How the nation remembered our World War One heroes

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The Background

11 November 2018 marked 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western front and the First World War came to an end.

Since 2014 the UK has been commemorating the centenary years of the First World War, from its beginnings through to major battles and its end.

In the last four years we have seen some powerful, poignant and frankly astonishing displays of creativity and art – most of which were commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the art programme for the centenary commemorations.

These ideas helped us all stop for a moment and remember those that fought and died during the years 1914-1918.

So now, 100 years since the end of the conflict, it seemed a fitting time to look back at a few of the creative projects that have helped millions to connect with the real stories of the people that were part of WWI.

Now, there have been many memorable moments commemorating WWI and I cannot hope to cover them all here. The ideas below are just a few that stood out to me.

The Big Ideas

2014

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

2014 was the year that marked 100 years since the beginning of WWI. It also gave us a truly unforgettable public art installation in the moat of the Tower of London. Called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red it featured 888,246 ceramic red poppies covering the land surrounding the Tower. Each poppy represented one serviceman killed in WWI. It was arguably one of the most arresting sights from the last four centenary years.

Lights Out

2014 also saw the nation take part in the Lights Out event, with households all over the UK encouraged to turn off their lights and instead use a single candle to mark the beginning of WWI. Part of the initiative saw the creation of a stunning pillar of light emanating from the grounds of the Palace of Westminster high into the London night sky.

Every Man Remembered

Before leaving 2014, I also wanted to give a mention to the Royal British Legion’s Every Man Remembered advertising campaign. The poster campaign used the names of celebrities, such as Harry Styles and Andy Murray, whose real-life namesakes died in the First World War.

2016

We’re Here Because We’re Here

Two years later and we were in the centenary year of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of any war. To mark the battle we saw another remarkable campaign in the form of a ‘modern memorial’. Created by the National Theatre and commissioned by 14-18 NOW, We’re Here Because We’re Here saw around 1,500 performers, all wearing soldiers’ uniforms from WWI, stand in silence in train stations and on platforms across the country. Each performer carried a card bearing the name of the actual WWI soldier they were representing and their age when they died.

2018

There But Not There

From silent soldiers to silhouetted soldiers, the start of 2018 saw There But Not There: a series of outline sculptures formed in the shape of soldiers that were placed in sites across the UK.

They Shall Not Grow Old

2018 year also saw a feat of moving image achieved, with Peter Jackson releasing his much-praised feature film They Shall Not Grow Old. The Lord of the Rings director used his visual effects team at WETA to painstakingly colourise archive footage from WWI and edit the scenes in such a way that they could have been filmed today. 

A team of lip readers even deduced what the soldiers were saying in the silent reels and actors seamlessly dubbed over the subjects, bringing the footage to life and helping contemporary audiences connect with the First World War in a completely new way.

Pages Of The Sea

Rounding out the centenary commemorations was Danny Boyle’s project in which the portraits of fallen soldiers were carved into the sands of British beaches, before being washed away by the sea.

And I’ll finish where I began: at the Tower of London. But this time the moat that had previously been carpeted in ceramic poppies had now become a flickering field of light, as 10,000 flame torches were lit to mark 100 years since the close of the First World War.

In Hindsight

So there we have a very, very brief retrospective of the projects that marked the centenary of WWI. In my opinion all were brilliant campaigns and fine examples of creativity with the power to truly move the public.

What all of them also had in common was their ability to connect people today with the real-life stories of those that fought in and lived through the First World War.

The most important objective of all these campaigns (and the many not mentioned here) was to ensure that people of all ages today do just one thing: remember those that were there. Nobody would argue that these projects failed to achieve that goal, and I believe the ideas themselves will be remembered for many, many years to come.

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Matt Wilcock

Matt Wilcock

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