How did a global Internet search come to influence a character in a South African novel?
Well... it happened like this:
An uncle of mine served in North Africa during World War II.
Tragically, he lost his life towards the end of 1941, at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh. Such was the ferocity of this particular battle, that the whereabouts of his grave was never established.
I wanted to pattern one of the characters in my novel The Housemaid's Daughter on him - but I needed to know more, especially as my fictional character, Phil, only son of an Irish immigrant family, would survive the war and return to South Africa to play his part in the novel. Phil had to be able to describe his wartime experiences to Ada, the young heroine of The Housemaid's Daughter, as authentically as possible. So I trawled through military journals to gather the facts: the forces involved in the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, the attacks made and defences mounted, the numbers killed and wounded, the effect of the battle on the course of the war in North Africa. But the facts and figures only told part of the story. Something was missing. I realised that it was only when I knew more about the sad fate of my long-deceased uncle, that I would be able to bring the fictional Phil to life.
And so began a most extraordinary 'virtual' journey to trace my uncle's final days. The entire effort took place online, and connected me with people and resources on three continents and across multiple time zones. All I knew was that he was believed to have died during the Battle of Sidi Rezegh. I had no date, no record of his rank or regiment, and no details if or where he might be buried. Sidi Rezegh lies not far from Tobruk, in Libya. The action took place during Operation Crusader, the Allied push to relieve Tobruk, which had been under siege for most of 1941. I discovered that South African and New Zealand forces had been involved, and - most significantly - that the 2nd South African Irish regiment had been in the thick of the fighting. With the family's Irish roots, could this be where he served, where he fought and died? Would I be able to confirm it? Or would he remain one of the unknown among the 4000 soldiers killed, wounded or taken prisoner?
Tucked away on the Internet, I found the South Africa War Graves Project, a volunteer-run enterprise whose goal is to archive photographs of every South African serviceman's grave, from the Anglo Boer War onwards. This huge project is run by an indefatigable Canadian, who directs a small group of dedicated souls who travel and photograph graves all over the world. Unsung heroes, all...
I gave them my uncle's name, and the place where he was believed to have died. And with just those paltry facts, they found him on the Project's database: a Corporal in the SA Irish, aged 31, born and brought up in the tiny town of Cradock, South Africa, son of my correctly-named grandparents and husband of a young wife he left behind. My uncle died on 23rd November 1941 at Sidi Rezegh, and is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Knightsbridge War Cemetery, Acroma, Libya, alongside his comrades. His family never knew.
And as I laid him to rest and returned to my novel, I found that Phil, his fictional counterpart, was no longer a stranger to me. He had, indeed, sprung to life.