Charles Platiau / Reuters

In Cape Town, the firing of a pair of guns from the city’s Signal Hill has marked the hour of noon every day except Sunday for more than 200 years. In the spring of 1918, the city’s mayor, Sir Harry Hands, turned that timekeeping tradition into a memorial ritual. His eldest son, Reginald, had died of gas poisoning on the Western Front. On May 14, the day Hands heard the news, he merged his private grief with his public responsibilities, instituting a three-minute silence at the marker of the guns to remember the dead of the still-ongoing war. South Africa, a British dominion since 1910, sent more than 200,000 troops to fight with the Allies, and the memorial ritual proved both powerful and popular.

When hostilities ended a few months later, on November 11, 1918, the combatant countries struggled with the enormous logistical, political, and emotional challenge of commemorating the dead. It would take years to carve cemeteries and monuments out of torn-up battlefields and to build memorials in every community to the hundreds of thousands who weren’t coming home. In the capital cities, commemorative objects and rituals would need to do something more: confer meaning on the slaughter and the sacrifice. But celebrating with traditional pageantry and parades struck many as inappropriate, since households across Europe were in mourning.

Caught between victory and loss, Britain ended up with no single, central World War I monument but a series of monuments, rituals, and ceremonies to respond to the war. These evolved in a strikingly ad hoc way, as ministers, religious leaders, poets, journalists, and ordinary citizens weighed in—among them Percy FitzPatrick, a prominent South African author and politician. He wrote to King George V in late October 1919 to describe the Cape Town silence. This easily exportable, appealingly flexible ritual was quickly incorporated into the plans for the memorial ceremony on Armistice Day 1919, which would be an amalgam of spiritual and secular, military and civilian traditions.

On November 7, the king issued a proclamation calling for “a complete suspension of all our normal activities” for two minutes at 11 a.m. on November 11, during which, “in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.” In the run-up to the ceremony, newspapers printed reminders and editorials explaining how the Silence (as it tended to be labeled in the interwar years) would be marked and what it meant: unity, order, and a commitment to peace. They described it in poetic, near-mystical terms, as a transcendent rite of national identity.

The Two Minutes’ Silence is an “invented tradition,” in the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, its authorship and origins lost in the rapidity and totality of its cultural embrace. It became something that had always been there, that people had always done. Yet it came together haphazardly, the result of creative and contingent decisions. Even the choice of Armistice Day, November 11, as the focal point of national commemoration—not the anniversary of the signing of the peace in July—was a last-minute call. Silence, it seems, had already had a hold on the British imagination: It was precisely the moment the guns fell silent, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that people wanted to commemorate.

The Silence was timed from the central ceremony at the Cenotaph, another ad hoc memorial that was initially created as a temporary focal point for the July 1919 Peace Day parades. As an open-ended symbol of sacrifice—an empty tomb mounted on a stark geometric base, planted in the middle of traffic in the middle of London—the Cenotaph proved unexpectedly popular, and the government quickly made a permanent stone replica. Beyond the capital, the Silence was announced by church bells, sirens, and even artillery fire, and people stepped out of their homes and workplaces to gather silently together. Its power was felt most strongly in urban centers, where the stoppage of noise—traffic, machinery, conversation—seemed jarring and even uncanny. In later years, the Armistice Day ceremony and the Silence were broadcast by radio and then by television, reaching audiences throughout the empire and then the Commonwealth, affirming a connection between people at all points on Britain’s political and social spectrum.

The Silence was an ingenious blend of public and private, collectively marked and contained but, within those boundaries, placing no limits on what was remembered, thought, or felt. That very openness made it uncomfortable. There was something almost dangerous about the fact that individuals could take their silence in any direction.

Silence hovers uneasily between spiritual and secular observance, and it is central to various forms of religious observance, notably Quakerism. The prominent historian of war remembrance Jay Winter has suggested that memorial rituals allowed the secular, modern Western world to bring religion “in the back door.” In the United States, the idea that silence might be a stealth form of prayer has been particularly controversial with regard to public schools, and various instances of collective silent “meditation” have been challenged as attempts to smuggle in mandatory prayer under secular cover.

And despite its openness, the Silence clearly had a coercive power. It is no accident that in 1984 George Orwell twisted this moment of national unity into a perverse parallel, the “Two Minutes’ Hate.” He was astute on the way that the enforced collective performance of an emotion, whether respectful remembrance or brute rage, quickly becomes real: “Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary.”

Coercion also carries with it the threat of resistance, and from the start, the Silence was worried over as a potential site of protest: What if somebody used the unusual stillness to voice what they really felt? But in Britain, even those with powerful grievances against the government did not, apparently, take the opportunity to violate the moment for political ends. Newspapers occasionally carried scare stories of people disrespecting the ritual, but these usually featured isolated cranks who were shamed into silence by their fellow mourners. Like flag burning, breaking the Silence seems to have been a form of anti-patriotic protest that loomed larger in the public imagination than in reality.

In the century since the end of the war, “moments” of silence, generally shorter than two minutes, have become common markers of loss and respect on all kinds of occasions. Because what matters is the collective experience, and the interruption of expected noise, such moments are especially popular at sporting events. It is in sports, too, that the power of silence has been harnessed for political ends, most recently by players in the NFL kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism. To remain silent during ritual singing, or to shout during ritual silence, is to introduce the shock of refusal that undermines the central fantasy of the silence: that everyone, inside their bowed heads, is thinking the same thing.

At the 100th anniversary of the armistice, silence remains central to World War I memorial commemoration, and it may be the most effective way we have of marking a war that no longer lives vividly in anyone’s memory. It allows a personal, imaginative connection between past and present, long after the names and dates on a monument have lost their raw power. In silence we can contemplate the connection between our own experience and the remoteness of history, and try to bridge that gap, or not. In silence, we can remember anything we want.

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