Why we remember


Eleven o’ clock this morning marked the moment when 92 years ago – to the minute – the “war to end all wars” had ended.

The time had been announced the previous day, yet, incredibly, the orgy of blood-letting that had already lasted 1560 days would continue to the final moment. US author Joseph E Persico in his magisterial 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour recounts that at least 2738 men died in those last few hours and about 7000 more were wounded. “According to the most conservative estimates, during the last day of the war, principally in the six hours after the armistice was signed, all sides on the western front suffered 10 944 casualties of which 2738 were deaths, more than the average daily casualties throughout the war.” That baleful number was 2250 dead and about 5000 wounded, every day from August 14, 1914 to November 11, 1918.

Among those killed that last day was Private George Lawrence Price, a Canadian, who is traditionally recognised as the last soldier of the British Empire to be killed during the First World War. He as shot and killed on patrol, by a sniper, just two minutes before 11am. Price is buried in the St Symphorien military cemetery, just southeast of Mons (Bergen) in Flanders, Belgium. This is also the final resting place of Private John Parr, 16, and Private George Edwin Ellison, 40, respectively the first and last British soldiers killed during that war. Ellison was killed around 9.45am on the last morning of the war, having survived all the fighting since the outbreak of war in 1914 and some peacetime soldiering before. Parr was killed on a reconnaissance mission on August 21 in what is thought to have been a skirmish with German cavalry engaged on a similar task. By coincidence – or otherwise – Parr and Ellison’s graves face each other: seperated by a strip of grass, four years and some 16 million dead.   

In many places, a two minute silence was observed to remember the dead of that war and subsequent conflicts. It is generally accepted that it was Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of “Jock of the Bushveld” who proposed the idea in memory of all those men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Ross Dix-Peek in “The other Percy Fitzpatrick: The Life and Death of Major Percy Nugent Fitzpatrick, South African Heavy Artillery” on the webpages of The South African Military History Society (http://samilitaryhistory.org/ross/opercy.html) notes this “was not an empty gesture on his part”, for his eldest son, Major Percy Nugent Fitzpatrick, of the South African Heavy Artillery, had himself made the ultimate sacrifice, and lies in France. “When we are gone it may help bring home to those who will come after us, the meaning, the nobility and the unselfishness of the great sacrifice by which their freedom was assured,” he wrote.

King George V was evidently very moved by the idea and took it up immediately. On November 7, 1919, the King issued a proclamation asking “that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead”.

In London, the main observation is held at the Cenotaph at Whitehall. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was also the architect of the imposing War Memorial that stands at the South African National Museum of Military History (SANMMH) in Saxonwold, Johanesburg. The Cenotaph is undecorated save for a carved wreath on each end and the words “The Glorious Dead”, chosen by Rudyard Kipling, another Briton with deep South African links. Kipling had lost his only son, John, in action at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Serving on the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, he also proposed the phrase, “Their Name Liveth For Evermore” as inscription on the Lutyens-designed Stone of Remembrance placed in every war cemetery with 1000 or more graves. Kipling also chose the wording for the headstones which marked the graves of unknown casualties, “Known Unto God”.

Another of Lutyens’ monuments is the massive Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, not far from that centre of South African sacrifice, Delville Wood. Its Portland stone piers bear the names of 72,090 men, including South Africans, who were lost in the Somme battles between July 1916 and March 1918, most of whom died in the first Battle of the Somme between July 1 and November 4, 1916. Many local war memorials – such as the one outside the old City Hall (and now Gauteng legislature) in central Johannesburg – are based on the Lutyens Cenotaph.

Neil Hanson writes in The Unknown Soldier that the bald statistics of the Great War – nine million soldiers dead or missing, twenty-one million maimed or wounded and at least twelve million civilians killed – “tend to numb us to the fact that each one of those millions was a human tragedy, a life cut short, a child orphaned (or never born) a woman widowed, parents robbed of a child.”

Hanson says of these deaths none were more tragic than the “unknown dead, men lost without trace in the carnage of the battlefields or whose mangled bodies retained no form of identification.” He says the grieving families of such men “were robbed even of the consolation of a funeral and a grave site, and for them the grave of the Unknown Warrior and the Cenotaph became the tomb and tombstone of their lost loved ones. In almost every other combatant nation an unknown soldier was a also buried at some national shrine and, just as in Britain, each at once became the focus of a pilgrimage that continues to this day.”

Hamish Paterson, a historian at the SANMMH, said there were fairly global commemorations soon after the war. “Initially remembrances were held on the 11th, but for convenience sake, and as the freshness of the horror wore off, it was moved to the Sunday throughout the Commonwealth,” Paterson told me in a 2001 interview. He said the day was institutionalised shortly after the war and was a regular civic occurrence from about 1920 onwards, including in South Africa.

South Africa was involved in the war almost from the start. Its troops invaded what was then German South West Africa (now Namibia), and were sent to East Africa to chase down the formidable Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris in what is now Tanzania. South Africans also fought the Turks in Palestine. A Cape Corps battalion (comprising Coloured South Africans) won lasting fame at Square Hill – now on the Palestinian West Bank – during a series of battles in the vicinity of the Biblical Armageddon in September 1918.

For (white) South Africans the most visible wound of that war was the blasted triangle of wood near Longueval, France, where 1 SA Brigade was almost annihilated during a furious six nights and five days in July 1916. About 146 000 whites volunteered for service and most served in Africa with General Jan Smuts pursuing Von Lettow-Vorbeck who only surrendered in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), with most of his force intact, two weeks after the war had ended in Europe.

Brigadier General Henry Lukin’s brigade arrived in France just in time for the Somme offensive after a stint in Egypt where they had helped to contain a Sanussi rebellion. The great battle opened on July 1, 1916, and still sends shivers down the spine. The British expected it would be a walk-over, and at least one officer (Captain Wilfred “Billie” Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment) famously dribbled a soccer ball onto the battlefield.

The day cost the British 20 000 dead and 14 000 wounded on a 50km front – most in the first hour. The battle deteriorated from there and Lukin’s brigade was thrown into it on the 16th. It was about 3600 strong. When it emerged only 750 fighting fit troops remained.

The brigade was rebuilt and fought with distinction the next year at Passchendaele and again in March 1918 in the face of an unexpected German offensive. At Marrières Wood the brigade was worn down to a mere 450 men. Paterson said about 10 000 men passed through the brigade’s ranks during those terrible years, and very few went through the war unwounded.

Black South Africa remembers the tragic sinking of the SS Mendi, which was rammed by another ship in misty conditions on the English Channel in early 1917. It was carrying a battalion of SA Native Labour Corps troops, mostly Xhosa-speakers, to France when it was holed in the forward hold. The cargo ship sank quickly, taking 615 of the troops with her. Between 200 and 300 survived.

Over 80 000 African South Africans volunteered for service in non-combatant roles. Because of prevailing racist attitudes at the time none of these South Africans could be armed, although black troops recruited in Kenya, Malawi and Rhodesia served with distinction.

In recent times the dead of that war have become a metaphor for all the fallen of all wars and the day has become an occasion to remember those who have died in battle and for South Africa since. That is the importance of this day and the instant that passed as the clock struck 11 times. It is a moment to remember fallen friends and bygone days in proud sorrow.