Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph (2016)

On Sunday, 13 November 2016, the annual Remembrance Day service was held at the Cenotaph in Adderley Street, central Cape Town. It was a warm day, with a slight breeze fluttering the flags and a bit of cloud cover keeping us pleasantly cool. As I recall, it had been very blustery the day before (the wind can be seriously pumping on the Foreshore in November!), so we were very lucky. (A brief summary of the event was broadcast on SABC News).

My first stop was at the four ceremonial guns of Cape Field Artillery, which had been set up on the median in Heerengracht, just on the side of the Coen Steytler roundabout. They were facing down the road, pointing towards the harbour. The gun crews were getting ready, making sure their uniforms were neat and tidy, and checking the guns. These 25-pounder GV1 guns are regularly fired on ceremonial occasions, such as the Opening of Parliament and 21 gun salutes for visiting heads of state, among others. During the Remembrance Day service, they fire during the Last Post and Reveille – even if you know it’s going to BANG, it’ll still make you jump!

These four well-maintained 25-pounder guns of Cape Field Artillery are regularly used for ceremonial occasions

From here, I walked up to the next road, where Hertzog Boulevard crosses Heerengracht. Since the middle of 2013, this has been the new location of the Cenotaph, which used to stand higher up in Adderley Street, just outside the main entrance to Cape Town Central Station. A marquee with rows of chairs had been set up in front of the cenotaph, and guests were starting to arrive and take their seats – they included high-ranking generals and admirals, officers and other ranks, members of the veterans associations, members of the diplomatic and consular corps, and families of those who had fallen in action in various conflicts.

Before the start of the parade, I walked around a bit – and ran into my cousin Buller! He had arrived with some of his mates from the MOTHs shellhole to which he belongs (Blaauwberg Cuca). So that was a lovely surprise!

Some of the colourful wreaths that will be laid at the parade this morning

As usual, Capt (SAN) Trunell Morom and Staff Sergeant Pat Greyling of the Cape Town Highlanders were hard at work, taking receipt of the wreaths, which always have to be carefully arranged in the correct sequence on the wreath tables. They were assisted by friendly troops from all four arms of service – Army, Air Force, Navy and Military Health Service – who would later be handing these wreaths to the relevant people in the correct order, according to protocol.

The SA Army Band Western Cape, conducted by Capt Vernon Michels, was creating the perfect military musical backdrop to the event. Their scarlet uniforms really stand out against the green foliage of the surrounding trees.

SA Army Band Western Cape, conducted by Capt Vernon Michels

At 11h00, the parade began, with the Pipes and Drums, led by Drum Major Bill White, marching down Heerengracht, closely followed by the colourful MOTHs banners and a long column of MOTHs. The standard bearers lined up underneath the palm trees on one side of the cenotaph. Troops from the four arms of service – Army, Air Force, Navy and Military Health Services, led by Lieutenant Commander Cronje – came marching up Heerengracht and lined up in three neat rows. Shortly afterwards, the silent guard arrived, and took up positions between the standard bearers and the Cenotaph. I was impressed to see how many different uniforms there were this time – it looked like the Cape Town Metropolitan Police, Cape Town Law Enforcement, the South African Police Services and even the Fire Brigade in black with very snazzy golden firemen’s helmets!

The Silent Guard arrive – Metropolitan Police, Law Enforcement, the Police, and the Fire Brigade

Once they had lined up, facing each other, a car pulled up at the side of the road, and the Deputy Executive Mayor in his distinctive blue-and-red robes with mayoral chain emerged. All the guests under the marquee stood up in respect, as he was escorted to his seat. The announcer, Captain John Manning of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes), briefly explained the sequence of the programme.

There was a scripture reading by Chaplain Andrew Treu (as usual, I wish I had taken notes, because he always speaks so eloquently and to-the-point) and a prayer by an Imam, before we sang a hymn or two. Then Alderman Ian Neilson addressed the parade.


Alderman Neilson very kindly sent me a copy of his speech afterwards, so I am able to quote it here in full, as it struck me as particularly relevant, given the current political situation in South Africa:

“Today, we commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country. Every year in November, we gather here to ensure that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. We have come so very far since the First World War ended in 1918. Yet, if we look at the world today, it would appear that in some instances, we have not yet come far enough. In fact, in some instances it may even seem that we have lost some of those hard-won gains.

And so it is fitting that every year, perhaps especially at this time as we reflect on the centenary  of battles during the First World War, we pause to reflect on the nature of that which we value so  highly that we are willing to pay the ultimate price for it.

I think our Constitution provides an excellent account:

‘The Republic of South Africa is one sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values:
• Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms
• Non-racialism and non-sexism
• Supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law
• Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.’”

Alderman Ian Neilson, Deputy Executive Mayor, giving his speech

“Many people lost their lives over many decades and centuries in many struggles to ensure that these values would one day become universal norms and be entrenched in our Constitution. In fact, many people throughout the course of human history have fought to shape our world along these values. And that fight is not yet over.

Fortunately, we have developed better ways of settling disputes and resolving conflict. We are no longer obliged to go to war. We have become better at diplomacy, negotiation, and mediation. We have institutions that were created to safeguard our liberty and rights. We can address our grievances in a court of law rather than on a battle field. And we have these mechanisms and institutions precisely because, at key points in our history, courageous individuals put their lives at risk to ensure that a next generation would not have to. We owe it to them to be vigilant in protecting our hard-won rights. Even more, we owe it to ourselves, and to our children. And we need to persevere in our efforts to end the conflicts that still ravage certain parts of our continent, and the rest of the world.

