The archive is an overwhelming building of endless possibilities. As part of the postgraduate cohort of the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, their MD Club paid an archival visit to the Department of Defence (DOD) Archives. An archivist presented a detailed account of the inner workings of the DoD military document holdings.
Physical copies of the DoD inventories were shared, and then the DHHS group were taken on a tour of the archive. We were first taken into Room 8, which I can only describe as the Hall of Prophecies from the Harry Potter films. Rows upon rows of shelves were stacked to the brim with boxes which were filled with documents. It is every historian's dream. From there, we walked through the labyrinth of corridors to arrive in the room that contained personnel documents of all South Africans who served in the First and Second World Wars. This is where we were asked to name any person we knew who served in the Second World War. I gave the name of my grandfather, Leo Fish, and within two minutes, the archivist had found his name and showed me his files.
We continued from room to room, and our last stop was the reading room.
The end of the tour was not the end for me. My grandfather’s papers were patiently waiting for me on the desk of the meeting room. I sat beside the archivist (Major Bentz), who explained each document and all of the military jargon. I knew that my grandfather had served as a signals officer in World War II within the borders of South Africa, but the details of his movements were foreign to me. My grandfather passed away before I was born, which meant that this moment not only gave me insight into South Africa’s contribution to the war effort but it brought me closer to my grandfather. I was very moved to learn that his efficiency in the army was noted as ‘very good’ and that his character was described as ‘exemplary’ despite his short 90 days of active service. He had joined the army at the age of 21 as a student and left at 24 as a civil engineer. I am one month away from 24, which prompted a moment of reflection concerning the stages of our lives and the differences of the world in which we have lived.
This extraordinary experience will forever be in my memory. I am grateful to the Department of Defence Archives for taking care of South Africa’s military history and for allowing small moments of connection such as mine. I am also grateful to the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the MD Club for this opportunity. Best believe I will visit these archives again soon.