The lights are going out all over London


darkness crop 2
Image shows searchlights over a darkened London. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

In modern English, the institution of the black-out remains of one of the well-known practices of World War Two, attested in the Oxford English Dictionary in quotations such as ‘I slept right through the ‘black-out’ on August 10th’ (taken from the Architectural Review in 1939), or, still earlier, as used in the Lancet in 1935 which reported that there were ‘Compulsory ‘black-outs’ in districts where experiments were being carried out against air attacks’. Nevertheless, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, the black-out had its own antecedent forms in World War One where, as earlier posts have explored, ‘war in the air’ was seen as bringing new dangers not just to those at the Front but also to the civilian population at home.

Sir Edward Grey’s famous comment, at the outbreak of war on 3rd August 1914 that ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’ could, in this respect, take on an unprecedented literalism. Here, too, other productive intersections of language and contemporary history emerge. Grey’s words easily prompted a metaphorical currency by which the trope of WAR IS A FLAME often appeared — hence war is something that might flicker out in the Scotsman on 7th September 1914 (‘The employment of field artillery will be another of those matters in which we shall want enlightenment as the war goes on or flickers out’) or, conversely, might flare up (the Balkan States are on the ‘verge of a flare-up’, it noted three days earlier). Nevertheless, as teh words in war-time project reveals,  the diction of light – and its absence – could also figure in far more practical ways in the autumn of 1914.

Clark’s notebooks, with their close tracking of change in progress, can be particularly interesting in this respect. As his entries confirm, it is in fact  the desirability of the lights going out — at least in London — which early appears as a matter of marked concern. The language – and reality – of aerial attack again assumes prominence:

‘aerial observations have shown the glare of unshaded shop lights to be potentially dangerous by facilitating aerial attack’,

as an article in the Scotsman records in October 1914. As Clark notes, the profession of ‘illuminating engineer’ – used in the Daily Telegraph and the Scotsman in October 1914, and unrecorded in the OED of Clark’s day, also assumed a new salience. ‘Illuminating engineers are finding much food for thought in the present state of partial lighting of London at night’, the Scotsman stressed on 13th October 1914. If the black-out of later years reflected the complete absence of light, the diction of partial lighting and the policy of ‘semi-darkness’ and ‘light restriction’ – other forms which Clark records as absent in the OED as it then existed – can therefore widely evoke the ways in which language and historical response change in tandem given the perceived threat of attack in a new and modern war:

‘The conditions of semi-darkness’ have been ‘wisely enforced by the authorities with the aim of thwarting any night attack by air on the Metropolis’ (Scotsman, October 13th 1914).

The new language of  ‘Light restriction’ as a precaution again attack is,documented on 23rd September in the Scotsman, though the fact that this was used to illustrate other aspects of the German ‘lie bureau’ at work is made equally plain: ‘Londoners will doubtless be interested to hear that, according to the Neue Frei Presse, the restriction for their electric light is attributable to a lack of electric carbons’.The consequences of what came to be known as the “lights-out order” were evocatively described in an earlier article in the Daily Express on September 11th, offering other locutions which Clark seized for his record of words.

 ‘The cause of the curfew gloom was a notice from the Commissioner of Police asking that bright lights should as far as possible be dimmed’.

As the article noted, the lamps had indeed gone out: ‘London was darker last night than it has ever been since electric light became popular’. As an article in the Evening News likewise commented on 28th September 1914, the capital became ‘more like a provincial city every week’. As part of the  enforcement of ‘semi-darkness’, London moved, gradually, from the brightness of arc lights through the use of glow lamps (which Clark noted from the Daily Express on 11th Sept 1914), and into a deepening ‘gloom’ as winter advanced, and regulations were enforced with greater stringency.