In a forest 75 kilometres north of Paris, there is a clearing.
In that clearing, 104 years ago in 1918, there was a train carriage – a dining car which had been converted into a French military headquarters.
In that carriage, Allied and German leaders gathered in November.
On the fourth day of talks, at just after five o’clock in the morning, they signed an Armistice which would take effect six hours later.
At the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, after four years of catastrophic world war which had killed some 16 million soldiers and civilians, the process of peace began.
Charles Bean wrote in Australia’s official war histories:
“… the sound of guns ceased; the gates of the future silently opened. Wonder, hope, grief, too deep and uncertain for speech, revolved for days in almost every man’s mind… The end of the war had come almost as suddenly as its beginning.”
Private Cleary of the 17th Australian Battalion would jot down in his diary:
“The news of the Armistice was taken very coolly… nobody seemed to be able to realise it.”
For many, words could not describe the tragedy and loss of the Great War.
While people reflected in their own way, there was a yearning for national remembrance.
It was Edward Honey, an Australian journalist working in London, whose idea engendered a tradition.
In a letter published in the London Evening News in May 1919, he proposed a ‘very sacred intercession’ – some several minutes of national remembrance of ‘bitter-sweet silence’ which men and women could observe ‘in the street, the home, the theatre, anywhere.’
King George V made it so through a proclamation ahead of the 1st Anniversary of Armistice.
Today, in the stillness of observing one minute’s silence at the 11th hour, we carry on a simple, sacred and significant custom.
We pay tribute to all Australians who have served in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations from Federation through to the present day.
And we honour the memories of those 103,000 men and women in our history who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Armistice signed in that train carriage in 1918 was meant to bring about an end to ‘the war to end all wars’.
Just over twenty years later, the Nazi war machine was waging blitzkrieg across Europe.
And on the 22nd of June 1940, in seeking revenge for past humiliation, Hitler had the French sign their surrender in the very same train carriage in the very same forest.
The carriage today is a museum – a reminder that peace is always on the precipice.
On Remembrance Day, we thank all those who fought to secure peace from conflict, and we acknowledge all those who have served tirelessly to prevent conflict through the preservation of peace.
Lest we forget.