November 11 is universally associated with the remembrance of those who had died in the First World War. This conflict had mobilised over 70 million people and left between 9 and 13 million dead and as many as one third of these with no grave. The Allied nations chose this day and time for the commemoration of their war dead.
On the first anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1919, two minutes silence was instituted as part of the main commemorative ceremony at the new cenotaph in London. The silence was proposed by Edward Honey, an Australian journalist working in Fleet Street. At around the same time, a South African statesman made a similar proposal to the British Cabinet, which added its endorsement. King George V personally requested all the people of the British Empire to suspend normal activities for two minutes on the hour of the Armistice ‘which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years and marked the victory of Right and Freedom’. The two minutes silence was popularly adopted and became a central feature of Armistice Day.
On the second anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1920, the commemoration was given added significance with the return of the remains of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front. Unknown soldiers were interred with full military honours in Westminster abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
In Australia, on the 75th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1993, the remains of an unknown Australian soldier, exhumed from a First World War military cemetery in France, was ceremonially entombed in the Australian War Memorial. Remembrance Day ceremonies were conducted simultaneously in towns and cities all over the country, culminating at the moment of burial at 11.00am and coinciding with the traditional two minutes silence.
Four years later, in November 1997, the Governor General, Sir William Deane, issued a proclamation formally declaring the 11th of November as Remembrance Day and urged all Australians to observe one minutes silence at 11.00am on 11 November each year to remember those who died or suffered for Australia’s cause in all wars and armed conflicts.
We commemorate when the guns on the Western Front fell silent and reflect on the significance of that event. We also pause to remember all men and women of the Australian Defence Force who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
We will remember them. Lest we forget.