The lights to go out across the UK to mark first world war's centenary

Buildings across the country will be plunged into darkness 100 years to the hour after Britain declared war on Germany

At exactly 100 years to the hour that Britain joined the first world war, the Blackpool illuminations will be turned off, the floodlights on town halls, bridges, churches, theatres and cinemas will be go out, and national institutions including the Houses of Parliament and the BBC will be plunged into darkness.

The gloom, the organisers hope, will be broken by pinpoints of light from millions of single candles, lit in homes all over the country.

It will coincide with a candlelit service in Westminster Abbey, a special night at the Proms at the Albert Hall – including music written by Sir John Tavener shortly before his death last November – and major commissions from artists in all four of the home nations. Audiences at the National Theatre's touring production of War Horse, in Britain and internationally, will be invited to join the commemoration after the curtain falls.

Lights Out, which will happen between 10 and 11pm on the night of 4 August, was inspired by a haunting remark by a fearful man looking from his office window at the lamplighters in Whitehall. Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, had just returned from telling parliament that war was inevitable, and was talking in his office with his friend John Spender, the editor of the Westminster Gazette.

"The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," Grey said.

It was a particularly poignant remark for a man who was already losing his eyesight, and would in later years be virtually blind. His great-nephew, Adrian Graves, brought Grey's gold watch, which he was almost certainly wearing as he spoke, back to the Foreign Office. Grey had removed the watch glass, so that he could feel the position of the hands through the pierced case.

It was Spender who remembered the precise words, and the occasion. Grey actually spoke them on 3 August, the eve of the declaration of war, when he knew it could no longer be avoided, and the quote only became famous when he published his memoirs years later.

The commemorative event, which local authorities and institutions as well as 1 million individuals have already signed up to, will mark the last hour of peace as Britain waited for a response to its ultimatum to Germany. This had been delivered earlier that night by the ambassador in Berlin, Edward Goschen, who left the embassy by the back door so he wouldn't be seen crying. At midnight in Germany, 11pm in London, the ultimatum expired, and soon afterwards the Foreign Office issued a statement that Britain was at war with Germany.

Graves – who is also descended from the poet Robert Graves, author of the epic war memoir Goodbye to All That – said that his great-uncle was a gentle, humorous man. In retirement on his estate in Northumberland, he was known for his love of wildlife: family photographs show him standing with a robin perched on his head, the bird eating one of the mealworms he used to place on his hat for them.

He loathed everything about the coming conflict, Graves said. The family cherishes the less well-known story that when Grey came back from parliament that night and a member of the Foreign Office staff praised his speech, he pounded his fist on a table and repeated three times: "I hate war!"

In Edinburgh, the Bombay-based artist Nalini Malani is creating a video piece that will be projected across the entire west elevation of the Scottish National Gallery, and at the memorial arch in Bangor, north Wales, the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams is installing a light and sound piece.

In Belfast, Bob and Roberta Smith (actually a single acclaimed contemporary artist called Patrick Brill) is working with dozens of community groups and local artists, each making one letter of his text, which will be brought together and lit by thousands of candles outside the city hall, spelling out his words: "What unites human beings is huge and wonderful. What divides human beings is small and mean."

The Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller has created a downloadable digital artwork, through an app that will reveal a new short film in the days leading up to 4 August, culminating in one that will only be visible from 10-11pm.

The lamps will go out in the Foreign Office itself: all the lights will be turned out except one in a window overlooking the street, and another overlooking St James's Park.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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