News National The little-known origin of the minute’s silence

The little-known origin of the minute’s silence

Using silence to remember war is now an ingrained tradition, but few know its origins are Australian. Photo: ABC
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Across the road from the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, a humble plaque set in a constellation of rocks reads:

In memory of Edward George Honey who died in 1922, a Melbourne journalist who while living in London first suggested the solemn ceremony of silence.

Honey, who served during World War I, was the first to publicly suggest silence as a vessel to hold the sorrow and loss of war — and even thoughts of triumph.

The idea came to him after November 11, 1918 — when news of the Allies’ victory sparked rowdy euphoria in the streets of London.

Rather than celebrating, Honey’s thoughts turned to the colossal cost of the Great War.

“The world [had] been torn to pieces and he [was] clutching for a new vocab of remembrance,” says historian Bruce Scates from the Australian National University.

Edward Honey isn’t a household name — but his legacy lives on in memorial ceremonies today. Photo: ABC RN

Honey found a vocab more powerful than any words: silence.

“Silence can mean something to everyone,” Professor Bruce Scates says.

“It’s an empty space you can fill with any thought you need to.

“But most important for Honey, what it’s saying is we can share this silence, even if you haven’t lost someone immediately close to you.”

The moment of silence filled a deep need in people to make sense of what had happened to them.

A young man called Edward

Born in 1885 in St Kilda, Melbourne, Honey was able to try his hand at several careers, thanks to his family’s wealth.

He travelled the outback, owned a magazine and went to New Zealand to study journalism.

Like many Australians he enlisted in the British forces in 1915, serving briefly in the Middlesex Regiment.

But much like his fleeting career attempts, he didn’t last very long and was discharged as medically unfit.

Honey stayed in London, however, and continued his career in journalism.

Observing a minute’s silence has a long tradition in Australia. Photo: Australian War Memorial

He watched as soldiers came home from war, injured and broken.

When the Allies announced their victory, Honey felt compelled to publish his thoughts.

Under the penname Warren Foster, in the May 8, 1919 edition of the London Evening News, Honey wrote:

“Can we not spare some fragment of these hours of Peace, rejoicing for a silent tribute to these mighty dead?

“Individually yes! Too many of us know we will for our own kith and kin, for the friend who will never come back. But nationally?

“I would ask for five minutes, five little minutes only. Five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession.”

From five minutes to two

But the letter seemed to fall on deaf ears.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the minute’s silence — in the early 1900s silence was used as a common public tool, including in church services.

But a few months after Honey’s letter was published, South African author and politician Sir James Percy FitzPatrick made the political moves that established the tradition.

On October 4, 1919, FitzPatrick wrote to a friend in the British Cabinet suggesting a period of silence.

Since the mid-1960s, a Melbourne-based group has campaigned for recognition for Honey. Photo: City of Melbourne

The missive eventually made its way to King George V.

Ahead of the first anniversary of the Armistice, FitzPatrick and Honey were reportedly called in for a rehearsal at Buckingham Palace.

“The Grenadier guards are there, and they are going to practise this,” says Dr Meleah Hampton, a historian at the Australian War Memorial.

“They decide to take up his five-minute period and they find it is a very long time. Even for men who are used to standing on parade for an extended period of time.

“They settled on two minutes’ silence, which is long enough for little old ladies to stand in the street.”

And days before the first anniversary, King George V formally decreed the two minutes’ silence.

“It is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities,” the decree read.

“During that time, except in the rare cases where this may be impracticable, all work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may concentrate on reverent remembrance of the Glorious Dead.”

An immediate tradition

One hundred years on, silence and remembrance are almost inseparable.

In war memorials, we’re invited to step into silent rooms. The cenotaph itself is an empty tomb filled with silence.

The tradition of a minute’s silence has been a feature at ceremonies marking nearly every tragedy of the 21st century, from natural disasters and terrorist acts to celebrity deaths.

But the point at which it started to drift from Remembrance Day into common use is hard to trace.

“It’s really hard to say when silence was used beyond Remembrance Day. Ceremonies were not formalised,” Dr Hampton says.

“For instance, with Anzac Day at some point they start to slip in newspaper reports” and “the usual two-minute silence was observed”.

Dr Adrian Gregory, a historian at the University of Oxford, calls it an immediate tradition.

“Something they’ve never done before, and it immediately sums up what they will do from here on in,” he says.

Silent contemplation

Honey died in 1922, and the concept of the minute’s silence was broadly attributed to FitzPatrick.

However, in 1965, a Melbourne-based group campaigned to have Honey’s contribution recognised.

The small plaque across from the Shrine of Remembrance was set in stone.

“In many respects his life is one of not succeeding at very much,” Dr Hampton says of Honey.

I think it’s nice that he’s known as the man who had a strong voice in this, when he perhaps didn’t have a strong voice in much else.”

Honey died a young man, just 36, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Northwood Cemetery in Greater London.

To remember him is to remember what he called for — and let silent contemplation be your offering.

-ABC