by Tom MacGregor
Private W.J. Ross of the Royal Canadian Regiment died in Cape Town, South Africa, March 6, 1900. However, his final resting place remains a mystery to Tony Gordon and fellow members of South Africa’s British War Graves Committee.
Like most Canadian casualties of the South African War, or what we usually call the Boer War in Canada, Ross died of disease and his name was duly recorded on the Field Force Casualty Lists. Those lists have formed the starting point for committee members trying to match each name with a grave. In Ross’s case, the committee believes it has finally located the right cemetery, but not the exact location of his plot.
The search for the grave has pinpointed the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg, where tucked among towering high-rises and dense housing projects, Dutch Reformed, Anglican and Methodist cemeteries contain the dead from the turn of the century. Rising above the tilting gravestones in one cramped and shabby cemetery is a massive white cross and base built on top of a large brown stone. The monument is the gift of someone who chose to be known only as “a friend of the army” and the base pays tribute to “the brave men who died in Wynberg for their country”. Along its base are the names of the soldiers who were buried in the cemetery.
Gordon searches the sides of the base until finally, he calls out: “He’s here.” There, in the shade, is Ross’s name. “I’ve looked at every headstone in this cemetery,” he says. “He isn’t here.”
It’s then that Gordon arrives at his conclusion: “His grave has been built over. The cemetery was much larger but they simply sold off the land and it was built over. There just has been no sense of history for so long.”
Regaining a sense of history has become a common cause in the wake of the phenomenal social change that has swept through South Africa in the 1990s. In the many years of apartheid, history was ignored–even denied. But President Nelson Mandela has encouraged South Africans to get involved in documenting the past. A committee of truth has been established and its work is leading to controversial trials for crimes that went unsolved or uninvestigated for years. While Mandela opposes acts of revenge, he insists the past cannot be forgotten.
That sense of recovering the past is also driving Gordon and his colleagues in Johannesburg, Pretoria and other parts of South Africa. The British War Graves Committee–which is part of the National Monuments Council with a paid staff of one person–is trying to locate, mark and maintain the graves of about 35,000 British and colonial soldiers, sailors and their dependants who died in wars or on peacetime military service from the first British occupation in 1795 to the beginning of WW I.
What might be an interesting hobby in Canada, takes on far wider dimensions in South Africa. Civil unrest, violence and soaring crime rates have taken their toll on the country. To the committee’s dismay, graveyards have disappeared, markers have been stolen or vandalized and graves robbed. The work required to maintain even the more sheltered cemeteries became a low priority, a consequence of the country’s financial troubles. But what many Canadians don’t realize is that some of these cemeteries contain the graves of Canadian soldiers.
The signs of theft can be found in any South African cemetery, but hardest hit are the French military graves. Those graves are marked with a brass cross on the gravestone and the valuable alloy of copper and zinc has been an obvious target for thieves.
But even with the brass gone, the French graves remained marked. Such is not the case for the work done by the Guild of Loyal Women in the early part of the century. Viewed as pioneers, the guild was comprised mostly of British women dedicated to locating graves, compiling registers and supplying and erecting crosses that commemorate British and Afrikaner casualties alike. The crosses, attached to cemetery walls, are also easy targets for thieves and when they are stolen they leave only a shaded impression on the wall. Who the cross commemorated is seldom known.
By comparison, the Canadian war graves are in far better shape than most of the others. “We tend to say the only thing indestructible in the new South Africa is a Canadian headstone,” says Arthur Blake, national secretary of the South African Legion. But even Canadian headstones have been knocked over in some places. Blake, also a member of the British War Graves Committee, says when a toppled headstone has been found the committee makes the arrangements to put it back in place.
Canadians visiting Europe are impressed with the state of the war cemeteries due to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Worldwide, Canada contributes nearly 10 per cent of the budget for the Commission. In 1996-97 that contribution is expected to be approximately $6.4 million, but the commission’s mandate starts with WW I. In South Africa, the commission looks after 8,342 graves or commemoration sites but only five of those graves are Canadian.
