Once again the year ends and catches most of us by surprise. I therefore take this opportunity of wishing all Christians a happy Christmas and everyone a happy and prosperous 2017.
We have managed to negotiate the local South African printing and marketing of a new book on the SS Mendi tragedy on 21 February 1917 when 616 South Africans, who were on their way to the war front in France, died in the cold foggy waters of the English Channel. The book was written after many years of intense research by Nick Ward who served for 7 years in the British Royal Corps of Engineers and has a deep interest in the history of the Great War, or as it is now more commonly termed, the First World War.
The book describes the author's research into the tragedy in some detail with many excerpts from press reports and official documents of the time. He interviewed as many of the surviving descendants of the men on the Mendi as he could identify and the book is published in memory of Joyce Kalaote the granddaughter of the Reverend Isaac Dyobha Wauchope who served as a Minister and interpreter with the SANLC and died with his flock on the night of 21 February 1917. In 1997 when the South African Navy renamed the strike craft, SAS Frans Erasmus was renamed SAS Isaac Dyobha in his honour.
Ian Ward has managed to find and include many details about the ship and the men who died that have not been published before. This includes a complete Roll of Honour of all of the 616 members of the SANLC who died that stormy night.
There is also the story of the finding of the wreck in 1974 - now a registered War Grave - and some photographs of items recovered from that wreck. He has also found a number of individual graves of men who died, probably of hypothermia, after being saved by the Royal Navy escort.
Copies will be available by 18 November at the Simon's Town Museum and LARJ Booksellers in Simon's Town. Copies can be ordered directly from the Naval Heritage Trust at R250 (R150 for paid up members of the Naval Heritage Society) plus R55 postage and packaging to a South African address. Payment can be made by EFT to our bank account:
Bank: Standard Bank
Branch: Fish Hoek
Branch Code: 036 009
A/c Name: Naval Heritage Trust
A/c Number: 072 102 276
If paying in cash or by cheque please add R20 to cover bank charges.
Month of Remembrance
November is seen as the month during which we remember everyone who served and paid the ultimate price during the various wars and conflicts that haunt our world. This means whether they served in a formal national armed service or in a liberation movement,
I therefore thought it would be appropriate to remind us all of how tit came about that this is usually done in many countries at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, or on the closest Sunday to that date. And also explain how the concept had its origins here in Cape Town.
It all started on 14 May 1918
The Mayor of Cape Town, Councillor H Hands (later Sir Harry Hands) in reaction to a suggestion made by a City Councillor, Mr. R R Brydon, in a letter to the Cape Times initiated a period of silence to remember the events unfolding on the battlefields of Europe and the sacrifices being made there. The pause would follow the firing of the Noon Gun, the most audible signal with which to co-ordinate the event across the city. On 14 May of that year at the boom of the gun at midday was used as a signal for all activity in the City to come to a halt. Everything came to a dead stop while everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer for those in the trenches in Flanders. As soon as the city fell silent, a trumpeter on the balcony of the Fletcher and Cartwright's Building on the corner of Adderley and Darling Streets sounded the Last Post, the melancholy strains of which reverberated through the silent city, Reveille was then played to mark the end of the midday pause. Articles in the newspapers described how trams, taxis and private vehicles all stopped, pedestrians came to a halt and most men bared their heads. People stopped what they were doing at their places of work and sat or stood silently, the result of the Mayor's appeal exceeded all expectations.
Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the book Jock of the Bushveld, whose son was one of those who had fallen on the war front, was so moved by the dignity and effectiveness of the two minute pause in Cape Town that the date and time of the Armistice inspired him to suggest an annual commemoration throughout the British Empire. His concept was eventually forwarded to King George V's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, who brought it to the attention of the King. King George V was obviously moved by the idea. As a result on 7 November 1919 The Times of London carried this message from the King:
"Tuesday next November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the world carnage of the four preceding years…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 the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities. During that time, except in the 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".
The Two Minute Pause was re-introduced in Cape Town during the Second World War.
11 November 1919
World Remembrance Day. At 11:00 on 11 November 1918 the guns on the war devastated Western Front in France and Flanders fell silent after more than four years of continuous fighting in a war that had witnessed some truly horrific numbers of casualties, such as more than 60,000 on the Somme in only one day. The First World War (known as the Great War at the time) finally came to an end. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month attained an important international significance in the post war years and the moment that hostilities ceased in that war has become almost universally associated with the remembrance of all those who died in that and all subsequent wars and conflicts. The convention of a Two Minutes silence observed at Remembrance Day services around the world is explained as 'The first minute is in thanksgiving for those that survived, and the second is to remember the fallen', and it all began in Cape Town.
21 February 1921
Field Marshall Earl Haig, General the Rt. Hon. J C Smuts and General Sir H T Lukin hold an inaugural meeting at the City Hall in Cape Town at which the British Empire Service League (BESL) is established. This League was established to alleviate the serious plight in which many of the thousands of men who had survived the incredible hardships and horrors of the war in France and Flanders found themselves after the Armistice on 11 November 1918. The South African branch of this league was titled the 'British Empire Service League (South Africa)'. However in April 1941, in deference to the pro-war and anti-war factions in the country the name was changed to the 'South African Legion' of the BESL. In 1952 it was once again altered, this time to the 'South African Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Service League'. The aim of the BESL was to provide care, employment and housing for ex-servicemen. In South Africa the Legion was equal to the challenge and built on the foundation established in 1921. This good work continued after World War Two and as a result thousands of men and women from all three Arms of Service have been assisted in all manner of means. This work carries on to-day and includes support of former National Servicemen as well as of those who were part of the Armed Struggle. For example towards the end of the Second World War the South African Legion launched several housing schemes in various parts of the country, including housing projects for coloured and black soldiers as well as a large social centre and chapel in Soweto are good examples. When the Government lifted the ban on Black property ownership, veterans living in over 200 homes built by the Legion in the Dube and Moroka districts of Soweto found themselves able to acquire their homes on a 99 year leasehold.
14 May 2008
A commemorative plaque is erected on Signal Hill Cape Town and unveiled by Rear Admiral R W Higgs, Flag Officer Fleet, to record the fact that the traditional 'two minutes silence in remembrance' was first observed in Cape Town on 14 May 1918 on the firing of the noon-day gun from Signal Hill when the City of Cape Town paused and silence reigned for two minutes - one minute in remembrance of those who had died for their cause, and one minute in 'gratitude' for the survivors.