One of the biggest problems that The South African War Graves Project has with the Roll of Honour for South Africa, are inaccuracies and omissions. Given that there was a war on, and given the authorities tendency to overlook portions of the population it is no wonder that we need to access the cards for individual servicemen.
There are roughly 11000+ cards for World War 1 alone, and each has to be examined for the crucial rubber stamp that indicates where the servicemen/women ended up. There are a number of stamps in use. “WOUNDED IN ACTION, KILLED IN ACTION, DIED OF WOUNDS, MISSING, DEATH ACCEPTED ON OR SINCE, DIED“; and possibly a few others that I have left out.
Ironically, the stamp that does not interest us is the one that reads “DISCHARGED“. Occasionally we will find one that has “PRISONER OF WAR” on it, followed by “REPATRIATED“, this is one that bears scrutiny as repatriated POW’s could die of influenza in 1918 or as a result of their war service.
The cards also provide a fascinating glimpse of the military mind and the way that it’s system worked during World War 1. When I first saw “Discharged: Dentally Unfit” I thought there was typo on the card, but later on I found more like it, and on a few occasions servicemen being discharged for refusing dental treatment. It does leave me pondering the quality of military dental practioners, as well as the state of the teeth of some of the men involved. On some of the records are long paragraphs about punishment received for infringements of military discipline. These can range from being docked 3 days pay, up to 14 days “confined to barracks” or being discharged completely from service. The usual incidents warranting such punishment ranged from loosing a piece of equipment, to being absent from parade, drunkedness, or disobeying a “superior” officer. One incident did stick in my mind and that was “being in possession of a towel“.
Some of the cards tell unique stories, the case of the man promoted to temporary Lieutenant in October, and loosing his life in February of the next year. Or the man who died of dysentry while waiting for a ship to repatriate him back to South Africa. Or the man that died during the voyage home and who was buried at sea; there is a story behind each one of these cards.
A few things stick in my mind though, many servicemen died of malaria, blackwater fever, enteric fever and dysentry as a result of their service in the East African Campaign. Many survived to return home, only to be struck down by the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Some were discharged after the South West African Campaign, only to re-attest and then get killed in France. Many would die later as a direct result of their service in the military, and some would attest once again when called upon during World War 2. Most of the cards that I photographed tie into a grave, or into a name on a memorial.
Of interest to myself is the names of troopships that carried these men back and forth, many were Union-Castle Line vessels and their names would have been familiar to those who were ship watchers on our coast. I have yet to find the name Mendi on any of those cards, but it is early days yet.
Irrespective of their military achievements, each one of these was an individual. Some had wives and children, all had mothers, some were poor, some were middle class, some were of African extraction, some were of European extraction. Many of their lives were cut short in a war that probably was not really necessary. That war would change the face of Europe and would be followed by an even greater carnage in 1939. Once again the military machine would haul out its pens and cards and start all over again, creating records of lives that were in their keeping until the day they were filed away with that rubber stamp.
© DRW 2012-2017. Images recreated 24/03/2016