The Guardian view on the Armistice centenary: a missed chance to learn the biggest lesson | Editorial

A century after the guns finally fell silent, Britain is struggling to give itself a balanced account of the first world war’s past and present significance

One hundred years ago this Sunday, at 11 o’clock on the morning of 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent in France. Nearly a million British combatants had died since August 1914; another eight million died from other nations. The occasion was so momentous that it is still marked each year with solemn ceremonies across the land and in the annual wearing of poppies. No one now survives who fought in what contemporaries called, without irony, the Great War. Only a handful now have any memory of the Armistice itself. Nevertheless, Sunday’s commemorations, including a “people’s procession”, will be the largest for years.

As one of the war’s leading historians, David Reynolds, has long argued, modern Britain has “lost touch” with the first world war and the European historical context in which it occurred. Our view of the war is now, as he put it recently, a “tragic-poetic” one, shaped as much by Wilfred Owen and some iconic photographs as by the causes for which the combatants actually fought and the outcomes they would formalise at Versailles. Remembrance has long been extended to take in other conflicts too. Nevertheless, the first war still looms massively in the collective consciousness and in the stories of families across Britain. The release this autumn of Peter Jackson’s remarkable film They Shall Not Grow Old – it will be screened on BBC2 on Sunday evening – has helped to make the war freshly vivid for new generations.

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