musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Tag: World War One

04/11/1914 – 04/11/2014

On the 4th of August 1914 the so called “War to End all Wars” became the world obsession until 11 November 1918.  It was not a healthy obsession, in fact it was a disaster of global proportions, and would bring forth an even greater carnage in 1939.

On this date, 100 years ago, Britain declared war on Germany. The carnage was about to commence.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

A lantern from Delville Wood.

The problem is, there are no more living soldiers from that war who can remind us of what they went through, and  we are 100 years divorced from this day in history. We concern ourselves with mundane things like bandwidth, mobile devices, nail art, vapid celebrities, fashion, and materialism. The men in the trenches were probably more concerned that those who sent them into battle were seemingly so divorced from the battlefield that they threw away lives in a seemingly concerted effort to rack up the most casualties in one day.
It is difficult to really picture the monstrous battles with the sunny skies and trees and red blood spilling on the shell ravaged battlefield, it is impossible to imagine waiting for the whistle to blow and mounting the parapet of the trench to die a few steps later. I cannot imagine the courage of those men who walked across no mans land because some ass of a staff officer decreed it so. Of course our view of the war is not from the German point of view either, in fact I suspect that there is very little written about the German troops who waited in their dugouts for the barrage to lift so that they could start to massacre the oncoming Tommy regiments.
I have found a few books that deal with the casualty clearing stations, but I cannot quite get my head around the thought of the pain and suffering that happened there. Or the doctors and staff that had to make some sort of sense out of the carnage. It is all surreal, it doesn’t exist in our 24 million colour LED monitors, instead it is in 256 shades of grey. 
The commemoration is gearing up in a large way here in the UK, and I expect that by the time Remembrance Day arrives on 11 November many people will be thinking of that day in a new light. Tonight all around Britain people will be turning off their lights at 10pm, my own lights are going out shortly after I publish this blogpost. it is a small way to recognise that this was a momentous event in history, and one that will be remembered all around the globe, albeit in a globe that still fights wars, still kills innocents, and still does not realise that it is all really senseless.

Tonight we remember the soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, and all service personnel and their loved ones, we remember them because we dare not forget!


© DRW 2014-2018. Created 04/08/2014. Images recreated 19/04/2016, Candle gif by

Updated: 30/12/2017 — 20:35

Remembering the Mendi. Hollybrook Cemetery

Every year about this time I try to write something about the Mendi disaster, it is one of those tragedies that is becoming even more known now compared to when it happened in 1917. Last year I was fortunate enough to confront the Mendi legacy at Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton, and at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth.
Today, 23 February 2014, the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the UK held a commemorative service at Hollybrook Cemetery, to Honour and Remember those men from the South African Native Labour Corps who lost their lives in this tragic disaster so many years ago. The Isle of Wight is not too far from Southampton, and this is really the main centre in the UK where they are remembered on a memorial. Unfortunately it was a cold and grey day in Southampton, and I kept on thinking that it was probably a cold and grey day when they died. I do not recall reading what the weather was like on that day, but it was foggy on that morning when the Mendi was lost. The occasion was well attended, not only by foreign dignitaries, but also by South Africans that have made the United Kingdom their home. 
We were fortunate enough to have wreaths from a number of service, veterans and military organisations, and the Mayor of Southampton was there to lay a wreath on behalf of the city from where so many South Africans have sailed from or to.
The point was made that the men who sailed on the Mendi were not conscripted into service, they were volunteers, their status was as non-combatants, and they were involved in a war far removed from their homes and villages back in Africa. Sadly very little information exists on the men themselves, they do not have record cards, and there is no service or medical file for them. Often their names were incorrectly captured, and CWGC has recently replaced the panels of the memorial to reflect the names of these men and to correct grammatical and spelling errors. Yet, when I was validating records for the South African War Graves Project I could not help but wonder who was Saucepan Maake or Canteen Mahutu? Their real names are lost forever, we know nothing about them. 
The Roll of Honour of the Mendi is a long one, each must have had a mother and a father, or siblings, maybe a wife and children to whom they never returned. Over the years their immediate family would die out too, and they would be only a distant memory of somebody that never returned from what was in effect a “White Mans War”. Today we helped to keep that memory alive of these men, and I hope that one day when we too are gone somebody will continue with the Remembrance of those who did not return.
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die… but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazi’s, Pondo’s, Basuto’s, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. “

Those inspiring words are words that need to reach out to a younger generation, so that they too can show the courage that the men on that sinking ship had, so many years ago and so far from home.

The playing of the Last Post, and the act of Remembrance always seem so minor, but those few minutes leave you time to reflect on those who have made the final sacrifice. The Centenary of World War One is months away, and all of the participants in it have their own part in the tragedy and waste. The Sinking of the Mendi and the Battle of Delville Wood are significant to South Africa, and we must never forget them, and those who fell in those moments of madness almost a century ago.

