13th Report - Lessons from the First World War Centenary Contents


1.The centenary of the First World War was, by definition, a unique event in our nation’s history, but the way that it was commemorated in the UK was also unique. The then Prime Minister Rt Hon David Cameron MP set out why he was making the centenary commemorations a ‘personal priority’ in a speech at the Imperial War Museum in London, in October 2012. He said:

For me there are three reasons. The first is the sheer scale of the sacrifice […] 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 […]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.1

2.That year David Cameron and the then Culture Secretary Rt Hon Maria Miller MP also announced a programme of commemorations which included: national commemorative events for the start of the war, the Battle of the Somme, and Armistice Day; the refurbishment of galleries at Imperial War Museum London; an educational programme to take schoolchildren to battlefields; and funding for the National Heritage Lottery Fund to support community projects marking the centenary.2 As there are no surviving veterans, the aim of the commemorations was to connect new, younger audiences to the legacy of the War through arts and education initiatives.3 This built on the UK Government’s experience of using the visual arts for national reflection during the Cultural Olympiad, which ran alongside the London 2012 Olympic Games.

3.The main purpose of our inquiry was to capture the successes, lessons and reflections of the four-year commemorations. The best way to reflect this is to refer to the substantial written evidence that we received, much of which details inspiring approaches to marking the centenary in local communities. We are also publishing the evidence of those who gave oral evidence to our inquiry within this report. There are also formal evaluations of the commemorations that have either been completed4 or are currently being undertaken.5 Our aim is not to replicate or overlap with them, but to offer our reflections in parallel.

4.The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was the lead department for the centenary, but it worked alongside a broad ecology of public and civil society organisations in the UK and internationally. Alongside amplifying the contribution of those who participated in our inquiry, we use this report to outline some recommendations to the agencies involved in the centenary. We hope that the evidence that we have gathered can be a resource for the DCMS to draw upon in the future, with lessons that apply not only to war memorials but also to other forthcoming ‘national moments’ such as the Commonwealth Games.

3 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [WWO096] para 4

4 Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre 14–18 NOW: Summary of evaluation April 2019

5 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [WWO096] para 43

Published: 16 July 2019