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Turn out the lights

First World War: before and after

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


The 4 August 2014 will mark the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War. In order to introduce students to key themes and issues surrounding this event and the centenaries that will be marked over the following four years, we are providing a series of assembly scripts. These are not in a chronological sequence so can be used in any order.


To explore students’ awareness of the turning points in life (SEAL theme: Managing feelings).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • Have available the song ‘The times they are a-changing’ by Bob Dylan and the means to play it at the end of the assembly (check copyright).


Leader On the eve of Britain’s declaration of war in August 1914, the then Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made a speech. Looking out over London he declared, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ He could see that a big change was on the way under the cover of the darkness of war.

So what were these ‘lamps’, these hugely positive aspects of life that had existed in Britain and Europe in general up until this point in 1914?

Reader 1 Some say that society in much of Europe was at its most clearly organized. A king, queen or emperor was at the head of society and everyone else had their places in the strata below and knew where they stood. It was stable model.

Reader 2 Others say that it was good to have a small number of powerful, industrialized empires making the best use of the available resources. Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria and Ottoman Turkey all united the various national groups in their empires into single units. Business was thriving.

Reader 1 It was a golden age in art through much of Europe, what was known as ‘la belle époque’.

Reader 2 Europe was largely a continent of one religious faith: Christianity. Although this was divided into Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians, nevertheless church was at the hub of local community life. Religion was a stabilizing force.

Leader By the end of the First World War in 1918, most of this had changed. The huge empires had split and localized nationalistic groups were demanding independence. Germany had been humiliated, blamed for the outbreak of war and forced to pay huge sums in compensation. Kings and emperors had been overthrown, communism had given power to working people and society was in turmoil. Fighting side by side in the trenches had been a great leveller.

More than anything, faith had taken a battering. For some, there was the contradiction of Christians fighting Christians. For others there was the coming to terms with the horror of the trenches. How could God allow such brutality, such inhumanity? Faith, for many, became replaced by cynicism and nihilism. When the lights were turned back on in 1918, they revealed a totally changed world.

Time for reflection

Leader Conflict of any kind causes damage. The First World War had been devastating, causing so many lives to be lost and many of those who experienced it and survived never recovered. They’d lost their belief, their trust in others and memories of the horror invaded their dreams. They carried these wounds for the rest of their lives.

Our conflicts may be far smaller in scale, but their impact on us as individuals can still be shattering. An argument, a family break-up, an accident, a mistake, an illness – all these can be very destructive. We carry the wounds, often hidden, for a long time. We may be angry, resentful, paranoid, frustrated. Our relationships with others may be affected, so we find ourselves isolated and lonely. Conflict, on whatever scale, causes damage.

Yet, even out of something as devastating as the First World War, came also changes for the better.

Reader 1 Parliamentary democracy blossomed all over Europe. The rights of individuals to vote for a government of their choice rather than have one imposed on them by the ruling classes became the norm rather than the exception.

Reader 2 Women came into their own. While men were at the Front during the war, they took over many of the demanding jobs at home. Having shown that they weren’t as weak and incompetent as men tried to make out, they insisted on retaining their roles after the war ended. Gender equality became a key issue and huge steps forward were made.

Leader Finally, the League of Nations was founded. This predecessor of the United Nations was the first time that nations had united to attempt to solve the political, economic and social issues of the world. It needed a lot of further work before it became really effective, but it was a start.

So, what about us? A traumatic event, however great or small, need not be entirely negative in its effects. Sudden changes force us to look at things in a different way. There may be a new opportunity, a new discovery, new motivation, new directions. Life doesn’t stop – it continues, but possibly in a different way. The lights may go out for a while, but, be assured, they will come back on again. 

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the good times we experience when everything’s going well for us.
It may seem strange to say, but thank you also for the hard times, when we’re forced to change, reassess, look for a new way.
May we support one another in times of change and be proud of our new achievements together.


‘The times they are a changing’ by Bob Dylan

Publication date: April 2014   (Vol.16 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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