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Dignitaries mark World War I centenary in UK, Belgium

Events observing the 100th anniversary of the events of World War I have been going on since June 28, which marked a century since Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and Monday’s anniversary reflects on an especially significant part of the Great War. Royals, dignitaries, and heads of state in the UK and Belgium took part in commemoration ceremonies today to mark 100 years since their countries entered the conflict.

Members of the Great War Society living history group dressed as 4th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment take part in a World War One centenary ceremony at the Tank Museum, Bovington on August 4, 2014 in England.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

At 11 p.m. on August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany following what it called an “unsatisfactory reply” from Germany to its request that Belgium be kept neutral. Despite the ultimatum, which had been set to expire at 11 p.m. (midnight in Germany), German troops marched through northern Belgium in order to invade France, sparking a declaration that many regard as the beginning of World War I.

The British Foreign Office issued a statement that night ending with the following: “His Majesty's Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4.”

One of the bigger ceremonies commemorating the event took place in Liège, Belgium. The Battle of Liège began on August 5, 1914 and lasted until August 16, marking the opening battle of Germany’s invasion of Belgium and World War I. The city was also occupied by the Germans until the end of the war.

Attendees at the ceremony included the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, French President Francois Hollande, King Felipe VI of Spain, German President Joachim Gauck, and King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium. Heads of state representing more than 80 countries were also in attendance.

Meanwhile, a ceremony in the English county of Dorset provided some incredibly striking imagery in addition to its somber commemoration of the anniversary. The ceremony held by the Bovington Tank Museum included over one million poppies being blown into the air from a tank to honor every casualty from the Commonwealth and a mock battle between a British tank and a German tank.

The Tower of London also used poppies to commemorate the fallen in an art installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. 800,000 ceramic poppies were “planted” at the landmark and can be seen cascading out of a window into the moat area. More poppies are scheduled to be placed at the site until November 11, the 96th anniversary of the war’s end. The perennial flower had been seen growing in fields disturbed by fighting since the Napoleonic Wars and were seen again during World War I. The poppy became immortalized in Lt. Col. John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields,” solidifying the flower’s significance as a symbol of remembrance.

In the southeast English port town of Folkestone, Prince Harry, a captain in the British Army, was on hand to help unveil a steel memorial arch and lay a memorial wreath. The Memorial Arch is situated at the top of a hill that leads down to a harbor where boats departed to take soldiers across the English Channel to fight on the Western Front.

Prince Charles attended a ceremony at Glasgow Cathedral along with Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who spoke about the impact of the war in Scotland.

“No home, no school, no community in Scotland was left untouched by the devastating impact of the Great War, which remains one of the most brutal conflicts the world has ever seen,” Salmond said.

Later in the afternoon, Cameron, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, and the King and Queen of Belgium traveled to nearby Mons, where they took part in another commemoration event and toured St. Symphorien Military Cemetery. Queen Elizabeth herself, meanwhile, attended a ceremony at Crathie Kirk Church in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Cameron is urging Britons to turn off all but a single light or candle from 10-11 p.m. to mark the moment war was declared. Landmarks such as London’s Trafalgar Square will also be going dark at that time (5 p.m. EST). The gesture invokes the words of British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, who said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”