Note: This post was written on Remembrance Sunday, but for some reason, it lingered on in the Drafts folder from which it has only now been extracted! I’ve edited it to take account of this delay.
Remembrance Sunday in Richmond Cemetery, 2014, was on a mild November morning. We arrived with plenty of time to place our rosemary sprigs, and to talk together about the men buried in the South African Section. Having remembered, when I tied the jute around each sprig this morning, that one of last year’s cyclists had pointed out the nearby grave of a London Scottish ‘Jock’, I prepared a sprig for that grave as well. “After all,” I’d said, “we can’t expect the cyclists to come here again.” Last year they’d chosen to cycle to the South African Memorial because that was the one place that nobody visits. I was sure they weren’t likely to be back, now that they knew that at least the two of us were likely to be at the Memorial.
At about five to eleven, when I was crouched over the CD player, loading the CD with The Last Post and the Reveille, my husband quietly announced, “There are some cyclists over there.” I’d thought that the South African Memorial had seen a peak in visitors, following the breakthrough of 2013, with the bouquet from the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, OMSG DD FKC and Mrs Tutu, and the arrival in 2014 of three cyclists, which more than doubled the total contingent at previous commemorations, at least in this century. But no, they’d come back again this year reprising their role of Patrons of Lost Causes.
In fact, they’d expected to see a few more people than just the two of us. With so many South Africans living in the area, they’d thought word would have spread. And, following last year’s commemoration of The Silence, one of them had dispatched a message to the South African authorities about the ‘neglect’ of this war memorial. He told me that he had since heard that the memorial had been re-dedicated this year.
This was not the complete shock that a similar snippet of news had been to me less than 48 hours earlier.
On the Friday before, I had been in a nearby section of this cemetery, an outcome of my work on the Ham Parish War Memorial. I was there to meet a couple who’d come up from Devon to support some veterans taking part in the Remembrance Parade in Whitehall this morning. Alan’s brother was one of Ham’s Civilian Dead and I was meeting them to help them locate the grave of his brother Michael. Michael had been killed, aged 2, when a high explosive bomb landed on a house in Mead Road, in Ham. Alan, his parents’ only surviving child, was born eight years after his brother’s death.
They asked about my war memorial research, so I mentioned that it had started as a result of the research I’d done on the South African War Memorial and on the Military Hospital in Richmond Park, and I mentioned that I’d be back here on Sunday, to do my little DIY effort again. Ah, they said, they knew indeed where the Memorial was and, hey, that they’d been up earlier this year to attend a British Legion event at that very Memorial. Apparently there’d been a lot of South Africans present.
Given the British Legion’s advice to me, to join the march to the Twickenham Memorial as “nothing happens at the South African Memorial” when I’d approached them some years back, I was somewhat surprised that they had ‘bothered’ about it now.
So the couple from Devon reassured me, in my whowilldothiswhenIamnolongeraround moment, that surely there’d be bound to be a few of those ‘many’ South Africans turning up at the Memorial on Remembrance Sunday.
Well, they and the Patrons of Lost Causes all supposed ‘wrong’.
Twenty years ago, I had the privilege of receiving an invitation from ‘le Préfet de la région Picardie’ to a ceremony to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Delville Wood. I think the then curator of the Delville Wood Museum had a hand in the extension of that invitation. My grandfather was with the South African Infantry Brigade at Delville Wood, and I met a 99 year old veteran, then living in Canada, whose son had brought him to the ceremony. Also amongst the guests was a 92 year old Frenchman who claimed he’d been a runner!
I’d love to know what is being planned for the centenary at Delville Wood in July.