David Cameron Great War Centenary speech in full

This is an exciting time for one of the finest museums in the world.

The completion of Transforming IWM London will see the Imperial War Museum re-opened as the centrepiece of our commemorations for the centenary of the First World War.

And with that transformation, new generations will be inspired by the incredible stories of courage, toil and sacrifice that have brought so many of us here over the past century.

From the breathtaking sights of the hanging gallery to the unforgettable smell of the trenches…

…from great art – like this painting of the Menin Road by Paul Nash – to the many moving stories recorded from the front line…

…the Imperial War Museum is not just a great place to bring your children, as I have enjoyed doing several times…

…it is a special place for us all to come: to learn about a defining part of our history…

…and to remember the sacrifice of all those who have given their lives for us from the First World War to the present day.

In the decade since the introduction of free access to our national museums…

…the annual number of visitors here has increased by almost two-thirds.

I passionately believe in holding onto this heritage and passing it down the generations.

That’s why, even in difficult economic times, we are right to maintain free entry to national museums like this.

And it’s why we will continue to do so.

Today I want to talk about our preparations to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

I want to explain why, as Prime Minister, I am making these centenary commemorations a personal priority…

…and I want to set out some of the steps we are taking to make sure we do this properly.


Let me start with why this matters so much.

I know there will be some who wonder whether we should be making such a priority of these commemorations when money is tight and there is no-one left from the generation that fought in the Great War.

For me there are three reasons.


First, there is the sheer scale of sacrifice.

When they set out, none of the armies had any idea of the length and scale of the trauma that was to unfold.

For many going off to war was a rite of passage.

Many were excited.

They would eat better than they had when working down the mines or in the textile mills.

They would have access to medical care.

And many thought they would be home by Christmas anyway.

There is a story of the Russian high command asking for new typewriters…

…and being told the war would not last long enough to justify the expenditure.

As Major JV Bates from the Royal Army Medical Corps wrote:

“…being our first experience of war, we men were not so much frightened as very excited..

…it wasn’t until after two or three weeks of continually fighting rearguard action, reconnaissance patrols, and seeing our mates killed and wounded that the real horror of it came home to us, and if everyone else was as frightened as I was, then we were all petrified.”

Four months later, 1 million had died in the heavy artillery battles that actually came before the digging of trenches.

Four years later, the death toll of military and civilians stood at over 16 million.

Nearly 1 million of them, Britons.

20,000 were killed on one day at the Battle of the Somme.

To us today, it seems so inexplicable that countries which had many things binding them together would indulge in such a never-ending slaughter.

But they did.

And the death and suffering was on a scale that far outstrips any other conflict.

We only have to look at the Great War Memorials in our villages, our churches, our schools and universities.

Out of more than 14,000 parishes in the whole of England and Wales, only around 50 so called “thankful parishes” saw all their soldiers return.

Every single community in Scotland and Northern Ireland lost someone.

And the death toll for our friends in the Commonwealth was similarly catastrophic.

In the 1920s over 2,400 cemeteries were constructed in France and Belgium alone…

…while today there are cemeteries as far afield as Brazil and Syria, Egypt and Ireland.

Rudyard Kipling, whose own son was lost presumed killed at Loos in 1915, described the construction of these cemeteries as “the biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs”

…and, as he pointed out, the Pharaohs only worked in their own country.

Such was the scale of sacrifice across the world.

The then Indian Empire lost more than 70,000.

Canada lost more than 60,000

So did Australia.

New Zealand 18,000.

And as part of the UK at the time, more than 200,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the war, with more than 27,000 losing their lives.

This was the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation.

It was a sacrifice they made for us.

And it is right that we should remember them.


Second, it is right also to acknowledge the impact the war had on the development of Britain and indeed the world as it is today.

For all the profound trauma…

…the resilience and courage that was shown…

…the values we hold dear…

…and the lessons we learnt changed our nation and helped to make us who we are today.

It is a period of our history through which we can trace the origins of a number of really significant advances.

The extraordinary bravery of Edith Cavell…

…whose actions gained such widespread admiration and played an important role in advancing the emancipation of women.

The loss of the troopship SS Mendi in February 1917 and the death of the first black British Army officer Walter Tull in March 1918 are not just commemorated as tragic moments…

…but also seen as marking the beginnings of ethnic minorities getting the recognition, respect and equality they deserve.

And the improvements in medicine were dramatic.

In 1915 wounds which became infected resulted in a 28% mortality rate.

By 1917 the use of antiseptics saw the death toll drop to just 8%.

While plastic surgery developed into a well-established speciality over the course of the war.

At the same time, there were hugely significant developments in this period which darkened our world for much of the following century.

The advance in technology transformed the nature of war beyond recognition.

The tanks and aircraft of 1918 were the forerunners of those that fought with such devastation in World War II…

…and would have been almost unimaginable for the cavalry regiments that set out in the Autumn of 1914.

The War’s geopolitical consequences defined much of the 20th Century…

…unleashing the forces of Bolshevism and Nazism.

And with the failure to get the peace right, the great tragedy was that the legacy of the war to end all wars was an equally cataclysmic Second World War just two decades later.

For us today to fail to recognise the huge national and international significance of all these developments during the First World War would be a monumental mistake.


But there is a third reason why this matters so much.

There is something about the First World War that makes it a fundamental part of our national consciousness.

Put simply, this matters: not just in our heads, but in our hearts.

It has an emotional connection.

I feel it very deeply.

