A century on from the end of World War I, the dividing line between the British and German cemeteries in Characarita will be erased at an event laden with symbolism.
Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.
The coming week will see two milestones in world history – and both of them will be symbolically honoured at the Poppy Day ceremony next weekend at Chacarita Cemetery. Yet it will be an Anglo-Argentine event that transcends the British community, as we shall see.
Next Sunday will mark the centenary of the Armistice (at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, to be exact) that ended World War I, a bloodbath which shaped so much of today’s planet – beyond Nazism and the Russian Revolution (which defined the next seven decades for the world’s largest country) and providing the roots for World War II, the Great War’s effects are seen to this very day.
They can be witnessed in the evolution of the United States from the world’s largest economy to superpower as it emerged from isolationism, and in the disarray of the Middle East from the arbitrary divisions of the Sykes-Picot agreement (not to mention women’s suffrage).
But just two days before Armistice Day (the European 9/11, as opposed to the US 9/11 of the Twin Towers) we have the other end of the Soviet Revolution – the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall which replaced the Cold War with first a new world order and then with the disorder of today’s globalised but multipolar and environmentally challenged planet.
But that’s enough of the global panorama and the broad sweep of history – let us now move much closer to home.
Though there will be nothing unique about this historic centenary being honoured in Chacarita next Sunday, as in so many other places around the world, what will make this event so very special will be the evocation of the Berlin Wall. On this centenary, the barrier between the British and German cemeteries will be opened up by a newly constructed gate in a supreme gesture of reconciliation laden with symbolism.
Britain’s Ambassador to Argentina Mark Kent says the move is a sign that enemies can put the past behind them.
“On the centenary of the Armistice we will give thanks for peace and for those who returned, and remember the sacrifice of all the soldiers and civilians who died. Volunteers from all communities in Argentina fought in World War 1,” he said.
“Signifying that unity across communities and nations, in Buenos Aires a gate will be opened between the British and German cemeteries, allowing all to pass between the British and German memorials whenever they wish.
“That gate represents not only the reconciliation between the communities but also that enemies can come together after conflict, however terrible that conflict might have been.”
This Anglo-German vindication of “Give Peace a Chance” (even if it is another John Lennon song, “Imagine,” which will be sung at the ceremony by Ian Gall’s choir, together with “Danny Boy” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”) will be the big moment but not the only innovation on show. Perhaps not so much reconciliation needed here (even if Francophobia is not absent from the British tradition) but this year Poppy Day will also be Bleuet Day with a strong Gallic presence, with the French Embassy hosting the reception after the ceremony, as well as taking care of the floral arrangements (including the distribution of bleuets, their memorial flower).
The respective defence attachés Robin Smith (seconded by Major Adam Wise), Frank de Waele and Pierre-Yves Derangere have teamed up to plan this event like a military operation in the most meticulous detail – not that the presence of diplomats and other representatives will be limited to those three countries with flag-bearers from various nations. And even if Argentina never joined World War I, it will be participating institutionally in this remembrance – the Patricios Regiment will be joining the Scottish Guard in forming both the musical band and the guard of honour.
This military trio might form the core of the planning but there are a number of other equally key figures who deserve mention. It is almost providential that this centennial Poppy Day will fall on a Sunday, a fact fully appreciated by Anglican Archbishop Gregory Venables, who will head this Remembrance Service, no doubt inserting his usual words of wisdom for the occasion. He will be joined by Presbyterian elder Douglas Robertson and Father Rubén Fuhr from the German community.
Past, present and future
Andrew Gibson, Buenos Aires British Cemetery Manager since 2012, enlightened the Times as to both the past and future of the Chacarita cemetery.
The British Cemetery traces its origins back almost two centuries to the “dissident” (read Protestant) cemetery opened at the corner of Juncal and Suipacha in 1820 – Argentina’s first burial with non-Catholic funeral rites was held there in February, 1821. By 1833 that site had already been urbanised and in 1892 the cemetery found its third (and final) home in Chacarita.
From 1892 to 1921, Chacarita was open ground for all communities but the First World War was not the only factor behind the newly divided geography – around the same time the municipal authorities approved an expansion and the nine new hectares were shared equally between the British and German communities.
