The Council of Military Veteran Organisations of South Africa (CMVO) has held its annual Veteran’s Memorial Service at Fort Klapperkop in Pretoria to honour the memory of those who fell in the service of their country.
This journalist was invited to the event. The service was attended by international military attachés from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States as well as representatives of the four military services.
Besides the generals and admirals represented the Chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Medical Health Services, sentries were deployed by the services at the South African Defence Force (SADF) Memorial. The SADF was the forerunner of the current South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
The CMVO was a founder member of the South African National Military Veterans Association (SANMVA) the body recognised by government.
In his address, CMVO National Chairman Lieutenant Colonel Godfrey Giles said: “The recent establishment of a Department of Military Veterans brings a new dimension to military veteran’s affairs.”
Twenty six veteran organisations were represented, including illustrious bodies like the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTHS) first established after WWI, the South African Air Force Association (SAAFA), The South African Cape Corps Regimental Association (representing former so-called “Coloured” soldiers), the Special Forces League, the Infantry Association and the South African Scottish Regiments’ Association.
Sadly, despite hopes expressed earlier, the veterans associations of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) linked to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) were not present.
In his address, Giles reminded those assembled of the soldiers’ prayer “we will remember them,” pointing out soldiers execute commands while politicians dictate them; therefore the memories of fallen soldiers will remain alive. Giles referred to South African soldiers who were part of the Battle of the Somme at Delville Wood, a place etched in South African memories by its terrible cost. In July 1916, the South African Brigade holding Delville Wood and the town of Longueval, according to the book 7 Battles That Shaped South Africa, by Greg Mills and David Williams, suffered terrible casualties:
The South African Brigade had entered the Wood with 121 Officers and 3,132 other ranks. Just 29 officers and 751 other ranks answered the roll call on 21 July.
Giles also mentioned those who succumbed during the tragic sinking of the troop carrier SS Mendi, involving 616 South Africans and 30 British crew members (607 of whom were members of the Native Labour Corps), which remains a symbol of the sacrifice of Black South Africans for their country. Today one of the Navy’s frigates SAS Mendi keeps their memory alive.
The troopship SS Mendi.
Chaplain Dudley Goodenough pointed out in his Memorial Service that in all religions, courage is better than cowardice and traditional anthems call for fortitude and one of them refers to “the home of the brave.”
He also referred to the Bible passage where the Israelite leader, Gideon, was hiding but God called him “a mighty man of valour.”
He reflected sadly that in South Africa the Remembrance Day service on November 11 had largely fallen away. He pointed out that courage and corruption were not good bedfellows and that a good government at home was a prerequisite for courage at the frontline.
“Who wants to die for a country full of greed?” He wondered.
Among the hymns and military music was the touching Naval Hymn, with its refrain:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!
After the traditional playing of the Last Post and Two Minutes of Silence, the Reveille was sounded. Lt.Col Giles laid a wreath on behalf of the CMVO, Lieutenant General Derrick Mgwebi, Chief of Human Resources of the SANDF laid his wreath, Brigadier General K.E. Nel of the Special Forces Brigade laid a wreath on behalf of Chief of the Army, Rear Admiral Bernard Teuteberg on behalf of Chief of the Navy followed by international military attachés including those of France, Italy, Belgium, Britain and the US.
A veteran with an association flag.
Among the well-known veteran’s groups to symbolically “plant a cross” was the South African Jewish Ex-Service League, which planted a cross (actually a Star of David), the SA Infantry Association and the Special Forces League. Retired Air Force Chief Lieutenant General Denis Earp represented the SA Korean War Veteran’s Association.
Crosses were symbolically planted by the veterans associations.
Other groups, not exclusively South African but linked to the CMVO, included the Royal Air Force Association, former Rhodesian veterans of the Flame Lily Association and the Carabinieri Italia, the Polish Combatants Association of South Africa, as well as former South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF) veterans of 101 Battalion.
After the service and wreath-laying ceremony this writer had an emotional moment on seeing the name of his friend Leslie “Laci” Wasas who was lost in 1984 on the Cunene River, on the border between South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola.
The traditional Ode of Remembrance speaks of the fallen as never growing old:
They shall grow not 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.
At the end of the ceremony, Navy members lower the national flag. In the foreground, names of the fallen.