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They came in all forms and shapes, sizes and ages. 

Among them were boys and girls as young as six, whites and blacks, septuagenarians and teenagers, octogenarians and youths, ooms and tannies.

This was the scene at the Johannesburg Library Gardens, where the city’s residents – led by Executive Mayor Cllr Parks Tau – gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I in 1914. Each year a different theme is chosen for the National Remembrance Sunday Service. This year’s theme was “Unification and Nation-Building”.

Participants came from all the nooks and crannies of the city – from informal settlements and suburban neighbourhoods, and from townships and townhouse complexes. They arrived in all manner of transportation – trains and buses, private cars and taxis, bicycles and motorcycles.

They showed up in great numbers. Various regiments and columns of the security establishments – including the South African Police Service – and units of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, all adorned in their striking colours, provided a spectacle to behold. Joburg came together as one, united in its diversity.

It was a solemn, sombre and dignified occasion to remember and honour the South African legion that perished in faraway lands those many moons ago.

As the crowd gathered for the Remembrance Sunday Service and Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Cenotaph Remembrance Stone, Mayor Tau called on the world not to find itself in that situation again.

“Johannesburg wants to send a message to humanity that never again should the world go through such dreadful trials as the First World War and the appalling Second World War that followed in 1939-1945,” he said.

The Mayor noted that South African racial divisions were evident even in the armed forces of time. These divisions meant white soldiers bore firearms, while their black counterparts were not provided with any.

“But in death black and white soldiers lie together, and we remember their sacrifices with deep sorrow and respect,” said Mayor Tau.

“I ask you all to be peace ambassadors in the name of those from our country who fell in the First World War, and to rededicate ourselves in their honour to our country’s 20 years of democracy and peace. We pray that our beloved country will never again be torn apart by such terrible events.”

Veteran wartime flier bomber Colonel Jim Finley, 82, said it was important to “remind ourselves of the sacrifices made by those who fought in World War I”.

“Those that went to war did so in order to preserve our freedom. Otherwise, if they hadn’t fought the tyranny at the time, all of us today would be speaking German or Japanese,” said the highly decorated bomber, who fought in what is called the Border War in Angola in 1975-1976.

After watching a march-past by a column of the various regiments, the Mayor led the wreath-laying ceremony. He was followed by members of the diplomatic corps and columns of the various military veterans and formations.

World War I claimed the lives of 12 452 South African soldiers, both black and white. In total, 245 419 South Africans volunteered for military service in the war that lasted four years.