November of each year used to be Remembrance Month with veterans and charities selling plastic poppies (later poppy stickers) on street corners and culminating in two minute’s silence being observed at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the exact hour, date and month on which hostilities in World War I ceased. In South Africa, this simple act of remembrance seems to have fallen into obscurity, due in no small part to it being seen by many as a historical overhang from a colonial past.
Remembrance of soldiers who died in battle is a fairly recent phenomenon in the long history of war. In contrast, there are plenty of monuments to military leaders and their victories ranging from ancient Roman triumphal arches to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. This can be explained by the fact that the rank and file of armies that battled each other were mostly made up of the forgotten members of society often press-ganged into the armed forces. War was also something that happened far away from the home front and casualties numbered in the thousands rather than in the millions.
World War I changed all of that. Many of those that died in battle were volunteers, including from the educated middle and working classes. The sheer number of dead, who were killed by modern weapons of mass annihilation, meant that no household was left untouched by death or injury. The scale of the dead was such that it was impractical to return their bodies to their loved ones and mass neglected graves were no longer acceptable to a modern society. And so commenced a system of documenting the war dead and marking the graves of soldiers. By the end of World War I, the standard of identifying and remembering those that died in war would be set for generations to come.
South Africa’s role in the memorialisation of the war dead is not insignificant. Although the number of South Africans who died in World War I pales in comparison to that of the main combatants, South Africans did not escape the wholesale slaughter that characterised the Western Front, which is perhaps epitomised in the battle for Delville Wood. Of the 3 143 South African troops who went to battle, only 29 officers and 751 other ranks answered the roll-call six days later, the balance being listed as killed, wounded or missing. Those who walked away from the battle included Private William Faulds, who was awarded the Victoria Cross after rescuing wounded men on successive days from no-man’s land.
The task of identifying and burying the war dead was not administratively advanced at the beginning of World War I. This Herculean task fell to a volunteer Red Cross unit leader, Fabian Ware. Ware, who had spent time in South Africa as an administrator shortly after the South African War, was horrified at the numbers of unidentified bodies and graves of soldiers who died in the field. His fledgling Graves Registration unit would eventually expand and become what is now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
During the course of the war, vast tracts of land were secured for burials in France and Belgium. It was decided that these soldiers were better honoured by being buried next to their comrades at the scene of the battle where they fell. A decision was also taken that men and women of all ranks would share the same simple white headstone. The headstones of those who could not be identified are marked simply as “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God”, an epitaph suggested by Rudyard Kipling, whose son, Jack, was killed on the Western Front.
The ground on which the Delville Wood cemetery is located was secured by Percy Fitzpatrick (he of Jock of the Bushveld fame) and handed to the South African government. Herbert Baker designed the first memorial to the fallen at Delville Wood, which was unveiled in 1926, replicas of which stand at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and in the Company’s Gardens in Cape Town. In 1986, on the 70th anniversary of the battle, another memorial in the shape of the Cape Town Castle was added behind the original memorial. Deville Wood itself was restored to its original footprint and replanted from trees grown by the botanical gardens in Kirstenbosch.
During World War I, a two-minute silence had been observed sporadically in churches in South Africa, including that attended by Fitzpatrick. In Cape Town, the mayor, Sir Harry Hands, whose son had also been killed on the Western Front, initiated a daily two-minute silence signalled by the firing of the noon day gun on Signal Hill for a full year from 14 May 1918 to 14 May 1919. One minute of the silence was a time of thanksgiving for those who had returned alive, the second minute was to remember the fallen. As the city fell silent that first day, a bugler sounded the Last Post, and the Reveille was played at the end of the pause.
In 1919, Fitzpatrick, struck by this simple act of remembrance, petitioned King George V to formalise a two-minute silence to be observed each year on the anniversary of the end of World War I. As a result, the first annual two-minute silence was observed throughout the Commonwealth on Armistice Day — 11 November 1919, following the same format as that which started in Adderley Street, Cape Town. It has continued ever since and now constitutes the iconic means of remembering those who died in subsequent wars.
While Deville Wood is arguably the most iconic engagement of South African forces in World War I, much criticism has rightly been levelled at the failure of successive South African governments to recognise the achievements of South Africans of other races who volunteered to serve in World War I, including many members of the South African Native Labour Corps who died when the SS Mendi was accidentally rammed and sank near the Isle of Wight. Today the Delville Wood memorial commemorates all the fallen of the wars fought since World War I, including Korea and the South African Border War.
South Africa was not alone in failing to commemorate all of its war dead. Last year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission released a report on a study which found that hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth casualties from World War I, mostly African and Middle Eastern, were not commemorated by name, or at all, blaming pervasive racism and contemporary imperial attitudes.
Although the passage of time may explain why the war dead from these global conflicts are no longer remembered, the reason for the muted remembrance of the war dead from more recent conflicts, such as the Border War, is perhaps explained by the fact that the dead are tarred with the same brush as those who sent them to war. But, to do so is to misunderstand why soldiers fight and how they die.
Over the centuries, ideology or religion may be why soldiers are sent to war, but it is not why they fight or die. Ask any conscript in the South African National Defence Force, of whatever political persuasion, where they would rather have been and it would not have been serving in the SANDF.
Ask any soldier why they fought, they will tell you they did so because they did not want to let their buddies down. Ask any soldier, who survived battle how his fellow soldiers died, they will tell you they died screaming for their loved ones or asking for someone to hold them for one last touch of comfort as their life slipped away. No one died in battle shouting praises for the regime that sent them to war.
The act of remembrance is also often misconstrued as an act of celebration of war, but you need only watch any Remembrance Day service to know that this is not true. The act of remembrance is all about the recognition of the futility of war and mourning the loss of men and women whose future ended too soon in the face of inhuman circumstances.
There are many wounds to heal in South Africa. What better advocate for peace and humanity can there be than once bitter enemies stand together for two minutes of silence to remember the human cost of conflict. To paraphrase For the Fallen by poet Laurence Binyon: At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we should remember them.