Confirming the past

Richard Meinertzhagen‘s reputation has suffered since the publication of Brian Garfield’s book, and for historians trying to work out what is fact and what enhanced, is quite a challenge, particuarly with the existing conditions for accessing his papers which are archived at the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s a case of working through other primary source material to verify dates and actions – a slow and tedious process, but really what any historian worth their salt should be doing. The value of double checking sources and returning to primary material has been brought home to me most recently with my current research project – despite numerous biographies written on Kitchener, accessing primary source material is revealing how interpretations have led to various aspects of the man being ignored, downplayed or misinterpreted. And I’m conscious that others might say the same about my discoveries as new insights and materials come to light in future years.

But returning to Meinertzhagen, looking for something else, I was interested to discover how the Natural History Museum is managing to find a way to unravel the confusion of the birds in its collection gifted to them by Meinertzhagen: using lice. This is a great step forward as a few years before on a visit to the Museum to see the Cherry Kearton (Legion of Frontiersmen) WW1 photo collection, the person I spoke to wasn’t sure when, if ever, they would be able to sort out the Meinertzhagen collection conundrum.

Another overlap between the two men, Kitchener and Meinertzhagen concerns Israel/Palestine. It doesn’t appear the two men met, but Meinertzhagen had close encounters with another Kitchener did: Churchill, and the latter’s correspondence too provides some interesting insights into Meinertzhagen.

A man whose past I find helpful in understanding Meinertzhagen is Lourens van der Post: obituary vs JDF Jones biography. I’m not sure either man really set out to be deceptive. Can anyone live a multiple life like theirs for as long without anyone realising? It’s more likely they were sufferers of Mutiple/Dissociative Personality Disorder. That’s for psychologists to determine, for the historian, they provide a reminder of the value of returning to primary source material and a prompt to look outside the world of traditional history to other disciplines and obscure links.

 

 

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Resigning in War

Working through the GROs (General Routine Orders – best explanation found) for East Africa [see GRO tab in link], I have been surprised at the number of people who resigned their commissions during the war, and which were accepted. Outside of war, it makes sense, but rather intriguing during war.

The best thing to do, is see if there are individual files on the people concerned but at the moment, time doesn’t allow for that. What piqued my interest though was that it was permissible. The fact that all, at least before late 1916, were volunteers would permit people to leave the armed forces if they so desired; they were not required to stay. So. under what circumstances could someone resign their commission?

The 1912 King’s Regulations (p49) explain: length of service, unfit for duty due to medical reasons, desire to be placed on half-pay list etc. These being the reasons pre-war, what, if anything, changed during the war? There’s a very helpful little publication called Various amendments and reprints of amendments to the King’s Regulations published between 1916 and 1921 which provides some insight into amendments of the King’s Regulations. A search on ‘discharge’ will provide all the conditions under which a person could leave their commission and how it was to be dealt with.

But this raises more questions as there is only one mention of women in the ‘amendments’ document and nothing about nursing…looking at the GROs, there were a few women/nurses who resigned their posts too. One of the women, according to family folklore, met her future husband in hospital. When they decided to get married/or she discovered she was pregnant (the order of events hasn’t yet been firmly determined), she resigned her post. It appears there was still some issue about married women working, even in the colonies where manpower was in great demand, although we know some convalescent homes were run by married women – other factors must have been at play, not least preganancy.

Back to the men:

  • many most likely resigned because they were medically unfit to continue – that there was 75% attrition mainly due to malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery suggests plausibility.
  • How many, though, resigned in order to re-enlist in Europe which was seen as the main theatre? We know there are a few rank and file who deserted to re-enlist in a preferred theatre, some under different names – when found they were usually deducted a day’s pay (research still being undertaken, hence no examples specified). Presumably it was better for officers to resign their commission and then re-enlist…
  • A few in East Africa specifically received permission to return to their farms to deal with the harvest as the military situation in 1914 and 1915 was rather quiet, and two Indian Expeditionary Forces had arrived which could help with defending the British East African border.
  • How many others were tired of the war and what it stood for? The account of Max Plowman, not on the African continent, giving a example.

It’s taken a little time and lateral thinking to source information on resigning commissions in World War 1. There is far more literature on how they were obtained. And, this, raises more questions to be answered at some stage:

  • Why the difference in focus?
  • What were the perceptions around people resigning their commission at the time vis-a-vis ‘What did you do during the war, Daddy?’, the conscription debate and the issues around conscientious objectors?

I wonder what new light will be shone on the campaigns in Africa when someone gets round to investigating the reasons men and women resigned their commissions over the length of the various campaigns?

Beards, moustaches and the army

Did you know that from October 1916 it was no longer compulsory for men to have a moustache in the British army?

