Silence is Human

The interior courtyard of the Australian War Memorial with two soldiers standing sentry.

Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Today is Remembrance Day.

We bow our heads in silence to remember all the soldiers who were killed on active duty. This year we are asked to pause for just one minute longer to remember those who continue to suffer after they have left the battle ground. Wars kill, maim and etch themselves indelibly in the psyche of returned soldiers.

The war is never over for the returned soldiers and their families.


This pause is observed on Remembrance Day throughout the Commonwealth of Nations. The Australian War Memorial says it was a South African and an Australian who separately proposed the silence which first became part of Remembrance Day observances in 1919. But this was not the first time a respectful moment of quiet was used to remember the war dead. In Cape Town silence was observed during the Great War when South African deaths on the front were particularly heavy. As I wrote earlier this year, silence for the war dead was first observed in Australia on Brisbane’s first Anzac Day observance in 1916.

That post, ‘The Anzac Day Silence, Religion and Garland’, sparked an interesting discussion in the comments. Mark Cryle raised the observances in South Africa as well as silence being used to remember war dead in New York in June 1916. John Francis Moss wrote about the town of Farnham in England which first observed the two minutes silence for war dead in May 1916. In a paper Moss has written, he notes that the Archbishop of Canterbury requested in 1914 that church bells be rung to remind people to pause and offer silent prayers for those who had lost their lives on the battlefield.

The custom of observing silence to remember the dead can be found before the War. In his comment on this blog Moss notes that people stood in respectful silence at the funeral of King Edward VII. This suggests that there was already a strong tradition of observing silence for the dead before the Great War. I suspected that if this tradition was observed in England, South Africa and New York that it must have been observed in Australia before the War too.

I turned to Pat Jalland’s book, Australian Ways of Death. I feel that this book gives the answer to the question of the origins of silence to remember the dead, but not in the way we might expect.

Jalland relates the story of a woman in the Western Australian bush in 1864. She and her husband were living in an isolated spot when their twelve month old son died. They had no family or fellow pioneers to support them in their grief. Yet they were not alone. The local Aboriginal people knew of their loss and supported them. The husband told his brother in a letter how the Aborigines conveyed their sympathy to his wife:

Their grief was manifested in a wonderful manner, they sat beside and encircled the bereaved mother as she lent upon the fence, the big tears rolled down their black faces, they sat a while in this way and then passed off in silence with heads cast down, it was very remarkable. Why did they feel, or seem to feel for an infant’s death in a white man’s house?

p. 11

The husband was confused by race but the Aboriginal people understood. Their act was a simple but powerful expression of humanity. Communal silence enfolds everyone in its embrace. It bridges cultures, languages and beliefs. We see it here observed by Aborigines, we should expect to see it in all cultures throughout time.

It is not surprising that so many people in so many parts of the world during the Great War separately decided to stand in silence in remembrance of those killed on the battlefield. Silence is one of the most basic human forms of expression. It can be one of the most powerful too.

As Mark Cryle so aptly concluded in his comment, the silences which are observed on Remembrance Day and Anzac Day were not invented, they were found.

In the foreground a soldier stands and salutes while the Last Post is played by a bugler in front of rows of soldiers in the background.

Rehearsing the Last Post in front of the Australian War Memorial in the lead-up to Remembrance Day.

6 thoughts on “Silence is Human

  1. In the silence there is an escape…

    Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
    Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
    Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
    They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

    For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
    Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
    If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
    Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
    Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
    Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
    Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
    To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.


    • Thanks Shauna. It is often the unnoticed routines that reveal so much about ourselves, whether in the past or today. The ‘every day’ routines that we all do but would not think to record in our diaries or emails could also shed an interesting light on our lives for historians in the future as Marion Diamond explains in an interesting post on her blog, Historians are Past Caring.


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