Belfast Telegraph

First World War centenary: Darkness enfolds City Hall after a night of sombre tribute

Hundreds gather to mark moment the horror began

By Rebecca Black

A silence fell at Belfast City Hall last night as every light was extinguished in a poignant remembrance of Britain's entry to the First World War – exactly 100 years ago.

Homes, offices, parks, churches and war memorials across the UK went dark simultaneously last night in the run up to 11pm as part of the Lights Out call by the Royal British Legion to mark the centenary of the Great War to the very second.

Every household in Britain was asked to turn out the lights between 10pm and 11pm to coincide with Britain's declaration of war on Germany on August 4, 1914.

It is the first part of three key moments that will be marked across the UK over the next four years as the nation remembers, including the declaration of war, the start of the Battle of the Somme and the Armistice.

Last night Blackpool Tower, Westminster Abbey, the Eden Project in Cornwall and the headquarters of the Football Association were among some of the most recognisable buildings to take part.

In Northern Ireland, the stately Belfast City Hall led the way.

More than a thousand people gathered at City Hall clutching candles as the capital remembered one of the darkest days of the 20th century which led to an estimated 200,000 Irish-born soldiers dying for the Allied cause.

A dignified service commenced at the cenotaph at 10pm attended by people from across Ireland.

Chairman of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed all to City Hall along with Dean of Belfast the Very Reverend John Mann.

The area of the cenotaph was packed full of dignitaries including First Minister Peter Robinson, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and deputy Lord Mayor Maire Hendron in a sea of candles amid the dark.

Former Lord Mayor Ian Adamson, ex-Fianna Fail TD Martin Mansergh and President of the Royal British Legion in the Republic, Major General David O'Morchoe, were among those who performed readings.

There were further visitors from the Republic of Ireland including Dublin man Kieran Flynn from the Irish Military Vehicles Group and husband and wife Kevin and Maura McCormack from Co Clare who were dressed proudly in uniforms worn by some of the Irish Regiments who took part in the First World War, harking back to a time before partition.

Maura was dressed as a nurse from the period remembering all those in that profession who went to war and never returned home.

Kevin, dressed in the uniform of the Leinster Regiment, was remembering his great uncle John McCormack who served in the 'war to end all wars'.

He was injured at the Battle of the Somme along with thousands of Ulster and Irishmen, and died of his wounds.

Kevin said he was glad that attitudes to Irishmen who died in the First World War had changed significantly in recent years, pointing to last week's service at Glasnevin Cemetery as particularly important.

"People had no work and no money so they signed up to fight in the war, but many didn't come home and those who did were often shunned," he said.

"I know of one man who had won a county medal in hurling, yet when he came back from the war he wasn't allowed to play anymore, it was just petty.

"I am glad things have changed so much now.

"We have nothing to do with politics or religion, we just want to bring people together and tell them what happened."

As the service continued, at around 10.45pm, all those holding candles were asked to slowly start extinguishing their light as the clock ticked closer to 11pm – the hour war was declared.

Slowly the grounds of City Hall were plunged into darkness as a brass band continued playing, adding to the poignancy of remembrance.

Only the cenotaph itself remained lit up with a soft red light.

The Last Post played, and then there was a minute's silence observed by the crowds pressed together as minds turned to the thousands of young men who a century earlier had gone to France, many to never return.

'Riflemen remember as tour of duty looms'

The harsh reality of troops leaving their families to fight in a war was brought home at Thiepval Army Barracks in Lisburn.

More than 200 soldiers and their families attended a moving Lights Out ceremony which started at 10.20pm as all lights were extinguished, leaving a single candle burning until it was snuffed out at 11pm for a two-minute silence.

Some 300 soldiers are bound for the regiment's fourth tour of Afghanistan, with many of the soldiers spending their last night at home with their partners and families.

Major James Gayner, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion The Rifles based at the barracks, spoke of the significance for today's soldiers in remembering those soldiers from 100 years ago.

"Even our youngest, most recent rifleman will be aware of the battalion's antecedent regiments and their contribution in the Great War," he said. "There was a real sense of history last night at the Lights Out event as we remembered those who fought in The Great War, particularly The King's Royal Rifle Corps, and the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

"We have already done three tours of Afghanistan and have another one starting, plus at least one tour of Iraq, so while tonight wasn't about those wars, any period of remembrance is inevitably tinged with a degree of remembering people that you personally know who were lost in battle and it really brings it home, particularly after the loss of the two young riflemen killed in a road traffic accident over the weekend."

'My great-grandfather was one of four brothers who went to fight'

The Lights Out mark of remembrance was particularly poignant for Belfast couple John Jamison and his wife Mandy as they both had great-grandfathers who fought in the First World War.