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.
And then we were finished,  our wreaths were laid and group photographs were taken. The fact that so many had braved the chilly weather was a good sign. Seven services had been held for the Mendi this year, and I cannot help but feel that this one was the closest to the place where the sinking had occurred. 

Soon Hollybrook would grow quiet again, and people would pause at the Cross of Sacrifice, and see the many names that are remembered here, and just maybe somebody will reach out and touch the names, making a tactile connection to one who has long entered into the other realm. Maybe they too came from South Africa and came to discover our proud military heritage that is remembered here. And I know that somewhere, many years ago, families in African homes remembered their lost family member, and that they too hoped that somebody would reach out and take the flame of Remembrance from them when they were gone, that flame has passed to us now, the next generation of servicemen from the SADF, and one day we too will pass it onwards. 

Rest in peace Men of the Mendi, 

“……. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. ” 

© DRW 2014-2018. Images recreated 17/04/2016
Updated: 30/12/2017 — 20:15

Visiting the Men of the Mendi

Many years ago I was  fortunate enough to read “Black Valour” by Norman Clothier. At the time it was the definitive book about the Africans and Coloureds that served with the South Africans during the wars. It also spurred my interest in the Mendi, and the men who lost their lives in the sinking. It took many years to finally be able to visit the Mendi Memorial at Avalon Cemetery and from then on things just happened. My Mendi Webpage is still a work in progress even after so many years, and deep in my heart I always wanted to visit some tangible relic to the Mendi in the United Kingdom. 
My chance came on 10 April 2013, while I was in Southampton and I decided to visit the old Cemetery here. But when I arrived at it I decided to carry on going and find Hollybrook. I was not going to loose the chance of a visit while I had time or weather on my side. Hollybrook in itself is not a great cemetery, it is however an OK cemetery, and it does have a World War 2 CWGC plot as well as a number of CWGC headstones inside the cemetery
World War 2 Plot at Hollybrook

World War 2 Plot at Hollybrook

The plot I was after was at the opposite side where I had come in and I soon found it on a slight rise. Up till this point the weather had been poor: overcast, misty and generally not great for photography, but suddenly the sun came out as if it knew I was there.

The Men of the Mendi have a small corner of their own, and it had recently been visited by HRH Prince Michael of Kent, and wreaths had been laid at the site. When I saw that first plaque I broke out in tears. It was one of those truly seminal points in my life.

I ran my fingers over the names, names that I have on my Roll of Honour, and that I had read record cards of, or who I had read about. They became real, and yet they were long gone. Like them I was far from South Africa at that moment, and I felt humble that I was representing their home on this day. I wish I had had something from there to leave behind for them, but all I really had was my own sadness at seeing these men who went willingly off to war, and who never returned,
I noticed that the wreaths were from other Commonwealth nations, but saw that there was nothing from our own government. What would these men say about the South Africa of 2013? It matters not, what matters is that they never get forgotten. And that seeing those names up close and personal was a moment in my life that won’t leave me.
This particular memorial at Hollybrook commemorates by name almost 1900 servicemen and women of the Commonwealth land and air forces whose graves are not known, many of whom were lost in transports, torpedoed or mined in home waters. The memorial also bears the names of those who were lost or buried at sea or who died at home but whose bodies could not be recovered for burial.  
Not too long ago the CWGC was able to correct a lot of the errors in the names on this memorial, and I hope to be able to correct my own list as well. Sadly, all that is left of their lives is this name on a plaque. And I think that in this case, there is a small piece of England that is uniquely South African. They were men that came from the tip of Africa, to fight in a war that they knew nothing about, and they died far from their homes, never reaching their destination, but remaining here, far from the sunshine that was now fading as I took my last few photographs. But if I do think about it , these men were never really forgotten, their families remembered them, and their comrades, but they too have passed on, and  that duty has been passed on to us, a generation of ex-servicemen who also served their country. 
Hamba Kahle  Men of the Mendi. May You Rest In Peace.
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated and links repaired 29/03/2016
Updated: 28/12/2017 — 07:18

