Presented bySophie RaworthBroadcaster

How we remember

Each year, on 11 November, the country falls silent to commemorate our war dead. This ritual, and the ceremonies and symbols that accompany it, have become part of national life.

Remembrance started long before the guns of the Western Front fell silent with people marking the loss or absence of loved ones away at war. 100 years later, the personal and political resonances of remembrance still stir strong emotions.

1914 - 1918

We will remember them

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Sophie Raworth on how commemoration began before the end of the First World War.

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Before the poppy or the symbols of remembrance that we know today came into being, people started to mark the absence of those at the front.

It was the first time that British men had marched to war in such numbers. From 1916, street shrines began to appear. A year later, the Imperial War Museum was founded to record the conflict for future generations. The Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was established to record the deaths and mark the graves of those who had fallen.

How do we remember the First World War?Find out how WW1 affected your local areaWhat can today's soldiers learn from WW1?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, September 1914


A makeshift memorial

Getty Images

The Cenotah in Whitehall, London, July 1919

The Cenotaph was first unveiled in Whitehall, London, in July 1919.

War only officially ended in June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the nation could start to face the scale of its loss.

Prime Minister Lloyd George asked architect Edward Lutyens to design a structure for a Peace Day parade in London. Lutyens sketched a design on the back of a napkin and a temporary version of the Cenotaph was erected. Nearly 15,000 troops took part but many veterans refused to participate in what they saw as 'militaristic celebrations'. Four days before the first anniversary of Armistice Day, King George V announced that a two minute silence would be observed.

Does the peace that ended World War One haunt us today?

Today is Peace Day

Manchester Guardian, 11 November 1919


The blueprint for commemoration

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Sophie Raworth explains how the rituals and monuments associated with Remembrance became established in the 1920s.

Transcript (PDF 210k)

Soldiers returning home to civilian life did not find the promised 'land fit for heroes', but a country gripped by recession and unemployment.

In 1921, Douglas Haig and the Royal British Legion adopted and popularised the artificial poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Proceeds were used to assist the great many ex-servicemen in need - some of whom could be seen protesting the services at the Cenotaph each year. Throughout, the IWGC continued to erect graves and monuments to the First World War across the country and overseas. By the end of the decade many of the rituals and events we might recognise today had been established.

Did World War One nearly bankrupt Britain?Find out more about the CWGC (formerly IWGC)


"Peace in our time"

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Listen to the BBC radio broadcast of the 1933 remembrance service.

Transcript (PDF 209k)

Memorialisation of the First World War continued well into the 1930s as thousands of local monuments dramatically changed the civic landscape.

Monuments also continued to be built overseas - the Prince of Wales unveiled the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in 1932. But as the spectre of conflict loomed over Europe, it was feared that the traditions of remembrance had failed to serve as an effective reminder of the cost of war. From 1933 the white poppy began to appear, symbolising peace. Some members of the Women's Cooperative Guild who wore it lost their jobs. In 1936 the Peace Pledge Union was created and adopted the symbol.

The peace movement has received its main support from women, but it seems high time now that men should throw their weight into the scales against war

Peace Pledge Union founder Dick Sheppard, 1934


Combining remembrance

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Watch the 1949 remembrance service at the Cenotaph broadcast by the BBC.

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The world was again plunged into war in 1939 and no official Armistice Day services were held while the fighting continued.

How could Britain honour those who died in the 'war to end all wars' when just two decades later the lessons of that conflict appeared to have been forgotten? After the war, there was no great clamour to memorialise - reconstruction not remembrance was the public's focus. In 1947, after some debate, it was agreed that the Second World War, would be marked alongside the First, in just one national day: Remembrance Sunday.

D-Day Timeline: The beginning of the end of WW2

Although the two wars were twenty-five years apart, time will close the gap until they will appear to posterity one great struggle against evil.

Lord Chatfield, 1947


Another way to remember

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As television grew in popularity, the BBC could reach a wider audience in the 1950s. Watch Richard Dimbleby broadcast the Remembrance Day service.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

The 1950s again saw British troops in combat. 100,000 served in Korea, while in 1956 attempts to control the Suez Canal sparked a major crisis.

