Update: An article I wrote about this event was published on the Reserve Force Division website. Here is the PDF document.
On Friday, 11 November 2011, military dignitaries in their regimental uniforms gathered on the premises of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch, to pay tribute to the fallen heroes of wars and conflicts around the world since the Great War of 1914-1918.
Each year, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, Remembrance Day services are held across the world, to mark the moment when German soldiers signed the Armistice Agreement that ended the Great War on 11 November 1918, after four years of continuous and terrible warfare. In 1919, King George V dedicated Remembrance Day to the memory of all those members of the armed forces who had been killed during World War I. It has since become a special memorial day to honour all those who have died in armed conflict.
In South Africa, it has become the day of remembrance for the dead of both World War I and II, as well as those of the Korean War (1950-1953), the Border War between northern Namibia and southern Angola (1966-1989), and the internal conflict in the country before the official end of apartheid in the 1990s.
Internationally, it is also known as Armistice Day, Veterans Day or Poppy Day. The red poppy is probably the most well-known emblem of Remembrance Day – the flower’s deep red colour symbolising the blood that was spilt in war. Colonel John McCrae (1872 – 1918), a medical officer who witnessed firsthand the death of thousands of men on the battlefields of World War I, wrote the most famous poem about that war, “In Flanders Fields”:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Over the years, the red poppy has become a powerful symbol, with thousands of red paper poppies being sold or distributed every year in November. As the guests and dignitaries began to arrive and take their seats in the shade of the marquee that had been erected in front of the Hospital’s main entrance, they were handed programmes and red poppies by Audrey Robert and Melissa Patterson of the Children’s Hospital Trust.
A suitable musical backdrop was created by the Izivunguvungu Youth Band, led by Commander Mike Oldham.
The Izivunguvungu Music Project, which began in 1996, is a social outreach organisation that is run under the auspices of the South African Navy. Cdr Oldham, the former Director of Music of the Navy Band from 1989 to 2004, established this project with the assistance of musicians from the Navy Band who visited local disadvantaged schools and set up various brass band groups.
The members of this youthful brass band are all between 10 to 18 years old, and they rehearse after normal school hours. They play mainly on second-hand instruments, and welcome donations of such instruments, as long as they are in working condition or repairable. The youngsters also perform during the annual Navy Festival in Simon’s Town and the Arts Festival in Knysna.
Signalling the start of the ceremony, four armed sentries of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiment, led by Sergeant Major Mike Cairns, marched up to take their places next to the marquee.
Emeritus Professor David Beatty, founding member and trustee of the Children’s Hospital Trust, welcomed the assembled dignitaries and other guests to the first Remembrance Day service at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
Thereafter, Reverend Melvin Booysen, Chaplain of the Hospital, led the scripture reading and prayer, lending a solemn air to the proceedings, which was underscored by the singing of the hymn, Amazing Grace. After the laying of the wreaths by several dignitaries, including Mr Colin Eglin, Lt Col Bryan Sterne, representing the Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape, and a representative of the MOTHS (the Memorable Order of Tin Hats), Prof Beatty introduced the main speaker, Mr Colin Eglin, who had served with the Sixth South African Armoured Division in Italy during World War II.
The Hospital had been founded 11 years after the end of the Second World War, when a group of South African servicemen and veterans, returning home from the War, decided to create a place of healing in honour of their fallen comrades. They willingly donated part of their salary to a special fund, and in close collaboration with the Red Cross Society and the Cape Provincial Government, used this money to establish the Hospital. It was decided that it would focus on paediatric services, as children were the most vulnerable group in society and they had been innocent victims of the war.
