This month.....

New lights lit

Over the last four years we have been marking the events of the 1914-18 war. The War to End All Wars, the Great War, unfortunately the First World War; the name that gives us the clue that the War to End All Wars did not end war. Now we come to the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the ending of hostilities. Perhaps we should also mark 28th June next year, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially marked the ending of a state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. We might even mark 25th August 2021, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which ended the state of war between German and the United States of America. Wars don’t have neat beginnings or endings.

Since 2014 I’ve been regularly listening to “Home Front” on Radio 4. The series has been focused on the communities of Folkestone and Tyneside, with some characters moving between the two locations. We are now on the 15th and final season and each episode has been set 100 years ago to the day of first broadcast. Over the seasons we have seen (well heard) how the lives of the people of this country changed so radically over the years of the First World War. Many of these areas of change continue to our own day. If you’ve not been listening to this series, it’s going to remain on the BBC’s website for at least 10 years.

On the eve of the outbreak of the First World War the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, commented “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. He couldn’t have known what major change would happen and how many social norms and institutions would start a radical process of transformation. Many of those pre WW1 lamps have never been relit, but many new lamps have added light to our world. Continuing this metaphor there are inevitably still dark corners. The world of autumn 1918 was radically different to the world of the summer of 1914.

A few weeks ago I went with Year 5 and 6 pupils from Bishops Cannings School to Bovington Tank Museum. The museum has a great collection and you can clearly see the rapid development of the tank during the years of the First World War and again in later conflicts. Periods of conflict, or even just competition, drive quick development of new technologies.

If you’ve not been to Bovington I can highly recommend it, particularly their current World War One exhibition. I’m not certain how long this exhibition will be on. The whole trip gave me a different insight into something of what life must have been like in those years. We will never be able to understand fully the experiences of men and women of those days. Men volunteering for, or later on, conscripted into the armed forces. Women in large numbers entering the labour force. All of the country living through a radically different era to that of the Edwardians so recently past. No wonder the social norms and presumptions started to be questioned.

These social changes have continued throughout the 20th Century. Perhaps you saw “Back in Time for the Factory”? The “Back in Time…” series have all told the story of social change in the lives of ordinary people. All of us watching (well those over a certain age) have had our memories stimulated. In the office of the factory there was a mechanical calculator. Oooh, I thought I remember those, we actually had one at school. Of course, the young woman who was being the secretary had never seen one; she thought initially that it was a telephone. Such programmes remind us of the immense change that has happened in our lifetimes.

As we mark the 100th Anniversary of the signing of the Armistice this year. As we particularly focus on remembering those who died during the First World War, whilst not forgetting those who died in other conflicts. We should perhaps consider how our communities and society changed during those years of conflict. Many aspects of our nation’s life underwent accelerated change during those years many of the pre-war lights were never relit and some new lights were lit too. The events of 100 years ago continue to affect our society and changes of society made now will affect society in the future. Many of those returning from conflict must have wondered what it had all been about. Perhaps our challenge is to consider that question, what were those newly lit lamps and how do they illuminate us today?

What are the lights that illuminate your life?

Richard Curtis