Annual War Commemoration Service at the Bellville Cenotaph (2017)

On Sunday, 20 August 2017, the Annual War Commemoration Service was held at the Civic Centre in Voortrekker Road, Bellville. It was arranged by the Bomb Alley Shellhole (BASH) of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats, in conjunction with Sub-Council 5.

I had never attended this parade before. Apparently, it is a fairly recent event, and has only been going for 4 to 5 years. A couple of friendly chaps from the Signals Association had sent me an invitation, so this time I knew about it beforehand. When I arrived, I was pleased to see some familiar friendly faces. One of my favourite parts of these events is re-connecting with friends and acquaintances, catching up with each other’s lives, and getting to know new people. 🙂

Before the event began, I walked over to the cenotaph for a closer look, as I hadn’t seen this one before. I was told that it had only recently been moved to its current location, directly in front of the entrance to the Bellville Civic Centre. In previous years, it had stood a few metres to the left, on a patch of grass crossed by a footpath. Its present location, right in front of the giant imposing clock tower (whose clock, sadly, is no longer working), is clearly far more suitable for parades. It also meant that the chairs for the dignitaries and invited guests could be set up underneath the awning, at the main entrance to the Civic Centre – providing much-appreciated shade on this pleasantly warm day.

The cenotaph outside the Bellville Civic Centre

On the front of the cenotaph was engraved the “Roll of Honour” (or, in Afrikaans – the “Ererol”), which consisted of three sections: the top listed 6 soldiers who had died in World War I, the second listed 10 soldiers who had died in World War II, and the third listed 17 names of individuals who had died in the “Operasionele Gebied” or “Operational Area” (meaning during the Border War between South Africa/South West Africa and Angola).

I often find myself intrigued when looking at these lists of names, and ask myself: Who are they? What happened to them? Under what circumstances did they die? Why are their names listed here? Do their families and descendants know about these memorial parades? Do they attend them and use the opportunity to lay a wreath or a floral tribute at the foot of the cenotaph to their loved ones? The traditional MOTH prayer is, “We will remember them”… But who were they? 

Alas, I don’t know the answers to these questions. The information should be easily available online, at least at one of the MOTHs websites or at the Bellville City Council website. But it isn’t. Hopefully it will be, one day.

In front of the Bellville Civic Centre on Voortrekker Road

The parade itself began at around half-past-eleven, with the banners being marched on – the MOTHs Bomb Alley Shellhole (Bellville), the Dawn Patrol Shellhole (Bergvliet), the Komesho Shellhole (Wellington), and the South African Legion (Cape Town branch). They lined up on the side of the parade area, while two sentries and a flag orderly took up positions next to the cenotaph.

Moth Gail Jordaan, BASH Adjudant, as the Master of Ceremonies took the microphone to summarise the program and explain the protocol for the event. Everyone stood for the arrival of the dignitaries – Rosemary Rau, Chairperson of Sub-council 5 (Bellville), Rear Admiral (JG) Arne Söderlund (our guest speaker), and Rob Harding, BASH Old Bill.  Moth Rob Harding then welcomed the representatives of shellholes, associations, military units and visitors to the event, and introduced the guest speaker.

The arrival of the dignitaries – Rear Admiral (JG) Arne Söderlund, Rosemary Rau (Chairperson of Sub-Council 5) and Old Bill Rob Harding

Rear Admiral (JG) Arne Söderlund gave an interesting speech. I was so busy dashing about taking photos from various angles, that I did not have time to make any notes, but when I contacted the Admiral afterwards, he very kindly sent me a copy of his speech. I am quoting from him:

“Anyone who has explored the countryside and lanes of Old England would have encountered numerous small villages just a few miles apart, and with fascinating names, such as Oddington, Goose Green, Sale Green and Crowle Green in the West Midlands. But they almost all seem to have five features in common: A quaint and very old church – a welcoming pub – a village square (with a cricket pitch) – a grocer’s shop which doubled as a post office – and at the crossroads in the centre of the community, the war memorial (or, to be more accurate, a cenotaph, which is a memorial to someone buried elsewhere, and normally in foreign soil).”

