Poignant torchlight tribute to town’s war dead

Gathering at Lewes War Memorial. Photograph by Tom Reeves
Gathering at Lewes War Memorial. Photograph by Tom Reeves

A team of nearly 500 volunteers joined forces to create a unique and highly moving tribute at Lewes War Memorial on Sunday evening.

As dusk fell, a volunteer of approximately the same age as each of the 236 casualties named on the memorial walked from the home address of that casualty to the memorial, carrying a flaming torch.

When all were gathered, individual names, addresses, causes and dates of death and ages were read out. As each casualty’s details were announced, the volunteer stepped forward, doused their torch and disappeared into the crowd.

The torch bearers wore modern casual clothes in order to demonstrate that they were representing ordinary Lewes people – those who would have gone had the conflict happened now.

Among the volunteers there were a number of instances of relatives representing their forebears, and brothers representing brothers. The final group to douse their torches were four brothers from the Penfold family walking for four Crock brothers who died.

So in the course of just over an hour, a street full of living flame diminished to darkness and silence. A cordon of 100 sombrely dressed women surrounded the torch bearers and protected the space that they had occupied, thus representing the loss of so many from the town, and the families left behind.

As the first torch bearers arrived the crowd of more than 1,000 spontaneously fell silent. That silence remained unbroken throughout the event, the only sound being the readers’ voices and the sound of the wind in the lit torches. Many of those present, both watching and participating, were deeply moved by the occasion, and it succeeded in making the act of remembrance very relevant to today’s generation.

The event was organised by the Edward Reeves Archive Project, based on information gleaned from the original sheets that were filled in by the relatives of the fallen, who wanted their loved ones commemorated when the town War Memorial was erected in 1922.

All 236 sheets are currently displayed in an exhibition in Lewes Town Hall (open Monday to Friday 9am until 4pm until November 24) with a selection of photographs from the Edward Reeves Archive.

The tribute was made possible by the full cooperation of all seven Lewes Bonfire Societies, and the support of Lewes Town Council. It was a true community event that had not been given any pre-publicity but relied on word of mouth only; it was conceived as a vigil and not a spectacle.

In order to secure its legacy, a film shot by four professional film makers resident in Lewes is currently being edited with the backing of Lewes Community Screen, to be shown at the new Depot Cinema later in the year.

The evening was concluded by a gathering of all involved in Lewes Town Hall, where the Harvey’s ale flowed freely and tears were shed.