A beautiful Remembrance Day service was held at the Cenotaph in the middle of Heerengracht Street in central Cape Town, on Sunday, the 8th of November 2015 – this being the closest Sunday to Remembrance Day, which actually falls on the 11th of November each year. (A little summary of the event was broadcast on SABC News).
The last time I had attended the Remembrance Day service here was five years earlier, in 2010 (see: Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph (2010)), just after we had done the Big Walk, which happened to be held that very same morning. It had been a mad rush to make it through to town in time. I was rather looking forward to this year’s service and wanted to get a closer look at the recently relocated Cenotaph, which is the focal point of this annual event.
The Cenotaph was first erected at the bottom of Adderley Street in 1924; in 1959, it was moved by 8 metres when Adderley Street was widened. For much of its life, it has stood outside the entrance to the Central Cape Town train station. It was carefully relocated once more in mid-2013 (not an easy operation, because it is massively heavy – and irreplaceable), to make way for the construction of a MyCiti bus station, as part of the City’s new integrated public transport system.
It now stands on the median of the Heerengracht, some 300 metres down the street, where it is somewhat more accessible. Well, it still requires a dash across fast-moving lanes of traffic, but once you’re actually standing on the median, it is easy to walk all the way around the monument and even to pause for a while in reflection – or to take photographs, without being knocked down by speeding cars.
Plaques on the Cenotaph commemorate the lives of South African soldiers who died in World War I and II and in the Korean War. The central column, decorated with bronze wreathed swords at the top, stands an impressive 8 metres tall. Right at its top is the figure of winged Victory, holding aloft a laurel wreath (the crown of the victor), standing on a globe (representing the earth), and treading underfoot a serpent (the universal symbol of evil).
Below, on the central pedestal, four bronze bas relief panels depict various battle scenes, including a trench scene of the Battle of Delville Wood, the South African field artillery in East Africa, the South African Air Force, and a scene set in a military hospital.
On each of the two shorter columns on either side is the figure of a soldier: The one soldier is wearing, and several countries are listed on the plinth below him: “South West, Central and East Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine”. The second soldier is dressed in the uniform of South African soldiers who fought in Flanders, on the Western Front, carrying field equipment and wearing a shrapnel helmet. On his plinth, the countries listed are “France, Flanders”.
Various inscriptions all around the monument, in both English and Afrikaans, read:
- “To the immortal honour of the South Africans who made the supreme sacrifice in the Great War
This memorial is dedicated in proud and grateful recognition by their countrymen”
- “Sea and Air”
- “Their name liveth for evermore”
- “The Second World War 1939–1945”
- “The Korean War 1950–1953”
Remembrance Day and the red poppies
This monument is a fitting focal point of these annual Remembrance Day services. Also known as Armistice Day, Poppy Day or Veterans Day (in the United States), Remembrance Day has been observed around the world since the end of World War I, as a way of honouring and remembering members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty.
The word ‘Armistice’ is a reference to the day on which the fighting in World War I officially came to an end: at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In 1919, a few days before the one-year anniversary of the Armistice, King George V dedicated the day to the memory of all those members of the armed forces who had been killed during World War I – and thus it became Remembrance Day.
Since then, it has become a memorial day to honour all those who have fallen in various armed conflicts around the world. 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 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 paper poppies were being handed out to arriving dignitaries and guests. The red poppy is probably the most well-known emblem of Remembrance Day – not only because the flower’s deep red colour was an appropriate symbol for the blood that was spilled in war, but also because the battlefields and soldiers’ graves across France and Belgium were carpeted with red poppies after World War I.
This is eloquently described by Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918), a medical officer who witnessed first hand the death of thousands of men on the battlefields of the First World War; he wrote what has probably become the most famous poem about that war, “In Flanders Fields”, in which he speaks about the poppies growing “between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place”. The day has thus also become known as Poppy Day.
