The national commemorations of the First World War centenary took place in a uniquely divisive and tumultuous period in Britain’s post-war history. The period from 2014 to 2018 saw two referendums, first on Scottish independence, then an EU referendum which exposed divisions across the UK by social class, geography, politics and across the generations. Two general elections re-shaped the two main political parties.
Against such a backdrop, it was in some ways remarkable that the centenary remained above such divisions, with majorities across our different identity tribes feeling that, overall, the commemorations struck the right tone. That it would do so was not so clear back in 2013, when there had been a public, political argument about what the message of the centenary should be. Yet most of the public saw the centenary as a chance to come together, remember the loss and sacrifice of so many who fought and to learn more about a history that was at risk of slipping out of reach.
British Future first undertook deliberative research in 2012-13 into public expectations of the First World War centenary, published in ‘Do Mention the War: will 1914 matter in 2014?’ in August 2013. That research provided a baseline for this attitudes tracker project across the centenary period, conducted in partnership with the BBC; Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; and Imperial War Museums. In December 2014 YouGov tested public knowledge and attitudes to the centenary once it was underway. This was repeated again after the centenary of the Somme in 2016 and after the Armistice commemorations in 2018.
The People’s Centenary finds that most people in 2018 felt that the centenary had brought people together across the nation. That was not its only impact, however: people felt that they and their children had learned about their history and wanted to go on and find out more. One striking finding of this research was the increasing knowledge of the First World War service of soldiers from across the Commonwealth, with awareness of Indian soldiers increasing from being minority knowledge in 2012 to being known by seven in ten Britons by 2018. In the context of contemporary divisions by ethnicity and faith, the ongoing efforts of the extreme right to divide our society and the challenges of integration and belonging, that is a remarkable achievement.
What is more, the centenary succeeded in making events that took place a century ago, with no surviving combatants and a scarcity of documentary footage, feel relevant in the Britain of 2018. It triggered emotional connections through family links, by place and through greater understanding of the war’s impact on the society we live in today. It made us think more about the history that we share and which has shaped our identity today.
It is little wonder, then, that respondents to the 2018 research felt that we should mark the 2039 centenary of the Second World War with a nationwide commemorative programme on a similar scale. That may seem a long way off now, but it will be important to capture the lessons of a programme of centenary activities that not only steered a course through the polarising events of the last four years, but also offered a sense of common ground that transcended contemporary divides.