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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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4 Primary source analysis – war memorials and commemorative rituals

Asking students to reflect on the origins of familiar commemorative rituals – such as the two minutes’ silence and the wearing of poppies – is often a useful starting point when discussing the war’s memory and cultural legacy in Britain. This section outlines the emergence of these practices and demonstrates how war memorials can be examined as primary sources.

The two minutes’ silence emerged in the immediate aftermath of the war and resulted from a perceived need to honour the dead. It was important for the British government to offer consolation for the bereaved and to assure them that their loved ones had not died in vain. In Britain, at 11 o’clock, on 11 November 1919, the first two minutes’ silence was used to mark the anniversary of the armistice.

The idea came from Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who had served as high commissioner in South Africa during the war. He modelled the silence on a practice he had observed there known as ‘the three minutes’ pause’, which had been used to honour those, living and dead, who had served their country. Though three minutes was considered too long for the armistice day anniversary, the introduction of a two minutes’ silence was a great success and became an annual tradition.

11 November 1919 was also marked by the unveiling of the Cenotaph, which literally means ‘empty tomb’. A monument to soldiers who had not returned from the battlefield, it was initially intended to be a temporary structure used for the Peace Day Parade in 1919. It proved to be a popular focus for mourners and a permanent stone structure was unveiled on Whitehall in London on 11 November 1920. This was a setting for great displays of emotion, as people laid wreaths in honour of the dead.

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Figure 7 The unveiling of the cenotaph in London, 1920

On the same day, the body of the Unknown Warrior – an unidentified soldier chosen randomly from the Western Front – was buried in Westminster Abbey. The burial of the Unknown Warrior also triggered an outpouring of grief. The remains of many dead soldiers had never been found or identified. The families of these men had no grave to visit, and many found it comforting to believe that it was their loved one who lay at rest in the abbey. Similar memorials were established elsewhere. In Paris, an unknown soldier was laid to rest in the Arc de Triomphe on Armistice Day 1920, and other countries, such as Italy and Belgium, followed this practice during the decade after the war.

Alongside national memorials like these, hundreds of other memorials were built across Britain and many other combatant nations. These included local war memorials in towns and villages, honouring the men from the area who had served in the war. Memorials like these were sometimes funded with private contributions and subscriptions from the local population, again reflecting a public need for commemoration and consolation. Rolls of honour, listing men who had died, were also constructed in schools, clubs, churches and workplaces. Students can be encouraged to look out for and photograph examples of these in their local area.

In the 1920s, the wearing of poppies became a commemorative tradition in Britain. This practice was first introduced by an American, Moina Michael, who had been inspired to wear one by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ (1915). Michael successfully campaigned for the poppy to be used as a symbol of remembrance by American veterans and, in 1921, the newly formed British Legion decided to sell them to raise money for ex-servicemen. The practice of wearing poppies rose in popularity throughout the 1920s, and by 1928 they were almost universally worn.

It’s worth asking students to reflect on how these commemorative practices – which were designed to honour the sacrifices of the dead – contrast with bitter poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen. The inscriptions on war memorials, for example, provide an example of how people in Britain sought to remember the war during its immediate aftermath, but differ greatly to poems like ‘Dulce et Decorum est’.

Activity 2 Asking questions of war memorials

Timing: Allow around 5 minutes

Due to the wide variation in war memorials and commemorative practices, it is not possible to provide a generic set of questions that will apply to all examples. Instead, you may prefer to ask specific questions that allow students to compare and contrast specific examples.

The first object we discuss is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Before turning to the next section, spend a few minutes thinking about the questions students could ask of such an artefact.

Figure 8 The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey (1920)


Some of the questions you might have considered are:

  • What was the intended purpose of the memorial?
  • What can the memorial tell us about how the war was remembered during its immediate aftermath?
  • What are the limitations of the memorial as a source?

The next section has a specimen discussion of this memorial using the questions above.