We all know the famous picture of Kitchener and his moustache and as this marketing website identified, he wasn’t the only one at the time to sport such a look. I’d recently discovered this myself going through photos in the Desborough collection in Hertford. So I thought it worth a little investigation and see others have done the same.

This obscure little forum gives some interesting developments regarding the moustache and beards, while Major Pillinger provides a more coherent history and some more general info at TodayIfoundout. The art of manliness shares shaving traditions from around the world, and Wikipedia gives an insight into the different country military requirements today. All rather fascinating.

Why the army changed the rule in 1916, the Wellcome Library provides an answer.

So this got me thinking … did Kitchener shave off his moustache when he disguised himself as an Arab in the early 1880s? A painting from 1922 by Sheridan Jones suggests not, but I’m not sure if he’s got K tanned enough. Although this image from V&A by Richard Caton Woodville is in black and white, it seems more realistic. Back in 1883, the Egyptian Army officers sported moustaches – not surprising given they were under British Army regulations, but if you scroll all the way down, you’ll see some drawings of local forces sporting moustaches not much different to their British counterparts. Again, not too surprising considering the British and in particular Kitchener was responsible for training the force. In 1899, Soudanese soldiers look clean shaven with moustached officers.

And in World War 1 Africa? A scroll through online images of the King’s African Rifles suggests the majority were clean shaven. The Zanzibar forces who served in WW1 are also clean shaven – I’m not sure about the tank being WW1 but nevermind, this is the first website/page I’ve come across focusing purely on the island’s war contribution. Similarly, Wavell’s Arabs. Local cultural and religious traditions would no doubt have taken precedence over military regulations with beards being a sign of maturity – I’m not sure British army regulations distinguished between colonial forces in 1914 (must check some time). Paging through The Unknown Fallen supports my assumption of beards being culturally and religiously determined. Today there is a guide on religion and belief in the army – 12 religious groups being recognised.

Reading today’s regulations, with exceptions for religious and health reasons or even at the officer’s discretion, one wonders why they are not generally allowed if the person wants to grow one?

Comparatively speaking: 1899 vs 1914

The 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902 saw the following numbers involved on the British side:

  • 365,693 British Imperial troops
  • 82,742 Colonial troops (white)
    • 448,435 total

of these 22,000 died:

  • 5,774 killed in action;
  • 16,168 from disease and wounds
    • 21,942 (4.9%)

In comparison, the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918 saw the following total numbers in the British forces:

of the armed force

  • 3,443 killed in action
  • 6,558 disease and wounds
    • 10,001 (11%)

Carriers and labourers during the 1899-1902 war have not been recorded as readily as for the East Africa campaign:

  • 90,440 (14.6%) in East Africa

In places where large numbers had died – Bloemfontein, for instance – the government took responsibility for the graves. To tend – even to find – where those killed in battle had been buried was more difficult, for ‘the number of small skirmishes … made the task of keeping each grave in order very hard, while the [frequent] necessity … of marching a few hours after men had been killed made even the marking of graves difficult’ (Lord Methuen, The Times, 14 October 1904)

I couldn’t help compare the two campaigns – descriptions in Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War being reminsicent of so many diary entries for East Africa. Methuen’s quote struck a cord too, leading to the conclusion that, if it was this difficult to keep track of so few dead in a relatively compact campaign such as that conducted in South Africa, the achievement in East Africa, where the fighting took place over a far greater area despite the territories being of similar size,* of those identifying and caring for the graves is quite remarkable. And it explains why we’re still finding names** of those who have not yet been officially recognised for their service on the African continent during 1914-1918.

* According to https://www.mylifeelsewhere.com Tanzania is approximately 947,300 sq km, while South Africa is approximately 1,219,090 sq km. Meanwhile, the population of Tanzania is ~54.0 million people (890,617 more people live in South Africa).

** the South African War Graves Project has identified numerous names as part of its project as have others researching specific areas. As these are verified they’re being added to the CWGC site. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the 1899-1902 graves in South Africa as well.

Reference for 1899-1902 info: Elizabeth Riedi, Imperialist women in Edwardian Britain: The Victoria League 1899-1914, PhD University of St Andrew’s, 1998, p.69
WW1 figures: GWAA, Huw Strachan WW1 in Africa

 

 

 

Sperm Oil on Lake Tanganyika

Proofreading the second volume* of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition: a primary source chronology, the term Sperm Oil sprang out at me – clearly linked with whales, why would Spicer Simson want Sperm Oil and something like 50 gallons of it? It needed replacing after the Anversville caught fire.

According to Britannica, it’s a

pale yellow oil obtained with spermaceti from the head cavity (spermaceti organ) and blubber of the sperm whale.

The statement relevant to boats on Lake Tanganyika appears to be:

After removal of spermaceti and treatment with sulfur, sperm oil provided excellent lubricants that resisted extreme pressures. These were commonly used in mechanical transmissions, high-speed machinery, and precision instruments.

