Day of thanks, remembrance

Saturday, 15 November 1997

CAPE TOWN did not come to a standstill last week, but there is still a need for us to remember.

I WAS a high-school pupil in India, 13 years old, walking through the school grounds when the bell rang. The effect was magical. Around me, people froze in mid-step. Some gazed at the ground, others looked to the horizon. An astonishing blanket of silence covered the schoolyard. No one moved.

Two minutes passed. The bell rang again shattering the silence. The grounds came to life.

Armistice Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, many nations of the world pause for two minutes. The first minute is a time of thanksgiving for those who survived. The second minute, to remember the fallen.

Yet another world phenomenon born in South Africa. It was Sir Percy FitzPatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld, who thought of this.

FitzPatrick's eldest son, Nugent, was a major in the South African Heavy Artillery of the Union Defence Force in World War I. On December 14, 1917, Nugent was killed by a stray shell at Beaumetz, France.

When King George V announced his intention to recognise November 11, 1918 as Armistice Day, Sir Percy suggested that every year, there should be a two-minute pause throughout the empire to commemorate the fallen.

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Where did he get the idea? Sir Percy had witnessed a silent pause during a church service in 1916 following the publication of South Africa's first casualty list.

Sir Harry Hands, then mayor of Cape Town, initiated a daily noon-day firing of the gun on Signal Hill followed by a two-minute pause.

King George took FitzPatrick's suggestion seriously. On November 7, 1919, the London Times carried this message from the king:

"Tuesday next, November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the world-wide carnage of the four preceding years and marked the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of the Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.

"To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the armistice came into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be, for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all normal activities. During that time, except in rare cases where this may be impracticable, all work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect silence, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the Glorious Dead.

"No elaborate organisation appears to be necessary. At a given signal, which can easily be arranged to suit the circumstance of each locality, I believe we shall all gladly interrupt our business and pleasure, whatever it may be, and unite in this simple service of Silent Remembrance."

The noon-day gun still booms out from Signal Hill every day, but Cape Town no longer comes to a standstill. The significance of the gun is unknown to many of the citizens.

But a larger process of remembrance has been taking place in this city and this country through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the lesson of Armistice Day has greater relevance than ever. To give thanks for those of us who survived. To remember those of us who have fallen. These are necessary parts of the process of rebuilding a nation which not so long ago was at war with itself.

In recognition of this, and its South African origins, Armistice Day should be commemorated, lest other generations forget.