Shadows of the Great War
Memorials and a cenotaph were erected in Durban to numb the loss
EXACTLY 100 years ago today, the Great War ended. When it began in 1914, many declared it would be over by Christmas. Instead, it would be fought bitterly for another four years, engulfing the whole world, directly or indirectly, and shattering a whole generation.
South Africa was not spared. About 146 000 white men and just under 400 white nurses volunteered for service in addition to about 45000 African and 15000 coloured volunteers.
Almost 12 500 South Africans were killed in action or died as a direct consequence of active service. How to make sense of so many dead, to honour them, to hold on to the memory of them?
Around the world, that sense of numbing loss was addressed by erecting plaques, memorials, tablets and remembrance walls in churches, schools, town halls, clubs and even at businesses. But even that was insufficient. A grander gesture was needed – a cenotaph.
In Durban, the question of a war memorial had been dogged by debate over its design and cost. In the interim, a small, temporary memorial was erected. Various sites had been proposed before the Town Gardens in front of the City Hall was agreed upon. In 1923, the council adopted the motion that the cost should not exceed £20000. Finally on December 9, 1923, the Governor-general of South Africa, Prince Arthur of Connaught, laid the foundation stone. The local dignitaries, including the mayor, Walter Gilbert, stood while Chopin’s
The Cenotaph was completed in March 1926. The fussy, ornate and colonnaded designs had been rejected in favour of something contemporary. In the Art Deco style, the cenotaph is both striking and confident, and remains one of the city’s best Art Deco monuments. It was unveiled by Colonel Molyneux of the Durban Light Infantry, whose drums opened the proceedings. The names of the fallen were inscribed on large brass plates on front of the cenotaph.
Over the years, various additions were made to the cenotaph. In 1929, the two bronze lions, which cost £400 each, were hauled into position to mount guard over the dead. After World War II, the gates to the cenotaph were officially opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during the 1947 royal visit. The enclosing stone walls were raised and lengthened to accommodate the names of the fallen from the Second World War.
A year ago, the cenotaph was vandalised. Nine of those brass plates (each weighing 100kg) were ripped from the walls and taken to a scrap dealer. Some of the plates were recovered, but several had been badly damaged.
The plates had been photographed by Durban photographer Roy Reed, but discolouration had made some difficult to decipher. It has been impossible to find a complete list, particularly as the names of the fallen were compiled decades apart. The cost of replacing the plates and other damage could amount to several million rand.
The criminal trial of the eight suspects is pending in the Durban Regional Court.
THE ghostly Wire Soldiers at Slimbridge Church, Gloucester, England. Each chicken-wire sculpture, by artist Jackie Lantelli, stands at the foot of a grave where a serviceman from the parish is buried. Scores of commemorations are being held today on the 100th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities . |