Lights Out for First World War Centenary: We can’t remember. We must not forget. So the lamps went out one more time

A memorial for something that we cannot remember, and must not forget

A century ago, darkness fell; at  Westminster Abbey last night, 1,700 people saw the lights go out again.

They sat in contemplative silence as the last flame,  at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, died away. And all over the country, people joined them in that strange but necessary act of commemoration, a memorial  for something that we cannot remember, and must not forget.

Before the silence, in Westminster and everywhere else, the congregation had joined in a ceremony carried out in a tone of careful solemnity, at pains to avoid anything that might seem premature.

“There will be time for remembrance as the four years of commemoration of the centenary of the Great War unfold,” the Dean of Westminster, John Hall, wrote in his foreword to the order of service. “That time is not now... We focus our attention on the last moment of peace before the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The bloody conflagration lay ahead; tonight we catch glimpses of people’s anticipation .”

Video: London falls dark for First World War Centenary  

Those glimpses, of excitement and fear in the men going away and the women left at home, were provided by the grandest kind of cast, from actors like David Morrissey and Penelope Keith to the writer Sebastian Faulks and the Duchess of Cornwall. Alongside them were members of the armed forces, politicians, academics. Endless uniforms, and a Duchess to stand for, still casting deference’s long shadow: so many of the great and the good provided a reminder that those who led the world to war were no less exalted. Our role now, said Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University, was “not to judge” those leaders, “but to understand” them.

The readings led us into the black. With the Abbey divided in quarters, four times the dying patter of the candles stood as a reminder of that sickening waste. After the fourth time, four guardsmen stood at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, their heads bowed, as a fragile violin soared above.

 

There was one more candle, at the grave, extinguished by the Duchess of Cornwall. And then we, and thousands more in their living rooms, sat in something like the dark, and silence, which seemed to be the same thing. The actress Rachel Stirling read from Little Gidding: “The end,” she said, “is where we start from.”

In 1920, after the end of the First World War, Westminster Abbey hosted another service of remembrance, when the Unknown Warrior was buried, French soil scattered on his coffin in a British church. That service, so soon after the conflict that scarred the continent, was understandably full of reminders that darkness is not inescapable. “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on,” they sang; “the night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on.” 

These days, we are entirely comfortable in the light. If anything, it’s the darkness we need reminding of, and all too frequently neglect. As you followed yesterday’s events, which tacked between solemnity and celebration, it was sometimes difficult to know what context they required.

Did they stand as commentary on atrocious modern violence in Syria and Gaza, the Central African Republic and Ukraine? Or were they jaunty picture postcards from a time that is all but lost to us, so terminally claimed by period drama that the weight of so many millions of deaths cannot really be felt any more?

Members of living history societies under a shower of a million poppy flowers at the Tank Museum in Bovington Germany Members of living history societies under a shower of a million poppy flowers at the Tank Museum in Bovington Germany (Getty) The Chelsea Pensioners, for their part, always seem arrestingly cheerful. Perhaps it’s the red coats. They took part in one of yesterday’s earlier events, being ferried around London in a fleet of Edwardian cars and waving benignly at tourists as they went.

In convoy, the cars were extraordinary, partly because they communicated a more normal view of life in 1914 than any we normally get: instead of soldiers on their way to the front, you were reminded of the existence of an ordinary urban life that went before. They don’t look like remnants of a shattered world: one was so posh it had a doormat. There were Rovers, Austins, Rolls-Royces (“German now,” one onlooker muttered) as well as more exotic marques, the long-forgotten Humbers and Talbots and Maxwells, all followed at a tactful distance by an enormous AA transporter, just in case.

As they turned off the Mall and into the gridlock of Clarence House’s car park, an American woman turned to her son and explained that these brave men had fought in the Great War – an observation which, if chronologically dubious, seemed to carry a certain spiritual truth. “Thank you!” the kid cried, waving with all his might; one of the pensioners smiled, waved, and mimed a couple of potshots with his index fingers.

Most of the people watching were passing tourists, but a few had made the trip especially. One woman,  Salendar, had been told about it by a Chelsea Pensioner who attends the same church as her. “It’s respectful to acknowledge what they did,” she said. “To remember a  different world and to recognise that the sacrifice wasn’t in vain.”

