‘Put that light out, Napoleon!’

The immortal words of ARP Warden Hodges, the baddie of Dad’s Army, the archenemy of Captain Mainwaring, commander of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, came to mind when I heard of the idea emanating from ’14-18-Now WW1 (sic) Art Commissions’, the official cultural programme of the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Their suggestion is that the homes of Britain have but a single light burning at 11pm on 4 August 2014, to commemorate British entry into the First World War a century before. Among the reactions on Twitter, the words ‘inane’ and vacuous’ appeared. My initial reaction on Twitter was to call it a ‘ludicrous gimmick’, and it gets sillier the more I think about it. (I was surprised but pleased, incidentally, that Centenary News thought my views worthy of a story on their website. Truly the year 2014 is the First World War historian’s moment in the sun).

If the ‘lights out’ idea was just a vacuous wheeze along the lines of the spam fritter competitions proposed some twenty years ago by John Major’s government to mark the anniversary of VE-Day, I would not be blogging about it, but it is a great deal more than that. The idea comes of course from the words supposedly uttered by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as war approached: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. He made no less than six attempts to resolve by mediation the crisis begun by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Grey believed until very late in the day that the goodwill of the Powers could avert war. He was wrong, for the simple reason that neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary were interested in the crisis being resolved peacefully. At a minimum, they were determined to destroy Serbia, heedless of the likelihood that it would plunge Europe into general war.

It seems to me that the ‘lights out’ gimmick is predicated on the belief that the war was a terrible tragedy – which of course it was – but also that it was some sort of accident. Pace the once again fashionable ‘sleepwalkers’ idea, it was nothing of the sort. The blame for beginning the First World War rested with a small clique of decision-makers in Vienna and Berlin who took decisions to pursue aggressive policies, fully aware of their likely outcome. Once at war, the brutal, expansionist, militaristic German regime posed an existential threat to the survival not only of the British state and nation but to liberal democracy in Europe. ‘Lights out’ perpetuates the patronising myth that the British leadership and people of 1914 were deluded in entering an unnecessary war, when the evidence points to radically different conclusions: that the conflict that began in August 1914 was a war of national survival, and the vast majority of the British understood very well what was at stake.

‘Lights out’ is yet another manifestation of the weakness at the heart of the UK government’s programme of commemoration: it has consistently refused, from the PM’s intellectually incoherent announcement in October 2012 onwards, to take a position on why Britain fought in the war. To their credit, individuals such as Dr Andrew Murrison MP have bravely said the war was worth fighting, but that is not enough. Britain fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Germany for essentially the same reasons, and successive governments have had no difficulty in interpreting the meaning of the Second World War. The Government’s present attitude is an abdication of leadership, and feels like a betrayal of the memory of the men and women of 1914-18.

Education is supposed to be at the heart of the commemorative programme. I believe that a disinterested study of Britain in the First World War shows that this was a conflict that was forced upon it, but one that it could not afford to stay out of, and certainly could not afford to lose. If ‘lights out’ was linked to an educational programme to explain Grey’s desperate efforts to avert war and the reasons why Britain eventually was forced to fight, it would have some purpose. As it is, ‘lights out’ is simply a gimmick, a pathetic substitute for education.

Coda: Did Grey actually say the words attributed to him? I am open to correction on this, but it seems possible that they are apocryphal. Grey himself in his memoirs wrote that a friend ‘recalls’ Grey’s comment on seeing lamp lighters at work one evening, probably on 3 August. From Grey’s own words it appears he did not remember his comment until reminded of it by his unnamed friend. I would be interested if anyone has any evidence that Grey’s words were in circulation before his memoirs were published in the 1920s.

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