We Will Remember Them
Laurence Binyon, 'For the Fallen', Add. MS 45160. © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Laurence Binyon. Usage Terms: Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence
In August 1914, as the story goes, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey waited for the news of the German response to the British ultimatum. If a response did not arrive by 11 pm on 4 August, Britain would be at war. As the hour approached, Sir Edward looked out of his window at the Foreign Office and noticed a lamplighter attending to his work. Aware of the enormity of the looming European war, he remarked spontaneously, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.
This oft-quoted phrase has inspired 14-18 NOW's Lights Out, a 'shared moment of reflection' in which everyone in the United Kingdom is invited to turn off their lights between 10 and 11 pm on 4 August, leaving a single light or candle to shine. Many institutions are participating, including the British Library. The building will fall dark, and we will be casting a light on perhaps the best-known elegy from the First World War: a handwritten copy of Laurence Binyon's poem, 'For the Fallen.' Its central quatrain will be familiar to anyone who has attended a Remembrance Day commemoration, or seen it carved in any number of cenotaphs here or around the world:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Binyon, at that time Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and an expert on William Blake and Asian art, published the poem in The Times on 21 September 1914. The moment of publication came as the true nature of the war began to reveal itself, not long after the early British defeat at Mons and just after the German advance was held by the French and British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of the Marne. Too old for active service, Binyon himself later worked as an orderly in military hospitals in France, and in 1917 reported for the Red Cross on the work undertake by British volunteers on the Continent, which he published as For Dauntless France (London, 1918).
Some of Binyon's notes about his work at the British Museum and his service during the war are held in our India Office private papers, including this note to the war artist William Rothenstein from 30 July 1917: 'I am to spend next week in a tent, with about 13 others, I believe. Won't it be nice, this weather? I can feel the dripping on my face. But I am learning the mysteries of the machine gun, which is rather fascinating'. The after-effects of the war continued, infiltrating all aspects of daily life, with Binyon writing in 1919 that 'the government is still in possession of our reading room'. As a result there was little chance of an exhibition (MSS B213/48, 19 Feb 1919). (The Library's current exhibition, Enduring War: grief, grit and humour, continues until 12 October.)
Binyon's other war poems, such as 'The Zeppelin' and 'Fetching the Wounded', can be seen via Europeana 1914-1918, including the manuscript copy of 'For the Fallen' and Sir Edward Elgar's setting of the poem. The printed edition can also be seen on our First World War site: www.bl.uk/world-war-one.
A recording of 'For the Fallen' is also included on the British Library CD of First War Poetry. The poem is read by the actor Rory Kinnear.
Finally, it should be no surpise that Winston Churchill's rhetoric also rose to the occasion. On the 4 August, he 'enlarged in his lively and imaginative way' to the editor of the Westminster Gazette, one of our sources for Grey's remark: 'At midnight, we shall be at war, at war... within a week enemy airships may be sailing over this spot on which we stand and dropping bombs on the mighty'. A fragment from a downed enemy airship may be seen in the exhibition mentioned above.