History

The Great Silence

This is extracted from Alwyn W Turner’s bookThe Last Post


When Big Ben struck eleven o’clock on the morning of the 11th of November 1919, no one really knew what was going to happen next. It was exactly one year since buglers had sounded the Cease Fire on the Western Front, bringing the Great War to a close, and just a few days ago King George V had issued a call that the occasion should be marked by a moment without precedent or parallel in British history. ‘I believe,’ his message proclaimed, ‘that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of that Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.’ And so he proposed that, at ‘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’.

It was a bold idea, and even the King was nervous about its implementation. How would this work in practice? How would this ‘simple service of Silence and Remembrance’ manifest itself? Above all, how would it feel?

There had been many other commemorations and celebrations and church services in the preceding twelve months, there had been parades and processions, displays of triumph, tribute and thanksgiving, but this was something entirely new. This was not a spectacle, a ceremony conducted by and for the great and the good. It was to be a democratic expression of loss and suffering, in which the entire nation – or so it was hoped – would participate as equals; a suspension, however brief, of social division.

‘This is a people’s war,’ H.G. Wells had written in the early months of the conflict; ‘it is not a war for the greater good of British diplomatists, officials and people in uniform. It is our war, not their war, and the last thing we intend to result from it is a permanently increased importance for the military caste.’ Now, five long years later, there was to be a symbol of the people’s peace, uniting all, regardless of class or age, gender or religion. Not every household in the country was bereaved, but if it had been possible to hold a normal, peacetime funeral for each of the servicemen who had died in the course of the war, then almost everyone would have attended at least one such interment, whether as family or friend. This pause in daily life was an opportunity to reflect the scale of the loss.

But still, no one knew what it would be like. The very nature of the event meant that there would be, could be, hardly any formal organisation. Instructions had been given that all public transport in London should come to a halt, with tube trains remaining in stations so they did not have to sit in tunnels, whilst the Metropolitan Police had been ordered to stop traffic in the capital. Beyond those basic arrangements, however, the government could do little but entrust the implementation of the concept to civic sentiment. ‘In factories and workshops it must be left to the good will of employers and employed to make such arrangements as will best carry out the spirit of the scheme,’ announced the home secretary, Edward Shortt. ‘It is not thought desirable to attempt to close shops or places of business, but shopkeepers and their customers will, it is hoped, agree to a pause during the two minutes’ silence.’

Consequently, there was a sense of trepidation. Some worried that the event ‘might degenerate into a sort of cheap theatricalism on the one hand, or into a confused and incoherent observance on the other’. Others were cynical about the entire proposition. ‘A disgusting idea of artificial nonsense and sentimentality,’ snorted the sixteen-year-old Evelyn Waugh in his diary. ‘No one thought of the dead last year. Why should they now?’ Worst of all, there was the fear that it might not catch the public imagination, that the mood of the nation might have been misjudged.

Even before the chiming of the hour, however, the concerns had been forgotten. The centre of the commemoration was to be the Cenotaph, the temporary wood-and-plaster structure, designed by Edwin Lutyens, that had been erected in Whitehall for the Peace Day parade four months earlier, and which still remained in place. It was now looking a little tired and worn from its unexpectedly prolonged life, but it had already been adopted by the public as their focus for remembrance, and it was there that the greatest crowds congregated. Long before eleven o’clock, the throngs who gathered at the memorial had made the street almost impassable, as it was to stay all day. Flowers had to be passed over people’s heads to be placed on the monument, and even when the King’s wreath, of laurel leaves and yellow immortelles, was sent in a carriage from Buckingham Palace, mounted police had to be called upon to force a passage through the dense press of people.

The King and Queen themselves followed, to be joined by the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and of France, David Lloyd George and Raymond Poincaré, bearing their own wreaths; that of the former was made of laurel leaves adorned with orchids and white roses, and inscribed ‘To the Glorious Dead’.

