One hundred years ago this coming Monday Britain declared war on Germany. David Whetstone explains how that moment will be commemorated with a dimming of the lights
Darkness will descend over large parts of the country on Monday evening as part of Lights Out, a national “shared moment of reflection” exactly 100 years after Britain declared war on Germany.
Newcastle City Council, having signed up to Lights Out along with many other institutions, is inviting all of us to take part, turning off our lights between 10pm and 11pm and leaving just a single light or candle showing.
The mass act of remembrance and contemplation recalls the famous remark of Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, on the eve of war: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, was the Liberal statesman who served as Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916 under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and then Herbert Asquith.
He became MP for Berwick in 1885 at the age of 23, making him the youngest MP in the House of Commons.
He left the Commons in July 1916 – the date of the start of the Battle of the Somme – when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He entered the House of Lords as Viscount Grey of Fallodon.
He died in 1933 at Fallodon Hall and his ashes are buried there along with those of his first wife, Dorothy. An engraved stone marks the spot in the Northumberland hamlet.
In his memoirs, published in 1925, Grey recalled making his famous remark on Monday, August 3, 1914 as he was standing at the window of his room in the Foreign Office with a friend (revealed later to be John Spender, editor of the Westminster Gazette).
They were watching the lamps being lit in the gathering dusk with Grey knowing full well what was shortly to befall his country.
Edward Grey’s role in taking Britain into the First World War has been hotly debated with some suggesting he didn’t try hard enough to keep us out of it.
He has been described as an unusual Foreign Secretary in that he couldn’t abide foreign travel, preferring to fish in the British countryside.
In his defence it has been suggested that Prime Minister Asquith delegated foreign policy and had little idea how serious the situation was for Britain as Germany prepared to flout international agreements.
The recent discovery of a letter has raised the possibility that Grey was leaned on by King George V to find a reason to go to war with Germany when the House of Commons was undecided.
What isn’t disputed is that his remark about the lamps going out, while poetic, was also prophetic. One hundred years after war broke out on August 4, lamps – or, rather, lights – will go out again.
On Monday Newcastle City Council will stage a small but symbolic ceremony between 9.15pm and 10.25pm at The Response, the war memorial outside the Civic Centre.
It will be attended by the Lord Mayor, council leader Nick Forbes, representatives of the armed forces and other guests. It is also open to the public.
Street lights around St Mary’s Place and Barras Bridge will be switched off at 10pm, coinciding with the UK-wide Lights Out, and a specially commissioned art installation by Yvette Hawkins will be on display.
Coun Forbes said: “I am honoured that the city council can play a part in leading the commemoration in the city with this event. It will be exactly 100 years since the First World War but the stories of loss and sacrifice are still relevant today.
“It is vital that we continue this legacy of remembrance for the thousdands of servicemen and women who sacrificed their future for ours.”
Monday’s ceremony will end with a preview of a new exhibition called Responses which is being mounted at nearby St Thomas’ Church (August 5 until September 20).
Jonathan Adams, from the church, said: “We want to send people out to look more closely at the sculpture and feel more deeply about war.”
Another exhibition is to open at Newcastle City Library on Monday looking at the battalion raised by the city of Newcastle in 1914 with the help of local businesses.
It charts the Newcastle Battalion’s origins, training and deployment in France and Belgium through the work of researcher Ian Johnson.
It includes photographs and letters belonging to the soldiers and their descendants.
It will also feature photographs by George Dodgeson showing life in the trenches, letters from Thomas McNall describing the training and deployment, the Distinguished Conduct Medal earned by Benjamin King Barnes for bravery and facsimile copies of the battalion newsletter, The Growler.
Ian Johnson has produced a book based on his research and will be at the City Library on August 4, 5, 7 and 8 to talk about it.
Proceeds from sales of the book will go towards creating a permanent memorial to the Newcastle Battalion in the French village of Authuille.
The exhibition, on Level 6 of the City Library, will run until December.
Details of Lights Out, part of the official cultural programme for the First World War centenary commemorations, can be found on www.1418now.org.uk
There you will be able to download, via a free app, a new digital artwork created for Lights Out by the Turner Prize-winning artist and film-maker Jeremy Deller who, by chance, also has an unrelated exhibition currently running at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.
Via the app a short film by Deller will be released daily from August 1 to 4, with the final film available at 10pm on August 4 for just one hour.
* On Sunday the bellringers of St George’s Church, Jesmond, Newcastle, will be ringing the bells half muffled before and after the 9.30am service to mark the anniversary and to commemorate the bellringers from the church who died in the 1914-18 conflict.