The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 2 - December 2013

A South African Military History Society outing

By Jan-Willem Hoorweg

In August, thirty members of the Johannesburg Branch of the South African Military History Society were given a tour of West Park and Braamfontein cemeteries in Johannesburg, South Africa. Charles Ross, Secretary of the SA Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), led the tour which started at West Park Cemetery where 617 Commonwealth casualties are buried. He explained that Commission headstones are of various forms at the site; South African casualties have the same emblem, and casualties from British units have their regimental badges. In the Military Plot, there are 471 casualties and 69 commemorated on the Cremation Memorial.

At Braamfontein Cemetery, eleven First World War and 77 Second World War Commonwealth casualties are commemorated. In addition to the Commonwealth war graves, 509 British/Imperial casualties from the South African War (Anglo-Boer War; 1899-1902) are commemorated in two plots for which the Commission is responsible. The cemetery has no water; but is well maintained by the Johannesburg City Parks Department. To the surprise of the group, the wreaths laid by Sir Tim Laurence (April 2012) and the President of the Commission (October 2012) were still in place at the main memorial. The group also visited the grave of Oswald Austin Read VC who was awarded the Victoria Cross for action at the Diyala River; south-east of Baghdad, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) over the period 8 to 10 March 1917.

The visitors said they were amazed by the work of the Commission.

On 17 August 2013, members of the South African Military History Society's Johannesburg Branch experienced a field trip of a slightly different character. Accompanied by Secretary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's (CWGC) South African Agency, Capt (Navy) Charles Ross (Retd), around 30 members visited the war graves in Johannesburg's West Park and Braamfontein cemeteries. A guided tour of the war graves in the two cemeteries by Captain Ross provided a wealth of information on the soldiers, airmen and even sailors whose lives are commemorated. The two cemeteries differ in character, Braamfontein being much the older of the two. As Secretary of the South African office of the CWGC, Charles knows the history and location of each headstone and the story behind each engraving on a stone. The CWGC maintains all of these graves and certainly does a sterling job in preserving these old headstones.

The highlight of the day was probably the visit to the War Plot in the West Park Cemetery, where 600 headstones are maintained in perfect condition. The writer was much impressed by the neat and orderly outlay of the plot and the perfectly maintained flowerbeds and headstones from the Second World War. The War Plot certainly did not leave the members unmoved. It was interesting to note that service personnel from a number of different organisations are also commemorated here, including sailors and airmen from foreign countries like Yugoslavia and Poland, members of the British South Africa Police (BSAP) and members of the South African Police. In addition, those whose remains were cremated have their own wall in the War Plot.

A number of locations were visited in the Braamfontein Cemetery, where Charles was joined by National Committee member David Scholtz, who spoke about the Anglo-Boer War graves that are also to be found here. Many of these men succumbed in hospital to diseases which are preventable these days, such as typhoid and dysentery, rather than from wounds received in battle. III-health severely impacted on the effectiveness of the British forces under Lord Roberts during their northward march to Johannesburg and Pretoria.

All in all, it was a day that will be remembered for a long time by all who attended, with wonderful Gauteng winter weather (warm and blue skies) to boot. The day was concluded by having refreshments at the beautiful and historic Sunnyside Park Hotel in Parktown. The writer would like to commend the CWGC and Captain Charles Ross for the work that this organisation does to make sure that those who made the ultimate sacrifice are not forgotten.

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