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Lessons from the First World War Centenary report published

16 July 2019

Poignancy, creativity and public engagement were key to the success of the First World War Centenary commemorations.

Committee's Report

The DCMS Committee has published its report into lessons from the First World War Centenary following an inquiry examining the successes and reflections on a period of commemorations lasting more than four years.

The programme of events for the centenary was developed around three major moments of national reflection, to mark anniversaries of the outbreak of the war, the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the armistice on 11th November 1918. However particular focus was given to cultural and educational initiatives throughout the centenary period, which helped to connect younger generations with the legacy of the war.

Chair's comment

Damian Collins, Chair of the DCMS Committee said:

“The First World War shaped the twentieth century, and although the last servicemen from that conflict are no longer with us, the sacrifices of them all still mean a great deal to us today.

“The First World War centenary not only provided poignant moments of national reflection, but also inspired thousands of local projects based around the shared experiences of different communities during the war.

“In addition to this the cultural programme for the centenary led to a series of exceptional art works including Paul Cummins and Tom Piper's ceramic poppy installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London, and 14-18 Now's commission with Danny Boyle, ‘Pages of the Sea', a series of beach sand portraits of soldiers of the war, which were taken away as the tide came in.”

“This is an opportunity to pay tribute to the wonderful work that has been carried out marking the centenary of a war. There are also important lessons for the government to learn when planning future major national commemorations and events. The purpose of this report is to capture the lessons from the First Word Centenary period to aid those future preparations.”

Key findings and recommendations:

  • Evidence gathered by the Report should become a resource for the DCMS Department to draw upon in the future.
  • DCMS Department should take a similar approach to future 'national moments' including the Commonwealth Games and the Festival of Britain with planning starting now to avoid repeating the short lead-in time given to 14-18 NOW.
  • Arts projects increased young's people's engagement and education.
  • Three quarters of the population supported the arts-based approach to Centenary commemorations.
  • The DCMS is the governmental lead on civil society and should take the opportunity in future commemorations to proactively inspire, nurture and measure their social capital.
  • DCMS should work with Department for Education to ensure that resources generated by the commemorations are available to primary and secondary school teachers.
  • Given that the DCMS leads on digital policy, a strategic approach to preserving digital assets should form part of initial planning of any future government-funded arts or heritage programmes.

Bringing the First World War heritage to a younger audience:

As there were no surviving veterans, the aim of the commemorations was to connect new, younger audiences to the legacy of the War through arts and education initiatives. While young people were engaged in the commemorations through a range of projects, this did not necessarily translate back into the curriculum.

The Report found a high level of school children involvement in the Letters to an Unknown Soldier project, but one group noted it was difficult to engage with schools with pressure on teachers' time and limitations in the syllabus given as reasons for non-participation. Elsewhere students missed out on visits to battlefields and cemeteries, while it was also reported that narratives in schools "tended to be quite narrow" and that "new perspectives were under-utilised".

Engagement through arts:

While the public recognised the importance of both World Wars in shaping society, knowledge about the First World War was at a very low level. The Report found the arts-based approach to the commemorations an effective way to bridge gap in knowledge. 

The emphasis on the arts ran alongside more traditional approaches to commemoration. For example, the Pages of the Sea commission took place on 11 November 2018 as ‘a partner' to the traditional ceremonies happening at the Cenotaph and other war memorials.

MPs call on the Government to evaluate, record and disseminate key learnings around the role of the arts, engaging with children and young people, reaching diverse audiences, nurturing the community connections that have been made and preserving the digital assets of the commemorations.

Among highlighted successes:

14-18 NOW, the Government-funded arts programme for the centenary commemorations with its ground-breaking scale and ambition in reaching 35 million people across the UK, including 8 million people under 25. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, commissioned by Historical Royal Palaces, in which 888,246 red ceramic poppies became an iconic symbol of the centenary.

Special Representative:

There is recognition of the success of a newly created ‘Prime Minister's Special Representative' role, played by Dr Andrew Murrison MP, to support co-ordination and delivery of commemorative events across the four nations. The Report calls for the Government to consider how this model can be used in future programmes.

Further information

Image: Carl S from Pixabay