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The sapling and the swan

| August 23, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Aidan Smith

St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape commemorated the centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood on 15 July 2016 with a sunrise chapel service, a clock tower parade and planting of the Delville Wood oak sapling.

Eighteen Old Andreans (OAs) were among the thousands of South Africans who fell during what many regard as the bloodiest battle of the First World War, in 1916.1 But how does one keep this history alive so that it makes an emotional impact on the Pokemon Go-crazed youth of today?2

Recalling the horror

First, it was important for the boys to be informed about the significance of the battle and what actually happened. Gary Frayne, head of the history department, delivered a Schönland Lecture3 the evening before the parade in which he talked about the military strategy of the battle, but also conveyed intimate and personal accounts by the soldiers of the horror of this engagement. It is difficult to conceive of 400 shells falling per minute on this relatively small wood:
Every semblance of a trench seemed full of dead-sodden, squelchy, swollen bodies. Fortunately, the blackening faces were invisible except when Verey lights lit up the indescribable scene. Not a tree stood whole in that wood… We stood and lay on putrefying bodies and the wonder was that the disease [dysentery] did not finish off what the shells of the enemy had started.
~ Captain S.J. Worsley, MC, survivor of Melville Wood4

Our principal, Alan Thompson, reflected in his address:
The horror of [these words] make me reflect on whether, if faced with the same circumstances, I would be able to face as much or display such courage as those young men in that most terrible of wars.

It is with deep reverence and respect, then, we pay tribute today to the Old Andreans, and all who served at Delville Wood. Their deeds were brave, their commitment total. Their sacrifices must not be forgotten.

What moved the St Andrew’s scholars 100 years ago?

Second, it was important to tap into the music and poetry heard and read at St Andrew’s College 100 years ago, to get an authentic feel for what the boys were thinking and feeling at the time. The poem read at the clock tower parade was from the 1916 Andrean magazine, entitled “Delville Wood” (author unknown), and the final stanza ran:
Rebels may raise their voice in vain;
The tie can never break again. ‘Twixt brethren who in blood have trod The Winepress of the Wrath of God.

The chapel service commenced with a Grade 10 boy performing Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan5 on cello. This piece was performed by Guy Nicolson in May 1914 at the last concert to be held in the second chapel before the consecration of the present chapel. In her well-known book, The Boy In You,6 St Andrew’s College historian Dr Marguerite Poland wrote:

The historic concert ended poignantly with Saint Saëns’ “Swansong”. The young violinist was Guy Nicolson, the talented, sensitive boy who became the 1914 Rhodes Scholar and the founding headmaster of The Ridge Preparatory School in Johannesburg. His musicianship had been a feature of every concert throughout his career at College but he would be remembered in years to come not in the dim recollection of school ‘recs’ but as the conductor of an orchestra in a Prisoner of War Camp in Germany, in 1944.

A global chorus

This year, the St Andrew’s choir sang the “Song for Peace”, based on Sibelius’s Finlandia,7 which they had very recently sung at the World Choir Games in Sochi, Russia. It was important to tie together the significance of the experience of singing together with 12 000 choristers from 76 nations with the significance of Delville Wood, and appreciating that the relatively peaceful times in which we live are due to the sacrifices of, among millions of others, the 18 OAs who gave their lives in that dreadful battle.

Bringing boys together

Third, boys need rituals and tactile ways to express their feelings, particularly because their emotional vocabulary is inadequate when it comes to making real sense of concepts, such as war and death.8 The boys of Graham House at St Andrew’s College, who have lost three of their school friends in the past eight years, have a ritual of touching the three beautiful memorial sculptures in the House foyer whenever they pass through. What a beautiful gesture this is. As in the famous Michelangelo painting in the Sistine Chapel of the fingers of Adam and God touching – “The Creation of Adam”9 – it is a reminder to the boys of their mortality and also an affectionate honouring of the memory of these three boys who now experience timeless peacefulness. It also brings to mind the Jewish tradition of touching or kissing the mezuzah on the doorpost of every Jewish home as an act of faith in God’s love and protection.10

And so, the military rituals that the boys learn at our school are given meaning with a significant event like the centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood. Presenting arms, playing The Last Post on the trumpet, lowering the flag, saluting and playing the lament on the pipes – which are drilled and practised academically over months – are the means of expressing feelings that teenage boys find difficult to verbalize.

After the clock tower parade, the guard of honour, servers, chaplain and bishop, as well as the guests and the boys all marched to Crossways (the principal’s residence) for the planting of a Delville Wood oak sapling by one of St Andrew’s College’s previous principals, David Wylde.

Recalling the St Andrew’s College visit to Longueval

In November 2008, Wylde (the 17th principal of St Andrew’s College), accompanied by Poland and a group of OAs spanning many decades, dedicated a plaque in St George’s Chapel in Ypres, France, to the memory of the 125 OAs who died in the Great War (1914–1918).

They then visited the Delville Wood Memorial and Museum at Longueval,11 where they laid a wreath. This memorial was designed by Herbert Baker,12 who also designed the college chapel. The memorial was unveiled by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, whose son, Nugent Fitzpatrick (OA), had died in the war, and Lady Lukin, the wife of General Sir Henry Timson “Tim” Lukin, who had commanded the troops at Delville Wood. When only 140 soldiers and three officers survived, Lukin was heard to say, with tears streaming down his face: “Is this all that is left of my brave boys?”13 General Lukin was invited to unveil the clock tower at St Andrew’s College in 1923.

Forever young

The oak trees that now shade the memorial at Melville Wood were grown from acorns from Franschhoek in the Western Cape in South Africa. Wylde selected a sapling in Delville Wood
during that pilgrimage in 2008, and it was smuggled back to South Africa in a bagpipe case. The Delville Wood oak was finally planted at Crossways to replace the giant oak tree that recently died.

An emotional Wylde commented that with the planting of the sapling, the 18 OAs of Delville Wood had symbolically returned home. And with the playing of The Swan, their grace, humanness, dignity and beauty had been restored.


1. See, for example: mapisanqakulas-speech.
2. See:
3. See, for example: and
4. See, for example: world-war-one/delville-wood/.
5. See, for example: of_the_animals_saint-saens_camille.asp.
6. See, for example: in-you-by-marguerite-poland.
7. See, for example: finlandia/.
8. See, for example: 55297.html.
9. See, for example:
10. See, for example:
11. See, for example:
12. Ibid.
13. Johnston, R.E. (1929) Ulundi to Delville Wood: The Life Story of Major-General Sir Henry Timson Lukin, K.C.B., C.M.B., D.S.O., Chevalier Legiond’Honneur, Order of the Nile. Cape Town: Maskew Miller.

Category: Spring 2016

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