Darkness in remembrance of a dark day

The centenary of the First World War has not yet begun and already we’re seeing new and interesting forms of commemoration of the conflict.

This past weekend, the exterior of the Auckland Museum was – for the first time – not lit on the evening of Saturday 12 October “as a mark of respect to [New Zealand’s] Passchendaele losses”: during the First Battle of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917, 845 New Zealanders were killed and 2,700 wounded.[1]

(You can see the number of New Zealand deaths on this day of the war in comparison with others in this chart. Also note the nearly 500 New Zealanders killed just eight days earlier, on 4 October, at the Battle of Broodseinde.) As Ian McGibbon puts it in New Zealand Battlefields and Memorials of the Western Front (2001), “The Passchendaele battlefield has special significance for New Zealand. It is here that in 1917 New Zealand suffered the greatest disaster in its history in terms of deaths on a single day.”[2] The observance of the anniversary of these losses, including with commemorative and interpretive events earlier in the day, suggests a specific New Zealand remembrance of Passchendaele even 96 years on. The nature of the observance is significant as well: not special lighting of the museum as in the red of Anzac Day (and many other configurations for civic, national and cultural occasions), but non-lighting. Darkness in remembrance of a dark day.

I wonder if the Auckland Museum will again ‘go dark’ at 11pm on 4 August 2014, as a (previously) candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey will. This will be the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war coming into effect; the Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey, apparently remarked of this time, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”


My thanks to Phil Johnstone, Head of Communications at the Auckland Museum, for responding to my email about the non-lighting of the museum.

[1] Ian McGibbon, New Zealand Battlefields and Memorials of the Western Front, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 2001, p. 10.

[2] McGibbon, New Zealand Battlefields and Memorials of the Western Front, p. 10.


5 thoughts on “Darkness in remembrance of a dark day

  1. Except of course New Zealand came into the war at the moment of the Empire declaration. 11pm 4 August London time, but already around midday on 5 August in New Zealand. So going dark may not have quite the same effect for you

    • True, David, and thanks for the comment. But Anzac Day dawn services take place at New Zealand / Australian ( / French / British) dawn, not the time of Gallipoli dawn, and Remembrance Day minutes of silence begin at 11am wherever you happen to be. Does the significance come from observance simultaneously around the world, or from observance at “the time”?

      • I suppose in this instance I’m influenced by the fact that the Westminster Abbey service is supposed to be exactly 100 years on from the ultimatum to Germany expiring (though there is the small matter that in 2014 we will be on British Summer Time – which didn’t exist in 1914, itself being a product of the war, so the last candle should really go out at midnight). In 1914 the declaration was certainly known at the same time as in London – I had a poke around in Trove earlier in the year to see how it was reported at the time in Australia (I tagged the stories with WWI and “Declaration of war” I think)

      • I can see an argument for commemorating the outbreak of war at both times. The middle of the day on 5 August would commemorate it as it happened for New Zealanders in 1914; the middle of the night on 4 August would recognise the cultural significance of that time to the former dominions. Perhaps in New Zealand and Australia we’ll actually do both.

        It might have been self-indulgent for me to include a reference to the Westminster Abbey vigil in this post, but I’m now very taken with the idea of commemoration through darkness rather than special lighting and light displays. Analagous to the role of silence in commemoration, I think.

      • There are interesting resonances (which I’m sure won’t have escaped the Westminster Abbey clergy) between the service with lamps being extinguished, and the ancient Tenebrae services held towards the end of Holy Week, when the church was gradually darkened as the Church’s year moved towards the commemoration of the crucifixion on Good Friday

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