The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946

The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946

The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946

The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946


Nominated for the Longman History Today Book of the Year Prize, 1995 The first full-scale study of the rituals with which the British people commemorated three-quarters of a million war dead. Explains both the origins of the two minutes silence and the reasons for the success of the poppy appeal. This book examines how the British people came to terms with the massive trauma of the First World War. Although the literary memory of the war has often been discussed, little has been written on the public ceremonies on and around 11 November which dominated the public memory of the war in the inter-war years. This book aims to remedy the deficiency by showing the pre-eminence of Armistice Day, both in reflecting what people felt about the war and in shaping their memories of it. It shows that this memory was complex rather than simple and that it was continually contested. Finally it seeks to examine the impact of the Second World War on the memory of the First and to show how difficult it is to recapture the idealistic assumptions of a world that believed it had experienced 'the war to end all wars'.


The First World War made an indelible impact on those who lived through it. No event since the Black Death, neither revolution, religious upheaval or war, had touched the lives of Europeans in such a general and far reaching manner. the guns of August echoed far beyond Europe, bringing anxiety and news of loss to remote villages, from Hawke's Bay to Newfoundland, but it was in Europe that the upheaval of war was felt most immediately in the lives of whole populations. Such an event would be remembered in a multiplicity of ways. the way it was remembered in one nation is the subject of this book.

At the outset I wish to apologise. Like most English historians I have written a history of England disguised as a history of the British Isles. in doing so I am aware that I have perpetuated the injustice of a hegemonic history which has ignored the particularities of the other constituent nations of these islands. I have found the problem insoluble. To ignore the Scots, Irish and Welsh in this book would have been a perpetuation of blinkered arrogance. I have therefore referred, perhaps superficially, to some interesting features of commemorations outside England.

At the same time to do justice to the specificity of these cases would have involved entering into discussion of many things of which I am ignorant and which would have overburdened the book with indispensable but bulky contextual explanation. Historical events such as Welsh Disestablishment, traditions such as those of the Unionist and Nationalist communities of Ireland, theological details such as those of Scottish Calvinism and long term historical trends such as the decline and revival of Welsh and Gaelic languages would need discussion.

Fortunately, Jane Leonard, Fiona Douglas and Angela Lambert are currently undertaking work on the memory and commemoration of the war in Ireland, Scotland and Wales and hopefully the combined impact of our studies will lead to a genuine understanding of the memory of the impact of an event which was not limited by the confines of Offa's Dyke, the Irish Sea and Hadrian's Wall, any more than it was by the English Channel.

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