There is a small haven of peace out on the East Rand called Palmietkuil South War Cemetery. The CWGC describes it as follows: ”Within the cemetery is the Palmietkuil South War Cemetery Memorial, which commemorates members of the South African Forces who died during the 1939-1945 War and who lie buried in different parts of South Africa in graves which could not be maintained. The compounds of the gold mine on Palmietkuil Farm were taken over by the Union Defence Force at the outbreak of Second World War and used as the main training centre of the Military Corps. The centre was served by its own hospital. The cemetery contains 217 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, all of the South African Army. A memorial within the cemetery, behind the Cross of Sacrifice, bears the names of 122 soldiers, whose graves in remote parts of the country could not be properly maintained.”
I visited Palmietkuil in November 2007. It was a a hot and glaring day and I found the cemetery at the end of a dirt road that really taxed my small car. The space was ringed with trees and stood out proud in the flat fields around it. When it was created those trees had been planted, and now over 50 years later they were tall, and created this small space inside.
Inside the cemetery was immaculate, and well maintained. Rows of grey headstones bisected by an avenue that led to the Cross of Sacrifice with the Memorial behind it.
The dominant colour here was green and frankly I admit my entry level camera was not really equal to the task. I have always regretted never returning here to reshoot my images because this was such a special cemetery. The local co-ordinator of the South African War Graves Project was also present this day and he tackled one half of the cem while I tackled the other. Photographing each grave so that they too are not forgotten. Sadly the men who served under the NMC and SANLC colours were conveniently shunted aside when the wars ended. Yet they performed a vital duty and served the British Empire and South Africa with distinction. The memorial also commemorates men from the Essential Services Protection Corps, The Cape Corps, Indian and Malay Corps,
The men who are buried here probably had families and loved ones, and there is no way of even knowing whether those family members even saw these graves because Palmietkuil is really off the beaten track, about 9 kilometres from Springs. These men did not die in action though, but probably died during training or in accidents or of disease or illness. Unfortunately a military base was often a home to diseases like TB and of course many childhood diseases like measles or mumps could and did wreak havoc amongst the soldiers.
It is also worthwhile remembering that the men who are buried here were mostly volunteers, and they did so for a variety of reasons. However, the government decided that they would not be used in a fighting capacity, but rather as support troops, and in that role they excelled. Who knows how well they would have done as fighting men. The bravery of men like Job Maseko and Lukas Majozi, is legendary, as is the bravery of the men who were killed in the sinking of the Mendi . Just how much of a fighting force did we loose because of politics?
And then we were finished. I stayed behind a bit longer to photograph the graves in the other half for my own records, and while I did that I was struck by how quiet it really was. The only real noise was coming from the mine close by, but other than that it was silent. I bid the men of Palmietkuil farewell and headed off to my next destination. This was my first dedicated war cemetery, and one which I would not forget. I really intended to return one day, but my own circumstances changed in many ways and I never did; much to my dismay. But I always said that if ever I was in a position where I could specify where my ashes should be scattered Palmietkuil was high on my list. Palmietkuil was left reasonably undisturbed until June 2012 when somebody apparently performed an unofficial exhumation of a body. It was a very disturbing moment in the history of this cemetery and I do not know if the perpetrator was ever found, or what the motive may have been, but it was desecration of a really special cemetery.
I believe that it was also intended that a larger memorial be erected to the men of the SANLC and NMC was to be erected and Palmietkuil was mooted as one the possible sites. And as far as I am concerned it would be too little way too late.
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