On 11 November 2015, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch held their special Remembrance Day service, in honour of the war veterans and servicemen who played such an instrumental part in the establishment of this wonderful hospital. The hospital’s name – containing the words “War Memorial” – already gives a clue that there is a close connection between the hospital and the soldiers who fought so valiantly in World War II.
One of the veterans who told the story best was Mr Colin Eglin, who had served with the Sixth South African Armoured Division in Italy during World War II. Mr Eglin sadly passed away on 29 November 2013, but he was a frequent guest at these parades. During the first Remembrance Day service held at the Hospital in 2011, he was the guest speaker. He spoke about the discussions that took place among South African soldiers in Italy in 1945, whilst they were waiting to be repatriated to South Africa: “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.”
The money was used, in close collaboration with the Red Cross Society and the Cape Provincial Government, to found the Hospital in 1956, some 11 years after the end of World War II. It was decided that the Hospital would focus on paediatric services, as children were the most vulnerable group in society and as they had been innocent victims of the war. I have written about the Hospital on several occasions, praising the amazing work it does: 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 even treating children from far beyond our shores.
So that is the reason why the Hospital has such a long and unusual name – the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
The Hospital has held this special Remembrance Day service every year since 2011; each time, it has grown in size, with more and more people attending and laying wreaths on behalf of organisations, associations and regiments. This year, more than 150 guests and members of the public attended. Organised by the Children’s Hospital Trust, it is always a moving and beautiful ceremony. Next year promises to be an extra-special one, because it marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Hospital!
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’s focus is on raising funds to enable the Hospital 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.
Even though I attended the Remembrance Day service in 2011, and then again in 2013 and 2014, taking photographs each time, I only wrote about the very first service (see: In Solemn Celebration of our Fallen Heroes). It’s because this event always coincides with a particularly busy time of year for me: Not only do the Cape Town Military Tattoo, the El Alamein commemoration service, the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regimental birthday, the Poppy Day Run at Fort Ikapa, and the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in Cape Town all happen at this time, but October/November are also the months when many students need to finalise and submit their dissertations, so I am usually swamped with editing and proofreading work. This year, I decided that I would push work aside, just for once, rather than almost killing myself by trying to meet all the simultaneous deadlines and demands. Instead, I wanted to focus my time and energy on the Tattoo and on covering some of the military events that happen at this time of year.
When fellow photie Glynnis Schutte (every month, she and her husband Max produce the beautiful and interesting – and free! – Pinelands Muse community magazine, which recently celebrated its five year anniversary – an incredible achievement of which they can be justly proud!) arrived at the Hospital, the Izivunguvungu Youth Band, led by Commander Mike Oldham, were playing some lovely background music.
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.
Glynnis and I walked over to the marquee, which had been set up on the side of the road, to greet the friendly people we knew from the Children’s Hospital Trust and the Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association, as well as some of the military people who would be laying wreaths. For me, seeing familiar faces at these events is one of the best parts. I am also very much aware of the fact that, as some of our veterans are getting on in years, they may not be around for the next year’s service, so I always try to capture some nice photo of them.
As the last guests found their seats in the shelter of the marquee, five sentries of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiment, led by Sergeant Major Mike Cairns, took up positions all around the memorial and the flag posts, and the Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums, led by Drum Major Bill White, marched around the memorial and past the marquee. The rousing sound of the pipes is always such an integral part of these events, that it is great to see the tradition continuing; they never fail to stir the emotions.
The memorial that is the focus of the ceremony at the Hospital is a bronze statue of Peter Pan, which is flanked by tall strelitzias and surrounded by flowers. Standing in front of the Hospital’s main entrance, the statue was 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 1940s and early 1950s. 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, Clemmie Hannay-Robertson, who is a dedicated volunteer at the Hospital.
After a number of speeches, the Last Post and the Reveille were played on the trumpet by Cdr Oldham. Everyone, even the young children from the Hospital’s daycare centre who are always invited to this event, stood quietly for the two minute silence: The first minute is in thanksgiving for those that survived and the second is to remember the fallen. The South African Legion’s website has a lovely description of the origins of this tradition, which originally began in Cape Town during World War I and has since spread around the world. It is always a somber and emotionally charged moment, when the Last Post is sounded and everyone falls silent…
Then it was time for the wreath laying ceremony. My favourite part comes after all the official representatives of various regiments, associations and organisations have laid their wreaths, and after the other guests have finished paying their respects by laying flowers at the base of the memorial. When all the adults are done, the little children from the daycare centre are invited to take turns, laying a flower at the foot of the Peter Pan statue. Some do so with a surprising earnestness and solemnity, while others skip and dance towards the memorial with an endearing innocence and playfulness. This, for me, is the most enchanting part of the whole service!
Apart from the little ones being totally adorable, of course, their eager participation gives me hope that the next generation will perhaps learn to understand, value and continue with these beautiful and moving traditions of our forefathers. Yes, I do realise that this may be idealistic, but I think that exposing these youngsters to such traditions from an early age and in a positive and nurturing environment such as this is a good starting point. Otherwise, what will happen to the MOTH pledge that is made at all these services, where long-past wars and battles are still commemorated? At each service, these words are spoken:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
But what if, at some time in the not-too-distant future, the current and the next generation have lost the link to this increasingly distant past – and what if we no longer remember them, or even want to remember them? One day, the last of the veterans of World War II will have been ‘called to higher service’ – what will happen then?
I wonder if, at some time in the future, the more recent and current armed conflicts in which our South African soldiers are deployed ‘to keep the peace’ will be memorialised and remembered in the same way as we remember those great battles of World War I, World War II, and the Korean War (1950-1953)? Somehow, I doubt it.
Our globalised world has become a messy place, where shifting allegiances, regime changes, military coups and backroom political deals make it difficult to know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and on whose side we should be fighting – or if we should be fighting at all.
As far as I know, we as yet have no memorials to commemorate the Border War (1996-1989) or even the internal conflict in the country before the official end of apartheid in the 1990s and the advent of democracy. And I do not envisage that this will change, because our current government, for obvious reasons, has no interest in remembering those conflicts.
So where does that leave the soldiers who fought, died, were wounded, and survived, in these more recent armed conflicts – or those who are deployed on our country’s borders or sent further afield on ‘peacekeeping deployments’ elsewhere on the African continent, and perhaps even beyond? Where does it leave their families and their loved ones? How and where are their acts of valour or courage remembered?
I do not have the answers, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts.