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.
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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.