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The first Remembrance Day - how Britain mourned

Alex Cox
7 November 2019

One hundred years ago in 1919, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, a great and profound silence fell across Britain. Just twelve months after the guns fell silent, millions of people in all corners of the country stopped in their tracks to pause and reflect on their collective loss.

Held at the exact moment the First World War ended in 1918, today Remembrance Day is widely observed but, in 1919, nothing like this had ever happened before. Like war itself, the nature of the commemorations and people’s attitudes to them have changed over time.

Victory parades took place the summer of 1919 but some objected to these exultant displays and many veterans refused to take part. As a result, the first Remembrance Day ceremonies were reflective, sombre occasions focused more around quiet meditation than celebrations of triumph. “Today is Peace Day” announced the Manchester Guardian on 11 November 1919.

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THE TWO-MINUTES SILENCE IN MEMORY OF THE GLORIOUS DEAD AT THE WHITEHALL CENOTAPH - Illustrated London News, November 15th 1919

At the request of King George V himself, that nation was asked to remain silent for two minutes at when the clock struck 11: to cease all activity and bow their heads in memory of all those who had given their lives in the great struggle. As church bells rang out across the land and signal rockets were fired into the sky, all went quiet.

"This morning at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the men and women of the motherland throughout the empire stayed their hands at their millions of separate tasks to perform a service of silent homage and remembrance. A year ago the fate of hundreds of thousands of men, and all that they represented to wives, mothers, children, hung in the balance."– Liverpool Echo November 11th 1919

Everything and everyone stopped: buses, trains, horse carts and factories all immediately halted; electricity was cut off to stop the trams, telegrams and even ships at sea were halted. Workers in offices, hospitals, shops and banks stopped their work; schools became silent; court proceedings came to a standstill and prisoners stood to attention in their cells.

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THE GREAT SILENCE - The Graphic - Saturday 15 November 1919

This remarkable event was a first in British history and the effect it had on a nation still in mourning was profound. Newspapers across the country printed vivid, almost poetic descriptions of “those sublime moments of ghostly communion with the gallant spirits who march now in the heavens”.

The Manchester Evening News described the scene at the junction of Margaret Street and Cross Street in the heart of the city as follows:

“When the maroon sounded the transformation was immediate. All the men removed their hats; the mighty roar of traffic died as if by magic; a beautiful and impressive silence fell suddenly upon the scene, broken only by the melodious sound of a muffled bell tolling the hour of eleven. For fully two minutes the silence was wonderfully maintained, momentarily broken once, and only once, by the sound of a horses shoes clanging out on the pavement. For the most part people stood reverently' with bowed heads. Others looked around, and the sight that was presented to their gaze will not soon fade from their memory. The solemnity of the occasion was stamped on every face. Conspicuous was a veteran cabman holding in his horse with his left hand; his right hand at the salute, and his white hairs fluttering in the keen November wind. A striking and a dignified figure, who never moved a muscle. At the end of the two minutes hats were replaced. The noisy bustle of the streets was instantly resumed.”

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The Cenotaph in Whitehall, then a temporary structure before it was replaced in 1920 with a replica made of Portland stone, quickly became the focus for events as crowds, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George and other senior officials, gathered to lay wreaths. The scenes in the capital were described in newspapers throughout the nation, including the Pall Mall Gazette, whose correspondent wrote:

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NEVER SAW I, NEVER FELT, A CALM SO DEEP - The Graphic - Saturday 15 November 1919

"It was the most heart stirring, impressively poignant, yet inspiring scene I have been privileged to witness. By quarter before the hour the square was thick with people, but the noise of the streets went on as usual. As the hour approached, the dirge like strains of “Rock of Ages’, played with passionate reverence by the Headquarters Band of the Salvation Army, struck the first note solemnity. Heads were immediately bared, and the first effects of the stillness to come were felt.

“O God, our Help in Ages Past," followed, and the crowd, stirred by feelings and memories too sacred to describe, quietly sang the well-known hymn. At one minute to the eleventh hour a bus moved slowly across the square and a telephone bell rang shrilly through the open window of a city office. This was the last sound I heard, with one exception, until the great hush homage was ended.

The first stroke of the hour from the Stock Exchange clock mingled with the sharp bark of the first gun. It was then the heart of Empire really stood still. Flags on all buildings, as though worked by one powerful hand, floated to half-mast in silent tribute; men stopped smoking and bared their heads; soldiers and civilians in their hundreds stood stiffly at attention; women— and not a few men— wept openly. At the pinnacle of the Exchange roof a R.G.A. driver stood through the minutes at the salute. The hush was complete; it was eerie; it was silent prayer and a thanksgiving."

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LONDON REMEMBERS - The Bystander - Wednesday 19 November 1919

The one exception to the tomb like, almost breathless, silence was the agonised weeping of the mother of a hero, who looked upon the scene from a high roof. Eyes and hearts turned towards her. An old man, with hair silvery white, who stood with head erect, across the space - as though to an unseen grave, his unheeded tears streaming down a face marked with pain."

Many publications noted how the silence was an opportunity not just to reflect on the past but also to look to the future, a chance for those who survived to achieve "a new realisation of our own duty – the creation of a better world than the one which doomed so many millions to death." While this may have been the intention, many veterans disagreed. Britain was not the land "fit for heroes" they had been promised as poverty, poor housing, unemployment and unacknowledged pension claims were rife.

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FOR THOSE WHO HUNT NO MORE

Some ex-servicemen were sickened by the all the effort spent on the dead when they felt the living were being so callously ignored and, in 1921, disgruntled ex-servicemen disrupted the proceedings at the Cenotaph. Protests by unemployed veterans became a regular occurrence at Remembrance events through out the 1920s and the Ex-Officers’ Association even re-branded the 11th as ‘Obligation Day' in an attempt to remind people of their ‘Duty of Remembrance’ to ex-servicemen in need. As early as 1919 struggling veterans attempted to make their voices heard.

The Manchester Evening News described how after the commemorations at Albert Square, the crowd was given an "unrehearsed reminder of the soldiers who came back". Immediately after the silence had ended, an ex soldier approached the Mayor and asked “My Lord Mayor”, he said, “may I state my case for the living as well as the dead”, only to be told “not here. This is not the place or time."

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IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE GLORIOUS DEAD - The Graphic - Saturday 15 November 1919

As the Second World War gained momentum and a new generation of British men and women "gave their tomorrows for our today", the significance of the First World War began to diminish and commemorative events were scaled down. After the war the two minute silence was less frequently observed and those who chose to commemorate the fallen went to some sort of service, usually in their parish church at the local Royal British Legion. This all changed in 1996 when renewed interest in the wars prompted a campaign that restored the two minute silence making a unifying national event once again.

As the years march on, the number of old veterans still with us grows ever smaller. In 2008 three soldiers of the Great War attended the ceremony at the Cenotaph but, by 2011, all British WW1 veterans had passed away. The same is now true for "the greatest generation" - the veterans of the Second World War. Few now remain, adding even more significance to this years commemorations.

That being said, war still rages in all corners of the world and now a new generation of veterans need our support. Let's take this year's silence as an opportunity to reflect on the victims of all wars, past, present and future.

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