13 July 2011: Commemorations relating to the Centenary of the First World War, 2014 – 2019

Note by the chairman of the parliamentary all-party war heritage group

At its meeting on 13 July 2011, members of the parliamentary all-party war heritage group received a series of presentations on how other countries are planning to commemorate the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of the First World War.

Within the Commonwealth, Australia has formed a national committee, on which two former Prime Ministers serve; in Europe, France is opening a new national museum on 11 November 2011, a day on which President Sarkozy will make a major announcement about how France plans to commemorate an event which is only matched by 1789 in the history of the republic; and in the United States, despite the fact that the country did not enter the war until 1917, a bill is passing through Congress to create a national committee to organise the centenary events.

While the Imperial War Museum has been named as the DCMS’s lead, it can only advance its own strategies and act as a clearing house for ideas by other museums and the media. As a result of the IWM’s educational remit, its role is somewhat circumscribed. For the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who are preparing for a greater footfall in its cemeteries, and for the fact that its visitors will have different demands and expectations from the first pilgrims to the front in the 1920s, there can again only be a limited engagement within its limited range of responsibilities. For both organisations, most endeavours will necessarily be educational, and given that the First World War is part of the national curriculum, schools and academia are already planning how they will respond. In France and Flanders major commemorative and study projects are at present being put in place.

Many events will be generated locally, the recognition of losses suffered by communities in a war whose dead numbered twice those suffered by the United Kingdom in the Second World War. This centenary will affect the country as a whole and, given its global impact, will embrace its recent immigrant population as well as those whose grandfathers and great grandfathers served in the British forces of the crown.

These points, and more besides, were evident at a meeting convened in April in Oxford by Professor Hew Strachan, and attended by representatives of many of our principal allies, of the devolved governments, of the Royal British Legion, and of other interested parties, including the all-party war heritage group. At ministerial level, Andrew Robathan came from Defence and Ed Vaizey from DCMS. Given the centenary’s importance to some of our most important international partners, the FCO was also represented.

In some countries ministries of culture are leading, and in others ministries of defence. In practice the events – educational, cultural and diplomatic – will be international, national and local, and demand collaboration across government departments. Moreover the need for a lead from government has already become urgent. In recent weeks governmental representatives from Australia, France and Flanders (for Belgium) have all sought to make contact in Westminster, and failed to do so.

Whitehall needs at least to establish a single point of contact. Logically it should probably lie in the Cabinet Office. It need be no more than ‘a hub and spokes’ model, with a hub radiating out to other ministries, to our international partners, to local and devolved government, and to the many non-governmental interested bodies. But there is a need for more. Britain has to decide which events it is marking. The Ministry of Defence says that it only commemorates the ends of wars, but the nation will almost certainly mark the Somme in 2016 and Passchendaele in 2017; the Royal Navy may want to commemorate Jutland in 2016 and Scotland Loos in 2015. How do we handle the war’s outbreak in 2014? Will we join Australia and New Zealand at Gallipoli in 2015?

Furthermore we need to decide how we commemorate. Is this centenary solely a matter of mourning and regret? Or should we be celebrating victory, the introduction of universal male suffrage, and votes for women? In Germany, the war is being seen as the beginning of the path that leads to the creation of the European Community: almost a moment of European solidarity rather than division. Almost certainly this is not where Britain will want to position itself, not least given the war’s importance to the Commonwealth. But these questions show that, if we do not establish our own agenda and our sense of what we are marking, why we are doing so and how we wish to do it, it will be set for us by others.

The need for action is now urgent, for formal approaches and indeed visits from international partners are being met informally. To wait until after the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics is not an option. By then decisions will have already been taken by other states, leaving Britain to fall in line. The All-Party War Heritage Group has therefore asked its chairman, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, to write to the Prime Minister asking him to consider at least naming which government department should lead on the issue. If that department is to be the Cabinet Office, it will also need the support of a properly-resourced national multi-disciplinary committee with education, military and diplomatic inputs to provide the expertise and advice on the subject which it does not hold in house.

This war will undoubtedly be remembered in many ways, and the events associated with its centenary will be diverse, a true reflection of the debates and differing interpretations which it rightly still generates. However, diversity still requires coordination in order to avoid incoherence.

Faulkner of Worcester 20 July 2011

Accompanying letter from chairman of War Heritage Committee to the Prime Minister

The Rt Hon David Cameron MP
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA
19 July 2011

I am writing to you in my capacity as chairman of the parliamentary all-party war heritage group. For some months we have been concerned by the apparent lack of preparedness here in Britain for the commemoration of the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of the First World War.

We had a meeting of the all-party group last Wednesday. We heard reports of how many other countries plan to mark the centenary. We are convinced that there needs to be a government policy and a clear political lead on the issue, with action taken soon as it will take time to effect anything substantive, and worthy of our national status amongst our friends and allies. In particular, it is necessary for a decision to be taken now on which government department is to lead on the issue.

The attached paper goes into these issues in more detail. We do hope that you will be able to give these matters your attention, and share your thoughts with us in due course.

With kindest regards,

Richard Faulkner

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