Neil Griffiths: We say it best when we say nothing at all

As the country falls silent to respect its war dead, Neil Griffiths recalls how a simple act of remembrance seized the world's imagination

THE two-minute silence held in remembrance of our war dead has entered our culture as an elegant, poignant act, almost a ceremony without ceremony, whose observance has grown in recent years.

So natural is a moment's silence to mark a loss that it is easy to forget that the commemoration does not date back to ancient times. It had an unexpected birthplace too. Held to commemorate the vast numbers who had been killed in the First World War, the first official two-minute silence was observed in Cape Town - and it wasn't even on 11 November.

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The act of remembrance was initiated by South African author Sir Percy FitzPatrick, a famous son of the Empire and creator of the Jock of the Bushveld children's books. He had been deeply affected by the loss of his eldest son, Major Nugent FitzPatrick, who had been killed by a stray shell at Beaumetz, France, while serving with the South African Heavy Artillery, on 14 December 1917. Sir Percy had witnessed the moment's silence in a Cape Town church that marked the publication of South Africa's first casualty list in 1916. He never forgot it.

The town's mayor, Sir Henry Hands, subsequently instituted a pause following the firing of a noonday canon on Signal Hill, and it was this that inspired Sir Percy to go a stage further. On 14 December, 1918, four weeks and five days after the Armistice, Cape Town held the world's first two-minute silence.

Its observation was so widespread that Sir Percy submitted to King George V the idea of a silence to be held throughout the Empire to mark the first anniversary of the Armistice. Consequently, in the Times, 7 November, 1919, there appeared an announcement: "The Glorious Dead. King's Call to his People. Armistice Day Observance. Two Minutes' Pause from Work. The King invites all his people to join him in a special celebration of the anniversary of the cessation of war." The accompanying message, written as a letter from the King, called for "perfect silence".

The later headlines described the breadth of the silence's success with "Whole World Stands to Attention" and "From Jungles to Alaska". Sir Percy was amazed and humbled by the global reaction to his simple idea, receiving a cable from the King's private secretary which acknowledged his role: "The King . . . desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the two-minute pause on Armistice Day was due to your invitation."

The two-minute silence was observed with deep intensity during the interwar years, when Britain came to a hushed halt, but the practice was suspended in the years 1939-45. In 1946, Prime Minister Clement Attlee created Remembrance Sunday - the Sabbath nearest November 11 - in a conscious attempt to diminish Armistice Day. The motive appears surprising to our eyes but the nation was tired of war and the government wanted to the public to concentrate on the future. But a Sunday silence was a London-based event, formalised, lacking in spontaneity and without the community involvement which had once seen traffic halt and pedestrians freeze. Without the emotional impact of interrupting a working day, the silence was soon practically forgotten.

Then in 1995, as part of the 50th anniversary of VE Day, a nationwide two-minute silence was held on a weekday once again, on the May Bank Holiday, led by the Queen and backed by the BBC. To much surprise it was widely observed, permitting a tentative re-introduction on November 11 of that year by both the Royal British Legion and the Royal British Legion Scotland. Many doubted the country would embrace the occasion, especially as it was a Saturday, schools would be closed and supermarkets busy.

The doubters need not have worried, the nation stood as one once again, perhaps not with the totality of the interwar years but it was clear that Britain approved of the re-introduction of this national coming together. The opportunity to remember those that had lost their lives serving their country was accepted as right and proper - though by a generation that knew almost nothing of war at first hand. The subsequent losses suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan has given it additional relevance and the two-minute silence continues to grow in popularity.

Now we have silences to mark most major disasters such as 9/11 or London bomb victims.

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In January 2005, the idea was extended to a three-minute silence to pay tribute to those who died in the Asian tsunami.

In another development, deaths of public figures such as Jock Stein or Hurricane Higgins saw a minute's applause, though none these days are as excessive as the whole of the US telephone network observing a two-minute silence to mark the death of Alexander Graham Bell in 1922.

Ironically, though, there is a Nugent FitzPatrick memorial in Johannesburg's Zoo Gardens, the inspirational Major has been completely forgotten.

This year I am sure the silence will be marked with due observance, it's the least we can do.

• Neil Griffiths works for the Royal British Legion Scotland