The truth of the matter is that Canada has never been involved in maintaining its pre-WW I graves overseas. That has left South Africa alone to care for the colonial war graves of those who came to fight. Over the years, the graves’ most significant protection has been the pure weight of their Canadian granite markers supplied and erected in the early 1900s.
However, the lack of Canadian involvement in maintaining the graves is something the Legion’s Dominion Command hopes will change. “The National Monuments Council gets an allotment every year from the British government to help with maintenance but there has not been a similar grant provided by Canada,” said Dominion Secretary Duane Daly. Daly, Dominion President Hugh Greene and First Vice Joe Kobolak were in South Africa for the 1996 British Commonwealth Ex-Services League conference. During their visit they inspected the Cape Town grave sites. “We have since initiated discussions with Veterans Affairs Canada about finding a potential means for them to offer financial support. We are optimistic,” added Daly.
Daly said the Legion representatives were impressed with the work done by the British War Graves Committee but that it was obvious the graves had been in a state of disrepair. “It became apparent that work is done on a very limited budget.”
Those graves are the aftermath of Canada’s involvement in the 1899-1902 war. As so often in Canada, public opinion was split between those who supported British colonial efforts and those who viewed them as imperial opportunism. The British and the Dutch had already fought the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-81 that led to an independent Transvaal state. Fearful of losing that power, the deeply religious Afrikaners would not allow British and other immigrants to vote. Attracted by the untold wealth in gold-fields and diamonds that were mostly being developed with British money, Britain demanded its residents be given full rights. Transvaal responded by demanding Britain withdraw her armed forces from the borders. Britain refused and the Second Anglo-Boer War began. This time the neighboring Afrikaner nation the Orange Free State came to Transvaal’s support.
At first, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier conceded only to send 1,000 infantry troops from Montreal to be known as the 2nd Special Service Battalion, RCR. Public opinion in Canada changed with British set-backs and a high number of casualties. So, a second contingent comprised of two battalions of mounted rifles and three batteries of artillery was sent. The new colonial enthusiasm attracted young men such as John McCrae who went with the artillery but would become far more famous as a doctor and the author of In Flanders Fields in WW I.
Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain, the railway baron Lord Strathcona, personally raised a third contingent by asking the legendary lawman of the Klondike, Sir Sam Steele, to found and command the Lord Strathcona’s Horse.
In all, 7,368 Canadians served in the war and they distinguished themselves in several battles especially Paardeberg and Liliefontein. The Canadians seemed to understand the unorthodox guerrilla techniques the Afrikaners used so effectively. Four Canadians received the Victoria Cross, including three members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons who earned it for the same action.
The Canadian Encyclopedia says 244 Canadians have graves or are commemorated on monuments in South Africa. The Books of Remembrance feature a slightly higher number of 283 but that includes 16 casualties from the 1884-85 Nile Expedition to relieve General Charles Gordon at Khartoum. Most, like Ross, died from disease, especially enteric fever.
Veterans leagues, including the Canadian South African Memorial Association, were formed after the war. The association was set up to mark the graves of Canadians who died overseas. Steele, who commanded a division of the South African Constabulary in the last phase of the war, stayed on and was instrumental in getting the grey granite headstones shipped from Canada.
The Maitland cemetery is the largest war cemetery in Cape Town. While approximately 25 per cent of the graves are from an earlier era, most of the others are from WW I and II. Here the perfectly regimented Commonwealth war graves line up on both sides of a Cross of Sacrifice. On one side lie the Cape Town Highlanders, the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) and the Cape Field Artillery, all units known for white enlistees. On the other side are Cape Coloured Corps, the Native Military Corps and other non-white regiments. “Anyone who thinks apartheid began in 1948 needs only look at how these were buried,” he says.
Gordon’s father–a lieutenant-colonel who also served in the Royal Scots Fusiliers–is buried here. A bit further on is the grave of H.H. Glassock, VC. He is buried among his WW I comrades and credited as a member of the South Africa Service Corps. Glassock won his VC in 1900 during the South African War as a driver with the Royal Horse Artillery. When caught in an ambush Glassock valiantly saved his unit’s guns while under fire.
