Thursday 11 November 2021: As countries across the globe observe Remembrance Day, we pause to consider its relevance here at Wynberg, a South African school that lost no fewer than 43 of its own young Old Boys in the First World War. Headmaster, Jan de Waal, in his Founders’ Day address in August said:
Founders’ Day is both a celebration and a memorial service. We gather to celebrate the founding of our school 180 years ago and to remember the tens of thousands of people, living and deceased, who have contributed to the development of this school making it what it is today … this ceremony [is] as relevant today as it ever was. I say this because I don’t see this ceremony in a national or international context but rather within the context of this school. The members of the Wynberg community who were fortunate enough to survive these wars made a solemn promise to their comrades who had died in combat never to forget them and this is what we are doing today. We are honouring the incredible bravery and sacrifice made by young men from this school who went to war, many even younger than our senior boys sitting here today.
Following these words, we publish today a remarkable poem written by Wynberg Old Boy Michaiah Christopher in 2018:
To My Brothers
In memory of Wynberg Men killed in the Great War (1914-1918)
Your names weave such a bitter melody,
An anthem for doomed youth sung each year,
As one by one, your names are read
And we remember you:
The fallen dead.
I never knew you,
But you are my brothers still.
We’re joined by pride, linked by honour
And a school on Wynberg Hill.
You were but boys made men too soon.
Plucked from days of rugby games and schoolyard fights,
Forced to see man’s darkest depths
In toxic gas and Very lights.
Too eagerly were you led to the slaughter,
Not guiltless, but unjustly paying the penalty
For the whims of kings and generals,
For the greed of empire
So far from home
In lands where everyday artillery fell
Frozen by winter, made mad and miserable
when the rains set in,
Drowning you in the muddy swell.
Those charred, moon-cratered landscapes
Where once were trees of green
Barren realms where Europe sent
Her finest sons as kindling
For the war machine.
My brothers, men of Wynberg:
You too were burnt up.
Not least on those days where
For a brief while you heard the artillery stop
And out of the deafening silence came the
Shrieking of the whistles to send you
Up and over the top.
Offensives when the trenches would
Vomit forth their violence
Spitting out like bile those next to die
Charging across no man’s land
Through barbed wire, pits, and bomb craters
Opened up like Hell’s maw
Unfettered, gaping wide.
How many of you
Were at Dellville wood,
That cursed place along the Somme
When you fell prey to the machine gun nest
The bayonet, the bomb?
That though your deaths
Were the furthest thing from good
Through your sacrifice
Your comrades held the wood.
Through the years
The grass has returned
The trees once more are green
I wish you were here to see
That even after man has made
Hell on earth there can still be
Brothers, I wish I could show you,
Where row by row
In Flander’s fields
The poppies grow
Bursting forth from the earth
They brilliantly suffice
As headstones and silent witnesses
For your sacrifice.
Mark it well,
That should the poppies
Fail to grow,
You will be honoured yet
For every year we read your names
So we will not forget.
We Men of Wynberg,
Year by year go forth again,
Heirs of our school’s traditions
And brothers in an endless chain.
Let us go forth as men, who
If conflict should arise,
Will be bold enough
And willing to answer the call
But may we never become
Men who seek
And long for war.
I’ve lived a life free of violence,
Not once have I been told to kill,
And though I never knew you,
You are my brothers still.
Mr Christopher explains his inspiration:
Founders’ Day at Wynberg Boys’ High School was always a matter of some pomp and ceremony with the promised excitement of ‘donoughts and juice’ that could propel the boys through listening to just about any speech. One ceremony that always seemed to grab my attention was the reading of the Roll of Honour: the reading of names of past Wynberg students who had been killed in various conflicts of the 20th century. By the age of 16-17 one realised that they probably weren’t that much older than oneself, especially those killed in the First World War. So we would sit and listen, poppies on our blazers as the names were read one by one. Though I couldn’t put any faces to the names, there was still that oddity in being linked to these young men by virtue of being students at Wynberg. One of the ideas cultivated so strongly at the school was that of brotherhood, and while I may look back on it with idealised nostalgia, I’m so glad it was something we idealised. Despite the distance of time, these young men who died weren’t just any young men, they were my brothers (in an endless chain, of course).
In 2018 I wrote the following poem for a university poetry competition, in an attempt to honour the lives of Wynberg Men lost to the Great War. I feel that this Armistice Day is just as good a day as any to share it publically.
A keen eye will notice where I have very politely stolen words, phrases, and ideas from much more established war poets and even the Wynberg Boys’ school song. Perhaps it is a little hokey and sentimental but it is a genuine attempt to honour those who came before and who lost their lives in some of the most hellish conditions men have conjured.
Micaiah Christopher moved to the USA after matriculating from WBHS in 2015, and in 2020 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems from The Master’s University in California, where he currently works in IT.
“To My Brothers” Copyright © 2018 Micaiah Christopher. All Rights Reserved.