The Ode

Local RSAs have traditionally observed an act of remembrance.

The Ceremony

The general outline of the Remembrance Ceremony is as follows:

Presiding Official: "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Remembrance Ceremony"

[Lighting dimmed and a short period of Silence observed.]

The Presiding Official then recites Binyon's lines:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

All present respond: "We Will Remember Them"

[Lighting restored.]

It is the simplicity of the Remembrance Ceremony that makes it so effective.

Its Origins

The Significance of Silence

The concept of Remembrance Silence is a traditional token of respect for the dead. It is most famously associated with the Two Minutes' Silence observed each year at 11 a.m. on 11 November — Armistice Day — a tradition inaugurated by King George V in 1919 to commemorate the first anniversary of the end of hostilities on the Western Front.

From the outset, the RSA also utilised Silence to pay homage to departed comrades. The toast of "Fallen" or "Absent Comrades" has always been honoured in silence at RSA functions, while the news of a member’s death has similarly been observed in silence at meetings.

Similar ceremonies developed in other countries during the inter-war period. In South Africa, for example, the Memorable Order of Tin Hats had by the late 1920s developed a ceremony whereby the toast of "Fallen Comrades" was observed not only in silence but darkness, all except for the "Light of Remembrance", with the ceremony ending with the Order’s anthem "Old Soldiers Never Die". In Australia, meanwhile, the South Australian State Branch of the Returned Sailors & Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia similarly developed during the interwar period a simple ceremony of silence for departed comrades at 9 p.m., although the significance of this time is unclear. There is no evidence that a 9 p.m. Ceremony was observed in New Zealand prior to the Second World War.

A Remarkable Story

The widespread observance of a ceremony of silence at 9 p.m. in New Zealand actually dates from the Second World War and the story of its origin is a remarkable one. It begins not during the Second World War, however, but the First World War. In early December 1917, in the mountains around Jerusalem, two British Army officers were discussing the war and its probable aftermath on the eve of a battle. One of them, in a premonition of his death, requested his fellow officer to remember him and the millions of others who would die during the War: "Lend us a moment of it [your time] every day and through your silence is greater than you know". The following day the speaker, as he had foretold, was killed. His companion, Major W. Tudor Pole, never forgot his comrade’s last request and at the outbreak of the Second World War campaigned tirelessly to implement a daily observance of silent prayer.

The "Big Ben Silent Minute"

Members of the so-called ‘Big Ben Movement’, with the support of Winston Churchill, took up Tudor Pole's cause and successfully campaigned for the reinstatement of the broadcast of Big Ben’s chimes at 9 p.m. on the BBC as an appropriate observance (the chimes had been replaced by the Greenwich Time Signal at the outbreak of the war). The nine o’clock chimes, which lasted a minute, were publicised as a Minute of Silent Prayer and Rededication prior to the first airing on Armistice Sunday, 10 November 1940. The ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’, as it was known, became a source of inspiration not only in Britain but also throughout the empire.

9 p.m. Ceremony in New Zealand

The chimes of Big Ben were re-broadcast daily at 9 p.m. in New Zealand from April 1941 as a mark of solidarity with Britain. The practice quickly won public support but it was the RSA that particularly came to embrace it. The earliest record of its observance was at the NZRSA Dominion Council meeting on 29 May 1941. The practice was adopted at all Dominion Executive Committee meetings from mid June 1941 — one month before the House of Representatives began to observe the minute — and from early 1942 local RSAs were being urged to adopt the practice at their own meetings and functions. A new tradition of remembrance had begun and soon became known simply as the "9 p.m. Ceremony".

The RSA Keeps Faith

After the Second World War, the RSA campaigned to retain the 9 p.m. broadcast, winning the admiration of W. Tudor Pole himself. However, while the public was prepared to remember the dead once a year on Anzac Day; a daily observance was deemed excessive. The nightly radio broadcasts were reduced to Sunday night only in 1947; eventually being dropped altogether during the 1960s.

The RSA however continued to keep faith. Over the years, other traditional symbols of remembrance — the recital of Binyon's famous lines and the symbolism of light — were added to the Silence. These dignified embellishments completed the transformation of what had begun as a religious ceremony to a truly ex-service ceremony.

Sixty years after its origins in 1941, the Remembrance Ceremony (as it is known today) is still one of the most poignant observances of the RSA and a tribute to its members’ eternal pledge:

We Will Remember Them

Source: RNZRSA Historian Dr Stephen Clarke

References

  • Adrian Gregory The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford: Berg, 1994)
  • Peter Sekuless and Jacqueline Rees Lest We Forget: The History of the Returned Services League 1916-1986 (Sydney: Rigby, 1986)
  • W. Tudor Pole The Silent Road: In the Light of Personal Experience (London: Neville Spearman, 1960)