Tomorrow night, at 10pm, lights will be turned out all over the country to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain entering World War One. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” said Sir Edward Grey, who was foreign minister as war broke out. It is a poignant quote, and the symbolism of an hour’s darkness broken only by single candle flames is beautifully powerful.
Like most of my contemporaries, I learned about the carnage and bloodshed of WWI from a fairly early age. We read the war poets at school by day and watched Blackadder Goes Forth by night. The bleak horror of trench warfare, the crippling human cost of the ultimate, tainted, victory? We know of them, and the knowledge and the memory should never be lost. The pitiful names on memorials large and small, November’s poppied lapels and minute’s silence and tears at the Last Post – it is right and proper to remember and to honour those who died, without choice, without cause.
There is something about this commemoration season – and it is a season, at least in terms of media coverage – which sits uneasily with me. What do the meticulously researched documentaries, the lavishly produced dramas, the emotionally charged tableaux and services teach us that we don’t already know? What aid do they lend to men long dead, mothers long bereft, wives long left without husbands? They will make me weep, and yet, there is a sense of resolution and sanitised distance from it all that make me wonder if the tears serve more as catharsis than as any catalyst for good.
I discovered Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth in my mid-teens, and this memoir of the utter devastation which the war wrought on her life, killing her fiancé, brother and two close friends, has always haunted me. I went back to my copy tonight, wanting to find her memories of the day when war was declared, and found that she had written this:
To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up, like the Black Death and the Great Fire, between the covers of history books
War is never safely shut up between the covers of history books and we do no honour to those who died and suffered in the Great War by falling prey to a sepia-tinted complacency that such horrors belong to the past.
Every minute of news broadcast, every hour of evening programming, every page of newsprint filled with coverage of the commemorations and the history will be a chance less for coverage of the deaths and human tragedies happening right now. Every tear shed over a disaster which no longer lives on in any human memory is sorrow and anger diverted from a preventable disaster close at hand.
I don’t want to turn out my lights tomorrow night. I want to walk around my house and switch them on, one by one, ceiling strips and reading lamps and nightlights, and open all my curtains and let them blaze out into the street and the garden beyond. In memory of the sacrifice made by so many, and, in their memory, as a challenge to the obscurity which threatens to swallow the messy, intractable “destructions and distresses” which continue to claim victims while we look elsewhere.
There are too many for whom the lights are still out. Will we remember them?