Last Sunday, after we had completed the Big Walk, I raced back into the centre of Cape Town to witness the special Remembrance Day service and wreath-laying ceremony at the cenotaph in Adderley Street, just outside the main train station.
Remembrance Day, which is also known as Armistice Day, Veterans Day or Poppy Day in various parts of the world, is traditionally observed at 11h00 on the 11th day of the 11th month – or at a special Remembrance Day service held on the second Sunday of November every year.
It marks the day on which Germany officially signed the military agreement known as The Armistice, which brought an end to the hostilities of World War I. The document was signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest in Northern France, at 5am in the morning of 11 November 1918 – but to come into effect at 11am that day, Paris time.
Although the British, American and French armies were quickly informed that all hostilities would cease at 11am,
“intense warfare continued right until the last minute. Many artillery units continued to fire on German targets to avoid having to haul away their spare ammunition. The Allies also wished to ensure that, should fighting restart, they would be in the most favourable position. Consequently there were 10,944 casualties of which 2,738 men died on the last day of the war.” (Wikipedia)
The next year, a few days before 11 November 1919, King George V dedicated Remembrance Day to the memory of all those members of the armed forces who had been killed during World War I. Since then, it has become a memorial day to honour all those who have fallen in various armed conflicts since the First World War.
In South Africa, for instance, it has become the day of remembrance for the dead of both World War I and II, as well as those of the Korean War (1950-1953), the Border War on the border between northern Namibia and southern Angola (1966-1989), and the internal conflict in the country before the official end of apartheid in the 1990s.
When I arrived at the cenotaph, red poppies were being handed out to dignitaries and guests. The red poppy is probably the most well-known emblem of Remembrance Day – the flower’s deep red colour symbolising the blood that was spilt in war. It was Col John McCrae (1872 – 1918), a medical officer who witnessed first hand the death of thousands of men on the battlefields of World War I, who wrote the most famous poem about that war, “In Flanders Fields”:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Those lines from the poem “If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep” are particularly poignant. It is not surprising that the red poppy has thus become such a powerful symbol. Almost everyone at the service had a red poppy pinned to their lapels or their shirts.
Once all the dignitaries had taken their seats, sheltered from the hot sun by a spacious tent, the participating troops from the SA Army, the SA Navy, the SA Air Force and the SA Medical Health Services, led by the SA Army Band Cape Town, marched up on the far side of Adderley Street and took their positions opposite the cenotaph. Sentries were posted all around the cenotaph. The Executive Mayor of Cape Town, Alderman Dan Plato, arrived and took his seat in the front row.
The service began with prayers, led by Chaplain Steenkamp, followed by the beautiful hymn “Abide With Me”. After the chaplain had read from scripture, it was time to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Then the Mayor gave an address, which I missed entirely, as I had already rushed over to the four 25-pounder guns, which Cape Field Artillery had set up a little further down Adderley Street, next to the traffic circle. I wanted to see whether I could get a good photograph of the guns firing.
Another important component of Remembrance Day is the Two Minute Silence. Various explanations exist about the history of this tradition (have a look here for an intriguing summary). Regardless of where the idea originated, it has become part of the tradition of remembering and honouring all those who died in the wars – one minute of silence for those who died, and one minute of silence for those who survived.
In Cape Town, the start of the Two Minute Silence was marked with a gun salvo fired by all four 25-pounder guns simultaneously… and precisely two minutes later, the guns fired one more thundering salvo, which echoed and reverberated among the tall city buildings and set car alarms a-wailing. Even though I’d been expecting the loud BANG, I got a fright when the shock-wave thumped into my chest, and almost missed the photo – but I’m still quite pleased with the pictures I did get.
“The First Two Minute Silence in London (11 November 1919) was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 12 November 1919:
The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.” (Wikipedia)
Once the smoke from the guns had dissipated, I returned to the tent to take photographs of the wreath laying by the dignitaries, the representatives of the various units and veterans associations, and members of the public.
The mood was very solemn, underscored by the melancholy sound of the pipes, played by CFA Pipe Major SSgt Andrew Imrie. The proceedings closed with the singing of the South African National Anthem, during which all the soldiers in uniform saluted.