By Molly Day-Coombes Level 3 Undergraduate

On the 11th November 1919 victory balls were widespread across the country. These were charity fundraising events involving fancy dress, dancing, singing and drinking. The biggest ball of the year was held at the Royal Albert Hall, London. The celebratory air to these events was rooted in the soldiers rejoicing for their survival through the war, partying with their comrades and marking the sacrifices of those they left behind by living and enjoying their own lives.

The atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall on 10th November 2018 however was markedly different. The annual Festival of Remembrance held by the British Legion as a ‘thank you to all who served, sacrificed and changed our world’ was broadcast on BBC1 on the evening of 10th November, merely hours before the centenary of the signing of the Armistice. The Festival was a sombre event, with musical features, mini documentaries and appearances from the serving members of the armed forces. A poignant moment was during Sheku Kanneh Mason’s rendition of Hallelujah when the audience raised images of World War One soldiers. The photographs were diverse across race and gender, a refreshing moment of inclusive remembrance. A two minutes silence was held at the end of the concert whereupon a deafening silence filled the Hall as poppies fell from the ceiling over the serving members of the armed forces. This beautiful, peaceful scene was a stark reminder of the distance we now have in time and space from the French and Belgian battlefields in a world one hundred years on from the end of the conflict.

Other public commemorations include an interesting display of 72,396 12” shrouded figures on display in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to represent each British Commonwealth Serviceman killed at the Somme with no known grave. The artist, Rob Heard spent five years hand-crafting each of the figures which covered 4,000 square meters of the Park. His inspiration came from attempting to individualise each victim: “It came from trying to physicalise the large numbers that just trip off the tongue”.

Rob Heard, Shrouds of the Somme

In terms of commemoration on Remembrance Day which marked the centenary of the end of the First World War, the annual event at the Cenotaph took place with a couple of significant differences. The German president performed a historic gesture of laying a wreath at the Cenotaph – the first leader of his country to do so. He also attended a service in Westminster Abbey alongside the senior members of the Royal Family and Prime Minister Theresa May. Also, 10,000 members of the public took part in a procession past the Cenotaph. In the evening 1,000 buglers sounded the Last Post before 1,000 beacons were lit to mark a return to the light of peace.

On the political side of commemoration, May attended Remembrance ceremonies in France and Belgium as part of a tour of Commonwealth War Graves sites. Commenting on her upcoming travels, she praised the “strength and closeness” of the UK’s relations with our “friends and partners in Europe”, thereby using the opportunity to draw upon the shared history of the countries to emphasise their closeness. On 9th November May attended a ceremony at Mons with Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel where she laid wreaths on the graves of the first and last UK soldiers killed during WW1. May then travelled to France to meet President Emmanuel Macron in Albert before attending a ceremony at Thiepval, the memorial to British and South African men who died in the Somme and have no known grave. She made the standard comments about commemoration, remembrance and sacrifice, however ultimately used her visits to further push her European Union agenda. She said that the centenary was a moment to reflect on the time the countries spent fighting together, but also to look ahead to a “shared future, built on peace, prosperity and friendship”. One might think that all political leaders would use this opportunity to push their own agendas. However, it is evident from the meeting of Macron and Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, at the site where the Armistice was signed when they shared their ‘tender moment’ that genuine closeness between the two countries exists, unlike the stilted interactions between May and the other leaders.

The commemoration of Remembrance Day 2018 and the centenary of the end of the First World War held many forms. Politically, it became a platform to reinforce stances on European collaboration; tradition was followed as the Royal family attended standard wreath laying events and observed the minutes silence with other political leaders; and for the general public memories of the First World War were brought back into everyday life for the younger generations to learn and reflect upon.

Edited by Amber Coombs and Emma Fox

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