Then, as the eleven chimes of Big Ben began to ring out, the start of the silence was heralded by the firing of maroon signalling rockets from fire stations in the centre of London and from a hundred police stations in the outer boroughs. During the war, maroons had been used to warn of the imminent arrival of German bombers over British cities; now they were again deployed, this time in mourning. The explosion of the rockets startled flocks of pigeons, sending them flying into the air. And, remarkably, the noise of their flapping wings was the only sound to be heard.

For the silence was observed to a degree that many had hoped for, but few had dared dream possible. In an instant, an absolute stillness descended upon the vast crowds at the Cenotaph, a hush so total that the chimes of Big Ben were heard for miles around, in places never before reached in daylight hours. At the centre of the greatest city on Earth, all human activity ceased.

Some fell to their knees at the first signal, clasping their hands in prayer, and remained there throughout. Others stood, heads bowed. Tears fell unchecked, but mostly without noise. As the silence wore on, it was broken only by the muffled weeping of a few of the bereaved, unable to contain their grief, and by the occasional murmur, as when a small boy looked up at his mother, clad all in black, as she stood, her gaze fixed upon the Cenotaph, and whispered to her: ‘Is daddy in there, mother?’

Across London, the scene was repeated. In Trafalgar Square, the fountains had been turned off for the duration of the silence and crowds stood motionless. People had gathered too outside the Mansion House, where fifty thousand had attended a short service staged by the Salvation Army, and at St Paul’s Cathedral, and in every public square in the city. At the Olympia exhibition centre, the normal business of the Motor Show was halted and ‘the only sound in the vast building was the broken sobs of an elderly man in the gallery’. Many shops closed their doors at a quarter to eleven to allow customers to assemble in an orderly fashion. The Lutine Bell, traditionally rung to signify the sinking of a ship, was sounded in Lloyd’s of London. In every school, a letter from the King had been read at assembly, and children now stood in silence.

The intensity of the moment, the raw emotions that it conjured up, caught many by surprise. ‘There was a loud detonation and immediately the restless traffic was silent, every male head uncovered and all flags on the house-tops slackened in the leech until they were half-mast high,’ recorded a serving soldier, who found himself in Oxford Circus. ‘For two brief minutes I saw again the distorted horizon of Northern France, and the last resting-place of so many of my gallant comrades. One by one the dearest of them were visualised during those brief two minutes. It was a great and sacred idea.’ The solemnity of his experience was shared by a multitude of comrades, both serving and veteran. ‘The trams at the termini remained still, and none appeared from the routes,’ noted a reporter. ‘The drivers and conductors stood around them, and being most of them old Army men, were at attention.’

So total was the observance that any variation, any behaviour that hinted at normality, appeared extraordinary. ‘One man walked down Tottenham Court Road during the pause, with the crowd standing bareheaded and the vehicles motionless,’ wrote a correspondent, ‘and this one man, striding along in the middle of the road, impressed my friend as the strangest apparition he had ever seen. It seemed something against nature.’

In cities, towns and villages across the whole country, the pattern was replicated. It was a freezing cold day, with snowfall and hail in many areas, but few were deterred from marking the occasion. From Cornwall to Caithness, no corner of the land had been untouched by the ravages of the war, and none was yet ready to forget. To inaugurate the silence, maroons were discharged in Bristol, Bradford and Birmingham, artillery fired in Edinburgh and Leeds, church bells rung in rural parts, whilst in Lichfield there was ‘the sounding of the siren which was used during the war to give warning of air raids’.

There were civic ceremonies and church services, and for those who could attend neither, there was still the pause as the entire nation came to a standstill. In Belfast ‘the sudden hush of great industrial works could almost be felt’. On the packed platforms at Crewe railway station all activity froze, soldiers stood to attention, and ‘one old gentleman, who had lost four sons in the war, knelt in silent prayer’. Work stopped in telephone exchanges and telegraph offices, so that the country was ‘entirely cut off from the rest of the world’. Court proceedings were suspended to honour the dead, and a smart solicitor in Arbroath, representing two men accused of running a gaming house, took the opportunity to suggest that this might be an appropriate moment for clemency; his argument was sufficiently persuasive that the charges against his clients were dropped.

