Today some of us will stop at 11 am in silence to mark the hour at which, on 11 November ninety-six years ago, World War I officially ended. The armistice was signed at dawn, and at 11am, the guns stopped, and soldiers on both sides climbed out of their trenches into a chilly morning drizzle. Across the destroyed landscape, they met the men they’d been fighting for four years.
The war had stopped once before, long before that final armistice, on the first Christmas Eve in 1914, when 100,000 men participated in an unofficial truce. German soldiers began to sing Stille Nacht and the English responded with Silent Night. In song together, as one voice, they came up out of their trenches then too. They talked, swapped food and tobacco and even, by some accounts, played football. Who knows what might have happened if they’d been allowed to remain there? They were just men a long way from their homes called to a daily horror. It was the senior officers on the British side, from well behind the front line, who ordered the big guns to fire which restarted the war.
In London and Paris when the armistice was declared, they celebrated on the streets, jubilant that the war was over and victory was theirs. But in May 1919, as the first anniversary of the armistice approached, Australian journalist Edward George Honey, who was living in London, proposed in a letter to the London Evening News that instead of celebration there be a period of silence at 11am, to remember those who’d died. Honey had served briefly and knew the conditons men lived and died in. Later that year, his suggestion was taken up by King George V. The King Proclaimed that at 11am all locomotion should cease so that, in perfect stillness, thoughts could be concentrated on remembrance for two minutes.
Your mind can wander in two minutes of silence. I know I always try to think about the mothers, the ones whose sons never came home, who’d breastfed and dressed and soothed those sons only to have them die and who must have wondered why. And the boys, soldiers the age of many of my friends’ sons, who went away for adventure or duty or a lark and found themselves in a living hell, the ones that age did not weary, the 9 million dead. Your mind can wander but that doesn’t matter. On Remembrance Day in 1993, 75 years after the armistice, the remains of one of the unknown Australian soldiers buried in France were brought home and laid to rest at the Australian War Memorial. Then Prime Minister Paul Keating said that while we didn’t know who this Australian was, he was one of the 100,000 who’d lost their lives in wars, “he is all of them. And he is one of us.” World War I veteran Robert Comb sprinkled soil on his coffin. “Now you’re home, mate,” Comb said.
I’m working on a novel that deals with the period around World War I in which women gained the vote in England and the US. One of the reasons given by those who didn’t want women to vote was that they didn’t have to go to war, so they shouldn’t have a voice. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was formed during World War I, a group of women who came together at the Hague and said no to war, not in any circumstance, who are still saying no to war today.
And yet, we are again at war, a war that visits death on soldiers and civilians abroad or at home, shared in gruesome detail on the internet, the opposite of anything we would think of as peace. Two minutes silence might lead one to despair. But when we stop in silence, even in despair, when we take even a few moments and see, as I did on my walk this morning, a redbacked fairy wren going about his business, we move from the future we might be afraid of, the regretted past, and into the present, where there is life. And when we stop and remember, there’s an opportunity to learn. I’ll be stopping in silence at 11am for whatever comes.