On Monday the 4th of August, I attended two events commemorating the beginning of the First World War, one in my home town of Penwortham, and a second in the city of Preston. Both were completely different, highlighting the uniqueness of each place, yet bound by a common intention; remembering the soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War.
In Penwortham the Friends of Penwortham War Memorial hosted a formal Service of Remembrance at 11am. This was led by the custodian of the War Memorial, Ron Drakeford and supported by Harry Benson of the British Legion, who read the names of the fallen and Chris Nelson, vicar at St Mary’s Parish Church, who read the closing prayers and blessings. Jamie Edwards, a pupil at Priory Academy, played the Last Post and Reveille on a bugle found in the German trenches, donated by the Friends group.
Preston hosted a Lights Out Event at the cenotaph on the Flag Market. Its basis was words spoken by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary in August 1914 “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” At ten o’clock the streetlights in the centre of the city, on the Harris Museum, council buildings and all but one on the Town Hall were turned out. Members of the public were invited to switch out the lights in their houses and ignite a single candle as a symbol of remembrance.
The ceremony began, illuminated by a clear half moon with a procession from St John’s Minster, with the muffled church bells ringing in the distance. At this point I noticed the appearance of a single star, above the cenotaph. Following an introduction by Preston’s Mayor Coun Nick Promfret, members of the public dressed in white and black began a choreographed walk, carrying candles from behind the cenotaph to lay them in two rows at the front. There were 1956 in total to represent the soldiers who lost their lives in the war.
During the first part of the candle laying there were readings of poetry and letters by members of the public. I participated, having been asked to read ‘For the Fallen’ by Robert Laurence Biryon (1). At nightfall amidst the steady stream of candle bearers and growing fields of light, this was a powerful experience. Lines from the last two verses felt particularly resonant:
‘To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.’
After the readings I joined the candle bearers, carrying six of the candles as Father Timothy of St John’s Minster gave his speech and readings. Here he tackled the thorny issue that in spite of this war having ended, we are still seeing ongoing conflict across the world and ended with prayers for peace. The ceremony came to a close as the 1956th candle was brought to the fore.
Perhaps the profoundest thing was that afterward nobody seemed to want to leave. The cenotaph and candles provided a focal point for shared acknowledgement and remembrance. The overarching feeling was one of commonality and peace.
On a more personal level, I had never attended a remembrance service before, aside from as a Brownie. My reasons are numerous; I struggle to connect with formal ceremony and question the political and religious structures that continue to involve us in war.
Yet I feel I have reached a period in my life when I can no longer remain an outsider. If I am to truly get to know the spirit of my home town of Penwortham, and the city of Preston I need to be involved.
My main involvement with communities in Penwortham and Preston is as a poet. I’m also a Friends group leader, active member of UCLAN Pagan Society and do some Interfaith work with the Preston and Lancashire Faith Forums.
One of the things I found encouraging about the Lights Out Event was the prominent role given to poetry and letters, attesting to the power of language to express experiences and emotions that for us today are unimaginable. Much of the power of the readings came from the fact the authors had lived through the war. As readers we were tapping directly into their lives and times and offering the audience a glimpse of their perspectives.
However, one voice I thought was sadly missing was that of Robert Service, who was born in Preston and worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver during the Great War. In 1916 he fell ill and during his convalescence wrote a poetry collection called The Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, where he depicts his experiences with ire and regret.
Admittedly, the most difficult aspect of the events for me was that they were predominantly Christian (I was pleased to see that at the Preston ceremony there was a reading from a member of the Sikh community). Perhaps this is fitting as during the period of the First World War most people would have lived and died believing in, or perhaps doubting the Christian God and Christian theology.
My personal beliefs are animistic and polytheistic. At the Preston event I experienced the presence of the Christian God yet had a closer intuition of the spirits of the city in the supporting flagstones and surrounding buildings. During my reading, where my vision was partially obscured by the light on the lectern I got the impression ancestral people accompanied the crowd. Conspicuous by their absence were the flocks of pigeons and gulls who had clearly gone to roost.
On the cenotaph is a statue of Victory wearing a military style helmet and holding a pair of wreaths. Small, naked male figures clutch at her robes. My impression is that they are supplicants, souls returning from war and begging entry to the empty tomb. I actually find this image quite troubling. Not least because I believe in this instance Victory is a Romanised form of Brigantia, the warrior goddess of the North of Britain. In this troubling form, Brigantia was a central figure for me last night.
I also felt strongly the presence of my personal patron, Gwyn ap Nudd, who in pre-Christian times had the role of gathering and protecting the souls of the battle dead.
I imagine everybody experienced the ceremony differently, finding their own resonances in accordance with their beliefs. What struck me was the connection felt through the common bond we share with this land and its communities, both living and dead.
One of the problems raised by these events, spoken of eloquently by Mark Rosher and Angharad Lois at the Druid Network (2) is the irony that whilst the First World War should have ended all wars, terrible conflicts are continuing, in particular in Gaza.
I have to admit here to my lack of political know-how. To be honest I would define my political beliefs as vaguely green and mainly avoidant. I rarely engage in politics, aside from if forced at a very local level so my views are very basic.
I am deeply grateful to everybody who has fought so that Britain can exist in relative peace. I would love to see the day people all around the world can exist in similar conditions. Yet I also know the forces that drive war are complicated, not least because my gods are so intimately connected with it. Conflict has existed since there have been humans, and is certainly not only innate to our form of life. If there is ever to be a solution I think it can only come from a shared understanding of human nature within the context of the whole of nature and its deities, and through clear intent.
I feel that these remembrance events along with the research, documentaries and artworks accompanying them have all helped raise awareness of the causes and consequences of the First World War, thus contributing toward the goal of shared understanding. Where each individual’s duties lie in relation to all this; remembrance, education, art or action, only they can decide.
I’d like to end this article with a poem by Robert Service set on the night the Great War began, one hundred years ago.
(France, August first, 1914)
Far and near, high and clear,
Hark to the call of War!
Over the gorse and the golden dells,
Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells,
Praying and saying of wild farewells:
War! War! War!
High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!
Rich and poor, lord and boor,
Hark to the blast of War!
Tinker and tailor and millionaire,
Actor in triumph and priest in prayer,
Comrades now in the hell out there,
Sweep to the fire of War!
Prince and page, sot and sage,
Hark to the roar of War!
Poet, professor and circus clown,
Chimney-sweeper and fop o’ the town,
Into the pot and be melted down:
Into the pot of War!
Women all, hear the call,
The pitiless call of War!
Look your last on your dearest ones,
Brothers and husbands, fathers, sons:
Swift they go to the ravenous guns,
The gluttonous guns of War.
Everywhere thrill the air
The maniac bells of War.
There will be little of sleeping to-night;
There will be wailing and weeping to-night;
Death’s red sickle is reaping to-night:
War! War! War!
Robert Service (1874 – 1958)