The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 5 - June 2003


by Demetri Friend, Curator of Ordnance SA National Museum of Military History

Transcriptions of gravestones can lead to the discovery of interesting and forgotten incidents. This is especially true of a gravestone recently examined in a cemetery in the small town of Ogmore Vale, South Wales, United Kingdom.

One of the units raised in South Africa during the First World War was the South African Heavy Artillery (SAHA). It consisted of an initial five batteries of artillery equipped with six-inch howitzers. A further three batteries were formed in 1916 and 1918. The SAHA was attached to the 75th Siege battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, following its arrival in the United Kingdom in 1915. Of the eight batteries in the unit, six were involved in much of the fighting which took place on the Western Front from January 1916 to the end of the War. The eighth battery was broken up and the men were distributed to other batteries on their arrival in France.

Gunner William John Owen of the SAHA, No 2700, was a coal miner born in Rantymoel, Glamorganshire, South Wales, who lived at 21 St John St, Ogmore Vale, with his wife and two children. Before the War, Owen came to South Africa to work on the Tweefontein Colliery near the town of Witbank. His family remained at Ogmore Vale. Owen was still in South Africa when the War broke out, and it was from here that he decided to join the British war effort.

Aged 38 at the time, Owen would have been too old to qualify for service in earlier recruitment drives. On 1 July 1918, he was examined and declared to be medically fit for service in the Union Defence Forces, and, on 5 July 1918, he enlisted and volunteered for service in the South African Heavy Artillery. After completing his training at Potchefstroom, he was allocated to one of the reserve batteries and sent to Plymouth, where he arrived on 3 October.

While preparing for deployment in France, Owen fell ill with influenza. On 27 October, he was admitted to the Military Hospital at Devonport, and was diagnosed, two days later, with bronchial pneumonia. He died on 1 November 1918. Owen's remains were returned to his family for burial in Ogmore Vale.

By assisting the Historical Society of Ogmore Valley, the final resting place of a member of the South African armed forces of the First World War has been found.

Curious Gravestone Inscription

In loving Memory
Captain and Paymaster 94th Regt who was killed for Queen and Country while crossing the River Vaal on the night of 20 December 1880

The inscription above can be found on a gravestone at the Heroes' Acre Cemetery in Church Street, Pretoria, At first glance, it appears to cast a shadow on the character of the person buried here,

Closer investigation into the circumstances of his death reveal a grim story. Captain Elliot was captured at the battle of Bronkhorstspruit during the 1880-1 Transvaal War of Independence. After their capture, Elliot and his fellow prisoners were to be deported. A Boer commando took them to the Vaal River, which was in flood, and ordered the prisoners to cross it. A little later, the commando returned to the river to find the prisoners attempting to swim across the swollen river. They opened fire on the swimming men and Elliot's body was recovered downstream a few days later. He had been shot several times.
It was this act which was so deeply deplored.

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