War Grave photography can be a very rewarding experience, with highs and lows, and many times you are left shaking your head or just feeling angry with what you see. My post today is one that finally had closure for me after many years.
I was “responsible” for many of the original photographs that we have on the South African War Graves website that covered the cemeteries and memorials in and around Johannesburg and a few other places in Gauteng. I found it very satisfying to do and it did help me when I was suffering from an extreme case of “cabin fever” in 2011 and 2012. Unfortunately though, many casualties had slipped between the cracks when the South African Roll of Honour was being compiled. Apparently the person responsible for that job was stricken with Spanish Flu and passed away, and the unfinished ROH was adopted and the files of those who had not been processed were stuck on a shelf.
In 2012 we started the record card project in an effort to photograph as many of the WW1 record cards as possible. The end goal being to submit the names of those who had slipped through the cracks to the CWGC and ultimately to have them added to the ROH. When Ralph and Terry started to submit names for inclusion to the CWGC, one of the graves I went to find was that of PAULINE HERMIONE EMILY PAFF, a Probationer Nurse with the South African Military Nursing Service. She died of pneumonia and influenza, at Johannesburg Hospital on 20 October 1918 and was omitted from the ROH.
She is buried in Brixton Cemetery in the “EC” section (“English Church”) although that does not necessarily mean that the grave would be easy to find. Brixton is a big cemetery and there are very few grave numbers/markers and no real coherent plan of what is where. Fortunately I know the cemetery quite well and because I photographed the war graves can identify a section based on known graves. Pauline’s grave was close to the fence of the Jewish section and a few graves close to where I was stung by a bee in 2009. By the time I left South Africa in 2013 no headstone had been erected although she had been approved for inclusion in the ROH and on the CWGC lists for South Africa.
This past week Sarah Welham Dove was able to send me a photograph of her headstone and I was finally able to get closure over this grave. Pauline has been remembered and no longer does she rest in an unmarked space in a cemetery that is rapidly deteriorating due to indifference.
I am also hoping that in the intervening years a headstone has been erected for Chris Charles Doak in Braamfontein too, although there was a dispute about where he was buried. He was somewhat of a troubled chap and died as a result of an overdose of morphine. Hopefully one day I will be able to display his grave here too. Irrespective of whether they died by misadventure of through no fault of their own each is important, and that is why we were out there taking the photographs.
Rest n Peace Pauline and Chris and all those who we are still waiting for an answer on.
An MOD spokesperson has said: “We can confirm that the site of HMY Iolaire will officially be recognised as a site of final resting place on September 2, 2019. This means the ships wreckage will be protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.”
Over the years I have read about many disasters at sea and of course the Titanic springs to mind almost instinctively. However, in October 2017 I discovered yet another disaster that has slipped below the radar, and I was determined to create some way to commemorate the men who lost their lives in the disaster 100 years ago on this day. It was an uphill slog because unfortunately accuracy is difficult because of the poor records, contradicting evidence and the multiplicity of the same names being used. Unfortunately I was not able to get anybody involved with the disaster commemorations to look at what I did and assist in getting it correct.
HMY Iolaire was a former private yacht that had been pressed into naval service in the Outer Hebrides during the First World War, and on old years eve 1918 she was hurriedly loaded with over 200 members of the Royal Naval Reserve to take them home to the Island of Lewis on leave. That passage is fraught with danger for those who do not know these waters; rough seas, an unforgiving coastline and submerged reefs are all just waiting for the right moment to spring their deadly trap.
The RNR men were all inhabitants from this area, most had served and survived through the war years, often serving in minelayers or small craft that performed a very necessary function, but without the glitz and glamour associated with a much larger vessel. Their own knowledge of the sea meant that these experienced seamen were much in demand by the Royal Navy, and they performed admirably in the roles they filled. It was almost the beginning of a new year and they had survived the war and the flu epidemic and Hogmanay was approaching. The Iolaire would take them home to waiting families, and there were more men than spaces on that ill-fated vessel. Crowded with happy reservists she would sail into destiny from the pier at Kyle of Lochalsh.
Back home on Lewis; parents, wives and children were preparing to welcome home their men, it would be a festive occasion because some of the men had not been home in a long time, and with the war over all that was left was demobilisation and a final return home and civilian life. On board the yacht some of the men slept, some talked, others swapped yarns and compared their military service with men that they did not know. The master of the vessel was Commander Richard Gordon Mason and once they had sailed the commander went below, presumably to sleep, leaving Lieutenant Leonard Edmund Cotter in charge. These were not amateur seamen but experienced men who knew how to handle ships.
The Beasts of Holm (Gael: Biastan Thuilm) is a rocky outcrop near the harbour and Iolaire was driving towards it, with seemingly nobody in charge attempting to rectify the situation. To make matters worse the weather was starting to get rough, and the darkness compounded the problem. It also emerged that there was no lookout stationed in the bows of the vessel, although given the darkness and how little time there would be to make course corrections it was really a moot point.
Below the men had no way of knowing the calamity to come, and when the ship struck the rocks they were all in immediate danger. The chances are that many died almost immediately, but for others it was the beginning of a life or death struggle. Many were encumbered by their heavy uniforms and unfamiliarity with the ship, To make matters worse she did not have life-saving equipment for them all, the lifeboats were few, and in the heaving seas trying to launch them successfully would be almost impossible as the ship plunged and ground her iron plates on the rocks.
