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Time and Space Obliterated: Remembrance and Relativity in November 1919

On November 4, 1919, a week before the first anniversary of the Great War’s conclusion, a letter to the editor of the Times worried that there seemed to be “no signs of any official or public celebrations” scheduled to mark the first Armistice Day.[1] The letter, from Donald Howard, noted plans only for a “big fancy dress ball for charity” on Armistice night—an event in the Albert Hall, to be attended by Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, with tickets costing three guineas. As subsequent editions of the Times reported, many of London’s classier hotels—the Ritz, the Savoy, and Claridges—were organizing similarly pricey dinner-dances and “Victory Balls.” As the war effort had involved the nation so comprehensively—obviously not only its richer, Ritzier citizens—it seemed odd to Mr. Howard that no one had planned an event “that embraces or affects all classes of the community” (Times, November 4). Apart from those victory dances, Armistice Day seemed likely to be marked only by numerous speeches, throughout Britain, in support of the League of Nations, still finalizing its constitution at the time, and due to begin its work a few weeks later.

As it turned out, further plans were being considered by the government—albeit rather tardily—including on the day Mr. Howard’s letter appeared. On November 4, the Colonial Secretary received a proposal for the observation of a two-minute silence, within Britain, of the kind instituted eighteen months previously, during the war, in Cape Town, to foster “thinking of those . . . who had pledged and given themselves for all that we believe in.”[2] The idea was adopted the next day by the War Cabinet, and by the King, whose proclamation—reported in the Times on the seventh—requested that

at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be, for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities . . . all work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the Glorious Dead.[3]

“No elaborate organization appears to be necessary,” the King added (Times, November 7). In one way, as he suggested, elaborate planning was not much required even for such an exactly timed “suspension of . . . activities.” The British public had long since become accustomed to the regimentation of working life, and activities in general, by means of exact, nationwide chronological controls. First widely imposed by the spread of the railways, these had become still more stringent since the 1890s, as clocking-in—along with production methods based on Taylorist time-and-motion coordination—tightened the clock’s control on the pay and conditions of the majority of the working population.

War Time

Inevitably, the Great War had further strengthened such controls, as troop movements obviously required still swifter and more stringent synchronization than shifts of workers.  Officers relied increasingly on easily synchronized, quickly consulted wristwatches, rather than fob watches—requiring to be ponderously hauled up, as Thomas Hardy mentions in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), “like a bucket from a well,” or from a “deep pocket like solid truth from a well,” as Joseph Conrad describes in The Shadow-Line (1917).[4] On the Home Front, concerns about intoxication among workers in key industries contributed to the Defence of the Realm Act’s curtailment of licensing hours after 1915 (adopted more widely in 1921)—making familiar the cry reproduced in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.”[5] Another new measure soon forced even teetotalers—indeed, the whole British population, including those serving abroad—towards sharper awareness of the clock’s rule over their lives, and the government’s rule over the clock. This was Daylight Saving, or “Summer Time,” finally introduced, after long advocacy, in May 1916—a few weeks after Germany had instituted a similar measure—in order to save energy and maximize wartime production.

A Home Office poster informing the public of the introduction of summer time on May 21, 1916.
Fig. 1. A Home Office poster informing the public of the introduction of summer time on May 21, 1916. © IWM Art.IWM PST 5879.

Though the King’s proclamation thus addressed a population well used to working to the clock, and to exact control by its measures, his assumption that the two minutes’ silence required “no elaborate organization” did exhibit a certain regal insouciance. This was highlighted by another column in the Times of November 7, just beneath his proclamation, and by several others in the days that followed. These contained extensive instructions about how the silence was to be organized, timed, and observed—not only by the British population, but by “everybody in every part of the Empire” at 11 a.m. (local time) in all imperial dominions.[6] Navy vessels were to be contacted by Admiralty wireless and their forward progress curtailed at 11 a.m., and Merchant shipping likewise invited to stop at sea. Within Britain, the Home Office explained, the two-minute silence would be timed by church or town clocks, or, in London and larger cities, by sirens or by maroons or other ordinance set off by fire stations, whose clocks were to be synchronized earlier on the morning of the eleventh. The Board of Trade arranged for all trains throughout the railway network to be halted at 11 a.m., and for the police to stop traffic in the streets of every town and city. Shops ceased trading, pedestrians were requested to stand still, and men to remove their hats. Schoolchildren were read the King’s proclamation, standing silently in their classrooms. Workers likewise often stood soundlessly, at 11 a.m., outside factories which in many cases briefly interrupted production. In Nottingham, the Times reported on the twelfth, a murder trial was even brought to a halt, allowing the defendant two minutes’ respite prior to his death sentence.[7]

