South Africa’s involvement in World War 1 is well-known, and was amply remembered last month in this, the centenary year of what was billed to be “the war to end all wars”.
White South African troops fought and died bravely in many battles in the killing fields of France and Belgium, most notably remembered by their heroic involvement in the Battle of Delville Wood.
Those who died are honoured by a huge and dignified memorial at Thiepval, northern France.
The loss by drowning of hundreds of Black non-combatant troops (they were destined to be support personnel) being transported to Europe aboard the ss Mendi, struck by another vessel in the Bay of Biscay has also, now, been properly remembered and is commemorated fully. The UK government recently handed over the ship’s bell, salvaged from the wreck, to the South African government.
Less well-known, maybe, was the heroic defence against Turkish forces of Square Hill in Palestine by coloured troops of the Cape Corps, probably the first section of people of colour ever to formally bear arms for South Africa.
And then, of course, there were the events in East Africa, led by Gen Jan Smuts among others, against the only German general never to have been defeated in battle, Gen Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. With a small German force made up largely of local Askaris, von Lettow-Vorbeck led the Allied forces up hill and down dale throughout Tanganyika, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, continuing to fight on well into November 1918 because nobody bothered to tell him that the Armistice had been signed.
Upon his return to Germany he was feted as a hero, became involved in politics and is reputed to have told Adolph Hitler to “ go f*ck yourself” when the latter offered him the position of Ambassador to the Court of St James. He survived insulting Der Fuhrer, too, and lived until the age of 93, dying in 1964.
More enduringly than the South African history of battles lost or won in the Great War, perhaps, is the commonly-observed tradition to mark solemn occasions by observing two minutes’ silence.
The silence originates in Cape Town in World War 1 where there was a daily three-minute silence, known as the Three Minute Pause, initiated by the daily firing of the noonday gun on Signal Hill, (itself a practice that continues to this day).
This was instituted by the then Cape Town Mayor, Sir Harry Hands, at the suggestion of councillor Robert Rutherford Brydone, in May 1918, after receiving the news of the death of his son Reginald Hands by gassing on 20 April, thus adopting into public observance a gesture that had been practised sporadically in Cape Town’s churches since 1916.
Signalled by the firing of the Signal Hill gun at noon, one minute was a time of thanksgiving for those who had returned alive, the second minute was to remember the fallen and the third was for all those affected by the war. Brydone and Hands organised an area where the traffic would be brought to a standstill and the first silence was observed at Cartwright’s Corner in Adderley Street. As the city fell silent, a trumpeter on the balcony of the Fletcher & Cartwright’s Building on the corner of Adderley and Darling Streets sounded the Last Post, and the Reveille was played at the end of the midday pause. It was repeated daily for the duration of the war.
A Reuters correspondent in Cape Town cabled a description of the event to London and from there word spread to Canada and Australia. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, writing to Lord Milner in November 1919, described the silence that fell on the city during this daily ritual, and proposed that this become an official part of the annual service on Armistice Day.
He acknowledged that the idea came from Mr Brydone’s Cape Town pause, saying that other towns followed its example but “nothing was as dramatic as the Cape Town observation simply because of the noonday gun”.
Sir Percy’s letter was received by Lord Milner on 4 November 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on 5 November, and immediately approved by King George V, who wrote a stirring order to all his dominions instituting the gesture.
Interestingly, the Australian government recognises Edward George Honey as originator of the idea, but he only aired the suggestion nearly a year after the custom had been initiated in Cape Town.