Yesterday Armistice Day was commemorated around the world to remember those fallen in battle, not only during the Great War of 1914 -18, but also in remembrance of lives lost in all wars around the globe since and including those on our borders. Watching proceedings of the commemoration on TV yesterday it was hard not to shed a tear for such unnecessary loss of life. It is fitting that we all give just two minutes of our year to remember the fallen and pray for an end such wasteful loss of so many young lives.
It would seem the two minutes of silence observed in Armistice Day services has its origins in Cape Town and became part of the Armistice commemoration as a result of a letter to King George by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick (Jock of the Bushveld).
When the news of horrific loss of life and casualties in the Battle of Somme that took place between July and November 2016 reached Cape Town, a local businessman, JZ Eager suggested the congregation of his church observe a silent pause to remember South African casualties of that battle. It was the church attended by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. A year later, the Mayor of Cape Town at the suggestion of a fellow councillor whose son had been killed called for a pause following the firing of the noon gun.
In May 1918, the Mayor of Cape Town, Councillor H Hands (later Sir Harry Hands) at the suggestion made by Mr. RR Brydon, a city councillor, 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. Mr Brydon’s son, Maj Walter Brydon, three times wounded and once gassed, was killed on 12 April 1918.
The pause would follow the firing of the Noon Gun, the most audible signal with which to co-ordinate the event across the city of Cape Town. The boom of the gun for the midday pause of three minutes for the first time on 14 May 1918 became the signal for all activity in the Mother 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 city. Reveille was played at the end of the midday pause.
Articles in the 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. One journalist described a young woman dressed in black, who came to a halt on the pavement and furtively dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “One could not but wonder what personal interest she had in the act of remembrance”, he wrote.
A few days later Sir Harry, whose son, Capt Richard Hands, a member of ‘Brydon’s Battery’, had been mortally wounded in the same battle in which Maj Brydon had been killed, decided to shorten the duration of the pause to two minutes, “in order to better retain its hold on the people”.
In terms of the meaning of “two minutes” it was also argued that the first minute is for thanksgiving for those that survived and the second is to remember the fallen.
The midday pause continued daily in Cape Town and was last observed on 17 January 1919, but was revived in Cape Town during the Second World War. It had, however, become a pause throughout the British Commonwealth from 11 November 1919.
Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the book Jock of the Bushveld, had 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 had a personal interest in the daily remembrance as his son, Maj Nugent Fitzpatrick, battery commander of 71st Siege Battery, was killed on 14 December 1917 by a chance shell fired at long range. Sir Percy was understandably deeply affected by the loss of his favourite son and was also 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 an annual commemoration on an Imperial basis.
Sir Fitzpatrick then wrote to King George and it was accepted and implemented by Royal decree. On 27 October 1919, a suggestion from Fitzpatrick for a moment of silence to be observed annually on 11 November, in honour of the dead of World War I, was forwarded to George V, then King of the United Kingdom, who on 7 November 1919, proclaimed “that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the 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.” 11 November was the date in 1918 that the formal end of combat occurred to end WWI. Fitzpatrick was thanked for his suggestion of the two minute silence by Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary who wrote:
Dear Sir Percy,
The King, who learns that you are shortly to leave for South Africa, desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the Two Minute Pause on Armistice Day was due to your initiation, a suggestion readily adopted and carried out with heartfelt sympathy throughout the Empire.
Exert from Story for the South African Legion by Peter Dickens