musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Tag: World War One

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 list of 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 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016, some images by Brian Roberts. 
 
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:12

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. 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 2011-2018. Links fixed and images recreated 20/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 13:46
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