The Cape Town silence that echoed around the world
How the mayor's son inspired the moment a city fell silent for the first time, in remembrance of the war dead
Squeezing through the noisy Adderley Street flower sellers, with the acrid smell of urine wafting up from hidden corners, it’s not easy to imagine this spot in central Cape Town as the starting point, 100 years ago today, for an idea that swept the world.
For generations, a plaque on the magnificent old Standard Bank building – constructed in the 1880s but now in disuse and beginning to decay – marked the moment at noon on May 14 1918, when for the first time a city fell silent in remembrance.The plaque is gone – “the street kids stole it for scrap”, a flower seller said on Saturday – but the moment it commemorated will be re-created on Monday when the Noon Gun on Signal Hill will fire a volley of shots at 12.04pm.The soldier who inspired the first silence a century ago was the son of Cape Town mayor Harry Hands, Captain Reg Hands, killed on the Western Front in France on April 20 1918.
Three weeks later, the mayor led the observance of a city-wide silence, begun by the Noon Gun and ended when a Bugler Biccard, standing on the balcony of the Fletcher and Cartwright Building on Adderley Street, played the Last Post.“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,” says Wikipedia.
“A Reuters correspondent in Cape Town cabled a description of the event to London and from there word spread to Canada and Australia.”Who was Captain Reg Hands?
Captain Reginald Harry Myburgh Hands was born at Talana, his family’s Claremont home, on July 26 1888. He matriculated from Diocesan College (Bishops) in 1907, then studied law at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
He played rugby for England against France and Scotland in 1910, then played cricket for South Africa against England in the fifth Test of 1914, at Port Elizabeth.Having been called to the Bar in London in 1911, he practised law in Cape Town for three years. When war broke out he joined the army and fought in the Imperial Light Horse and the Heavy Artillery during the German South West Africa campaign.He then volunteered to go to the Western Front in France, where he was second in command of the 73rd Siege Battery, South African Heavy Artillery.
He was killed during the German spring offensive on April 20 1918 during a poison-gas bombardment, while off duty and ostensibly safe behind Allied lines.
Hands was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Every year, a Bishops boy is awarded the Hands Memorial Essay Prize.
“Honouring a century of silence” by Anton Taylor, The Old Diocesan, March 2018;
http://www.englandrugby.com/news/features/remembering-reginald-harry-myburgh-hands/Writing on the South African Legion website, military historian Lionel Crook says: “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.”
Apart from standing sentinel over the world’s first two-minute silence (which was actually three minutes), the Standard Bank building has another connection to a tradition that is still practised around the world.
Jock of the Bushveld author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick worked as a clerk at the bank in the 1880s after leaving college in his 20s. And in 1919 it was Fitzpatrick who wrote to Lord Milner, Great Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, describing the respectful silence that fell on Cape Town during a daily ritual that lasted until 1919.Letter for the immortal
How Sir Percy Fitzpatrick described the meaning of his proposal in his 1919 letter to Lord Milner:
It is due to the women, who have lost and suffered and borne so much, with whom the thought is ever present.
It is due to the children that they know to whom they owe their dear fought freedom.It is due to the men, and from them, as men.
But far and away, above all else, it is due to those who gave their all, sought no recompense, and with whom we can never re-pay – our Glorious and Immortal Dead.He played rugby for England against France and Scotland in 1910, then played cricket for South Africa against England in the fifth Test of 1914, at Port Elizabeth.Fitzpatrick — whose son Nugent was killed in action in 1917 — proposed that a two-minute silence became an official part of the annual Armistice Day service, and Wikipedia reports: “Sir Percy’s letter was received by Lord Milner on November 4 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on November 5, and was immediately approved by George V.”
On November 7, The Times in 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.Mayor Hands’s first moment of silence
Harry Hands (1860-1948), originally from Worcestershire in England, was an accountant at Hands and Shore, at 106 St George’s Street, Cape Town, now the home of a Mr Price store. He served in the legislative assembly of the Cape Colony from 1912 to 1913, and was mayor of Cape Town from 1915 to 1918.He and his friend, fellow councillor Robert Brydon, lost sons on the Western Front within eight days of each other in April 1918, and they were grieving together in the City Hall mayoral chambers when they heard the Noon Gun. Brydon suggested it should be used to signal a period of prayerful silence.
On May 13, the mayor published a message in the Cape Times saying: “Upon the sound of the midday gun all tramway cars will become stationary for three minutes ... Pedestrians are asked to remain standing wherever they may be when the gun sounds and everyone, however engaged, to desist from their occupations and observe silence for this short spell.
“I cannot conceive anything more calculated to bring home to us the critical time through which we are passing and its responsibilities for all of us, and I hope most fervently that all our citizens will help to make the recognition of the solemnity of the occasion as real as possible.”
After the May 14 silence, Hands had a message published in the Cape Argus saying: “His Worship decided that the pause will retain its hold on the people if it is altered to two minutes instead of three, and that this change will not in any way diminish the power of its appeal. Consequently, the pause will be two minutes tomorrow, when Bugler Biccard will again sound ‘The Post’.”
Hands was knighted for his contribution to the war effort. The July 1919 edition of the South African Lady’s Pictorial said “as chairman of the recruiting committee he did splendid work, and it is due to him that the impressive Midday Pause was introduced”.
He is buried in Maitland Cemetery, Cape Town, with his wife Aletta.
https://samilhistory.com/2016/11/04/2-minutes-silence-a-uniquely-south-african-gift-to-remembrance/“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.”
Fitzpatrick was in the US on business when he read on November 12 that the first two-minute silence had been observed, and his biographer AP Cartwright said he was so moved that he could not leave his hotel room for an hour or two.The Times reported: “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 where a few British were gathered together, the Two Minute Pause was observed.”On January 30 1920, Fitzpatrick received a letter from Lord Stamfordham, the king’s private secretary, saying: “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.”The Cape’s World War 1 legacy
Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and the Cape also have strong connections to the Delville Wood Memorial on the Somme, which commemorates fallen Allied troops of World War 1.
At the end of the war, there was a strong popular demand in countries that had taken part for the commemoration of fallen troops.
Colonel Helbert, the South African military attaché in London, travelled to France and Belgium to select a site and visited Delville Wood, site of the first major engagement of the South African Infantry Brigade in July 1916. The once-lush wood was now a desolated wasteland covered with shell holes, broken trees and remains of trenches.
In February 1918, brigade members had taken part in a Drumhead service in front of a tall wooden cross dedicated to their comrades who had fallen in the wood in 1916.Recognising the symbolic importance of the 63ha site, Helbert signed an option to buy it. It was purchased in 1920 by the South African government, and Fitzpatrick became chairman of the committee that raised funds to build the memorial.
One of his first tasks was to replant the forest, and the South African Department of Forestry took on the task. Nine-year-old Koos Hugo, who lived on the farm La Cotte in Franschhoek, collected a bag of acorns from a tree that had germinated from one of the six acorns brought to South Africa by French Huguenot Jean Gardiol in 1688.
These acorns were germinated and sent to France, where they were used to replant Delville Wood. One of the wide, grassy avenues that criss-cross the memorial site is named after Strand Street in Cape Town.
Cuttings from the only surviving tree of the original wood, a hornbeam, have been planted at General Jan Smuts’s home at Doornkloof, Irene, and the Garden of Remembrance at Pietermaritzburg.