The 100th anniversary of World War I was marked by very few events and little reflection this week in the U.S. — despite the fact that 116,000 Americans lost their lives fighting in it and so many other events (World War II, the Cold War, today’s Middle East instability) grew out of the conflict.
But in Britain it was different. The war cost that country much of an entire generation as 720,000 people lost their lives out of a total population of only 40 million. Britain marked the solemn occasion this week with a highly appropriate memorial: It switched off the lights for “an hour of reflection” at key landmarks all over the country, from the Houses of Parliament to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Homes and businesses joined in by leaving on a single light or candle to illuminate the darkness. The effect was both dramatic and somber. It was also quite fitting because it was just as his country declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 that British Foreign Minister Edward Grey observed: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
One can quibble about some of the historical revisionism that accompanied Britain’s observance of the 100th anniversary, but the decision to turn down the lights of London and the nation for an hour was exactly the right touch.