The Great War – 100 years on

Among the most memorable visual images of 2014 was the sea of ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London. The display, to mark Remembrance Day in this centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, drew millions of visitors, as well as calls for the installation to be extended or even made permanent.

An Ipsos MORI survey over the Remembrance weekend found that commemorating the Great War is important to most of the British public: five out of six people (84%) said it was at least ‘fairly important’, with well over half, 57%, saying it was ‘very important’ to them personally. This was not unexpected. A strong level of support for Remembrance events is well established, and does not simply arise from this year’s focus on the centenary: in 2009, for example, we found almost unanimous agreement (94%) that it was important to continue observing the two minute silence on Armistice Day.

But in one respect, the conception behind the Tower of London installation was entirely out of step with public opinion. Although the Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, was widely vilified for criticising it, his underlying point was one that most people in Britain agreed with. The display consisted of 888,246 poppies, one for each British casualty in the war, but making no direct reference to the dead of other nationalities, allies or enemies. However, four in five of the public (80%) think that commemoration of the war should remember ‘the losses of all countries on both sides of the war’, with only 5% saying it should be restricted to the losses of Britain and the Empire and 10% that it should include Britain’s allies, although not their adversaries. (Only 2%, though, said that there should be no commemoration at all.)

Attitudes toward the great war

But there is less of a consensus on what we are commemorating. Just over half (54%) feel the War was necessary to protect the freedom of Western Europe, but more than a third (36%) feel it was ‘a waste of many lives for no good reason’.

Protecting the freedom of others is still a subject close to the hearts of the British public – in a poll conducted in October, nearly half of Britons (47%) said that British armed forces should intervene abroad when other people’s rights and freedoms are threatened. This figure is up 16 percentage points from when we last asked the question in March 2013. The changing context needs to be borne in mind however – the March 2013 poll was at the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war and amid discussions of Britain’s role in that, while the recent poll was conducted against a backdrop of atrocities committed by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

While the UK may no longer be the imperial superpower it was one hundred years ago, there is still a strong belief among the British population that Britain should play an active role on the international stage – 52% believe that Britain should try to punch above its weight in world affairs even though it is not as powerful economically or militarily as some other countries. This is almost certainly influenced by the fact that seven in ten (72%) believe Britain to be a force for good in the world.

In a year that also saw the last British soldiers leave Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, it is interesting to think forward a hundred years. How will the modern conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere be viewed in 2114? Will such high numbers believe these wars were necessary to protect our freedom and the freedom of others? Will we still be as generous in our desire to commemorate those on both sides of the divide?

Britain's role in the world