The Remembrance Day Service
A marquee with rows upon rows of chairs had been set up in front of the monument, and the SA Army Band Western Cape under the baton of their Director of Music Captain Vernon Michels was creating a beautiful musical backdrop to the proceedings. They always look resplendent in their scarlet tunics. While the guests were milling around before taking their seats, I greeted my fellow photographers Brent, Lorraine and Wendy, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, as well as some of the other people I have gotten to know through attending and taking photos at these special events and parades. And I was very pleased to see my cousin Buller there! He had come with some of his friends from the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTHs) and Robertson House, which is a home for persons with permanent spinal cord injuries, who are either paraplegic or quadraplegic (their Facebook page). His presence at the event made it even more special for me.
I took some photos of the interesting wreaths that would be laid at the base of the Cenotaph. Captain (SAN) Trunell Morom and her assistants were somehow managing to keep calm amidst the flurry of wreathlayers dropping off their wreaths at the last minute, making sure that they had the correct names and affiliations, as the Master of Ceremonies would need to announce them in the correct sequence of seniority according to a strict protocol. A soldier from each of the arms of service was standing at the ready to hand the wreaths to the relevant individuals, as they were called up.
Finally, the service began, with Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums, Drum Major Bill White twirling his mace to lead the parade, as it marched down Heerengracht, curved around the Cenotaph and marched up the road on the other side.
They were followed by the MOTHs standard bearers and a large group of members from the various MOTHs shellholes around Cape Town. There are a considerable number of these, according to the MOTHs website. The ones in Cape Town fall under the Cape Western Provincial Dugout, and include Blaauwberg Cuca (Tableview), Tommy Rendle VC (Rugby), Crusader/Commando (Sea Point), Admiral Halifax (Rosedale), Bomb Alley (Bellville), Pip-Ack (Newlands), Red Barn / Tots (Southfield), Dawn Patrol (Bergvliet), Battledress (Fish Hoek), Snoekie (Simon’s Town), Marshal Smuts (Somerset West), and Weskus Quartel (Langebaan). I had no idea that there were that many.
Close behind the MOTHs marched companies of soldiers from the various arms of service – Army, Air Force, Navy and Military Health Service – who lined up in neat rows on the one side of the monument. The MOTHs standard bearers lined up on the other side. The participating troops came from 9 South African Infantry Battalion (wearing camos with dark green berets), Air Force Base Ysterplaat (blue), Naval Base Simon’s Town (white, of course!), and the Area Medical Health Unit of the Western Cape, 3 Medical Battalion, and 2 Military Hospital Wynberg (wearing camos with maroon berets). The flag orderly and the sentries came on parade, with four sentries taking up post on the corners of the Cenotaph and the others standing in front of the six flagpoles.
Once the Executive Deputy Mayor, Alderman Ian Neilson, had arrived, the service began with the customary invocation, prayer and scripture reading, and the singing of two rousing hymns – “Abide with me” and “I vow to thee my country”.
Chaplain Andrew Treu then led us in an impassioned and powerful prayer for peace, understanding, forgiveness and healing, which I wish I had recorded, as it seemed to encapsulate perfectly what these remembrance day services should be about – learning from the past, not repeating history, consciously turning away from aggression and violence, anger and revenge, and tit-for-tat retaliation, because our world has been through enough violent death and wanton destruction. He urged us to seek peace and forgiveness instead. Sadly, given the volatile situation in Europe and the Middle East at this time, it seems that humankind has still not learned – or rather forgotten – the lessons we learned during those dark days of the First and Second World War.
In his speech, Alderman Ian Neilson, the Executive Deputy Mayor, similarly called for peace and for the resolution of conflict. He kindly sent me a copy of his speech, and so I wanted to quote the following paragraphs from it:
“We know that for most of human existence, even in our own life times, peace has not been the norm. Violent and deadly conflict seem to have been the norm amongst all nations until the past few generations. Those conflicts have had many origins – contestation over access to resources, ethnic hatred, religious fervour, power-hungry leaders, enslavement and even men’s access to women.
