At 10pm BST on 4th August 2014, the villagers of Burton in Lonsdale, a small community of fewer than 600 souls in North Yorkshire, on the borders with Lancashire and Cumbria, gathered on the village green by the old war memorial. At 10.15, there was a short service. Then, the people walked around the old village, a silent candle-lit procession, passing darkened houses where just one light had been left burning. Arriving back at the memorial, one by one the lights were extinguished; by 11pm, they were all out.
Similar ceremonies took place at the same time all over the United Kingdom. Lights were turned off at government buildings (including 10 Downing Street), royal palaces, local authorities, museums, pubs and private houses across the land. There was a candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey, where a single lamp burned over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. For that brief period, millions shared a moment of reflection, because ‘Lights Out’ was one way the population of Britain commemorated the centenary of their country’s entry to World War One, at 11pm on 4th August 1914. Then Prime Minister, David Cameron said it was “a personal gesture in remembrance of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us 100 years ago. They must never be forgotten.”
Lights Out was inspired by the story that on the last day of peace, Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, stood at the window of his office in Whitehall as dusk fell. He watched as the lamplighter lit the lights in the street below and remarked to a friend, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Even places seemingly far away from great events, like Burton in Lonsdale, would never be the same after the war as they had been before. Historically, it was a community of miners, potters and farmers. The population at the time of the 1911 census was 554, of which 242 were male. In the first year of the war, Belgian refugees arrived in the village. Like thousands of other places, Burton gradually sent its sons away to fight. More than 70 went – which must have been virtually all the able-bodied men in the community between the ages of 18 and 41. Most of them had probably never been further than the nearest large town before. 20 never came back; the oldest was 39, the youngest 18. People in the village still remember some of the ones that returned; like most veterans, they rarely spoke of their experiences.
We remember the human cost of the First World War – thought to be in the region of 16.5 million dead, with countless more physically and mentally scarred for life. We think of the horror of the trenches, cuttings in the mud that men shared with lice, rats and, sometimes, the dead. We think of the brutality of personal combat, of guns – Owen’s “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” – and man’s ever more sophisticated ways of exterminating his neighbour, such as gas, flamethrowers, torpedoes, tanks and aerial bombs. We think of fear, of letters home, comradeship, devastation. We don’t always remember that the legacy of the First World War was profound beyond all of those things. The economic cost was huge; Britain was not bankrupted, but was left irrevocably damaged. The social and technological changes were irreversible and, ironically, we would probably consider most of these ‘good things’ – steps toward a more equal society, medical advances, and so on. The political consequences of the war were colossal. The world map was redrawn as four great empires, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman, fell. Russia emerged as the first communist state, arguably swapping one autocracy for another. The lands of former foes were either redistributed amongst the victors, or given independence. Decisions men made a century ago haunt us still –for example in the Balkans and Middle East. There’s a convincing argument that the settlement after the First World War directly influenced the start of the, even more costly, Second World War.
Lights Out was not simply about honouring the dead, as Mr Cameron suggested – previous generations would possibly not have understood a candle-lit procession, anyway. It was also about contemplating the world that has been shaped by one of the most cataclysmic events in world history. And that we should look forward too, remembering that old foes are now firm friends.
Finally, a short but important postscript: Burton in Lonsdale had a new church in 1870 and the first vicar was the Rev Frederick Binyon. As the casualties mounted in September 1914, his son, Lawrence Binyon (1869-1943), wrote the poem, For the Fallen, the 4th stanza of which is quoted at virtually every remembrance service in the land:
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.
This article appeared in a previous version of A Bit about Britain and has been repeated here because ‘Lights Out’ was an event worth remembering. For more about ‘Lights Out’, visit the BBC’s website for their coverage of it. With thanks to Tony Gill for the atmospheric black and white shots.