Back in Britain, a new medium was changing how people took part in Remembrance services. Television sales had risen sharply after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Remembrance Day events could now be brought into more homes than ever before – watching commemoration unfold at home was now a bigger part of the nation’s relationship with the war.


Re-examining the past

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Clip from 'I was there: the Great War interviews', BBC Two

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Set against the looming spectre of nuclear devastation, a new way of thinking about the First World War emerged in the 1960s.

As the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament echoed the 1930s pacifist movement, films such as 'Oh! What a Lovely War' recast the conflict as a futile waste of life. Poets like Wilfred Owen, who emphasised its horrors, grew more popular. Meanwhile, the BBC released landmark documentary 'The Great War' and, for the first time, ordinary people's stories were brought to a mass audience. By the close of the decade, how the nation collectively viewed and remembered the war had experienced a major shift.

Did Oh What a Lovely War shape our view of WW1?Watch more of The Great War interviewsHas poetry distorted our view of WW1?

Old soldiers never die, the young ones wish they would.

Oh! What a Lovely War


End of an era

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Watch the 'Old Contemptibles' march past the Cenotaph in 1973.

Throughout the 1970s, many prominent veterans of the First World War began to die, taking with them our most powerful link to the past.

Amidst suggestions of a growing ambivalence, some local memorial ceremonies began to lapse, and historical scholarship became much more focused on the more recent Second World War. Meanwhile, as conflicts like Vietnam played out across the mainstream media, anti-war feeling continued to grow. Attitudes to commemoration of war were undoubtedly affected as a result.

The Old Contemptibles memorial


Political overtones?


Destruction of the Enniskillen bombing, Remembrance Day 1987

The aftermath of the Enniskillen bombing on Remembrance Day, 1987.

Remembrance can be a politically charged affair. Argentina's 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands helped bring the military back into the public eye.

Remembrance always means different things to different people. For some its resurgent popularity lay in recognising the sacrifice of those who had died defending British soil in the Falklands War. Others saw its growing significance as tied to a perceived rise in nationalism after that conflict. A group of IRA radicals in 1987 saw it as an opportunity. In bombing a remembrance service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, they killed 11 people and injured 68 more in a roundly condemned attack.

Find out more about the Enniskillen bombingLearn about The Troubles in N. Ireland

Every nation should honour its dead…and we should all be able to stand and honour them in peace.

Margaret Thatcher, Remembrance Day 1987


The power of the poppy

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Watch as BBC News reports on the Remembrance Day service in 1995.

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By the end of the century, the Gulf War and the 50th anniversary of the Second World War lent impetus to the debate around the role of Remembrance.

Though the silence continued to be a feature of Remembrance Sunday, 1995 saw a Royal British Legion campaign to restore it to Armistice Day too. On 11 November it did. The British Legion continued fundraising and experienced significant growth. As they rose in prominence, so too did the red poppy – that decades-old symbol of remembrance. At the same time, public appetite for family history and a broader rise in interest in the past made it easier for people to identify with remembrance.

Find out more about the Royal British Legion


Remembrance during war

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Watch Caroline Wyatt report on remembrance services held by British troops in Afghanistan in 2009.

Transcript (PDF 206k)

At war for much of the decade, in Afghanistan and then Iraq, British military deaths grew steadily as the years progressed.

In March 2003, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to voice their opposition to war with Iraq. Many found it hard to reconcile that opposition with Remembrance Day services. In 2007 the first monument specifically dedicated to servicemen and women who died in action since the end of the Second World War was erected and symbolism of the First World War remained pronounced. On 11 November, at 11am, the sun’s rays fall on a wreath at the centre of the memorial.

BBC News on the struggle for IraqThe war in Afghanistan


A century on

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Watch Fiona Bruce report on the 2014 Tower of London installation commemorating the First World War for BBC News.

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More than 100 years after the start of the First World War, there is still debate over how war should be remembered and commemorated.

Some feel uncomfortable at links to the military. Others find religious and political undercurrents difficult to align with a desire to respect those that died defending their country. The past is remembered in our present. But the enduring power of commemoration - more than four million visitors paid their respects in 2014 at an installation of poppies at the Tower of London - owes much to the symbols and ideas that emerged after the First World War.

Remembrance Day 2014: How will we remember them?Find out more about the Tower of London poppies