The wish expressed in Mr. Howard’s letter for an event that “embraces or affects all classes of the community” was thus fulfilled, comprehensively, throughout the land. Never before had a King or government tried to organize so many people, so minutely, so ubiquitously, into doing the same thing at so exactly the same time. Experience of that “brief space of two minutes” was more widely shared, and universally clock-controlled, than any previously in British history—a perfect illustration, or culmination, of the “monumental time” of governments and officialdom which Paul Ricoeur identifies increasingly dominating the life of the early twentieth century.[8] Even Britain’s declaration of war, at 11 p.m. GMT on August 4, 1914, was scarcely as precise or ubiquitously influential in its effects. Instead, as C. E. Montague records in his novel Rough Justice (1924), the public was sometimes confused—lacking in those days any broadcast news—by an ultimatum set for midnight, but at Berlin time, one hour ahead of GMT.


Yet as it turned out, Armistice Day’s controls and timings were less precise and rigorous in their effects—and certainly much stranger—than might have been anticipated. Ceremonies on November 11—on a “bright cold [morning] with a keen wind,” according to the Times the following day—generally did follow plans the King had outlined.[9] Newspapers recorded that the silence was thoroughly maintained, interrupted only occasionally by random sounds—the distant bark of a dog, the rippling of flags in the breeze, the sneeze of a horse, or cries and sobbing expressing emotions too intense to be contained. Deeper and more complete than ever before, this sudden hush, on an otherwise ordinary morning on Britain’s noisy streets, inevitably seemed eerie—all the more so if contrasted with the wildly raucous, cacophonous celebrations much of the population might have recalled from the Armistice itself, exactly a year previously. This “Great Silence,” the Times reported the next day, inevitably occasioned feelings of being “suddenly snatched from a secure mental environment” and left “aloof from all that was firm and familiar” (November 12). So odd and unprecedented, the two minutes established what the Times considered a “calm in which recognizable things became strange and the ordinary limitations of the human imagination were extended” (November 12).

Much of this extension of “human imagination,” the report explained, resulted simply from powers of remembrance and private thought in departing from the familiar, firm and immediate:

in an interval of seconds, men must have revisited the torn and blasted fields of France, the ridges of Flanders, the beaches of Gallipoli, and many a cemetery where long rows of wooden crosses mark the resting place of those who fell (November 12).

For many of those who stood silent, women perhaps especially, this “revisiting” of the past must have extended further—not only across blasted battlefields, but more widely over the lives of those who had died there. Though the war might have remained in the foreground, there would have been every reason to reflect on other directions, too—recalling happier days preceding 1914, or imagining how lives lost in the war might have developed into the future.  Extending “mental environment,” “human imagination,” memory and desire, in such ways ensured that, as the Times remarked, those immediately experiencing that first Remembrance Day “hardly knew whether the two minutes appeared short or long. Time and space were obliterated” (November 12).


Encountering this conclusion, on November 12, 1919, readers of the Times might have reflected that this was not the first occasion, in the past week, that their newspaper had made arresting claims of this kind. In reporting that “time and space were obliterated,” the description of Remembrance Day might itself have been influenced in its choice of words by sensational news recorded in the Times five days previously, almost alongside plans for the memorial ceremonies. The King’s wishes were reported on November 7, at the far left of page 12: opposite, on the right, appeared the headline “Revolution in Science. New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” The column beneath described a joint session of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, convened the previous evening to receive reports of a solar eclipse, visible from close to the equator the previous May.

The Times, November 7, 1919
Fig. 2. The Times, November 7, 1919, 12. Author’s collection.

Teams of observers had been dispatched to take photographs of this eclipse, and these seemed to confirm that the sun’s gravitational field deflected starlight passing through it—or bent space-time itself—much as Albert Einstein had predicted. This deflection could not be fully explained by Newtonian physics. Fundamental, long-standing, Newtonian principles—including conceptions of the universe as temporally and spatially homogeneous—therefore seemed untrustworthy, requiring new understanding in terms of the non-isomorphic time and space proposed by Einstein’s Theories of Relativity.

The apparent coincidence of the King’s plans—so reliant on conventional temporal controls—figuring in such close adjacency with news of Einstein’s revolutionary theories—so dismissive of conventionally reliable temporality—has long intrigued commentators.[10] Evidence that this juxtaposition may not have been entirely coincidental has been discussed less often. Some of this appeared in the Times the day after its reporting of that sensational Royal Academy meeting. A small column on November 8 described Einstein as “a Swiss Jew . . . of liberal tendencies” who had originally been employed academically in Zürich and Prague and had undertaken no official duties while working in Berlin during the war, protesting instead against Germany’s involvement.[11] Writing to the Times three weeks later, Einstein offered a wry view of this careful positioning. His letter of November 28 notes that “By an application of the theory of relativity to the taste of readers, to-day in Germany I am called a German man of science, and in England I am represented as a Swiss Jew.”[12] As Einstein—and the Times—were evidently well aware, his newly shining reputation risked being dimmed by antipathies to Germany, and to all aspects of German culture and learning, still strongly apparent a year after the end of the Great War.

