Commemorations and controversies


‘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.’

These familiar words, repeated all over the English-speaking world in remembrance services each year, will have a particular resonance (over the next few years) as we mark the centenary of the First World War. They were written by Laurence Binyon in a poem first published in September 1914, after just a month of the conflict, when the author can have had no idea of the scale of sacrifice that would be demanded of all the nations involved. The debates about how we should commemorate that sacrifice over the next four years raise interesting questions about how we can and should engage with the past; and about the part historians can play in the process. This article examines some of these issues.