In Parkhurst Jail, the prison bell was sounded, and the convicts were reported to have observed the silence. So too did three hundred children in the Sailors Orphans Home in Hull, of whom it was noted: ‘Most of them were there as a direct result of the war.’

It was a nationwide service, essentially human rather than religious in its spirituality, and it was perhaps the greatest moment of national unity there had ever been, or was ever likely to be. The King’s original message had expressed the wish that ‘the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the Glorious Dead’. They were. The country came together in a single thought, a single emotion, a single prayer, even if that prayer was addressed to many gods. The idea of such a moment had seemed to some utterly alien and yet when it happened it appeared instantly British. ‘It is a strong national trait that we do not carry our hearts on our sleeves,’ observed one newspaper, ‘and anything like a display of emotion is, and was, particularly in pre-war days, quite foreign to the British character, but the Great War has changed the outlook on many things.’

Nor was the silence confined to Britain. It had its counterpart throughout the Empire, rolling around the world’s time zones from New Zealand, through Australia, India and South Africa – where the idea had originally been conceived – to Canada. In Sydney, the crowds gathered in Martin Place, the heart of the city; in Melbourne they congregated outside the Town Hall and Parliament House, then the seat of the federal government: ‘both places were in complete silence, and the proverbial pin could be heard to drop.’

Empire and Commonwealth troops around the world, from Belgium to the Black Sea, from Mauritius to Mesopotamia, stood to attention. And on all British ships, flags were dipped and a hush likewise descended. For two minutes the Empire on which the sun never set was in suspended animation.

And then the maroons were fired again, and the silence came to a close. ‘It ended with a sigh, and there was a sudden removal of the tension as the crowds began to sway again.’ The country returned to its normal business, though it would never afterwards be quite the same. The euphoria that had greeted the Armistice in 1918 had lasted for twelve months, but was now put away. The sobering enormity of what became known as the Great Silence seemed to spell the end of a period in the history of the country, the Empire and the world. Much of what had been lost would never be recaptured.


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One thought on “The Great Silence

  1. “Worst of all, there was the fear that it might not catch the public imagination, that the mood of the nation might have been misjudged.” Curious how the elite misjudged public opinion so greatly. Perhaps their loss was less. Perhaps the comforts for the wealthy made life tolerable even after the loss of a son. Perhaps winning the war meant more to the upper class and made the sacrifice seem more worthwhile. Perhaps losing a son who had spent most of his short life at boarding school felt less of a loss. Perhaps despite the shared loss solidarity with the great mass of people was frightening and not a source of comfort.

    The question to be asked today is how long will remembrance services continue. They are now an expression of gratitude for service and sacrifice on behalf of the nation state and the preservation of the liberties of its people. These concepts are under threat from those who wish to see the demise of the four home nations as independent states, from those on the left and right who do not share a belief in the liberties for which people died and from the importation of immigrants who have never known either this country or its values. The casualties remembered by most people were those of the two world wars. Subsequent wars were either end of empire and involved questionable practices or the wars of this millenium which were fought without the clear support of the majority of the population against no threat to the British mainland. Perhaps the one exception is the Falklands.

    Regardless of my view about the merits of these wars, I remain grateful to the men and women prepared to die to protect me. Recognising the failings of our democracy and system of government, I see them as a work in progress and not to be destroyed in the name of totalitarian socialism, totalitarian Islam, globalisation or a democratically deficient EU. Having a father and grandfather who fought in the second and first world wars respectively would make non-observance seem like a personal betrayal of them and the horrors they endured. I wonder, however, how long the likes of myself will be the majority.

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