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The Great Silence

The war memorial at Abbots Bromley, Staffs - nowadays the focus for Remembrance Day ceremonies including the two minute silence.

There can have been few people in Britain who did not suffer from a deep sense of loss following the Great War. As well as the three million people who lost a very close relative, millions more lost friends or acquaintances. Perhaps most deeply affected were the surviving veterans who had seen so many of their comrades die near to them.

The rituals of remembrance so familiar today, the sale of poppies, the service at the Cenotaph, or at war memorials all over the country did not exist when the war ended. Armistice Night 1918 had in any event been a cause for wild celebration for most people, and Peace Day  in 1919, although it had its commemorative aspects was still largely a festival.

As November 11 1919 approached, it seems clear that the government had given no real thought to how this first anniversary would be marked. It was not until early in November that Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who had been High Commissioner [effectively the British Ambassador] in South Africa during the war, got in touch with the Cabinet secretary Lord Milner:

During the War, we in South Africa observed what we called the Three minutes’ pause. At noon each day, all work, all talk and all movement were suspended for three minutes that we might concentrate as one in thinking of those — the living and the dead — who had pledged and given themselves for all that we believe in

After putting the idea to King George V for his approval, the Cabinet agreed to announce a silence of two minutes, and on 7 November all newspapers carried a ‘personal request’ from the King:

The King (centre) and his Generals - Plumer (left) and Haig 

Tuesday next, November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the world wide carnage of the four preceding years and marked the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of the Great Deliverance, and of those who have laid down their lives to achieve it. 

To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities...

The young Evelyn Waugh expressed his feelings in his diary

…a disgusting idea of artificial  nonsense and sentimentality. If people have lost sons and fathers, they should think of them whenever the grass is green or Shaftesbury Avenue brightly lighted, not for two minutes on the anniversary of a disgraceful day of national hysteria.

Leeds Town HallHowever, most people were enthusiastic about the idea. In later years local war memorials became as the focus for the services of remembrance, but in 1919 few  had been completed, and most of the ceremonies took place in churches, or other gathering places in the centres of cities and towns. In Leeds people assembled in the square and on the steps of the Town Hall (pictured right) while in Exeter, the Salvation Army band headed a parade to the Guildhall. In years to come the rituals of remembrance would be carefully defined and formalised, but then, right at the beginning people devised their own forms of commemoration. In Bridlington:

A large white cross was erected near Wellington Gardens, Prospect Street, and at eleven o’clock there was a large company of men and women present. The mayor, councillor Lambert, who lost his elder son Lieut S. Lambert in the war, placed a beautiful wreath on the cross, and the local branch of the Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen paid a like tribute to their fallen comrades. The company sung the hymn, “Peace, Perfect Peace”, followed by “ 0 God Our Help In Ages Past” and a verse of the National Anthem.
from Yorkshire Post 12 November 1999

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Tuesday 20 December 2005