Our time has been blessed in that we have found better ways to deal with and provide for our needs, through trade, through technology and access to natural energy sources rather than manual labour; to temper the power-hungry with democratic systems, and the near death of the idea that conquering land and capturing the state is the only way to resolve our needs and problems.
But we can never assume that violent conflict will disappear. Our resources and mechanisms for engagement are not yet perfect and complete. Times will continue to arise where disagreements are unbridgeable, where the position is just impossible and conflict is the only way to resolve the matter.
Even today, while we enjoy peace at home, our sons and daughters are serving in our continent to bring stability and peace: in Darfur, the Congo and the Central African Republic, where they have shown skill and courage in combat and where junior officers have demonstrated their leadership. And too, where some have paid with their lives.
We have abiding hope beating strongly in our hearts that we can find our way to resolve matters without physical violence and conflict, because we have seen progress in our own lifetimes, even here in our own country. Much of that progress can be attributed to improved systems and means of production, but critically, also to visionary leadership. Leaders who could see beyond the conflict and find the path to peace, are especially revered in our time. And it was not only the kings and presidents and prime ministers alone that achieved this, but also those around them, who encouraged them and supported them to achieve the seemingly impossible.
We may never know all the stories of the mothers, the wives, and the daughters of male leaders who were the real strength, but we know enough that they were always part of the solution. So too, the ordinary men and woman who fought for a cause they believed in and risked their future and their lives to achieve that better future. They too are the ones who have brought us freedom, peace and a better society. They tapped into a courage and duty that most of us will never know.”
The next part of the service is always quite emotionally charged. As one of the trumpeters from the SA Army Band Western Cape sounded the Last Post, all uniformed members saluted and the SA national flag was slowly lowered… and then everything came to a stop for the two minutes silence… The spell was broken, as the trumpeter played the uplifting Reveille and the national flag was raised once more.
As Pipe Major Andrew Imrie began to play the Lament, and Alderman Neilson stepped forward, the wreath-laying ceremony began. Because this event has become so popular, there are many, many people laying wreaths, usually as representatives of a particular military regiment, or regimental or civic association, or on behalf of a particular group. Although I’ve seen many of them before at these ceremonies, I do not know all their names, so I have not been able to add captions to each one. Capturing a good photograph of each individual is challenging, as there are usually several photographers trying to get a clear shot; most of us are very conscious of not getting in each other’s way, and there’s often a lovely sense of camaraderie.
There are only a few good angles – the better ones are from slightly to the front, so that there is a clear shot of the person walking up to the memorial with the wreath, as well as another angle of them laying it in front of the memorial and saluting. The best angle was actually from the side of the memorial, where the silent guard were lined up, as that way you could catch the salute, without the right hand getting in the way of the face. But the problem from that side was that it necessitated moving past/almost through the silent guard, which verges on the disruptive and disrespectful, given the solemnity of the occasion. I had handed one of my cameras over to a certain Captain from the Dukes whose own camera had temporarily ‘died’; he needed to get a couple of photos of certain individuals laying their wreaths. As he is military, it was clearly less problematic for him to get to the best position!
After all the official wreaths had been placed at the base of the monument, members of the public were invited to lay flowers in memory of their own loved ones who had died in armed conflicts. This is my favourite part of the ceremony. And finally, the singing of the National Anthem brought the proceedings to a close. People stayed for a little while afterwards, not quite wanting to leave, and enjoyed the peace and solemnity that lingered after such an emotionally charged and beautiful event.
It is appropriate to end with the MOTH Credo and Prayer:
“I shall pass through this world but once;
any good thing that I can do
or kindness I can show any human being,
let me do it now and not defer it,
for I shall not pass this way again.”
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
And now, enjoy the photos! If you click on any of them, you can access the slideshow.