Many people do not know that the two-minutes silence and its association to Armistice Day (11/11/11) or Remembrance Day has a South African origin.
It was the moment in 1918 when the guns on the Western Front in France and Flanders fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare, warfare that had witnessed the most horrific casualties.
This date has become universally associated with the remembrance of those that died in World War One (then known as the Great War) and subsequent wars and conflicts.
It’s a great gift to humankind, yet most people are completely unaware that it began in Cape Town, South Africa.
This image taken in 1918 is a rare and unique one, that shows South African civilians stopping what they are doing in the middle of Cape Town and standing to attention for two minutes silence, signalled when the noon day gun was fired, which was a daily occurrence during war years.
When the first casualty lists recording the horrific loss of life in the Battles of the Somme were announced in Cape Town, Mr JA Eagar, a local businessman, suggested that the congregation of the church he attended observe a special silent pause to remember those on the South African casualty list. It was the church also attended by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick* the famous South African author of “Jock of the Bushveld”. (*lower face)
In May 1918, the Mayor of Cape Town 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 (a tradition instituted in 1902 and fired everyday at 12:00 from Signal Hill), because the gun was the most audible signal with which to co-ordinate the event across the city of Cape Town.
The boom of the gun signalling the midday pause became the signal for all activity in the Mother City to come to a dead stop while everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer for those in the trenches in Flanders. As the city fell silent, a trumpeter on a central balcony sounded the Last Post, the melancholy strains of which reverberated through the city. Reveille was played at the end of the midday pause.
Articles in newspapers described how trams, taxis and private vehicles 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.
Still in Cape Town today, the tradition of the midday gun continues, as any local can attest – regular as clockwork it goes off at 12:00, and although the pause is no longer part of the ritual, the idea of the ‘pause’ for two minutes remembrance has survived.
In terms of the meaning of “two minutes” it was proposed that the first minute is for thanksgiving for those that survived war and the second minute is to remember the fallen.
How did this unique practice become a worldwide standard for remembrance?
Step in Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who’d been impressed by the period of silence kept in his local church after the horrific loss of life at Delville Wood became known and the casualty lists had been read out. He was deeply affected by the death of his son on a battlefield, and was also so moved by the dignity and effectiveness of the two minute pause in Cape Town that it inspired him to suggest an annual commemoration on an Imperial basis.
So, he wrote to Lord Milner in London and described the silence that fell on the city during this daily ritual. Taking into consideration that the guns of war finally fell silent at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month, he felt that the idea of observing the two-minute silence at that time and on that date, would give the Act of Homage great impact, and proposed that this became an official part of the annual service on Armistice Day.
Sir Percy’s letter was accepted by the War Cabinet and approved by King George V, then King of the United Kingdom, who decreed “that at the hour when the Armistice comes 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 our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”
And thus the tradition of 2-minutes of silence during remembrance occasions was born, a unique South African gift to world, a simple peaceful gesture that in deep solitude remembers the end of all war – not the beginning.
The King’s entreaty spread rapidly among a grieving population desperate to honour the sacrifice of its young men. It was universally embraced throughout the British Empire, from the jungles of India to the snows of Alaska, on trains, on ships at sea, in every part of the globe.
Today, a plaque displayed in Cape Town pays tribute to the origins of a ceremony of beautiful simplicity and humble brevity that was born 103 years ago, and is repeated across the world.
It pays tribute to the men who turned their grief into a lasting memorial for the Glorious Dead.
The plaque itself is titled: “Commemoration of an honourable tradition.”
A Furthur Commemoration
Amid the chaos and carnage of the Somme in the summer of 1916, one of the most brutal engagements was the Battle of Delville Wood, in which the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, numbering 3150 men, suffered 2536 casualties.
This was South Africa’s greatest loss ever in a single battle and the Delville Wood Memorial in France is now the South African First World War Memorial.
The prime mover of a project to purchase from France the land on which this Memorial is built was Sir Percy Fitzpatrick who was also Chairman of the committee in South Africa which raised funds to build it.
One of his first tasks was to replant the actual forest, which had been totally destroyed and symbolically this was accomplished with acorns collected from a tree at Franschoek which had grown from one of six acorns brought from France by a French Huguenot when he fled from religious persecution in France in 1688.
A single hornbeam tree is the only tree that survived the shelling more or less intact and it has continued to grow since the war, though its trunk is still studded with shards of metal artillery shell casing.
While in the Company’s Garden in Cape Town, a similar memorial stands to honour those who died at Delville Wood.
For more about The Relevance of Rememberance
Acknowdgement Peter Dickens, SA Military History
The Telegraph: The South African History behind two-minute silence
The Heritage Portal: Delville Wood Memorial Cape Town