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The Great Silence

In a few days we will observe Veterans Day in the U.S….but we’re not the only country to observe a holiday. This year marks the 105th anniversary of the day that hostilities ceased on the Western Front in 1918, marking the end of World War I, and is the 104th anniversary of Armistice Day (now called Remembrance Day) in Great Britain, which was first observed in 1919.

The first World War had an almost incalculable effect on England. A bit over 2% of the population were killed in the war—slightly over 700,000…but those 700,000 were a large chunk of the male population between the ages of 18 and 35, effectively decimating a generation of young men, among them the best and the brightest, the future leaders of the nation. And with the loss of a generation of young men, a generation of young women became spinsters, many of them never marrying, or emigrating elsewhere. Add to that the effects of the global influenza pandemic, and it’s plain to see that England had a great deal to mourn.

Yet when the first anniversary of the 1918 Armistice approached, no formal observation of the day had been planned until Prime Minister Lloyd George was told about a letter sent to the London Evening News by an Australian journalist named Edward Honey, proposing that the first anniversary of the Armistice be observed by a nation-wide five-minute silence, something that could be done by every man, woman, and child no matter where in Britain they were. Lloyd George was very taken with the idea, and convinced King George V to decree a modified form, a two-minute silence. An announcement from the king appeared in all major newspapers on November 7 stating:

Tuesday Next, November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four previous years and marked the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently with 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 it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities. No elaborate organisation appears to be required. At a given signal, which can be easily arranged to suit the circumstances of the locality, I believe that we shall interrupt our business and pleasure, whatever it may be, and unite in this simple service of Silence and Remembrance.

And at eleven o’clock on the morning of November 11, 1919, all England was silent. Trains stopped running, ships in British waters cut their engines. Motor traffic came to a halt, telephone operators unplugged their switchboards, pedestrians on busy streets halted, workmen laid down their tools, and schoolchildren stood wide-eyed and silent under the gaze of their teachers. For two minutes, everyone remembered.

Although the name of the observation has changed and Remembrance Sunday has taken its place, the two-minute silence is still observed every year…and while the last living veteran of the war died in 2012 (a woman named Florence Green, age 110!), Britons still remember.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Silence”

  1. And so should we all remember. Not just those we lost in WWI (we came late to the war and did not lose as much as other nations). Since then we’ve endure WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and numerous other conflicts.

    We need to remember and give thanks to those who made the ultimate sacrifice and those who survived but maybe not intact in mind or body.

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