They attended a special service at Westbourne Presbyterian Church in east Belfast last night where poems were read by the actor Dan Gordon and their youngest son Greg (14).

Mr Jamison said his ancestor joined up along with his three brothers: "My great-grandfather John Rea was one of four brothers from Ardilawn Street in east Belfast who were in the 36th Ulster Division during the Great War, although only John and two brothers fought on the Western front.

The other one of them was in the Balkans.

"My wife's great-grandfather Alexander Campbell was with the 8th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles and it's something that we are all very proud of in our family history. John Rea was gassed in 1917 at Messines, he demobbed on November 18 in 1918, but died not so long after the war due to ill health.

"We have some photographs of John and his youngest brother and they are around the same age as my two sons, 20 and 14, and it's not worth thinking about it if it were to be my two sons going off to war.

"My sons, Nathan and Greg, both take part the annual march past the cenotaph in the Festival of Remembrance in London as we travel there every year and it's always emotional.

"Now 100 years on, I was sitting thinking 'I wonder what my great-grandfather was thinking tonight, what was Belfast like, as there were many families thinking the same thing."

'Old soldier regaled me with his recollections'

Sam Girvan was thinking of his dear friend Tommy Shaw, who died at the age of 102 at Bangor's Savoy Clanmil sheltered housing association where he works as a co-ordinator.

He organised a music hall night of entertainment for the residents but at 10pm, the lights were dimmed apart from a single candle lit in remembrance.

Sam was also proud to unveil a blue plaque to mark Tommy's time at the Savoy home yesterday morning which was attended by the North Down mayor Peter Martin and MP for the constituency Lady Sylvia Hermon.

"Tommy lived here in his later years," explained Mr Girvan.

"He died in 2002 and he and I used to talk over all his war days, mainly because he knew I was interested as I could really relate to him as I served in the pioneers with the Royal Irish Regiment and we talked about the work they would do."

He said Mr Shaw had a very dangerous job in the most dangerous place on Earth at that time, going out from the trenches at night to repair defences in No Man's Land and subject to all the terrors that could befall a soldier of the First World War.

"How that man survived the war was unbelievable as he served in the Pioneers battalion as a nightwatchman and was tasked into going into No Man's Land at night to reset the barbed wire obstacles.

"The Pioneers did all the heavy work, all dug-outs and the field defences.

"He was originally from Belfast and his wife Eleanor died a few years after him."

'Anecdotes shed light on relative I never knew'

Bangor woman Mary Lennon has two close family connections to the World Wars – her grandfather John McClelland fought in the First World War while her father Joe Lennon (95) fought in the Second World War.

She attended the Lights Out ceremony at Ward Park in Bangor to represent her family.

Her father lives at the Savoy Clanmil housing association.

"My father had quite a day today and is a bit tired out as he was up at the cemetery in the morning," she said.

"He was born in 1919 just when the war ended and then he went into the 8th Belfast in World War Two."

Mary has developed a website LennonWylie which has been painstakingly compiling a database of names of soldiers who fought.

She said this has helped her to come close to the grandfather she never met.

"While I do have a family connection through John McClelland, I don't know so much about him as I never met him, but tonight was important to me as I've come to know about other soldiers.

"Their loss can feel personal to me as I see their pictures and you hear their descendants' stories of how they feel about them, so it helps me know more about my own grandfather through their stories.

"I've come across a very special family where five sons died from one family and they were called the Love family, ironically."

She added: "The mother died a couple of years after the war and I can just imagine the pain of telegram after telegram coming through to her."

'My father suffered 28 injuries at Le Basse'

Pat Paredes lit a candle in her north Belfast home last night in a private act of remembrance for her father who was seriously injured in the Great War.

She was joined by her youngest granddaughter, Ella O'Carroll (6, right).

Rifleman Thomas Rafferty from Belfast was aged 14 when he joined the Royal Irish Rifles as an underage recruit, several years before the war started.

A strapping lad who grew to be more than six foot in height, the teenager was tall enough to pass for an older man.

He fought at the beginning of the war in in France.

"My father sustained horrific injuries at Le Basse and had 28 separate bullet and shrapnel wounds just about a year after the war started.

"While my father didn't like to talk too much about it, he missed the camaraderie of being a soldier, and would only really talk about his experiences in the company of other men.

"Sometimes when I was a child I was allowed to listen to his stories for a while before he would shoo me away and he talked about some terrible things. He was in my thoughts last night."

Ella comes from a distinguished line of soldiers with all four of her great-grandfathers serving in the two World Wars.

On her mother's side, Joseph McCarthy fought with the Connaught Rangers while Francis Mulligan was in the Munster Fusiliers. Her last great-grandfather, Stephen Conkey, was a major in the Royal Ulster Rifles during the Second World War.

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