Similar antipathies had postponed confirmation of his theories until the war was over. Interest generated among scientists by his 1905 Special Theory of Relativity—much extended by the General Theory, completed at the end of 1915—might have had little impact in Britain, even by 1919, without the efforts of Arthur Eddington. A Quaker and a pacifist, Eddington remained a strong supporter of international scientific collaboration during the war, and acquired an early knowledge of the General Theory through Willem de Sitter, an intermediary in neutral Holland who maintained regular contact with Einstein in Berlin. In 1918, partly through the intervention of the Astronomer Royal, Frank Dyson, Eddington escaped imprisonment, as a conscientious objector, on the grounds of his appointment by the Royal Society to lead one of the expeditions to be sent to observe the eclipse on May 29, 1919. As it happened—and as Eddington had emphasized when recommending such expeditions—the date was ideal for testing Einstein’s theories, since numerous stars in the Hyades would appear in close proximity to the occluded disk of the sun, making Einstein’s predicted deflection of light relatively easy to verify.[13] It was largely the photographs and observations made by Eddington’s team which provided this verification, allowing affirmative results—from what one commentator has described as “one of the most important experiments of the twentieth century”—to be reported to the Royal Society in November (Kennefick, No Shadow, 321).

As Stephen Hawking and other commentators later pointed out, the eclipse expeditions’ photographs and observations were of less-than-ideal quality, and it is possible that the apparent confirmation of Einstein’s ideas owed something to Eddington’s partiality, rather than entirely strict scientific objectivity. Late twentieth-century reassessments of his work have nevertheless mostly vindicated his methods and results.[14] Scientists in any case further substantiated and developed Einstein’s revolutionary theories later in the century, confirming the view of the President of the Royal Society—reported in the Times on November 7—that the eclipse report was “one of the most momentous . . . pronouncements of human thought.”


Literary critics, of modernism especially, might likewise consider events at the opening of November 1919—ones reported on both sides of that page of the Times—as in every way “momentous.” Emotionally charged experience of Remembrance Day, along with the astonishing news of relativity—the former requiring exact timing, but each apparently tending to obliterate conventional temporal constraints—could hardly avoid combining into a comprehensive challenge to “human thought” and “human imagination.” Literature following in the next decade and beyond reflects this challenge, and extends this unique modernist moment, in several ways. The most obvious of these is its extensive continuation of a postwar mood of remembrance, along with repeated emphases of its effects. Public memorialization of the war is often a subject of modernist fiction: in Virginia Woolf’s mention in Mrs Dalloway (1925), for example, of visitors who in the summer of 1923 still “shuffled past the tomb of the Unknown Warrior,” inaugurated in Westminster Abbey in November 1920.[15] More extended description of war memorials, their nature and construction, also figures in Christopher Isherwood’s The Memorial (1932) and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair (1932–24), each of which examines the taste and appropriateness of monuments set up in the immediately postwar years.

The mood of memorialization at this time may also be reflected in Ford Madox Ford’s use of “A Personal Remembrance”—rather than the more conventional “memoir”—as the subtitle of his 1924 recollection of Joseph Conrad. It almost certainly figured in C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s choice of Remembrance of Things Past—rather than the more apt, straightforward “In Search of Lost Time”—as the title for translations of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu (1913–27), which he began publishing in 1922. More generally, in the novels mentioned, and many others, a dominant interest is in memory and in imaginative revisitation of lost but supposedly better times—the kind of “old safe, happy, beautiful world” still haunting one of Isherwood’s characters, on Remembrance Day 1920, in The Memorial.[16]

Remembrance Day’s emphases on private thought and its stretching of the “ordinary limitations of the human imagination”—delivering whole landscapes of recollection into “an interval of seconds” in present consciousness—may have contributed to the tactics and manner of modernism, as well as to its memorious mood. “Good God!” Ford’s character Sylvia remarks to herself in Parade’s End (1924–28), “Only one minute. . . . I’ve thought all that in only a minute.”[17] After a similarly expansive set of reflections, another of his central figures, Valentine, likewise remarks on the strangeness of “what thought was,” prompted by realizing what “a hell of a lot” could be “thought of in ten minutes” (Ford, Parade’s End, 519). Their views might be taken almost as metacommentary; even as Ford’s self-congratulation, celebrating the ingenuity of Parade’s End in inserting such extensive reflections and memories—often represented over several pages of text—between single lines of dialogue during scenes described in the novel’s present. At the time Ford’s tetralogy was appearing, in the mid-1920s, analeptic tactics of this kind—already familiar from James Joyce’s tracing of Bloom’s thoughts in Ulysses (1922)—were also increasingly evident in the work of Woolf.

