“Lest we forget”

“Lest we forget”

This hook explores different ways to commemorate the First World War.


Written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

Written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (held in 1897) and sourced by the Poetry Foundation from A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, 1943. Public domain. bit.ly/1LCpRod

The Grieving Parents statue, by Käthe Kollwitz

The Grieving Parents statue, by Käthe Kollwitz, in the German war cemetery in Vladslo (Flanders). Photograph by Tijl Vercaemer, bit.ly/1cWyJZQ Creative Commons (attribution, share, adapt).


The phrase “lest we forget” comes from “Recessional” by Rudyard Kipling, which is often sung as a hymn during Anzac ceremonies in New Zealand and Australia. “Recessional” was written at a time when the British Empire was at its zenith. However, Kipling warns of the perils of an imperialism “drunk with sight of power” and compares the empire’s transitory “pomp of yesterday” to that of fallen Nineveh and Tyre. Instead of focusing on being saved by war, he recommends putting trust in God. 

The phrase “lest we forget” has popular appeal, but what is it we should remember? The objects of remembrance vary widely: from those whose lives were lost in war, to conscientious objectors who suffered for their beliefs, to the development of a New Zealand identity, or to the reasons behind the development of the First World War. Some people criticise Anzac Day commemorations for glorifying and sanitising the realities of war, while others see it as important to honour both those who died and those who returned. 

War memorials offered a focus for grieving for many who lost loved ones during the First World War. These memorials were particularly important in New Zealand because most soldiers who died were buried overseas, so people could not visit the graves of their loved ones. First World War memorials differ between countries. Most war memorials in New Zealand list only those who died. In contrast, Australian war memorials tend to include all who served. This is because all Australian soldiers were volunteers, while in New Zealand some soldiers were conscripted into the army. 

German war memorials tend to have a different focus, described by the German word Mahnmal (plural Mahnmale), words with no direct equivalent in English. The emphasis is on a “monument that serves as a reminder of a tragic event and a warning that the event should not be allowed to occur again”. German memorials are seldom tributes to heroic sacrifice as New Zealand memorials tend to be. 

Possible discussion questions 

Why do you think Kipling wrote “Recessional”? 

Why is “Recessional” often sung at Anzac Day ceremonies? 

How do different groups use the phrase “lest we forget”? Why does each use the phrase in their particular way? 

Why might war memorials vary in different countries? How might a country that has lost a war view their memorials differently to a country that has won? How might a country in which a war was fought view their memorials differently to a country whose soldiers fought overseas? 

How are the New Zealand wars commemorated in New Zealand? What memorials were erected in response to these wars? What perspectives do these memorials represent? 

How does the way we remember the First World War in New Zealand differ from the ways other countries remember it? What has influenced these differences? 

How has the way we remember the First World War changed over time? How might we remember the First World War in the future? 

What lessons should we take from the First World War to help create a more peaceful future? 

  • LBLF
  • Print.
  • Share.