Of course, there is no one in my family still alive from the time.

My grandfather, uncle and great uncle all fought in World War Two.

I’ve always been fascinated by what happened to them.

But even though the family stories I heard direct from participants were all from World War II, there is something so completely captivating about the stories from World War I.

We look at those fast fading, sepia photographs of people posing stiffly, proudly in uniform…

…in many cases for the first and last image ever taken of them.

And this matters to us.

The stories and writings that the Great War has inspired deeply affect us too.

A mix of horror and courage; suffering and hope has permeated our culture.

From the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon…

…and my favourite book, Robert Graves memoirs recounting his time in the Great War…

…to modern day writers like Sebastian Faulks.

From Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy focusing on the aftermath of trauma…

…to Warhorse, showing the sacrifice of animals in war.

Current generations are still transfixed by what happened in the Great War and what it meant.

And this isn’t just a matter of the heart for us in Britain.

It’s a matter of the heart for the whole of Europe and beyond.

From the Last Post Association whose volunteers have played every night at the Menin Gate since 1928…

…to the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and the Memorial to the Missing in Belgium – the largest British war cemetery in the world visited by nearly half a million every year…

…to battlefield memorials right across western Europe.

For me, one of the most powerful things I have ever seen is the monument erected by the Turks in Gallipoli.

Think of the bloodshed.

Think of the tens of thousands of Turkish dead.

And then listen to the inscription to our boys and those from Commonwealth countries that fell.

"Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours.

You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they become our sons as well."

For me those words capture so much of what this is all about.

That from such war and hatred can come unity and peace.

A confidence and determination never to go back.

However frustrating and however difficult the debates in Europe, 100 years on we sort out our differences through dialogue at meetings around conference tables…

…not through the battle on the fields of Flanders or the frozen lakes of Western Russia.


So let me turn to the plans for the Centenary.

Last November I appointed former naval doctor Andrew Murrison as my Special Representative.

And I am grateful to him for the excellent work he has been doing in assembling ideas from across government and beyond…

…for putting the UK among the leaders in this shared endeavour…

…and for laying the foundations for our commemorations.

Today I am honoured to be able to say that he is being joined by some of the most senior figures in British public life…

…including Tom King, George Robertson, Ming Campbell…

…Jock Stirrup and Richard Dannatt.

Three former Secretaries of State for Defence, one of whom was also a Secretary General of NATO…

…a former Chief of the Defence staff…

…and a former Chief of the General Staff….

…will be joined by others including world leading historians like Hew Strachan…

…and world class authors like Sebastian Faulks…

…to provide senior leadership on a new advisory board chaired by the Secretary of State for Culture Maria Miller.

Our ambition is a truly national commemoration worthy of this historic centenary.

A commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country…

…from our schools and workplaces, to our town halls and local communities.

A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who are as a people.

Remembrance must be the hallmark of our commemorations.

And I am determined that Government will play a leading role – with national events and new support for educational initiatives.

These will include national commemorations for the first day of conflict on the 4th August 2014…

…and for the first day of the Somme on 1st July 2016.

And together with partners like The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the custodians of our Remembrance, The Royal British Legion…

…there will be further events to commemorate Jutland, Gallipoli and Passchendaele…

…all leading towards Armistice Day in 2018.

The Centenary will also provide the foundations upon which to build an enduring cultural and educational legacy…

…to put young people front and centre in our commemoration…

…and to ensure that the sacrifice and service of 100 years ago is still remembered in 100 years time.

The Imperial War Museum is already leading the First World War Centenary Partnership…

…a growing network of over 500 organisations helping millions of people across the world to discover more about life in the First World War and its relevance today.

Today we are complementing that with a new Centenary Education Programme with more than £5 million of new government funding.

This will include the opportunity for pupils and teachers from every state secondary school to research the people who served in the Great War…

…and for groups of them to follow their journey to the First World War Battlefields.

We are also providing a further £5 million of new money…

…in addition to the £5 million we have already given…

…to support the Transforming IWM London project right here at this incredible Museum…

…matching contributions from private, corporate and social donors.

So our commemorations will consist of three vital elements.

A massive transformation of this Museum to make it even more incredible.

A major programme of national commemorative events, properly funded and given the proper status they deserve.

And an educational programme to create an enduring legacy for generations to come.

All of this overseen by a world class advisory board chaired by the Secretary of State for Culture and supported by my own Special Representative, Andrew Murrison.

And that’s not all.

We stand ready to incorporate more ideas.

Because a truly national commemoration can not just be about national initiatives and government action.

It needs to be local too.

So the Heritage Lottery Fund is today announcing an additional £6 million to enable young people working in their communities to conserve, explore and share local heritage of the First World War.

This is in addition to the £9 million they have already given to projects marking the centenary – including community heritage projects.

And they are calling for more applications.

So whether it’s a series of friendly football matches to mark the 1914 Christmas Day Truce…

…or the campaign by the Greenhithe branch of the Royal British Legion to sow the Western Front’s iconic poppies here in the UK……let’s get out there and make this centenary a truly national moment in every community in our land.



In total, over £50 million is being committed to these centenary commemorations.

And it is absolutely right that these commemorations should be given such priority.

As a twenty year old soldier wrote just a week before he died…

“But for this war I and all the others would have passed into oblivion like the countless myriads before us…

…but we shall live for ever in the results of our efforts.”

Our duty with these commemorations is clear.

To honour those who served.

To remember those who died.

And to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us for ever.

And that is exactly what we will do.