On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the United Kingdom and countries across the Commonwealth fall silent.
For two minutes, we unite in remembrance, to pay tribute to the fallen, to those who endured horrific conditions and fought when victory could hardly be told apart from defeat. And yet they persevered. For this we owe them a debt greater than we can ever know and greater than we can ever repay.
They persevered out of hope. Hope that through their actions, they would live to see the dawn of peace and a brighter future for all. Hope that by sacrificing their hopes and dreams, their futures and their lives, we would be free to pursue our hopes and dreams, and to live our futures in peace and with purpose. Above all, after witnessing the horrors of modern warfare, of slaughter on an industrial scale, of 20 million lives lost and of 20 million more wounded, of devastating famine and disease, there was a desperate hope, that WW1 would be the war to end all wars.
For this ambition to have any hope of realisation, it was quickly understood that the great sacrifices made by so many, must never be forgotten. To this end, war memorials, such as the one we have in school, were erected; war cemeteries were laid out; poppies became symbols of remembrance and a two-minute silence was instituted.
The practice of falling silent in remembrance originated in South Africa during the First World War. As a dominion of the British Empire, South Africa joined the war, to fight with the Allied Powers. A young officer called Reginald Hands was one of the tens of thousands of South Africans who volunteered to fight.
Reginald had been an outstanding student at Diocesan College school in Cape Town, and in 1908 was awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to read Law at Oxford University. An elite sportsman, he was capped twice as a Forward for the England rugby team, and upon returning home, was capped for the South African cricket team. He was at the beginning of a promising career as a barrister in Cape Town.
Like so many, Reginald volunteered for war and fought on the Western Front, where he was promoted to the rank of captain. Like so many he endured abhorrent conditions and the horrors of trench warfare and like so many, he never returned home. During the last major German offensive of the war, Reginald was asphyxiated by poison gas, at the age of 29. He is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, near Calais, in northern France.
When Reginald’s father, the Mayor of Cape Town, heard the tragic news, he declared a two-minute Pause of Remembrance be held every day for a year upon the firing of the noon day gun. The first minute was to be an opportunity for thanksgiving for all those who had returned alive, and the second minute was to remember all those who had fallen. Every day at noon, Cape Town would fall eerily silent, its citizens united in unspoken gratitude and insurmountable grief.
The concept of remembrance through a two-minute silence soon caught on, and in 1919, it was proclaimed by King George V that across the entirety of the British Empire, at the very moment that the guns had fallen silent “all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead… , and unite in this simple service of silence and remembrance”.
Tragically, as we all know only too well, the First World War was not the war to end all wars. But through silence and remembrance the fallen live on, and with their memory endures their hope, that one day we may all live in peace.