Followers of this blog may recall my post from 24 May 2012 “Reading the cards”
At the time when I wrote it we were facing the seemingly mammoth task of trying to find record cards for as many South African World War One casualties as we could. It seemed like a daunting task. There were 339 drawers, each filled with roughly 700 cards. Theoretically they were in alphabetical order, and theoretically each should have had an indication of the servicemen/women’s status.
Today, on 9 January 2013, we closed the drawers for the last time. The number stamped on the last card was 113906. Between my partner and myself we photographed about 8500 cards of individual people, equating to just over 174 drawers each. In my case I did 30 trips to Pretoria and back to do it, driving to Marlboro and catching the Gautrain to Pretoria. The only real glitch in our routine was over December when the office was closed on the one day we were there.
One thing that these cards did was provide a unique glimpse into the lives of a wide spectrum of people from that era. I was always fascinated by how many people lived in Johannesburg City centre, and how many lived in my old stomping grounds in Mayfair. I found the card of one of the early ministers of the church I attended, as well as the card of somebody that lived in the house I used to own in Turffontein.
It was not all honey and roses though. Most of the cards provide a glimpse into the service record of the soldiers, often recording their misdemeanours, illnesses, deaths and burials. Often the medical side makes for shocking reading, and yet it sometimes makes you rejoice to read about a severely wounded soldier finally being discharged after a long period in hospital. Bad boys also got their comeuppance, with punishment records often containing multiple sins and omissions.
There were many events that are milestones that I looked for. The sinking of the Galway Castle and Mendi, The Battle of Delville Wood, and the 1914 Rebellion and South West African Campaign. I also discovered the Hex River derailment, and the horrific losses through diseases such as Enteric and Blackwater Fever, Malaria and Influenza. I also saw the men that were escorted home suffering from dementia, heart complaints, TB and alcoholism. And I saw the many that died in late 1918, just a few months before the end of the war. The flu epidemic of 1918 decimated the ex-soldiers, many of whom were still suffering the ill effects of their military service.
It has been a magnificent project. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I am grateful for the opportunity I had. It really needs an actuary to look at these cards and make some sort of sense out of the data in them. My one regret is that we were not able to photograph all of the cards because they really need to be preserved. We still need to extract a lot of information from the cards and I hope that we will be able to add a number of previously unrecognised casualties to the Roll of Honour from WW1. And, I hope that one day somebody will look back at this achievement and use it to keep the memory alive of those who never came home.
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated and link fixed 26/03/2016