Commemorating the Great War around the world

The First World War changed the world, bringing repercussions for generations. To mark the centenary of the War, countries around the world have held commemorations that have reflected on and retold not only the big stories about infamous battles, but also the human-scale stories about individual valour, sacrifice and loss.


Even a small town like Oundle had a big part to play in the First World War, sending many of its residents to join the Northamptonshire Regiment. After the war, over 500 memorials were built across Northamptonshire to commemorate the fallen.

The 1920 memorial in the centre of Oundle lists the names of the 68 men who died in the Great War. It was dedicated by the Bishop of Peterborough, and there is a service at the memorial every year to honour the men who died.

The Bishop of Peterborough also consecrated the School Memorial Chapel which was built to honour 228 men from Oundle School.

At St Peter’s church there is a stone plaque with the names of 64 men who died. It reads: “To the glory of God and in memory of the men of this parish who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Oundle School had a four-year programme of commemoration. Major Andrew Mansergh, Contingent Commander of the Oundle School CCF said: “In November 2014 we marked the start of WW1 with a Drumhead Service on Armistice Day. Four years later we marked the end of the War with another whole school event. In between we have marked the 100th anniversary of the death of every Oundelian in services in the Cloisters.

“On the annual Somme trip we have also had the opportunity to visit some of the graves of those OOs. It is fitting that we have marked the end of the war appropriately, and that we have remembered solemnly and with dignity a generation who made such a sacrifice on our behalf.”

The United Kingdom
The Government released the First World War Centenary Programme in 2014: “The First World War is a local story as well as part of our nation’s history. Every city, town and village was touched by it: by the soldiers who fought, the people who stayed behind, and the businesses that helped with the war effort.”

The UK centenary commemoration began in 2014 with an unforgettable installation of a red river of 888,246 poppies at The Tower of London, which more than five million people went to see. The poppies represented all of the British or Colonial servicemen who were killed in the War.

14-18 NOW was a five-year programme of arts experiences connecting people with the First World War. Working with arts and heritage partners across the UK, they commissioned artworks from leading contemporary artists, musicians, designers and performers, inspired by the period 1914-18. Over the four years, 30 million people, including 7.4 million young people, experienced their projects, inspiring them to think about the experience of war and its impact on the world.

To mark the conclusion of the centenary commemorations, Shrouds of the Somme was installed at the Tower, where 73,396 miniature corpses individually wrapped in calico were laid to represent the soldiers whose bodies were not recovered in the Battle of the Somme.

During the centenary, Germany did not organise any memorial events to commemorate the war and the losses that were suffered. While the losses and tragedy of the Second World War are commemorated, one example being the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, there are far fewer memorials for WWI.
Defeat in the Great War was overwhelming for Germany. The misery caused by the consequences of the war, including starvation, makes German people less likely to visit the graves of the war dead.
With defeat, the German people feel that they should not look back to remember their mistakes, but rather look forward to the future.

However, Sevim Dagdelen, a member of parliament for the Die Linke party said: “I still think that’s scandalous, that the role Germany played in WWI, as the aggressor, as the cause of WWI, was consciously denied.”

In contrast to Germany, France’s approach to the remembrance of WWI was all about commemorating the lives of the country’s fallen soldiers.

In 2003, the French state put online a database of the 1.3 million men who died in France, to enhance people’s connections to past events.

The government also made available the Departmental Archives of the Somme, which allows an online search of all documents such as books, photographs and postcards digitized by the Archives.
Over 200 memorial events took place over the four years, with the last one held in Villers-Bretonneux on the day of the Armistice.

French President Emmanuel Macron made a week-long tour of World War I battlefields and held commemorative events with British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before convening a ceremony of world leaders at Paris’s Arc de Triomphe.

Very much like England, Belgium had a program of commemorative events called ‘be14-18’, identifying three themes to highlight: collective remembrance; working together for a peaceful future; solidarity and partnership.

Ceremonies commemorating the battles that occurred within its borders had an international scope, including Mons, Ypres and Passchendaele. On 11th November, thousands gathered at the Menin Gate for the last post to honour the more than 54,000 soldiers who died at Ypres and who have no known grave.

New Zealand
Over 100,000 New Zealand soldiers served in the war with the Allies, and just under one-fifth died. There are over 500 WWI memorials across the country, reminding people of an important part of their history. The memorials are designed to arouse emotional responses, reflecting the country’s deep connection to those who sacrificed their lives in the War.

Anzac Day marks the first major involvement of New Zealand and Australia in the First World War On 25th April, memorial services are held across the country to commemorate those who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

The United States
WWI has made less of an impression on American national identity. The US entered the war three years after its start. It suffered no direct damage to communities and lost just one percent of its population to the war. President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. It became a national holiday in 1938, but in 1954 was designated Veterans Day to honour veterans of all US wars.

After the First World War, Americans commemorated their role by erecting community monuments and memorials, such as parks, and although there is as yet no national memorial to the War, plans have been approved to build one in Washington by 2020.

Giovanni Bernardi
December 2018