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64 Lanterns: WWI Vigil in Crookes

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At school, I learned about the First World War. It was long ago. The battles had strange names and cost countless lives. It was supposed to end all wars, but spectacularly failed. And, of course, it was fought in black and white.

In Crookes, 11 November 2018 was full of colour. After a grim, wet start, it transformed into a beautifully bright autumn day. Now, at twilight, there is a stunning crescent moon in the south-west and the riot of golds and yellows on the Western Road trees gives way to dusky grey.

We are about to witness a deeply moving event planned by a group of local residents to mark the centenary of the Armistice. The throb of a marching drum comes to our ears and a mass of creamy-yellow lights wavers slowly towards us. Over the next five minutes, a half-mile stage set is constructed. A paper lantern held high on a pole, positioned at each tree along the length of Western Road, lays out an illuminated avenue of amazing serenity and warmth. Suddenly there are hundreds of people, quietly following an unrehearsed choreography. As the marching band arrives, many people nod and half-dance, their hearts respectful but their feet unable to resist the rhythm.

400 ex-pupils of Western Road School went to fight in WWI and 64 didn't make it home. There is a lantern tonight for each of them. My daughter goes to that school now. I imagine four children from every class in the school being lost to war and the rest, who survived, bearing the imprint of unimaginable horrors. I shake.

Never again! Never, ever again!

Far from dismissing their deaths as a waste, we've burdened those 64 boys with a huge and daunting purpose. We want them to save our kids from their fate. "Never again! Never, ever again!" a woman calls out. Two other women next to me look at each other and one mutters, "Hmph, dream on." But it's a dream worth fighting for. It's the dream that we're here for tonight.

One of the organisers, Cecilie Browne, describes the event as "non-political, non-military and non-religious, to include everybody". She says, "When we set off from Wesley Hall, the police escort hadn't turned up. We were going to use the pavement but there were so many of us, we just took to the road. Everyone came out of the shops and pubs. It was amazing. It was thrilling."

Interwoven with poetry readings, someone patiently reads the names of the dead. What grabs at my throat is the names of the streets they lived on. They left from these houses, on School Road, Spring Hill, Loxley View Road. From this peaceful, settled neighbourhood a previous generation threw itself onto barbed wire and machine guns. Some of their relatives are here tonight.

The First World War story I learned at school was about the ruling class sending the working class to fight and die as expendable pawns in their trivial game. The workers refused to be treated so casually again. Employment rights, universal suffrage, healthcare, national parks and social mobility all grew out of that catastrophe. The ones who died, and those who survived, may not have gifted us an end to war, but they sure as hell gave us quality of life.

The evening ends with one man's clear, folk baritone singing the hymn 'Only Remembered', and the crowd tentatively joins in. Fittingly, it sounds more like protest than grief. Many of the people here have spent two years fighting to save the memorial trees that we're standing among tonight and it looks like they've won.

Sheffield does a good line in protest. As people disperse, the mood opens up. There are smiles, chuckles of pride and relief, and shouts of, 'Time to go to the pub!' Proof, if you needed it, of the human instinct to gather together and reach for the future.

Andrew Wood

Next article in issue 129

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