Tomorrow (Subs: Sunday) will mark the centenary of the armistice – 100 years since the guns fell silent all over the world bringing an end to the most unimaginable conflict the globe had ever seen.
Most of us have forgotten the significance of it all – if we ever knew it in the first place. We’re not like Britain where there are red poppies everywhere you turn at this time of year. Some might argue that’s because South Africa fought the empire’s war, which is wrong because Australia and Canada did too. The poppy is as strong there as it is in the UK.
Others might argue that it’s because World War I was a white man’s war, which is just as farcical as the men of the Mendi (and the thousands of other Native Military Corps members) would remind us or the soldiers of the Cape Corps who chased Von Lettow-Vorbeck and then took and held Square Hill.
It’s even more bizarre when you think that the decision by King George V to officially mark every Armistice Day – and the closest Sunday as Remembrance Sunday – with a two-minute silence owes its genesis to a practice which was begun in Cape Town in May 1918.
The first minute was to pause and give thanks for those who survived. The second to remember those who died. The silence would follow the Noon Day gun and break with reveille sounded by a bugler. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, of Jock of the Bushveld fame, wrote to Lord Milner after the war to suggest it. Milner wrote to the King and by November 11, 1919 it was being observed throughout the British Empire.
The British and Commonwealth Ex-Servicemen’s League, of which the SA Legion is the senior member, is the custodian of the Remembrance Day observances. It was founded in Cape Town in 1921. It was set up not just to remember but to look after those who’d answered the call, only to return to a nation that no longer cared as they struggled with what we now know is PTSD. The SA Legion built houses, including two major developments in Soweto, and fought for equal pensions. The Comrades Marathon, run for the first time that same year, and today perhaps the world’s most famous ultra-marathon also traces its roots back to the ‘Great War’ and the sacrifices made.
The people who returned from the war had a dream that no one would ever have to experience anything like it again. Sadly, less than 20 years later, the world would be at war again, even more brutal and cruel than anything that preceded it – precisely because of the mistakes made in trying to end the first one. The Treaty of Versailles – and the desire for retribution – sowed the seeds for the tyranny of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, another war – and the Holocaust.
We’ve never had a world war since, but we’ve never been truly at peace either. We have forgotten all of that at our peril. Tomorrow is high time we started remembering anew.
Originally published on 10 November 2018 in the Saturday Star