World War I

Many commentators have written about the guns falling silent in Europe on 11 November 1918 and the reasons we should be remembering 100 years on. For South Africa and other African countries though, the war continued until 25 November 1918 when the Germans finally lay down their arms at Abercorn, today’s Mbala.

A soldier who would one day retire in Hermanus surprised himself by earning the highest British military award. He is William Henry Hewitt who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917 and who lived in Natal, South Africa between 1905 and 1915 and in Hermanus in the 1950s. He returned to the UK only when he was terminally ill early in the 1960s, but left instructions that his body should be cremated and the ashes cast into the sea at his favourite resting place along the Hermanus Cliff Path.

 

The 100th centenary of the end of the First World War will be celebrated this Sunday 11th November 2018. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the armistice came into effect; men still poised to fight one another were stopped in almost mid battle in France. Church bells pealed and the guns fell silent. The physical losses had been horrendous. The total number of casualties, through war, destruction, disease, revolution and famine is in reality unknown because the conflict was so widespread.

A friend who grew up in Germiston claimed at his recent birthday bash that while you could leave Germiston, it would never leave you. His words mulled through my mind as I arrived at the Primrose Cemetery. Visiting a historic cemetery like Primrose is similar to visiting an interesting museum. Instead of viewing artifacts one sees the tombstones of people who participated in events that may have shaped one’s life in one way or another. One also starts better interpreting the tombstone symbols and appraising the epitaphs. 

 

Most Gauteng holiday makers break their journey to the KZN Coast at one of the Ultra City or Star Stop facilities at Harrismith or Van Reenen’s Pass. Once fortified with fuel, fast food and soft drinks, they continue on their way, aware they are halfway to Durban.

This is a pity as they miss the opportunity to visit one of the more interesting and historical cemeteries in South Africa. This is the old Harrismith Municipal Cemetery, situated north-east of the corner of Laksman and Greyling Streets.

At 05:30 on the morning of 11 November 1918, in a railway coach standing at a remote railway siding in the heart of the forest of Compiègne, Germany signed the Armistice Agreement that brought the war to an end.

Soon after, telegraph wires were humming with the message: “Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today November 11. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour...”.

Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day as it is sometimes known, is observed every year on 11 November, or on the nearest Sunday to that date. How many people these days know what this date signifies? Over the years, many South Africans have lost sight of the significance of the term 'remembrance' in the military sense. This short article will attempt to rectify this.

 

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