Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Remembering the Mendi.

When I originally started photographing war graves and memorials I had very little information about the loss of the SS Mendi in 1917. An occasional mention in the newspapers was as informative as it got. There was one book by Norman Clothier that always stood out, but was almost impossible to find, and so I "went it alone", producing my first page on the Mendi. There is not much to say here that isn't on that page already, but oddly enough Mendi material still keeps coming my way.

SS Mendi in happier times.
The death of over 600 soldiers in one incident is not something that is taken lightly, although when you look at it in terms of naval deaths, the sinking of a capital ship can result in over 1500 deaths at a time.  However, what makes the Mendi deaths very sad is how the members of the SANLC and NMC were treated by the government that they were serving, and how little recognition they got for their service overseas. Make no mistake about it, these men were crucial cogs in the line of battle, and who knows how many lives they saved as stretcher bearers. In fact their contribution to the war effort was a major one, but the moment they returned home, they were forgotten.

NMC Collar and cap badge
There are a number of NMC graves in South Africa, in Gauteng the biggest concentration is at Palmietkuil War Cemetery, and it is here that we hope a memorial will be erected to the members of the NMC and SANLC who became victims of apathy in the war department. 

NMC Member, buried in Payneville, Springs.
In South Africa the Mendi men have a number of Memorials, the most poignant is in Atteridgeville, and there are memorials in Avalon Cemetery and New Brighton in Port Elizabeth and one (which I do not have photographs of), in Mowbray in Cape Town.

How many of their family members were ever able to make a pilgramage to these memorials? How many even knew where their sons or fathers or grandfathers lost their lives?  All I know is, today it is up to us to keep their memory alive.

The words of Reverend Isaac Dyobha should never be forgotten,  

"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. "

We need leaders like that today in our country, we need to show the youth that bling, alcoholism and ill discipline have no place in their lives. The courage of those long lost African Servicemen is all the example that we really need.

Monday, 6 February 2012

They do not grow old, as we grow old.

In the course of my gravehunting I was always on the lookout for four specific graves. These are the final resting place of 4 young boys who died during their military service, and with whom I served during my two years. 

The first death I encountered was of a rifleman who was a member of E-Company in Jan Kemp Dorp.  His death was one of those that should never have happened, but it did, all because of the pig headedness of those who were supposed to lead us. I will not go into details, but he has been in my mind since 1980, and I have never found his grave. But, Sktr Van Der Kolf, I have never forgotten you and hope that one day I will find your resting place.

The next loss I experienced was that of a young rifleman, Lionel Van Rooyen. During a rehearsal for what would become Ops Protea, the platoon that he was in, as well as some of my friends, was involved in a live fire accident and 15 of them were wounded, Lionel never survived. He was a very popular guy and a Springbok figure skater. That accident devastated our company, and Lionel became yet another statistic. Many years after the incident I read a report about the investigation, and  a magistrate in Ondangwa found nobody to blame. Ask anybody that was in platoon 6 on 10 July 1981, and they will quite happily tell you who they think was to blame.

Image courtesy of Eleanor Susan Garvie

The next death that struck us very hard was that of Cpl  Johan Potgieter, who was killed during Ops Daisy on 04 November 1981. The events leading up to his death tell of his bravery and his sacrifice. It was not too long before the operation that I stood guard with him, and I remember us brewing coffee in the guard post. We had 44 days left of our national service when he died, and he never saw the day when he too could walk out of Tempe and return to civvy life. I was fortunate enough that I found this grave myself and was able to stand and say my goodbyes in person. It was a very emotional moment.

The final death was that of Rfn Peter Hall. I do not know the circumstances of his death too well, but if anything it was through "misadventure". However, it matters not. He lost his life on the 2nd of March 1981. We had been on the border just over 3 months by then,  and he too became a statistic. Finding his grave was always a problem because we did not know where he was buried. Now I know, and this image is courtesy of  Tanite Swart.

The platoon commander of the platoon where Peter Hall was in, said that this grave completes the circle, and while in my case that circle is not yet complete, I suspect that I have found the grave of my Sktr Van Der Kolf, but just need confirmation to close it.  

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn them,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.