Last weekend, a thunderous ka-BOOM! in the peaceful Company’s Garden set windows rattling and car alarms shrilling in central Cape Town. Flocks of doves, pigeons and seagulls took to the air in a flurry of wings, and squirrels scrambled up tree trunks, as smoky clouds of acrid smelling cordite wafted across lush green lawns carpeted with autumn leaves.
After a solemn two-minute silence, another ka-BOOM!!! reverberated around the city.
These gun salvos by the G1 25-pounder ceremonial guns of Cape Field Artillery were a fitting tribute to the gunners who died in the two World Wars. On Sunday, the 20th of March 2011, the annual Gunners’ Memorial Service, organised by the Gunners’ Association (Western Province Branch) together with Cape Garrison Artillery and Cape Field Artillery, was held in the beautiful Company’s Garden in central Cape Town.
The Gunners Association was founded shortly after War War II, and it assists military veterans and their families by, for instance, helping them with military and disability pensions, offering bursaries for further study, publishing regular newsletters to keep members informed, and organising social get-togethers. (You can read a bit more about the complex and rich history of the Gunners’ Association on their official website, on the Reserve Force Council website and on the Gunners’ Association (Potchefstroom Branch) website).
The Company’s Garden with its long tree-lined boulevard joining Orange Street and Adderley Street, is one of the oldest landmarks in the country, dating back to 1652, the early days of the Cape Colony. It was established by Dutch settlers as a victualling station for sailing ships en route to the Far East and back to Europe; here, they could take on fresh food and water, and whatever other supplies they needed for their long voyage. The settlement of the Cape Peninsula by the Dutch also marked the start of Western colonisation of southern Africa.
Famous and historical buildings in the Garden are the Houses of Parliament, the Iziko SA Museum and Planetarium, St George’s Cathedral, the National Library of SA, the National Gallery of SA, the Great Synagogue and Holocaust Centre, and Tuynhuys (the official office of the President of SA).
The most important landmark in the Garden from a military history perspective is the Delville Wood memorial complex. This commemorates the battle at Delville Wood, near the village of Longueval in France, which took place in July 1916, during World War I. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, South Africa (which was a British Dominion at the time) was asked to send soldiers overseas to fight on the side of Britain. About 5800 white South African volunteers, almost entirely English-speaking with only 15% of Dutch descent, were sent to Europe in July 1915.
On their arrival in France, they fought at the Somme on 1 July 1916. When they reached the French village of Longueval, they became embroiled in fierce fighting at Delville Wood, a heavily forested area. There were extremely high casualties – with apparently 2536 men out of 3153 being killed (Military History Journal Vol 13 No 5 – June 2006) – despite this, the South African brigade managed to hold the Wood, as they had been ordered to do, which is clearly testimony to the toughness, resilience and courage of these fighting men.
In order to ensure that their heroism was not forgotten by present and future generations, a memorial was duly erected at the site in France (Delville Wood – South African National Memorial), with replicas in Cape Town and in Pretoria. The bravery of all those who fought (and died) in this place is still commemorated every year.
One of the features of the Delville Wood memorial complex in the Company’s Garden is the Artillerymen’s Memorial. If you’ve ever walked down Government Avenue (the central tree-lined boulevard), you will have passed a large gun mounted on a granite plinth. This is a World War I howitzer artillery gun.
The oldest plaque on the stone plinth says (in English and Afrikaans):
“Erected to the memory of the Officers, NCOs and Men of the SA Heavy Artillery who fell in the Great War 1914 – 1918”.
The plaque at the base of the gun and above the Roll of Honour that lists the names of the dead, says:
“This memorial was further dedicated on 26 April 1970 by the SAHA [SA Heavy Artillery] Association and the Gunners’ Association Western Province Branch to the memory of all artillerymen who laid down their lives for their country.”
This artillery gun, then, was the fitting setting for Sunday’s Gunners’ Memorial Service, which commemorates the men who fought and died in the service of our country, particularly during the two World Wars of the past century. Suitable military music was provided by the wonderful SA Army Band Cape Town, which was joined for the occasion by S Sgt Andrew Imrie, Pipe-Major of Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums.
Once all the guests had arrived and taken their seats in the long tent, which had been set up on the green lawns adjacent to the memorial, the soldiers of Cape Garrison Artillery and Cape Field Artillery, their boots polished to a shine and their caps set at the correct jaunty angle, marched up to take their place. They lined up in three rows on the opposite side of the gun, with armed sentries taking up positions at the four corners.
Once the flags had been raised, and were fluttering in the slight breeze on this rather cool and foggy morning, the announcer asked everyone to stand for the arrival of the dignitaries: Alderman Dan Plato (Executive Mayor of Cape Town), Major General RC Andersen (Chief of the Defence Reserves and General of the Gunners), and Major V Archer (Officer Commanding of Cape Garrison Artillery).
The chaplains of the two participating reserve units, i.e. Cpln P Roux (Unit Chaplain, Cape Garrison Artillery) and Cpln F Makananda (Unit Chaplain, Cape Field Artillery), gave a scripture reading and a message to the assembled guests, before leading everyone in prayer. The SA Army Band Cape Town provided the musical accompaniment to the hymns, which included “Guide me, O Though great Jehovah”, “Amazing Grace” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”.
This was followed by an address by Executive Mayor of Cape Town, Alderman Dan Plato.
All uniformed members and military veterans stood and saluted during the Last Post.
There is something especially touching about this short piece, this fairly simple sequence of notes, when each is played with a clarity of tone and allowed to linger and echo in the air, that always causes a lump to rise in the throat and goosebumps to ripple across the skin. Perhaps it is because it is always played at military funerals and memorial services, and thus has such a powerful association with heroism, self-sacrifice, loss and grief?
The first salvo of the ceremonial guns was followed by a two minute silence, a second salvo, and the trumpeting of the Reveille.
SSgt Imrie played a soulful Lament on the bagpipes during the laying of the wreaths. It is incredible how powerful even one lone bagpipe can be in such a setting – never failing to stir the emotions and touch the heart. One military officer and military veteran after another took their turn to place their wreath at the memorial; officers in uniform saluted smartly, while representatives of the various military organisations in suit and tie bowed their heads in honour of their fallen comrades.
After all the representatives of the various military units and associations had returned to their seats, everyone stood to the attention during the singing of the National National Anthem. After the conclusion of all the formalities, it was time for some very enjoyable refreshments, which were served at the National Art Gallery.