On the 8th May 1919 an idea was suggested which shaped how we remember the First World War.
I was on a deep-dive on the British Pathé website the other day (using the search term ‘cemeteries‘) and I came across this short clip that detailed a historic man’s grave: produced clearly with the intention of affording him some prominence in death that had been absent as his life drew to a close.
Edward George Honey (in that lonely, unmarked grave) although stated in the video as a Briton, was actually born in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick in 1885. His siblings were fellow creatives – his sister Constance was an artist who trained at the Royal Academy. As a young man, he was attached to the Argus newspaper in Melbourne, before relocating to London to follow his journalism career in the epicentre of Britain’s newspaper heartland – Fleet Street. Working for the Daily Mail, Honey’s health was delicate and the paper’s owner, Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper tycoon who upon the outbreak of war whose publications dominated just under fifty per cent of the market, personally arranged for him to recuperate in Warwickshire. Stupidly, Honey was seen at the Epsom races the next day and when he returned to the office, a pay cheque and letter of dismissal was waiting for him on his desk.
The guns fell silent on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 and on the one year anniuversary of armistice Honey wrote to the London Evening News of a ‘national silence’, and it was his idea that was published on the 8th May 1919.
Other contemporary suggestions of the time included an annual firework display and a parade, but these ideas were not seen to be a dignified response to the catastrophic loss of life events on the continent had wrought. They were too celebratory. And while the ending of hostility should be celebrated, the conflict left a scar on the national consciousness. It is also suggested that Honey was still reeling from inappropriate scenes he’d witnessed in the west of England when Edward VII died in 1910: scenes of jubilation rather than sorrow and mourning.
The two minutes silence was in his original suggestion supposed to be five minutes in length, however it is said that when the Grenadier Guards rehearsed it they felt it was too long and so three minutes were shaved off instead.
History gets a little fuzzy in regards to whether his letter to the Evening News directly influenced the two minute silence as the default method of commemoration as approved by King George V. I’ve read articles saying that George V personally invited Honey to watch rehearsals at Buckingham Palace, but also other articles saying he generally stayed clear of public displays of it and only found out about its approval from the newspapers. I’ve also read that public silences weren’t necessarily a new idea and that South African politician Sir Percy Fitzpatrick had mooted a ‘silence’ a few months on from Honey’s letter to the Evening News, in October.
The government in Australia however formally credit him with proposing it and he was given a marker, not far from the Shrine of Remembrance in St Kilda Road, Melbourne in 1965 for his services to public remembrance. Its use, in the United Kingdom at least, has been extended to other forms of national remembrance, such as on 7th July 2006 for the London bombings.
Honey’s health was never particularly robust. He signed up for service when the War broke out, but was invalided out due to a leg injury and returned to journalism as his services were no longer required. He managed to see three observances of his idea before his death in 1922 from tuberculosis, aged just 36 at the Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood, Middlesex. His widow, Millicent, was left impoverished.
Today a plaque marks the plot where Honey, the man who I suppose taught the world how to remember, lies.
In the setting of the sun (this May 8th), let us not forget him.