Why do we have a two minutes’ silence on 11th November?

Have you ever wondered where the two minutes’ silence originated? Has the practice stayed unchanged since 1919?

Image for post
Image for post
Photo of the Cenotaph, London during a two minutes’ silence. Photo taken by Sgt Dan Harmer.

In Britain, at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1919, the first two minute’s silence was used to mark the first anniversary of the Armistice. The idea came from Sir Percy Fitzpatrick who had served as high commissioner in South Africa during the First World War. He modelled the silence on a practice he had observed over there known as the ‘three minutes’ pause’:

With royal approval

It seemed an ideal way to honour the dead, console the bereaved and recognise the sacrifices of servicemen and women. However, three minutes was deemed too long and on November 7 the plans for a two minute silence, to mark the armistice, were officially announced by King George V. The silence proved to be a great success. Almost everyone was keen to observe it and, particularly in the hustle and bustle of cities, the silence was deafening, as this report from Plymouth suggests:

Image for post
Image for post
Tower of London surrounded with poppies. Photo taken by carlosftw.

Remembering a new generation

After the Second World War, it became necessary to recognise the sacrifice of a new generation of soldiers. It was decided a single day to remember the dead, one that wasn’t so strongly associated with the First World War, would be most appropriate. From 1945, a two minutes’ silence was observed on the Sunday before Armistice Day instead.

In 1995, the British Legion successfully campaigned to reintroduce the two minutes’ silence on 11 November. Today the silence is observed in addition to Remembrance Sunday — a remarkable proof of the enduring legacy of the First World War.

This article extract was originally published in our print item ‘The First World War Experienced’, a free booklet providing a close-up look at some of the experiences of the First World War and its commemoration. The booklet was written in association with the BBC/OU co-production Britain’s Great War.

Written by

The home of free learning from The Open University.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store