Last Monday on 11 November 1919, exactly one hundred years after the first international two-minute pause to mark Armistice Day, I was present at the firing of the noon gun on Signal Hill above Cape Town. Only a handful of people were there on this historic day. The rest of Cape Town were cheering the Springbok rugby team who were doing a victory parade after winning the world cup. We could watch this later on TV.
If you scroll down to my blog post of 27 November 2008 you can read more about Cape Town’s part in the annual Remembrance Day observances around the world. In brief, on 14 May 1918 the mayor of Cape Town got the people of Cape Town to start observing a daily two-minute silence to give thanks for those who had returned safely from the war, and to pray for those still fighting. The signal for the pause to reflect was the noon gun which had been fired daily since 1806 – the oldest noon gun in the world.
After the war, the South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick who had written the famous book Jock of the Bushveld, was largely responsible for getting the British to use a two-minute silence to celebrate the cessation of World War 1 hostilities at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month every year not only in the UK but in Commonwealth countries. This custom was later extended to other countries like France and Belgium where it is observed as a public holiday. The USA celebrates this day as Veterans Day.
Now, Remembrance Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of November every year, and in the UK poppies are sold for charity. In an article published a year ago the Guardian said “People have given on average £1 every second for an inflation-adjusted amount of £2.89bn since the appeal fund was launched in 1921”
It’s satisfying to know that South Africa, and especially Cape Town, is partly responsible for this.
Poppies are used to remember those who gave their lives in battle is because they are the flowers which grew on the battlefields after World War One ended. This is described in the famous World War One poem In Flanders Fields.