It is possible that somebody will ask the question: “Where did you first start out taking photos of military graves?” and I would have to answer “West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg”
As for the date? that is a difficult one because I can only really judge from the EXIF data on the images from those first graves. According to that data I was photographing in 2005.
I was living in Blairgowrie at the time and I hit the first row of graves early on a Sunday before I headed off to my see my Mother.
To be honest. when I took that first image I had no idea where I would be 10 years down the line, or how many cemeteries or graves I would photograph from then onwards.
“During the Second World War, there was a large military wing in the Johannesburg General Hospital and military hospitals at Baragwanath and Cottesloe. The Baragwanath hospital handled a large number of casualties sent from the Middle East. Flying training under the Empire Air Training Scheme was conducted on a considerable scale from the Baragwanath airfield. Further to the south-west at Lenz was the largest ammunition depot in South Africa. Johannesburg (West Park) Cemetery contains 617 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.
There are also 21 war graves of other nationalities and seven non-war burials in the Commission’s care.
The Johannesburg (West Park) Cremation memorial commemorates 69 servicemen and women who were cremated in Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg during the Second World War.” (http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/101545/JOHANNESBURG_(WEST_PARK)_CEMETERY )
The image above is of the Cremation Memorial which is situated behind the Cross of Sacrifice.
The plot was divided into two blocks with 8 rows per block. Because I was new at this I ended up creating a rough diagram of the layout so as to know where I was and what I had done.
I really had to make up some sort of technique as I went along, It was literally a case of stopping in front of each grave, lining up the camera and crouching down, checking focus and then taking the pic. My original camera was not really a great one, and it would get slower and slower processing images until I ended up with this awkward pause between graves. It also used to get very hot as I shot more images. My current camera has improved considerably since then and I can shoot image after image without waiting for the camera to catch up. Unfortunately nowadays I struggle to crouch down to take the pic as I find I can’t always get back up! It was also preferable to hit the cemetery early in the morning as the sun was theoretically facing the graves (depending on the season) and it was not too hot and sticky.
I took quite awhile to finish those 472 graves in the plot, and each one was emailed to the national co-ordinator. There was no such thing as dropbox either, and, this was in the era of dial up 56K modems!
West Park also has military graves scattered amongst the General Section, EC, RC, DR as well as the Greek, Belgian and Jewish sections. Grave number 3 in the General section is that of Lt DW Milton of the South African Air Force who died on the 22nd of February 1942. Age 23. This is one of the earliest graves in West Park. Grave number 5 in the DR section is a military grave, as is grave number 8 in the EC section.
The image above is of the general section, and you can see the CWGC headstone of grave number 972 in the picture. Unlike in the UK where CWGC headstones are white; in Johannesburg they are either a dark grey or a light grey for the WW1. There are no WW1 graves in West Park.
The hardest graves to find are the “private memorials”. or graves where the person is buried in a family grave with a privately purchased headstone, This is grave 313 in the Dutch Reformed Church plot. It is of Warrant Officer Class I, A A Louw, South African Air Force. Died 17th February 1943. If you were not aware that this was a military grave you would have walked right past it. I was fortunate that while physical numbers were very scarce in West Park I could generally work out where a grave was if I found 2 CWGC headstones as I would then be able to surmise how the numbers ran. The plots in West Park are big, and knowing which way the numbers ran was very important. Unfortunately, knowing which end of a row was the 1st grave in a row was a different thing altogether.
There are also graves where a serviceman/woman is mentioned on a gravestone, and are not buried in the physical grave. There is no real list of those, but I would photograph them anyway because this is a tangible link to a person who may be buried far away, or who has no known grave.
If my memory serves me correctly these are the English Church sections on either side of the road. At times West Park can be a very pretty place with its scattering of big trees. Unfortunately within the plots the grass can border on madness, and I would usually spend a lot of time brushing blackjacks off my clothing.
The cemetery also has an excellent set of toilets, which helped me no end because it was around this time that I started having bladder problems.
Once the 617 CWGC graves had been photographed I then switched my attention to what we call “Border War Graves” which are the graves of servicemen/women/police that died in the course of their duty. There is a small somewhat neglected SADF plot behind the CWGC plot.
On my last visit in 2014 when I was in South Africa I saw that the SANDF was utilising this area as well. There is also a police plot not too far from the CWGC plot, and sadly it has seen regular use.
However, the majority of police and SADF casualties are buried amongst the rows of the general population, and often finding them was sheer accident. I had a rough rule of thumb that I used when I walked the rows. If the person on the headstone was male, died between 1970 – 1994, and was roughly 18-23 years old I would take a pic because in many cases I was correct and it was a border war casualty. Unfortunately, when we started doing these graves we had very few grave numbers to work from, and as time has passed and we have found more Border War graves we have been able to add to the available information on casualties incurred by the SADF, whether in battle, accident or while hitch-hiking on pass.
The staff in the office were always helpful in my quests for answers and I was able to glean a lot of information from the registers which helped to add to our knowledge of those who rest in this large cemetery. Fortunately the cemetery is not too complicated and there is a map of it which the office provides if you are looking for a grave. I was working on my own version at one point, and somewhere along the line I did get sidetracked and never completed it.
Next to West Park is the Jewish Cemetery, and there are a number of Jewish casualties buried in this enclave.
There is a dedicated military section as well as scattered graves amongst the rest of the Jewish Cemetery. Fortunately the information that I had was very accurate so I did not have to revert to looking up information, although I always found record keeping at the Jewish Cemetery to be excellent. What I did find problematic was how some of the numbers were affected by additions made after the war, and those could throw my search out.
The Jewish Cemetery also houses the Holocaust Memorial,
Leaving the cemetery via the main gate I sometimes would stop at the Westdene bus disaster plot, in later years I went through the plot and photographed all the graves while they were still semi-legible. Sadly though, vandals have really decimated the graves but it is still a poignant reminder of that terrible day in 1985.
And then it was time to leave and head over to Braamfontein where my next group of graves was waiting. It had been quite a task to photograph all those graves, and when I look back on it now it is strange to think how long ago it was. I am not proud of my original images, and I am sorry I never did go back and rephotograph the CWGC plot, I always intended doing it, I just never did. In 2019, while in South Africa I rephotographed the plot in one sitting. It was interesting to see how much the plot had changed between when I first started here and 2019.
Please support the South African War Graves Project to bring our soldiers home. You too can volunteer to take photographs for our records. Who will be the one who walks in my footsteps?