Behind us a couple of teenagers took selfies with a bearskinned member of the Queen’s guard, who swayed slightly in the August heat. Was the country taking the moment seriously enough? “I think maybe not,” Salendar said. “The date’s going to  pass without people paying attention to it. It should have been the war to end all wars, and it wasn’t.”

Chelsea Pensioners in a parade of Edwardian cars passing the Cenotaph in Whitehall Chelsea Pensioners in a parade of Edwardian cars passing the Cenotaph in Whitehall (Getty) As I left, a motoring enthusiast spotted my notebook and accosted me. “You can tell people the general public are annoyed that we can’t get at the cars,” he said, waving his arm at the watchful neon-clad organisers barring his path. “I came in from west London especially. I’ve been looking forward to this for months.” He stomped off, and I walked up the road to Trafalgar Square, where a rather different sort of event was planned: a silent vigil run by a collection of pacifist groups under the banner “NO MORE WAR”.

About 50 people stood on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, sternly holding up a banner and handing leaflets to passers-by. Albert Beale, a member of the Peace Pledge Union – best known for handing out white poppies – was wearing socks, sandals, and a T-shirt that read “MAKE STUFF DEAD” above the Army’s logo. “One lesson we keep on not learning is that wars are not like the force  of gravity, they’re decisions we take collectively,” he  said. “We can take different decisions.”

He declared himself aghast at the tone of the larger commemorations, including the climax at Westminster Abbey. “It’s all very nice, it’s all very symbolic, all very emotional, but what’s the message behind it? Who are going to be the people blowing out the candles? It’s going to be the royals, the politicians, the military top brass. It’s not going to be people saying, ‘We are looking back 100 years and saying it won’t happen again’.” Uncompromising though his judgement was, you had to acknowledge a certain tonal awkwardness as the day wore on. We were informed that David Cameron had been conducting research into his family history and discovered that five relatives had died in the war, an observation no doubt of profound personal significance that nonetheless seems like an odd submission to the public sphere on this day of all days. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband was catching an asinine kind of hell for not writing a personalised message on the wreath he laid at the Cenotaph in Glasgow. Normality kept butting in, making remembrance of those millions you never knew all the harder.

Prince Harry salutes veterans in Folkestone Prince Harry salutes veterans in Folkestone (Reuters) I wandered back through Trafalgar Square, where visitors seemed more or less unmoved by the pacifists. A Bulgarian street entertainer called Marko, coming off a shift as a levitating alien outside the National Gallery, peered over doubtfully at the group outside the church. “I don’t know what they think they’ll do,” he said with a laugh. “War is everywhere! You can’t stop it.” Would Marko be marking the anniversary? He shrugged. “I will think about it tonight, but I have to work.” He thought he might have had some relatives who died in the war, but he didn’t know for sure. Not even his grandparents had been born back then.

Earlier, I had looked through some pictures of Trafalgar Square 100 years ago. They made it even harder to connect things to the present day. On 2 August, Keir Hardie addressing a crowd of pacifists; on 4 August, a huge number of young men in straw hats thronged for news of the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s ultimatum to Germany, and were still there when war was finally declared at 11pm. It was Sir Edward who, the day before, had made the remark that inspired last night’s commemorations at Westminster Abbey and across the country: “The lamps are going out all over Europe.”

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Mons with David Cameron and Sir Joe French, of the Commonwealth The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Mons with David Cameron and Sir Joe French, of the Commonwealth So much history, such a resonant moment: the past should have felt alive in the statues, in the fountains, in the stonework. You may have seen, in the last few days, those composite images of the past and present that have done the rounds – sepia Tommys superimposed onto a modern pleasure beach, a captured German plane in front of the London Eye. They capture something of our inability to square the two, for outside of photographs, everyday life simply will not be dislodged by ghosts. Everything just felt … normal.

It’s absurd to be surprised by this, really. The past’s life requires our absolute focus to become vivid, which is why the evening’s events seemed so much more likely to capture our shared attention than anything that went before them. And think of those Humbers and Talbots and Maxwells, reminders of the bustling capitalist world that the war so rudely interrupted, but which persisted with such surprising energy. Even in the darkest times, they remind us, you can always strike another match.

Last night, it was a matter of minutes before the light was restored. But it was enough to remind you. A century ago, they could not have known that the wait would last for years.

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