By November 11, 1918, the First World War had been raging for over four years. Germany’s militarism had pulled Britain into a European cataclysm that tore the heart out of European civilisation which had reached its apogee at the turn of the 20th century as described in Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace. Four years was all it took to ravage British society from top to bottom. Nearly a million dead, the uncounted wounded, in mind and in body.

 

The toll on all levels of society was immense. Through the ‘pals’ volunteer battalions, the working classes had been hard hit. Entire streets were killed. The middle classes, who had provided many of the more junior officers, were also ravaged; the life expectancy of a 2nd Lieutenant on the Western Front was measured in weeks. Those in the ruling and gentry classes arguably felt the continuing, aching absence of those gone from this world in a different fashion. An entire class, an entire social structure that presumed to rule had the heart torn out of it in bloody Flanders fields. It never fully recovered, neither its moral or civil authority. 

 

Then came the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. With the hands of time moving on inexorably, a moment of quiet was carved from the flow and set aside. The guns that had been firing since August 1914 finally fell silent at 11 am November 11, 1918. The fighting that led to the war being dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’ was finally over, on the Western Front at least. The ‘shell shock’ that afflicted so many soldiers had also seemed to cast a pall over the rest of Britain. The act of remembrance that millions still carry out on November 11 and Remembrance Sunday was in some ways a means of coming to terms with what had happened. It was only through silence that the enormity of the event could be grasped.

The moments of reflection that have taken place every year since then have been an opportunity to remember and reflect on the sacrifice that those that went before made so that we could enjoy our today. While they may not all have known explicitly what they were fighting for, it cannot be denied that stopping the Kaiser’s (or Fuhrer’s) Germany from crushing the whole of Europe was an undoubtedly better outcome. That still didn’t help those communities who were devastated at the micro level or those countries at the macro level. Even today, the sheer horror of what happened has sapped our spirits and can cause us to forget what was bought at such a price. Remembrance today enables us to reach back through time to those who made the ultimate sacrifice; when we each engage in those two minutes of silence, we are really greeting those whose sacrifice endowed us with the freedom to continue to converse with each other as free people, part of a sovereign nation.

 

Perhaps this is the greatest paradox and lesson of remembrance: within the silence, there is a conversation with history, a history that we can mourn, peopled with those we can respect and learn from. While we collectively fall silent, we are individually engaging in this dialogue with the past. Sometimes, history is simply too big. Sometimes, we have to listen, and hopefully, to learn. We can learn that the two World Wars were fought at an enormous cost, but the cost we paid outweighed the alternative. For that, we are grateful to those who shouldered the burden. We do not fall silent as an act of celebration; we fall silent in remembrance, expressing our sorrowful gratitude. The gratitude of our silence is greater than any spoken word could ever be.