In his autobiography, Crossing the Borders of Power – The Memoirs of Colin Eglin, Mr Eglin mentions the discussions that took place among the South African soldiers in 1945, whilst in Italy, waiting to be repatriated to South Africa. He said:
“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial, but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure. The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”
Since the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital opened its doors in 1956, it has grown from strength to strength. It is currently the only specialist paediatric hospital in Southern Africa, successfully treating very complex life-threatening and life-limiting conditions among children in this region and beyond. It manages around 250,000 patient visits each year. The majority of these patients come from poor and marginalised communities, and one-third of the Hospital’s patients are less than one-year-old. They are referred to the hospital from the Western Cape, the rest of South Africa, the African continent, and even on rare occasions from other parts of the world. The Hospital furthermore provides training for new paediatric specialists, offers postgraduate specialist paediatric medical and surgical training, conducts medical research into childhood diseases, and runs outreach programmes in the communities.
The Children’s Hospital Trust, a non-profit public benefit organisation, was established as the fundraising arm of the Hospital, which depends on charitable donations from generous members of the public. The Trust has been assisting the Hospital for the last 17 years to upgrade its buildings and equipment and to develop its professional staff. 100% of all donations are spent on improving the Hospital, and not a single cent is spent on administrative costs.
“Western Cape provincial government is proud to have South Africa’s only dedicated children’s hospital as one of our four central hospitals. The hospital plays a vital role as the ‘end of referral chain’ for large areas of the country. It delivers a significant service to patients from other provinces, and other African countries. The various single site services that make this hospital unique is that it is the national paediatric liver transplant centre, the provincial centre for paediatric cardiac surgery, kidney transplants and heart transplants and it has the only dedicated paediatric burns unit in southern Africa. The hospital is funded via Provincial Equitable Share (PES), National Tertiary Services Grant (NTSG) & Health Professions Teaching and Development Grant (HPTDG). The current year budget for this hospital is R523-million out of a R13, 395 billion provincial health budget.” (Theuns Botha, Western Cape Health Minister)
The bronze statue of Peter Pan in front of the Hospital’s main entrance had been donated by Mr Vivien Watson – a World War II veteran who had been chairman of the Red Cross Hospital Building Committee, when it was being built in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The statue had been erected is in memory of Mr Watson’s four year old son Peter, who passed away of diphtheria at a time when there was no specialist children’s hospital. Peter’s legacy has lived on through this memorial and through his sister who is a dedicated volunteer at the Hospital.
As per military tradition, the Last Post and the Reveille were played on the trumpet, by Cdr Oldham, and everyone stood quietly for the Two Minute Silence – one minute of silence for those who died, and one minute of silence for those who survived. The singing of the National Anthem was accompanied by the enthusiastic playing of the Izivunguvungu Youth Band, which was followed by the withdrawal of the sentries that marked the conclusion of the ceremony.
“It is so important that we acknowledge and remember the WW2 veterans who were so instrumental in the founding of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. They helped create a living legacy for future generations of sick children which is embodied in the work of the Children’s Hospital Trust today. Our Circle of Life legacy programme continues this tradition and commemorates those who have chosen to leave a legacy gift to the Trust in their Will. Legacies are the lifeblood of the Trust and enable us to plan for the Hospital’s future needs. They are a critical source of funding for generations to come and a lasting memorial to each and every individual whose generosity and foresight helps to better the lives of thousands of sick children.” (Liz Linsell, Children’s Hospital Trust Head of Legacies)
After the ceremony, refreshments were served in the Hospital. While chatting over tea with some of those who had attended the event, I made the acquaintance of Ms Doris May Bowles, a most interesting elderly lady, who was accompanied by her daughter Janet. Her As it turned out, Ms Bowles is 104 years old, but in remarkably radiant health and good spirits – I wonder how many friends of my generation will reach such an advanced age and still look so peaceful, content and alert. (You might just be able to see Ms Bowles and her daughter Janet at the end of the front row in the picture above.)
Janet explained to me that her mother Dorrie had in fact been interviewed by radio personality Lisa Chait at the age of 102 in November 2010, and that these interviews had been recorded. All 8 parts of her video interview are available online here: http://www.lifestories.co.za/interviews/doris-may-bowles. They are absolutely delightful and heart-warming, and will surely be treasured by her family and friends for many generations to come.
I had attended the event with Glynnis from the Pinelands Muse, who managed to snap a little action-shot of me. Thank you, Glynnis!