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The great silence begins

07 November 2014

Peter Street  traces the history of the two minutes' silence at Remembrance-tide


THE two minutes' (or "great") silence was first observed in Britain and throughout its Empire on what was then known as Armistice Day, Tuesday 11 November 1919. The first minute was understood by some as thanksgiving for those who survived, and the second minute to remember the Fallen.

The origins predate 1919, however, and lie outside Britain, in South Africa. When details of losses at the Battle of the Somme first came through to Cape Town in July 1916, a local businessman, J. A. Eagar, suggested that his church honour the dead by holding two minutes' silence - or "pause", as it was sometimes known.

The idea was taken up. Among Eagar's fellow worshippers was Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who would play a significant part in the British adoption of this ceremony. But it first became more widely honoured in Cape Town itself, when, in May 1918, in the wake of the (temporarily) successful German spring offensive, the Mayor instituted a daily three minutes' silence after the firing of the city's noon gun.

During that time, all activity stopped, and people reflected on both the living and the dead of South Africa involved in the Great War. The pause was soon shortened to two minutes - in order, it was argued, to retain better the appeal to the people. A daily observance continued until 17 January 1919.


FITZPATRICK's son was killed on 14 December 1917. Having found comfort in the two minutes' silence, in 1919 he approached Lord Northcliffe (the founder of both the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail) with a view to his campaigning for it to be observed annually and Empire-wide.

It was not popular; so Fitzpatrick wrote in October 1919 to Lord Milner, then Colonial Secretary. Lord Milner raised the idea with Lord Stamfordham, Private Secretary to King George V. He, in turn, informed the King, who responded enthusiastically, but requested Cabinet approval before the suggestion could be implemented on the first anniversary of the Armistice. Only the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, was opposed.

The Times carried a message from the King on 7 November, where he requested "for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities" at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day. It was widely observed, and the beginning of the silence often was marked by the firing of maroons or rockets.

The police stopped traffic, pedestrians stood still, and trains delayed departure or stopped (unless in tunnels).

According to the central switchboard, no telephone calls were made in London during the Great Silence. The Church Times subsequently described it as "without a parallel in the world's history", and compared it to the ringing of the Angelus bell, followed by"a silence which could be felt".

In no previous two minutes had "so many and so fervent prayers for the dead [been] uttered by men's hearts and lips".

Thereafter,The Timessaid, "A new gentleness seemed abroad. . . People moved respectfully." Even when, in 1938, Remembrance Sunday replaced Armistice Day, the two minutes' silence continued to be observed on the exact anniver- sary. An ever-growing number of people have observed it in the 21st century.

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