Mrs Dalloway makes especially clear why such tactics had become so essential to their age, evolving into a distinctive “temporal incommensurability” of the kind Beryl Pong’s introduction discusses—a particular disjuncture of the “relation between story and discourse” of the kind Kent Puckett’s essay identifies as typical of wartime. An era in which the whole population could be controlled—literally, stopped in its tracks, at 11 a.m. on Remembrance Day, with an exactness and comprehensiveness unique in history—was one obviously in need of freer, alternative engagements with temporality. This need, and its fulfilment, are evident even in the opening paragraphs of Mrs Dalloway. “Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable,” the second page of Mrs Dalloway records of Big Ben, its “leaden circles” spreading over postwar London, from the center of government in Westminster, a precise “monumental time” of officialdom, administration and power (6). Yet Woolf’s first page has already described Clarissa’s excursion into alternative dimensions of memory, opened up with a facility barely evoking even the “little squeak of the hinges” she remembers from opening French windows at Bourton, decades before those “leaden circles” impinge upon her sunny June morning in 1923 (5).

Modernism’s development of antinomies of this kind—contrasting open, fluid or memorious temporalities with precise, constraining ones—cannot of course be attributed entirely to events early in November 1919. These might be considered as much emblematic of modernist concerns—or as a preparation of a readership for modernism’s innovations—rather than as direct or exclusive influences on authors concerned. Some of the antinomies involved are after all perennial. Any student bored in a lecture theater, or any rail traveler marooned in a waiting room, shares something of that Remembrance Day encounter with freedoms to range in mind or memory which are scarcely limited by a presence constrained, physically, in a specific time and space. Similar antinomies were familiar enough in literature, too, before the modernist pinnacle of the 1920s. A decade or two earlier, in The Secret Agent (1907) and other novels, Conrad had already highlighted the fluid potentials of narrative and imagination in contrast to precise, official global temporality—the “monumental time” ultimately, as Woolf also records in Mrs Dalloway, “ratified by Greenwich” (113). In this and other ways, as Jean-Michel Rabaté and other critics have emphasized, modernist idioms can be discerned developing in advance of the Great War, and certainly not only as a result of its experience, or of events at its end.[18]

Yet the scale of “collective emotion” on November 11, 1919, as the Times suggested the next day, ensured that “the great silence [was] bound to have a permanent effect”—uniquely highlighting the stringencies of a clock-dominated world, though also the alternatives available in remembrance, imagination, narrative and private thought (November 12). With the momentous challenges of relativity further contesting the clock’s domination of modern life, there is good reason to consider that, on or about the second week of November 1919, the character of human time changed—in ways, as Paul Saint-Amour’s essay suggests, still evident a century later. Changed, at any rate, in ways widely apparent in the structure and interests of modernist literature during the years that followed, and in the fickle, idiosyncratic inner temporalities of its characters, reflecting the conflicting and often-unprecedented pressures in their times.


[1] Donald Howard, “Armistice Day: To the Editor of The Times,” The Times, November 4, 1919.

[2] Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, memorandum submitted to Lord Milner for the attention of the War Cabinet, November 4, 1919, quoted in Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford, UK: Berg, 1994), 9.

[3] “The Glorious Dead. King’s Call to His People. Armistice Day Observance,” The Times, November 7, 1919.

[4] Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10; Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line: A Confession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 22.

[5] T. S. Eliot, The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, (London: Faber and Faber, 2015), 1:60–61.

[6] “The Glorious Dead. Tuesday’s Two-Minute Silence,” The Times, November 8, 1919.

[7] “The ‘Two Minutes’ in a Murder Trial,” The Times, November 12, 1919.

[8] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 2:106.

[9] “The Great Silence. Nation’s Homage to Its Dead,” The Times, November 12, 1919.

[10] See Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction (Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 125.

[11] “Dr Albert Einstein,” The Times, November 8, 1919.

[12] Albert Einstein, “Einstein On His Theory. Time, Space, And Gravitation,” The Times, November 28, 1919.

[13] Conveniently, too, this eclipse was of almost the maximum possible duration, permitting over six minutes of observation. A shorter solar eclipse, visible from the United States in the previous year, might have allowed earlier verification of Relativity, but was partly obscured by cloud, allowing only indecisive observations. Another eclipse, on August 21, 1914, might likewise have offered useful data, but attempts to study it were thwarted by the outbreak of the Great War, a fortnight or so earlier. See Daniel Kennefick, No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 20–21, 113–117.

[14] See Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London: Bantam, 1988), 32 and Kennefick, No Shadow, 243–48.

[15] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 148.

[16] Christopher Isherwood, The Memorial: Portrait of a Family (St Albans, UK: Panther, 1978), 58.

[17] Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982), 417, ellipsis in original.

[18] See Jean-Michel Rabaté, 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2007).