Historian Fleur Way-Jones describes how residents of Grahamstown experienced the end of World War 1.
The Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918; on 15 November an Armistice Day service was held on Church Square. The Great War had ended. Bonfires lit up the skies on Armistice Day. Christmas would be celebrated in peacetime again. By August 1919 most Union contingents on imperial service had returned to South Africa.
Grahamstown was exhausted after the Spanish Flu epidemic and was counting its losses. What Grahamstown never anticipated was that the joy of returning soldiers would bring a health threat in the form of the Spanish Flu epidemic during October – November 1918. Trains into town were stopped. The lists of those who died from influenza listed in the local papers far outnumbered those of the casualty lists at various times of the war – about 600. The Grahamstown Journal editorial explained, ‘The recent influenza epidemic has taken the sunshine out of many a home and the shadow of war still hangs over many a household.’ But still the Kowie was a popular resort. But so many did not return home… One cannot write about a town during the First World War without considering the loss and absence of its loved ones and imagining the impact that must have had on their homes.
Grahamstown had its heroes. Alexander and Ethel Munro of Slaaikraal, Grahamstown lost one son, Graham Alexander and a nephew, James Norman: Motor Cyclist Grahame Alexander was killed in German East Africa in 1916 and Private James Norman KIA at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The Cherrys of Warren Street, Grahamstown, lost two sons.
There were casualties right until the end of the war. Private Walter Randall Meaker blinded at Flanders in 1918 was sent to St Dunstan’s Hospital to recover and returned to Grahamstown where he lived at his house in St Bartholomew Street until his death in 1953. 2nd Lieut Gordon Robert Craig, an old Kingswoodian and a dentist, died at Flanders in January 1918. Lieut Alan Duthie Bowker aged 38 years died on 24 March 1918 and was buried at Hem Cemetery, Hem-Monacu, Northern France. In the Southwell church, there is a photograph of Roy and Roland Hill in their World War 1 great coats. Lieutenant Roy Mortimer Hill of the South African Infantry, son of Henry Mortimer and Agnes Margaret Hill, died 9 October 1918 aged 33 years and is buried in Bertry Communal Cemetery, France. Roland, son of George Hill of the farm Melville Salem, died 20 September 1917 aged 22 years and was buried at Ypres (Menin Gate). Driver William Bracken of the South African Service Corps died at Roberts Heights on 13 November 1918 in the last days of the war.
One of the youngest casualties was Garnet Sidney Tarr, a 16 year old, whose family lived on Victoria Road, Grahamstown. Garnet died from wounds caused by shrapnel in East Africa in August 1916. Although initially rejected from enlistment due to his age, the young boy left one night on a train for Potchefstroom, leaving only a note for his parents telling them he was on his way to the front. At Potchefstroom he was enlisted into the Hartigan’s Horse regiment and went with them to German East Africa. His letter to his mother reads,
“My dearest and loving mother, just a few lines to let you know that I was dangerously wounded today in the stomach. I have been operated upon and the doctor told me my case is hopeless and is a case of hours. Well, mother, forgive me for all my sins and ask God to help you to bear this great trouble; to look over you and father and the children. Tell them their soldier hero brother died like a man from a treacherous German shell. With love to all at home. I remain. Your fast sinking loving son. Garnie”
A witness to his death wrote to his mother: “he was terribly wounded… he had very little pain afterwards and was very clear and quiet. I told him he could not live and that he had only a few hours…He was beautifully brave and quiet… he said his great regret was your sorrow”
Other families who lost sons were the Cherrys of Warren Street. The casualties in France were dreadful: Company Sgt Major John Wilks aged 23, of the South African Infantry was buried in Thiepval Cemetery and Lance Corporal Eric Colegate, an old Graemian,only 18 years old, was buried at Ypres Cemetery.
Not all deaths were on the Western Front. Old Graemian, Trooper Francis King Malloch Brown. 22 years, of SA Horse Regiment died of enteric in Kenya in 1916. Women were widowed; children lost their fathers, girls lost their sweethearts. Men returned shell shocked and traumatised. This was indeed the lost generation.
Grahamstown had supported the British Allies for four years from the South West Africa Campaign to the Western Front. Anti-German feeling continued with a number of Grahamstown citizens being targeted: Dr Selmar Schönland, 1sr Curator/Director of the Albany Museum, Dr Hermann Francis Becker, a District Surgeon, Mr B Moser, the jeweller in Bathurst Street and Mr Neville Hariton McDermott whose mother was German and worked for the German company, Ritter & Co.
With the war ending it was time to think of memorials. East of the Cathedral stands the bronze Great War memorial of the Angel over the wounded soldier. This sculpture one of nine war sculptures by Gilbert Ledward, himself a Royal Artillery soldier, was unveiled by Mrs Giddy in June 1924. The Great War memorial has this inscription,
“Remembering these let no man think too highly of himself or meanly of mankind.” The names of the local men who died are inscribed on the north and south sides of the memorial.
The bronze statue of St George (a copy of the Malvern College statue) was placed in front of College House, Rhodes University (later moved to the entrance to the Great Hall) to commemorate the contribution of the student soldiers in the war. Plaques in the Cathedral, Commemoration Church and Baptist church remember congregants. In Commemoration Methodist Church, Edgar Knight the only son of the owners of Knight’s Shoe Shop is commemorated. At the schools, Kingswood has a plaque in the foyer of the Chapel; St Andrews has the Memorial Tower which was unveiled in 1923 by General Sir Henry Timson Lukin, CO Overseas Brigade. The stone tower designed by architect, Franklin Kaye Kendall, a partner of Sir Herbert Baker, has the names of the 125 Andreans who lost their lives. Headmaster Rev Canon PWH Kettlewell and staff stated,
“We think that the visible memorial to the fallen might best take the form of a clock tower….enshrining the names of the fallen. This tower must be a building worthy of those we have lost….” (Andrean, September 1918)
There are many more memorials in St Andrew’s Chapel including stained glass windows by William Morris studio. Of the 400 Kingswoodians who volunteered, 50 died. (15 dying in 1918)
Civilian life had been disrupted by the Great War but now it was time to focus on the City’s needs and more especially, the state of the township needed immediate attention. Smallpox at the beginning of the war and ‘flu” at the end brought health issues to the fore. Fundraising continued throughout the War for the Albany General Hospital and the new hospital called Settlers Hospital built in 1921. The Mayoress’ Christmas Appeal raised £69 18s 4d for a party for over 500 children on Fiddlers Green. Motorised toys still had a military theme and Mr Harris’ bioscope still showed “African Mirror” – South Africa’s war contribution. But Grahamstown needed to think more of issues at home and its citizens.
- Fleur Way-Jones:Curator emeritus: Albany Museum,1820 Settlers Association Genealogist, Professional Associated: Cory Library. With acknowledgements to Lin Andrew, SAC archivist and Shirley Fletcher, Kingswood Museum. Additional source: Hummel, Dr HC, 1986 ‘All the H’s Holocaust and Holly’ in Grahamstown Historical Society Annals Vol 44:35-44.