A short distance from the Commonwealth war graves is a separate plot of graves and monuments. The oldest memorial dates back to about 1850 for soldiers who died in the wreck of the convict transport ship Waterloo. The older graves are in a cluster around a commemorative column. Most were brought into the cemetery in later years from smaller cemeteries in the western cape that faced reconstruction or flooding. Of those only two died in action while the others died of disease or from accidents.
Scattered about them are five or six Canadian graves. Among them are Trooper P.T.S. Tabb and Tpr. G.S. Racey of the South African Constabulary. Both died of disease April 27, 1901. Although Gordon has no record of them being Canadian, the granite headstones can only be explained if they were Canadians who served with Steele in the constabulary.
While most of the graves are in good shape, one–marked Pte. R. LeCouteur of the RCR, accidentally killed Sept. 30, 1900–is up against a brick fence facing a different direction than the others. It is far more weather-beaten than the others and could use maintenance. Though it is hard to believe on a calm sunny day, this is the legendary Cape that changed its name to the Cape of Good Hope from its original Cape of Storms. “We have no money for maintaining the graves,” explains Gordon. “This area is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We don’t say anything and ours are generally kept up, too.”
Gordon says the whole nature of the work of the monuments council has changed. While the British War Graves Committee is responsible for British and colonial graves, their work is mirrored in the Burgergrafte subdivision of the council. The Burgergrafte has been responsible for another 35,000 graves of Afrikaners who died in the same period. As for the blacks who fought in all wars, their graves have been virtually ignored. But now the council is preparing to merge all the committees into one representing all races and ethnic backgrounds.
Even the name of the war has had to be reconsidered. Boer originally referred to foreign settlers who worked farms and came to refer specifically to South Africa’s Dutch settlers. But it is now considered derogatory. “It is best to call it the South African War,” says Gordon. “Everyone is agreed upon that.”
Among the projects undertaken by the committee is the reconstruction of the Seaforth Old Burying Ground, established in 1813 in Simonstown, a short drive from Cape Town. Now known as the Garden of Remembrance, the hillside cemetery mixes modern architectural walkways and columns with original headstones and markers dating back to the ground’s first use as a navy cemetery.
The sort of regular vandalism that the cemeteries take is pointed out by historian Arthur Davey. The cemetery’s sign has a bullet hole in it beside the B in Burying.
The garden contains the oldest British casualties, going back to the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795-1803. The centrepiece is a column that lists the more than 430 lives lost when the troopship Birkenhead sank Feb. 26, 1852. As was often the case, there were not enough lifeboats for everyone and the ship lives on in naval history as being where first was heard the famous call: “Women and children first.”
Davey explains that a few years ago three skeletons were discovered near Cape Town during an excavation for building. “We were able to tell by the buttons and cloth of the remaining uniforms that these three were positively from the Birkenhead.” The three bodies were re-interned in the garden in 1993. Davey says a fourth has since been found and plans are under way to bring it there later this year.
Davey and Gordon speak of work down in Willowmore, approximately 600 kilometres west of Cape Town. There, they have been reconstructing a war cemetery. They have been able to identify who the stolen crosses erected by the Loyal Guild of Women once commemorated and have replaced them. Added to the cemetery is a marker bearing six names, found in an unused field. It marked graves of black soldiers and had been long forgotten. “The marker was used for target practice,” says Gordon.
“People don’t realize military graves are part of our heritage,” Gordon says. He notes the round, rough spots you sometimes see on the paved roads were created in more troubled times in South Africa when tires were set on fire during the riots. Some were caused by the frightening “necklace” where a person is forced to stand in the centre of a stack of tires that is then set on fire. “There are people who want to preserve some of those locations, too. It is all part of what has been fought for in this country,” he says. “And then there are the native wars…. There is so much to come to grips with.”
Coming to grips with South Africa’s past is a huge task. After decades of neglect there is support for trying to hold onto the country’s rich history, and a portion of that includes Canada’s history. Like all parts of the great South Africa puzzle, it is a story that for decades has been slipping away, like the grave of Pte. Ross.