What a delightful description!

I too had noticed this during our trips through England and Belgium – there were a lot of war memorials. And they were often beautifully looked after, with cheerful flowers growing nearby, and plaques intact. In South Africa, we do not honour our fallen soldiers – or our dead more generally – with anywhere near that level of respect. Our memorials and cemeteries are frequently vandalised (with brass plaques torn off and sold as scrap), overgrown, neglected and covered in rubbish. It is sad and disrespectful, but seems to be a sign of the times.

I also learned something new from the Admiral’s speech – i.e. a cenotaph is an empty tomb or  monument in honour of an individual, or a group of people, buried elsewhere, normally in foreign soil. I’d heard the word used so many times, but had not known that. It makes perfect sense, though, because the word “cenotaph” is derived from the Greek word κενοτάφιον – or kenotaphion, which is made up of two words, κενός (kenos, meaning “empty”) and τάφος (taphos, meaning “tomb”).

Rear Admiral (JG) Arne Söderlund delivering the address

As Admiral Soderlund explained, these war memorials are often inscribed ‘In Memory of The Great War’ – meaning World War I. They usually list the names of people from those towns and villages who had sacrificed their lives during that War, as well as during World War II, and sometimes even those who died during the Korean War.

“They all seem to be well maintained and often have flowers at the base to remember an anniversary of one of the fallen, and I liked to stop and try to identify to who – by comparing the date of death with the current date. With time, many of their families have moved away or, in some cases, noting the number of possible brothers and cousins on a memorial, have died out many years ago, but the fallen all remain remembered for their sacrifices by those who pass through the village.

That was why I was honoured to be invited here today for, although a greater community than an English village, this cenotaph reminds me so much of those villages and the pride they had in their memorials, for it not only commemorates but in fact honours members of this community who have made the supreme sacrifice.

Most of those from the two World Wars and listed here were volunteers who chose to fight for their beliefs and for our future in foreign fields – far from home. None were pressed men but, unlike the case in Britain, where there were decreasing losses in following wars, it is interesting to note that here, the number of local residents who died in the so-called Border War outnumber the total of both World Wars.”

“What is more, they were not all volunteers, and not necessarily fighting for their beliefs, for this was an era of conscription, but they all fell doing their duty – almost half of them killed in action, but all whilst on service. Some still question whether they died in vain, unlike their earlier comrades, who helped ensure the fall of Kaiser Bill and later Adolf Hitler.

I can, however, state emphatically they did not, for the peace that followed saw a peaceful transition to Namibia, but more importantly saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the first Cold War, partially influenced by the war in Angola, which helped bleed their economy.

What makes this service today specifically significant for me was that one of those whose name is inscribed on this memorial was a colleague in arms; I was there when he died in action more than 35 years ago, but sadly we could not bring him home.

To the Sub-council and Bomb Alley Shellhole, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks for bringing this cenotaph to the crossroads of the town and for holding this annual service, not only to remember them, but to honour them.”

The banners and the national flag are lowered during the 2 Minutes Silence

After this stirring speech, Moth Peter Bolton presented the scripture reading and prayer, leading into the playing of the Last Post, the two-minute silence and the Reveille by Lance Bombardier Regan Daniels.

And finally, representatives of shellholes, associations and military regiments were invited to lay wreaths and flowers at the foot of the cenotaph. The parade concluded with the singing of the National Anthem, the reading of the MOTH Credo and Prayer, and the banners being marched off.

It had been a lovely, well-organised parade, and I look forward to attending again next year!

P.S. Grateful thanks to Admiral Söderlund for sending me a copy of his speech.

Here are some more pictures – remember that you can click on any of them to access the slideshow.

4 thoughts on “Annual War Commemoration Service at the Bellville Cenotaph (2017)

    • Reggie says:

      I agree, Eddie. I think it is still a fairly small parade at the moment, but I also hope it will grow. It would be really nice if the descendants and family members of the people listed on the cenotaph were able to attend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.