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Lest we forget

The Great War 100 years on

2018 saw the centenary of the end of World War One, 11am on the 11th of November was a more poignant moment than usual to remember and reflect, not just on those who fought but what they fought and died for.

The 11th November, Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, has been seared into all our memories from a young age. Remembrance Sunday is different, always held on the second Sunday in November.

What actually happened on Armistice Day?

At 11am (Paris time) on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 an armistice came into force, having been signed by the Allies and Germany at Compiègne in northern France. This signalled the end of hostilities after four years of bitter and bloody fighting.

It marked an utter defeat for Germany (though not a formal surrender) and comprised a punishing list of terms aimed at ensuring the immediate nullification of German’s threat. The Armistice needed to be prolonged three times before the Treaty of Versailles was concluded on 28 June 1919. 

The signing took place in a railway carriage, part of Marshal Foch’s private train, at a secret location. After the war the carriage was housed in a special commemorative building on the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. On 22 June 1940 a German Nazi contingent including Hitler, Göring and von Ribbentrop swept in and – in the very same carriage – demanded France’s surrender, before taking the carriage back to Berlin as a trophy.

Today the 11th November is a national holiday in France and many allied nations, while in others it is marked by Remembrance Day or Veterans Day. In Germany Armistice Day is not celebrated but a national day of mourning – Volkstrauertag - has been observed since 1952.

11 November 1918: Crowds celebrating the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War I
11 November 1918: Crowds celebrating the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War I

The two minute silence

The first two minute silence was proposed by Australian journalist Edward Honey in a letter to the London Evening News in May 1919. With the support of King George V the idea swiftly gained momentum and took place later that year. A moving report appeared in the Manchester Guardian the next day:

“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still... The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain... And the spirit of memory brooded over it all”.

Notable highlights for November 2018

In both France and across the UK, a plethora of events to commemorate the landmark occasion were held.

'Beyond the Deepening Shadow: the Tower Remembers'

Surrounding the iconic Tower of London in 10,000 flames, this evolving visual installation was a public act of remembrance for the lives of the fallen, honouring their sacrifice. 

Each evening, over the course of four hours between 17:00 and 21:00, the moat became illuminated. The first flame ignited by the Yeoman Warders - former servicemen and women - before a team of volunteers proceeded to light the rest to create a powerful symbol of remembrance.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ 

The extraordinary visual drama of the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ display of ceramic poppies was held at the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester. Anyone who saw the larger display at the Tower of London in 2014 cannot fail to have been moved.

The bright red poppies of the ‘Weeping Window’ tumble from the windows of the prominent cupola that rises high above the front entrance of the London IWM, cascading down the front portico. 

Weeping Willow installation at IWM London
Weeping Willow installation at IWM London

Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum held a special season ‘Making a New World’ which reflected on the war and its impact in the years after when social and industrial change created one of the most turbulent decades in peacetime.

La Grande Veillée

Beginning on the night of the 10th November, La Grande Veillée or The Great Vigil took place to remember the fallen. Centred around Arras, candles were lit at some 270 sites across Artois in northern France where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

The bells will ring out

The 11th November 2018 promised to be one filled with the sound of church bells. Bells up and down the country, in as many as 3,000 locations, rung out as they did on this day in 1918 in a spontaneous outpouring of celebration and relief after four years of silence.  

The bells were ‘half muffled’ initially, giving a sombre sound. At midday, the mufflers were taken off and the bells rung open, shifting the mood to “gratitude and gratefulness and thanks”, according to a spokesman.

The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers began recruiting, with government assistance, thousands of bell ringers. And there were hopes that bells around the world would ring out at the same time in a replication of that outpouring of relief of 100 years ago.

St Symphorien cemetery
A moving commemorative service took place near Mons in Belgium where the first and last casualties of the war lie.

Queen Elizabeth II takes part in the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London, Sunday, Nov.13, 2016
Queen Elizabeth II takes part in the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London, Sunday, Nov.13, 2016

National Service of Remembrance 

At London’s Cenotaph a broadly unchanged service was conducted but the customary march-past was enhanced to reflect the special significance of the day. In addition to veterans and those with direct military connections, 10,000 members of the public marched past.

Later there was services across the country, with Westminster Abbey taking centre stage, and others in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast.

Great War Symphony

The specially composed Great War Symphony had its US premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Composed by Patrick Hawes, the choral work had its UK debut at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2018 and it combines military bands, youth choirs and full orchestra, along with words from Wilfred Owen and others. 

The words of American poet Moina Michael who, inspired by McCrae’s ‘Flanders Fields’, first suggested the poppy as a poignant symbol of remembrance conclude the work.

“Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought in Flanders Fields”
Donate to the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal 2019
Donate to the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal 2019