To the men and women here who continue to risk their lives in pursuit of this goal, we salute you. Let us uphold the memory, not only of those who fell on the battlefield, but also those who returned, irreparably altered by what they experienced. May we all take heart from the spirit of bravery and sacrifice that we commemorate here today. And may we also take heart from the recent history of our country.”

Alderman Ian Neilson gives his address

“Many lives were lost when men and women of principle stood up against an unjust system. Many more could have been lost if those men and women had not decided, after a hard-won struggle, on a path of reconciliation and peace. And so, let us commit to upholding their legacy. And let us, when we see those values and ideals under threat, stand up with the same conviction and courage to defend what we know is just and right.

There are veterans here among us who could tell us their stories – of bravery under fire, of having the courage to stand by their convictions, of losing friends and comrades, of sacrificing their personal lives in pursuit of a greater cause. Let us listen to their stories. Let us remember their courage. Let us ensure that the sacrifices they made were not in vain.

Today, we honour our fallen and we think of their families and friends. We salute our veterans. Thank you for your lifetime of service. And we pay tribute to our men and women in uniform who have sworn to uphold the values we hold dear.”

Two trumpeters from the SA Army Band Western Cape – Warrant Officer Minnie and Staff Sergeant Gibson – played the Last Post and the Reveille. During the Two Minutes Silence, the SA National Flag as well as the flags of the four arms of service and the MOTHs banners were lowered, as we stood in reflective silence. The first minute is in thanksgiving for those who survived, and the second is to remember the fallen. (You can learn about the background to this tradition, which actually originated in South Africa, on the South African Legion’s website).

Lowering the flags during the Last Post

There’s something really special about those two minutes… Although I don’t think it is necessarily expected of us photographers to stand completely still for that time, it is almost impossible not to.

There is a powerful feeling that begins to build, as the Last Post is played… and as the final notes fade away into the silence… a feeling of being part of a long tradition, going back many decades to the end of World War I, of respectfully remembering the fallen, acknowledging their sacrifice and their willingness to fight for their country, honouring the memory of comrades who fought and died, often far from home and their loved ones, thinking of those who came back wounded and scarred, whether in body or in spirit, and being grateful for the fact that we are alive today and living in (relative) peace now…

As the moments ticked by, we were waiting for the loud BANG from the Cape Field Artillery’s ceremonial guns… I noticed that a few people who had obviously been at this parade before and who realised it would be a rather LOUD bang, were standing with their hands over their ears, in anticipation. When the BANG did happen, the percussion wave hit me in my chest, and the car alarms and sirens started howling and shrieking in the surrounding streets. And then the uplifting Reveille roused us from our reflection, the flags and banners were raised, fluttering in the wind once more.

Warrant Officer Minnie and Staff Sergeant Gibson play the Last Post and the Reveille

Then, as Pipe Major Andrew Imrie of the Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums began to play the hauntingly melancholic lament on the pipes, the wreath laying began. Representatives from the Department of Military Veterans, the City of Cape Town, the Police Service, and the Army, Air Force, Navy and Military Health Services, as well as various consulates, military organisations, and regiments, and a couple of veterans and family members all stepped up to the cenotaph to lay a wreath or a floral tribute.

For the photographers among us, this is always the busiest and most stressful time during any military parade.

Alderman Ian Neilson laying a wreath on behalf of the City of Cape Town

At my first military parades in 2010, I did not know anyone, so it didn’t matter so much if I missed the right moment of photographing someone laying a wreath. By now, though, I have met a fair number of the people who regularly attend these events, and I always try my best to capture the nicest photos of them that I possibly can! When I do, I always try to send them copies of those photos for their association’s, their regiment’s, or their personal archives – and sometimes, those photos are used (hopefully with acknowledgement of source  😉 ) in newsletters, articles or websites, which is a fantastically rewarding feeling!

But that does add significantly to the pressure.

Maj Charles Holloway and Sgt Sydney Ireland with family – Penelope and Drew, who accompanied Maj Holloway are ex-Australian and American Army and met in Afghanistan, and were married in Cape Town on the Friday before the parade

Each of these parades brings its own particular challenges, depending on the specific venue, the shape and size of the memorial, the direction of the sun, the lines of sight, where the photographers are allowed to stand, on which side of the memorial the wreaths and flowers will be laid, what is in the background, as the person approaches the memorial, and where the person will stand when they salute the memorial after laying the wreath. And sometimes, the organisers spring a little surprise on us photographers, by rearranging the elements – like the seating for the spectators, the speaker’s podium, the table with the wreaths, etc.

Saluting during the SA National Anthem

At the bigger parades (like the Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph), when there are many official or semi-official photographers and usually even a television crew, it is important to find a good spot quickly during the wreath laying, and to remain there, without moving about and causing a distraction, and without getting in the way of other photographers. When there are many photographers all wanting to get into a good position, it can get very stressful… Tempers can flare, especially when someone is inconsiderate, or jostles you out of the way at the crucial moment, or steps in front of your carefully composed shot. Thankfully, outright rudeness is fairly rare. But the point is that I do, from time to time, miss a shot. :-/

Once all the official wreaths had been laid, members of the public were given an opportunity to place some flowers at the Cenotaph too.

And then, it was time for the playing of the SA National Anthem, and the reading of the MOTH Credo and Prayer, after which the MOTHs banners, the Silent Guard, the Sentries and Flag Orderlies, and the troops all departed.

It had been another wonderful Remembrance Day service for the City of Cape Town!

Enjoy the photos below – remember that you can access the slideshow, by clicking on any of the pictures.

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