To mark Remembrance Sunday, this is an extract from my book The Last Post, about Armistice Day in 1945:
Shortly after VE Day on the 8th of May 1945, leaders of various churches, together with representatives of the British Legion, met Herbert Morrison, the home secretary in the wartime coalition government, to discuss the form that national remembrance should take once hostilities were concluded.
Their view was that a single day should be chosen ‘in commemoration of two national deliverances and of the fallen in both of the wars’. This, they argued, should not be the 11th of November, partly because of ‘the uncertainty of the weather’ and partly – a somewhat obscure note – because it tended ‘to collide with Civic Sunday, which follows the election of new mayors’. Instead, they proposed that some time in May might be appropriate, and Morrison seemed sympathetic to their view, being personally inclined towards VE Day itself.
As the coalition dissolved, it fell to Morrison’s successor, Donald Somervell, to bring the matter to cabinet. With no certainty that the war with Japan would be finished by November, he proposed that for this first year, the commemoration of Armistice Day should continue, a decision made easier because in 1945 it fell on a Sunday. The final decision could then be put off until the following year.
And so, for what was assumed in official circles to be the last time, the Cenotaph again became the focus of the nation’s thoughts on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. King George VI, accompanied by his daughter Princess Elizabeth in her Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, joined large crowds for ‘the sudden well-remembered silence’, and laid wreaths on the monument. It was noted, however, that in some cities and towns, the numbers of those attending were not quite what they had been in the 1920s and 1930s.
It was a world in which peace seemed scarcely sustainable, despite all attempts at reconciliation. In Berlin, it was reported, Germans commemorated the day for the first time, alongside the troops of the occupying Allied armies, and in Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews attended a service in a British military cemetery, where prayers were offered for the future of Palestine. But in Washington, the newly elected British prime minister, Clement Attlee, joined the American president Harry S. Truman and Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King to lay wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier ‘before boarding the Navy yacht Sequoia to discuss the atom bomb and other grave problems’.
In 1919 the first Silence had been staged against an international backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution and British involvement in the Russian Civil War; now it was held in the shadow of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As one Australian newspaper wrote of the leaders of the free world: ‘They are afraid of a third and worse world war, which almost inevitably would mean the end of civilisation as mankind now knows it...’