When the guns were silenced at 11.00 on 11/11/1918 the world had changed forever.
The jaunty optimism shown by some at the outbreak of war had been ground into the mud of the Western Front, the baked earth of Gallipoli, into the grey waves of the North Sea.
In distant history there had been long-drawn-out conflicts – the Seven Years’ War, even the Hundred Years’ War (which lasted 116 years).
But the great set-piece battles had been short, sharp engagements fought by small groups; no more than 600 English warriors died at Agincourt, around 460 Royal Navy sailors died at Trafalgar, some 5,000 British and their allies were killed at Waterloo.
The mechanised, technology-driven slaughter of the Great War was a new, bleak dawn in the history of conflict.
Long-range artillery, high-explosive shells, ever-more-efficient machine guns, dreadnought battleships, submarines, tanks – engineers were rapidly pushing back the boundaries to find more effective and efficient ways of striking at the enemy.
And so nearly 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – 1 July 1916 – and the warring sides suffered a million casualties before it ended five months later.
That was by no means the only bloodbath of the Great War; the Battle of Verdun in 1916, between French and German armies, lasted over 300 days and accounted for 70,000 casualties per month.
But the sheer scale of the war, the waypoint victories and sweeping lines on maps, can mask the human toll – the lonely, painful deaths, the mind-shattering terror and the hours, days and weeks of boredom.
Around a million British and Empire combatants died in the First World War, and despite the conflict being ‘the war to end all wars’, a further 384,000 died in 1939-45, to say nothing of those killed and injured in the other wars, conflicts and ‘emergencies’ that littered the past 100 years, such as Korea, the Falklands and the Gulf.
Millions of casualties, but each individual person has his or her own story, his or her own family and friends who grieved (or still grieve) for them, his or her future cut short because they put themselves in harm’s way for their country.
We owe each and every one of them the right to be remembered and honoured as individual people, not just hidden in a statistic.
The national focus for remembrance, the Cenotaph in Whitehall, was originally a temporary structure of wood and plaster, designed by renowned architect Sir Edward Lutyens and erected in 1919 for the Peace Parade held on July 19 that year.
The Whitehall Cenotaph was one of a number of temporary structures built along the route of the parade, and was only proposed a fortnight before the event.
But popular sentiment persuaded the War Cabinet to replace it with a permanent structure, and the new version, of Portland stone, was unveiled on 11 November 1920 by King George V.
It was also decided at the time not to dedicated the monument – which translates from the Greek as ‘empty tomb’ – as not all the dead it commemorated were Christian.
The unveiling of the Cenotaph was part of the ceremonies surrounding the procession that brought the Unknown Warrior to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey.
The Cenotaph, which cost £7,325 to build, is the official national war memorial.
Other memorials followed as the country remembered its dead, including the three Naval memorials at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth to honour the 10,000 sailors of World War 1 who have no known grave – they also serve the same purpose for the 15,000 who were lost at sea in the Second World War.
The three Portland stone obelisks were unveiled in 1924.
With the centenary of the Armistice approaching, the UK set about finding new ways of remembering and honouring the victims of war – not just those who paid the ultimate price, but also those who came back broken in body, mind and soul, some of whose suffering continued for decades.
Installations such as the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw ceramic poppies cascade from the Tower of London in 2014, and the Shrouds of the Somme (almost 73,000 figurines wrapped in calico shrouds to represent the victims of the Somme), and art work such as They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Blake’s stunning transformation of old black-and-white film into vibrant, living colour which had its world debut just last month, have brought the Great War into sharp focus for new generations and ensured that the sacrifices made a century ago – and those made since –are still honoured today
Other imaginative projects have helped the process – in Portsmouth, hundreds of plaques have appeared on lamp-posts in 846 roads listing those sailors, soldiers and airmen who died in World War and who lived in those particular roads.
The names were compiled over 18 months by James Daly, a researcher at the D-Day Story in Southsea.
At the behest of the Pompey Pals project, the city also held a 24-hour vigil at its war memorial from 10 November – some 200 volunteers, from schoolchildren to veterans and including serving personnel, took turns to stand guard at the four corners of the memorial while images of poppies, outlines of soldiers and other images of war were projected onto the façade of the city’s Guildhall.
In the words of Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, part of which is now the ‘Ode of Remembrance’:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The Imperial War Museum image (© IWM (Q 56642)) shows crowds gathered at Buckingham Palace on 11 November 1918 to celebrate the Armistice. The other pictures show images of war projected onto Portsmouth Guildhall, and the vigil held at Portsmouth’s war memorial the night before Armistice Day 2018.