the First World War in public rituals of remembrance

John Frost Newspapers/Alamy

The front page of the Daily Sketch reports the first Remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph, in 1919

The front page of the Daily Sketch reports the first Remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph, in 1919

MANY of the ceremonies and symbols that characterise Remembrance in Britain today have their origins in the First World War, which ended a century ago on Sunday — notably the war memorials that are to be found in virtually every city, town, and village. Before 1914, apart from monuments to individual officers, there were comparatively few war memorials in Britain.

From about 1916, street “war shrines” began to be erected by ordinary people in towns and cities. These listed on “rolls of honour” the names of the men from the neighbourhood who had lost their lives, as well as those who were serving in the army or Royal Navy. Some parish churches set up similar lists as aids to prayer. From these, after the war, developed the idea of permanent war memorials, often listing the names of local men who had been killed.

Many war memorials are of surprisingly high artistic quality: the fact that “only the best” was good enough for “our boys” speaks eloquently of the grief that engulfed British society in the years after the Armistice.

Perhaps the best-known war memorial is the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Originally a temporary structure erected for the peace celebrations on 19 July 1919, a permanent stone Cenotaph, designed by Lutyens, was unveiled as part of the ceremonies surrounding the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, on 11 November 1920.

For many grieving families who could not afford to visit military cemeteries overseas, or whose loved ones had no known resting place, the war memorial became a substitute grave and a place of emotional significance. The tomb of the Unknown Warrior, too, held a special place in many people’s minds; for there was a chance, however slim, that the Unknown Warrior might be their missing son, brother, husband, or father.


SERVICES at war memorials on Armistice Day — and, since 1945, on Remembrance Sunday — have their origin in the open-air services that were held throughout Britain on National Days of Prayer during the First World War. The Remembrance format came to include the laying of poppy wreaths by the British Legion.

On the first Armistice Day, 11 November 1919, the British Empire observed a two-minute silence at 11 a.m. at the request of King George V. Activity was interrupted, and there were vast crowds at focal points such as the temporary Cenotaph and outside the Mansion House, in the City of London. A short service was held at Buckingham Palace. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George — never one to miss an opportunity — walked from Downing Street to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, amid a welter of publicity.

The next year, the King unveiled the stone Cenotaph, and a service was held there. With a few minor tweaks, the annual commemoration at the Cenotaph has continued in much the same format to the present day, and similar services are held at war memorials around the country.


REMEMBRANCE ceremonies in Britain have always been strongly religious, and have included hymns, prayers, and Bible readings. The presence at the Cenotaph service of the clergy and choir of the Chapel Royal reflects the fact that the monarch continues to lead our national act of remembrance. Besides remembering the dead, Remembrance ceremonies in Britain have always been about the families of those killed, and those who continue to suffer because of war.

By contrast — and to emphasise this point — it may be helpful to look at Remembrance events in France and Germany.

In France, following the government’s tradition of laïcité, ceremonies at war memorials are entirely secular, and usually only commemorate troops killed in war. In Germany, a “People’s Day of Mourning” is held on the Second Sunday before Advent. During the 12 years of the Nazi regime, these were large and heavily militaristic events. Since they were re-established in 1952, they have been comparatively low-key.

The format varies somewhat around Germany. Wreaths are laid; clergy sometimes say prayers; there is nearly always a rendition of “Ich hatt’ einen Kamerad” — a song of farewell to a lost comrade; but the focus, usually, is on speeches about peace from politicians and civic leaders. To avoid any direct or even indirect reference to the Nazi régime, there tends to be no commemoration by name of individuals killed in war.

In Britain, the Second World War lent additional meaning to the ceremonies and symbols of Remembrance. The dead of the Second World War — and of other conflicts since 1945 — came to be incorporated seamlessly into existing traditions of Remembrance. There was sometimes a melding together of experiences: some survivors of the First World War found themselves laying wreaths in memory of a son or daughter killed in the Second World War. Equally, men and women who had served in 1939-45 sometimes laid wreaths in remembrance of fathers or older brothers killed in 1914-18, and, because of their own military experiences, felt a renewed sense of kinship with them.


NEW war memorials have been erected since 1945. The “Monument to the Women of World War II”, erected in Whitehall in 2005, is a fine and evocative piece of modern sculpture. Whereas older war memorials tended to group names according to rank — officers first, followed by non-commissioned officers, and finally other ranks — more modern monuments, such as the 1982 South Atlantic Task Force memorial, in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, have listed the dead alphabetically. I think this is to be preferred: all shared the same death, and all should be equally honoured.

If I could suggest one further development to our Remembrance traditions, I should like to see a memorial erected in Whitehall to the children whose lives were affected by war. Some 340,000 children lost one or both parents in the First World War. Roughly twice as many had a close relative wounded. Although military casualties were fewer in the Second World War, civilian suffering was far worse.

In my ministry, I have sometimes encountered elderly people troubled in old age by unhappy experiences that took place whilst they were wartime evacuees, or by long-buried memories of the Blitz. Children in our own times are left scarred by wars, and by man’s inhumanity to man.

War memorials and ceremonies of remembrance cannot undo the past, but they can help us — both individually and collectively — to channel sad memories, and to come to terms with them. The expectation, so prevalent 30 years ago, that Remembrance Sunday would fade away naturally with the passing of the generations who fought in two world wars has not been fulfilled.

Any sociologist wanting to examine “British values” could do worse than to study the ceremonies held at British war memorials each Remembrance Sunday.


The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, Essex, and is the author of The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918, published by Boydell & Brewer at £30 (CT Bookshop £27).

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