Delville Wood

The Battle of Delville Wood is probably one of the most important, and most wasteful in terms of the South African military. It is also the first major engagement of  the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front and in terms of casualties the brigade also lost 80% of its strength. I am not able to describe that battle, which is described as “..the bloodiest battle of Hell of 1916” , in fact I don’t think anybody could really describe the carnage and devastation that was inflicted on that small portion of France.
My own interest in Delville Wood comes about as a result of my late grandfather being one of the few survivors of the battle. He was wounded on the 18th of July 1916, and was probably evacuated to a casualty clearing station and onwards for treatment.  He was luckier than most. 
Today the wood is home to the South African (Delville Wood) National Memorial Longueval, and while it has been replanted, the wood still holds the remains of many who never came home, or who have no known grave. It is a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the Western Front battlefields, and on my bucket list if ever I do get to France one day. 
My work with the WW1 record cards will often bring forward the card of a casualty of the battle and I do keep a special eye open for them. 
Unfortunately, surviving Delville Wood was no guarantee of a safe passage back to the Union; in fact many survivors of the battle would loose their lives later in the war, or die of Spanish Flu when they  returned home. Our family was one of the lucky ones.
In South Africa there are a number of interesting Delville Wood memorials and artefacts, the most obvious being the Delville Wood Memorial at the Union Buildings, and in Cape Town. I know of two Hornbeam trees that were planted from cuttings from the last surviving tree at Delville Wood, and The National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold has a number of artefacts on display, the most poignant being a lantern that was recovered from the battlefield. It still has the stub of the original candle inside it. 
That tiny light must have been a small comfort in the mass of death and destruction all around it. If only it could tell us what it witnessed in those fateful days. 
A lot has been written about the battle, and a lot of photographs of the battlefield and memorials have appeared in recent years. My personal favourite is the Official Website of Delville Wood, and I have found it to be an extremely helpful source because it gave me the final clue to finding my grandfather’s military records.
My grandfather never spoke about what happened to him, and while he was alive I never knew what questions to ask either. Only now do I have a new appreciation of what he may have gone through, but that probably pales into insignificance when viewed with hindsight 96 years later. 
The Chapel at St Johns College in Houghton has many links to the battle, the walls of the church still bear the insignia of the 4 South African Infantry Regiments from World War 1. Fr Eustace Hill served as chaplain to SA forces in Luderitzbucht, German West Africa, before ministering to the SA Brigade in Delville Wood, The crucifix he had made arrived at the college in 1917. 
The Transvaal Scottish Museum has an extensive collection of photographs and memorabilia from World War 1, and they also have an original Delville Wood Cross, one of at least 3 in South Africa. There is also a Delville Wood Cross in Durban, and the famous “Weeping Cross” in Pietermaritzburg.

Delville Wood Cross in Durban. Image by Eleanor Sue Garvie

Many MOTH Shellholes also have Delville Wood memorabilia, much of it donated by members who served during the Great War, and who were survivors too. But, I think that lantern still says so much about the lives that were extinguished so young, and the silent rows of graves are a reminder that the folly of war should always be avoided at all costs.
DRW ©   2012-2019. Images recreated 25/03/2016, some images by Brian Roberts. 
Updated: 11/07/2019 — 16:18

Revisiting Kingston Frost

When I originally started photographing war graves and monuments it was very much a hit and miss thing. There is no real list of what is out there and often you have to troll through webpages and books in the hope that you may just find something and then create your own list. The World War 1 Memorial in Kingston Frost Park is one of those that I found by looking at my streetfinder with a MK1 eyeball.
There is no real context as to how or why this memorial ended up in Brixton, but the park is a pretty place and I remember as a young boy going along the paths and just enjoying an untouched piece of nature. I don’t recall seeing the memorial though, but maybe I was not really tuned to finding things like that.
What I do not understand is why this memorial always hides behind mad weather? I have been to it three times already and each time have had really odd weather. Between when I left home and when I arrived home on that day I experienced 2 rain showers, overcast skies, clear skies and the odd sky that you can see in the image.  The view from up there is stunning too, but the urban forest of Johannesburg hides everything in a field of green.
I then headed “down the road” to where the former Irish Brigades Memorial used to be. I class this memorial as extinct, as it was dismantled and taken to Orania in 2002. All that is left are the foundations, heaps of litter and not much else. It is a pity that they don’t use this site for another memorial, a nice Rand Revolt one would be great seeing as this area was active during the 1922 strike. When I did the original webpage for the memorial in 2007, there was not a lot of information available, but since then an interesting webpage with the history of the Irish Volunteers and the memorial has surfaced and its well worth the read.

All that is left of the original site

I have to admit that I deplore the loss of the memorial, what happened to the grandiose plans that were made for the site where the memorial stood? I also visited the AW Muller stadium where my mapbook said there was a “Freedom Monument” but the security guard said that it too was gone. I headed home via Melville and stopped to grab a quick pic. This is what happens to Beyers Naude Drive…..
That pretty much wrapped up my gallivanting for the week. It had also encompassed Westpark as well as Braamfontein Cemetery, but that is another story for another day.   
DRW ©  2011-2019. Links fixed and images recreated 20/03/2016
Updated: 08/04/2019 — 19:04
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