1940 may have been our finest hour but in many ways our country has been shaped much more by WW1 or The Great War as it was known before there was a second world war. WW2 has always been the war that is best remembered, perhaps even celebrated if such a term can be used. A glorious battle against the evils of Nazism which saw our country plunge into a war which for a long time we fought without any of the Allies. A war that there were no guarantees of survival but an almost certainty that it would be the end of the empire. The result was a glorious though bankrupting victory. It is almost ironic that the final and perhaps most altruistic declaration of war would be the final great act of an empire that encompassed the globe and which it would sacrifice itself in the fight which gave much of the world its freedom.
It's not that long ago when people were worried about remembering WW1. Not in how to mark the 100th anniversary of the war as has been the case recently but whether people would still care enough to remember in the war at all.
The numbers of surviving soldiers naturally reduced year on year and for a while during the 1980's it was mused that once the survivors were no more that the courage and sacrifices made by that special generation would be forgotten.
WW1 though had none of this glamour, even the enemy uniforms are less stylish. The road to war was long and complex. In many ways Kaiser Germany was only slightly less extreme than Hitler and a German dominated Europe a century ago aside from quickly descending into an even worse regime would sooner or later have led to a great war with Britain one way or the other.
A century ago, the German leadership was in no way as charismatic as that which followed. News footage was considerably less advanced than in the 40's and of course with the very late entry of the United States into the war there have been comparatively much fewer Hollywood films dealing with WW1 to capture the public imagination.
What makes WW1 a war that should never be forgotten and indeed one that is unlikely to ever be forgotten is how it changed our entire country. Though change was on its way in many areas of life, everything from women in the workplace to universal suffarage was influenced and brought forward by the war.
Of course the death toll is what we all think of now and the lions led by donkeys. Few families made it through the war unscathed and those that are here today will never know the suffering those left behind had to face without their loved ones whilst we can only imagine the grandfathers, uncles and cousins that we don't have due to the war.
The whole war left the nation in a sorrowful state of shock that even today we find hard to shake off. It was the end of the Victorian optimism,of the old way of life for good and for bad. Most of the other nations involved came out of the war with something to focus on even in the most unlikely places whether the Communist revolution in Russia, the Fascists of Germany and Italy and the numerous new states in Eastern Europe.
For us though, WW1 was and is nothing but a tragedy and worse still a tragedy that led us towards another bloody tragedy. Something we can't forget let alone can't stop remembering. The current display of poppies at the Tower of London has captured the imagination in the beautiful, low-key and non triumphant way that Britain remembers WW1 and indeed as Britain has become since WW1. The Guardian journalist who has criticised the installation has entirely missed the point. The poppies at the tower are such an attraction because it is one of the few ways to indicate to us today the immensity of the loss of life. It is that rare thing, a piece of popular art that actually has meaning and been embraced by nearly all of us.
We have no survivors any more but in a sense we have moved on from that stage now in more ways than one. Just as the country was united a century ago in that terrible conflict, so today the loss that conflict brought upon each and every one of us is one of the few things that unifies the country today. That includes many of the new-comers who now live here whose forefathers fought in Indian and African units for Britain not just in one war but two. WW1 and all that comes with it is now a part of our DNA.
Another symbol of how WW1 is now remembered more widely than ever before is that of the televised Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Whitehall. The faces and ages of the participants may have changed but the crowds are larger than ever and the sacrifices of The Great War are never far from the memories of all who attend.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, remembering Armistice Day pretty much started and finished with the ceremonies that took place on Remembrance Sunday. Recently however it has become widespread to observe 2 minutes of silence at 11am on 11th November during the working week just as it used to be decades ago.
Even the war graves and memorials around not just Europe but the world are more visited than ever before. It may well be that some time in the next two or three hundred years the immaculately kept Commonwealth cemeteries will no longer be visited or maintained as they are today but that time is surely a long way off as in my experience they are now more visited than in decades.
Where once one could be almost guaranteed to get a front row position at the Menin Gate at 8pm in Ypres by arriving just a few minutes early, these days turning an hour early might still see you several rows back and leave it to the last minute to arrive then you'll likely be 15 rows back and in the street.
Whereas the sheer number of cemeteries and memorials on the Western Front mean that it is always possible to find a quiet place, the biggest cemeteries are often heaving under visitors coached in from overseas. In recent years several locations including Thiepval and Tyne Cot have seen new museums and visitor attractions open up for our never ending thirst for learning and remembering. Even the visitor books of many of the small and isolated cemeteries show several daily visitors.
It's not just the memorials and museums that are popular. There is now a particular breed of enthusiast who can be seen searching the fields for munitions and barbed wire and despite the passage of time, they don't have to look very hard. Many others are now visiting the Western Front to see the places where their family members perished something which seemed to be less common just 15 or 20 years ago. I myself recently spent some time tracking down the final movements of Sgt Reuel Dunn of the Royal Flying Corps and located the actual field where having had his plane shot out, ditched only to fight to the death against the Red Baron in the skies above. Of course many other family members have died since them during peace-time and yet there is something about WW1 that makes his death and those of nearly 900,000 others reach out for us. Visiting that quiet field in a small way brought me closer to Sgt Reuel and there can be few other equivalent situations where people anywhere would travel overseas to visit quiet fields, woods or deserts to honour those of a century earlier.
Thirty years ago when I was in Primary School, my teacher said how we would be the last generation to properly get to know the WW1 soldiers and that after they went, we ourselves would be the last to remember them. However the masses of school children from not just the U.K. but many nations means that surely WW1 will be remembered in something like a similar way for its 200th anniversary as or its 100th today and that is how it should be.Suggest a correction