Sunday, 1 November 2015

SSSShhhhhhhh ... for the very first two minutes' silence

November 1919: It was the King’s wish that on the anniversary of the Armistice, at the exact time that it came into force on 11 November, 1918, at 11 o’clock, a complete silence for two minutes should be observed by everybody in order that the thoughts of everyone might be concentrated on reverent remembrance of “The Glorious Dead”.

Respectful crowds gather in London, 1919,
for the first Armistice Day
These words were written by Maude Boucher in 1919, a mother of four from Bristol, who drew to a close the journal she had kept throughout the Great War by reporting on plans for the very first Armistice Day.

Her journal took the form of scrapbooks (a total of 21 volumes) in which she stuck newspapers cuttings alongside notes of her own. King George V’s idea for an Armistice anniversary caused a great excitement, as this cutting made clear: ‘It will be a wonderful two minutes, in some ways the most remarkable two minutes since Creation.’

On the day itself, 11th November 1919, Maude collected reports of the two minutes' silence from all over the country ... and very moving they were:

‘The business centre of London was transformed into a great congregation of worshippers outside the Mansion House...Police directing the traffic were like sidesmen in a church, new arrivals slipping in softly as if in the aisles of a cathedral...In the solid mass of upturned faces there was a revelation of awe, and out of the silence came the eloquence of sobs.’

Solemnity in the collieries
‘The miners at the collieries in the Manchester district observed the silence with the greatest solemnity...The surface men, with their coal-begrimed faces, stood with cap in hand and bowed head. Deep down in the Earth the raucous voice of the pony lad was hushed...A hardy veteran of the mine who had given his lad for his country’s sake remained kneeling for several minutes.’

‘Two laden hay wains were coming along the turnpike. The drivers heard the bell; they saw three old men and two lads in khaki stand still on the roadside – three bared, grey heads and two hands at the salute – and they stopped their teams and stood beside them on the road. A motor-car came rushing into sight and it was stayed suddenly, its engine shut off, and a man and woman alighted and stood reverently together.’

Poppies that once flowered across the Flanders battlefields have now become a symbol of blood spilled during the First World War. 'We marched through the lands all red with red poppies,' wrote Private EG Kensit, a South African soldier, just before he was killed in 1916. You can read his moving letters, along with the journals of Maude Boucher, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

After the Second World War, Armistice Day was replaced by Remembrance Sunday to honour the fallen of both conflicts. King George' two minutes' silence was restored in 1994 and has been observed on 11 November ever since, alongside Remembrance Sunday - which this year falls on 8 November.


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