Eleven o’ clock this morning marked the moment when 91 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.
“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.”
The average was 2250 dead and about 5000 wounded a day, every day from August 14, 1914 to November 11, 1918.
The tomb of the Unknown
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 SA Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, said there were fairly global commemorations soon after the war. “The two minutes of silence now kept at 11 o’clock on the
closest Sunday to November 11 was proposed by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick of Jock of the Bushveld fame and implemented by King George V.
“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 Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris in what is now Tanzania.
South Africans, mostly coloured, were sent to Palestine to fight the Turks. A Cape Corps battalion won lasting fame at Square Hill during a series of battles in the vicinity of the Biblical Armageddon in September 1918.
But for white South Africans the most visible wound of that war was the triangle of wood near Longueval in the Somme region of the Western Front where 1 SA Brigade was almost annihilated during a furious six nights and five days in July 1916.
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.
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 Mozambique, with most of his force intact, two weeks after the war had ended in Europe.
A brigade was sent to England under Brig Gen Henry Lukin for service in France and eventually got there in time for the Somme offensive after a stint in Egypt where they had helped to contain the Sanussi rebellion.
The great Somme offensive 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 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.
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.
Pic: The French Consul General laying a wreath to SA’s war dead on Sunday atthe Centotaph, Johannesburg.
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.