It was a division lasting until this month but never absolute – there are plenty of German graves in the British Cemetery and vice versa due to pre-1921 burials, Anglo-German intermarriage and other reasons. And also relative because next Sunday’s ceremony will unite the cemeteries physically rather than spiritually – a gate may be opened but the Memorial Wall of marble bearing the names of the Anglo-Argentine fallen will remain between the two cemeteries as a central part of the cemetery.
Nevertheless, the future might well bring the two cemeteries much closer together – and not just because of Poppy Day centennial idealism. Painfully aware that the traditional cemetery is not a “thriving business” today, Gibson strongly advocates a “synergy of costs” and has run that idea by his German colleague (who is on the same page but does not carry the same weight within his community organisation since the German Cemetery is not a separate institution, unlike the British). Moving with the times, Gibson proposes a crematorium for all communities. But the approval is, of course, complex.
Apart from Gibson, both current Argentine-British Community Council (ABCC) chairman Jimmy Bindon and his predecessor John Hunter have shown a keen interest in preparing for this seminal moment in community life – perhaps the biggest milestone since the centenary of the inauguration of the Torre de los Ingleses in May, 2016. Ian Gall will be coordinating the musical and choral arrangements, always important in this commemoration.
Tim Lough and Ronnie Scott of the Royal British Legion have been active participants in the lengthy preparations – at the age of 101, Scott (born just before the Russian Revolution and surviving the Berlin Wall by almost three decades) will be reading the “They shall not grow old” tribute. The Kohima Epitaph (long the monopoly of the late Dennis Crisp, who actually fought in Burma) – “When you go home,/Tell them of us and say,/For their tomorrow/We gave our today” – will be the responsibility of the Korean War veteran Charles Yatman from the US, while his compatriot Bob Froude has joined the organising committee too.
The German and French Legions will also be saluting in Chacarita – the French uniquely insist on each name of their fallen being read out, as opposed to collective tributes and wreaths.
On the day itself the Remembrance Service will begin at 10.15am and the whole ceremony will last around two hours – although this will be but the climax of a busy weekend with Saturday including a dress rehearsal, as well as the placing of tents and chairs (respectively the responsibility of the Argentine Army and the British Legion) at the British and German Cemeteries. And as from 9.30am volunteers will arrive, selling poppies and bleuets, taking up their positions at the British Cemetery entrance, joined 15 minutes later by the guard of honour together with the flag-bearers from each nation and the British, German and French Legion representatives.
The centennial service itself will hardly differ from the usual Poppy Day structure in other years (except perhaps that the special ceremonial features will give Archbishop Venables less time to develop his thoughts). There will be the traditional bagpipe entrance, followed by the customary hymns, prayers and tributes.
Whatever stage the service has reached by 11am, it will come to an abrupt halt. At the precise moment of the Armistice centenary, Archbishop Venables will lead two minutes of silence, which will be ended by the ‘Last Post’ from a Patricios trumpeter. The laying of wreaths by the main ambassadors, their military attachés and the Legion representatives will then follow two minutes later.
At around 11.20am comes the supreme symbol of reconciliation. Major Adam Wise will invite a select group (Mark Kent and his German colleague Jürgen Mertens, an Argentine representative and the clergymen) to follow the bagpipes and the flags to the gate between the British and German Cemeteries, while the congregation is invited to follow at a distance.
It will carry all the symbolism of the Berlin Wall but not quite the same drama – all the work on the gate (already in progress) will have been completed in advance so that by Remembrance Sunday it will just be a question of ribbon0cutting. At 11.30am a German military officer (LieutenantColonel Christian Conrad) will read an appropriate passage and then invite the two ambassadors and the Argentine representative to cut the ribbon on the gate and unveil the plaque provided by the local authorities.
The scene will then shift to the German Memorial where a local German school (the Deutsche Schule Ballester) choir will sing “Danny Boy,” a song of British (actually Irish) origin. Then Ambassador Mertens will read “Totengedenken” in German, followed by letters from the front by British, French, German and US soldiers being read out.
As the ceremony draws to a close around noon, with the final wreath-laying, most of the last words will belong to Germans – a five-minute speech by Ambassador Mertens and a prayer by a German pastor while, following a final minute of silence at 12.10am, the final song “Eternal Source of Light Divine” (Anglo-German since composed by Georg Frierich Händel but with lyrics by English poet Ambrose Philips) offers words in English but sung by a soprano with German blood (Karin Thorhauer).
It is sure to be an occasion not many in our community will forget. Lest we forget those who gave their lives – so we could live in freedom.