The tragedy was unfolding almost 20 yards from land, but nobody on land was aware that a ship was foundering on their doorstep, Some men tried to swim for safety but in the cold wild waters almost none would make it. One brave man, John F. Macleod from Ness, Isle of Lewis, managed to get ashore with a rope and a hand over hand crossing was established, but the sea would clear that vital rope of its cargo on more than one occasion, but men were getting ashore, often battered and bleeding but alive.
There were really many things that went wrong on that night and once the alarm had been sounded on land things moved at a frustratingly slow pace; people had to be woken up, keys had to be found, horses found, cars hired and so on. By the time all of it had been coordinated it was too late, the ship had gone down, those who could reach safety had, although one man still clung to the mast. The morning light revealed the carnage, dead men washed up on the shore, or drifting in the sea, exhausted survivors looking for help and trying to find their friends or family that may have survived. The full horror was still to come as the islanders tried to take stock of what had happened. Isolated families were notified and the festivities of Hogmanay would be forgotten as married women found that they were now widows while their children were unable to understand the magnitude of the tragedy that was unfolding around them.
The dead were gradually gathered in and taken to a hastily evacuated ammunition store that now served as a mortuary. Small boats scoured the area looking for and recovering bodies, while parties on shore walked the jagged coastline, hoping to find survivors, but the sea had not given up all of it’s dead. Of the ship there was little trace, and a number of bodies were invariably trapped within its flooded compartments.
The community where this disaster had unfolded was never the same again, families would grieve for many years, while those who had lived through it would suffer from “survivors guilt”. A commission of inquiry was set up but it could find no real reason for why the ship ended up on the Beasts of Holm in the first place. There was nobody alive who could explain the sequence of events on the bridge that had led to the ship hitting the rocks, and naturally scapegoats would be sought so as not to throw the spotlight on high ranking officers or the Admiralty.
A further inquiry was launched to establish more facts and possibly apportion blame, and generally it seemed to do a reasonable job given the difficulties involved, but no real reason behind the accident was ever found. Those that knew went down with the ship.
The dead are buried in many places. I found a crewman buried in Portsmouth while a search at CWGC under 01/01/1919 will bring up a long list of men who are buried in a number of cemeteries in the community and surrounding settlements, while some are commemorated on the Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham Naval Memorials. There is a memorial to those who lost their lives on the Island of Lewis, but is is a rarely visited memorial because the story is almost forgotten.
Young children would grow and watch as the world plunged once again into a mad war, some would following in the footsteps of the previous generation and serve their country, and once again women would mourn those who never returned. The story of the sinking of the Iolaire is more than a story about a small ship foundering, it is about complacency and negligence and about a community ripped apart in the early morning of a new year.
Sadly the men of the Iolaire are mostly forgotten now, occasionally someone like me will stumble on the story and ask the same questions that were asked almost 100 years ago. We will not find any answers either. Unfortunately a number of difficulties facing anybody who is researching the disaster is trying to make sense of the Scottish naming conventions that often leave a researcher with multiple occurrences of the same name. There is also a lack of information in general as to the men who served in the Merchant Navy as well as the Royal Navy Reserve, most of these men were members of the latter. Fortunately somebody has done the work for me and there is a Roll of Honour that I found very useful.
There is not a lot of information out there. A good place to start is the The sinking of H.M.Y. Iolaire – 1 January 1919 page, as well as the Wikipedia page and of course the relevant CWGC pages for individual casualties. I bought a very good book called: “When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire” by John MacLeod (Edinburgh: Birlinn Press. ISBN 978-1-84158-858-2.), and it went into aspects that I had not even considered before. Another book is due to be launched in 2018 called “The Darkest Dawn: The Story of The Iolaire Disaster” by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John Macleod.
The Iolaire was built in 1881 by Ferguson of Leith. (634 tons) and her original name was Iolanthe. This was later changed to Mione, and later, to Amalthaea. She is however not to be confused with the Iolaire that was owned by Sir Donald Currie. In 1915, the luxury sailing yacht Amalthaea was commandeered by the Admiralty and converted and armed for anti-submarine warfare and coastal patrols. Her owner was Mr Michael Duff-Assheton Smith, who later became Sir Michael Duff. He had bought her from the Duke of Westminster.
One of the more colourful mascots that was adopted by the military is Nancy, a young Springbok (Thompson’s Gazelle) that became the mascot of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment (SA Scottish). She was presented to the Regiment in August 1915 by Mr D. McClaren Kennedy who lived on the farm Vierfontein in the Free State.
Her keeper was a bugler: Edmund Peterson of “D” Company South African Scottish, Nicknamed ‘buck major’, he was not only her keeper, but her trainer and protector. Being the official mascot, she was trained to move and trot in tune to the sound of the bagpipes and the regimental band, and she accompanied the Springboks (As South African soldiers came to be known) everywhere, even surviving the horrors of the battle of Delville Wood in 1916.
When the fighting was in the vicinity of the French town Armentieres, a shell exploded close to where Nancy had been tethered and she bolted in fright, seriously damaging her left horn against a wall. The doctors were not prepared to risk resetting the horn so it eventually grew downwards at an angle. Her out-of-alignment horn allowed her to display a golden ‘wound’-stripe on the tartan coat that she wore to stave off the cold.
In the winter of 1918 she caught pneumonia, and although cared for by her keeper and the medical personnel, she sadly died on 26 November 1918, a few days after the war had ended. Her death was announced in General Orders and on 28 November 1918 she was buried in the cemetery in the village of Hermeton-sur-Meuse in Belgium with full military honours.
Before being buried she was skinned and her skin was sent to a taxidermist who stuffed and mounted her effigy and that was then sent onwards to South Africa. She was on display in the Officers Mess of the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Headquarters before being presented to the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold in 1958.