However, there was no signficant order for sulphur or mention of the removal of spermateci, so was it used as a lubricant or for lighting?
Not long after the German navy had been destroyed on Lake Tanganyika, the British Navy in 1917 was looking at designing ships which would work on thicker oil. Norman Friedman discusses this in his Naval Weapons of World War 1.

SCRAN provides a bit more helpful information, noting it’s a wax, not an oil, and it remains liquid even in sub-zero temperatures – not really an issue on the equator. And this one provides a short overview of how it’s all done. It was not just sperm whales who were killed for their oils, other whale species were targetted too.

Commercial whaling was eventually banned in 1982, although sperm whale hunting had been legally ended in 1944. Today, instead of sperm oil, the Royal Navy uses alternatives and the whale has been saved from extinction.

I’m still not 100% sure why Spicer Simson wanted to much oil but if he ran short, South Africa could replenish supplies – Cape Town lighthouse used it.

For those of you wondering, Moby Dick was a sperm whale inspired by a whale who got the better of humans on the ship Essex.

* vol 2 should be out later in 2019.

Mistaken neutrality? Portugal and WW1 Africa

It’s relatively common knowledge that the first shots of WW1 in Africa took place in East Africa on 8 August 1914 against Dar es Salaam, followed by Grunshi’s retaliatory shot in West Africa on 12 August and then the German attack on Taveta (in today’s Kenya) on 15 August.

What is less well-known is what happened in the south. On 13 August, the British ‘naval’ contingent on Lake Nyasa attacked the German Herman von Wissman in dry dock effectively winning Britain’s first naval engagement of the war.

Even less known, are the attacks on Portuguese East Africa (today’s Mozambique) and West Africa (Angola), These took place on 24 August and 18 October 1914 respectively. More has possibly been written on the German attack on Naulila, Angola than on the incursion into PEA, not least because the attack on occurred during the hiatus in South Africa’s attack on the German colony to deal with the outbreak of the Afrikaner Rebellion.

What is remarkable about these German attacks on Portuguese territory is that Portugal was neutral at the time and even more remarkable that the attacks failed to draw Portugal into the war. Portugal officially entered the conflict on 9 March 1916. Yet, in Africa, two expeditionary forces had been sent out in 1914 to protect Portuguese interests and on Portugal’s declaration of war, another two expeditionary forces were sent out. It was rather touch and go in East Africa when the first German attack took place, as this was without sanction by Governor Schnee who hastily smoothed flapping elephant ears (literary licence) to calm things down.

Portugal’s involvement in the East Africa campaign has not been looked on favourably by British military commentators and officers then or more recently – it wasn’t brilliant to say the least, but when considered in view of the political machinations going on, what these forces did achieve was quite remarkable. British forces Commander in Chief Jaap van Deventer had to be very creative in how he engaged the Germans in Portuguese East Africa to not ruffle allied feathers but still bring the German force to book.

In Angola, the attacks resulted in war trial tribunals setting precedents for later legal cases and years of unrest still experienced today.

There’s still so much to discover about the Great War in Africa – Belgian Congo too was attacked by German forces on 15 August 1914 at Kivu.

Perhaps in time, more memorials for these little known conflict areas will come to light.

Review: Sudan’s First Railway by Derek A Welsby

I just have to share this little gem of a find. Not my usual, I admit, but relevant for a forthcoming book. Thanks to members of the Specialist Research Group which meets at The National Archives, Kew, every few months, I was introduced to John who has a specialist interest in railways not least because he worked on numerous in Africa and Asia. He had a book which might be of use – and it most definitely has been, but there’s more to it than what I was looking for, hence sharing its find with you.

Sudan’s First Railway: The Gordon Relief Expedition and The Dongola Campaign, by Derek A Welsby was published in 2011 by the Sudan Archeological Research Society, as Publication Number 19.

Now, to be absolutely honest, the book did not directly answer my questions but in the succinct overview of the origins of the railways in Egypt and Sudan, I was able to follow references which filled in gaps we (my SA railway expert Sandy and I) were still struggling with. Derek has distilled from the copious autobiographies and other histories of the area, the development of the railway in a manner easily digestible and with some explanatory footnotes directing the intrepid researcher to other sources.

What makes this book special though are the photographs – of then and now. Derek has actually travelled the lines giving us a vision of what it looked like at the time from photographs and illustrations and how it compared in 2010. Apart from rolling stock, there are some clear maps and tables further explaining details for those particularly interested. Descriptions are given of camps and bases as well as the challenges faced in constructing particular parts of the line.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the desert has retained the ‘wounds’ of yester year – not dissimilar to the aged markings we saw through the Namib desert dating to WW1 and before. Welsby takes these photos, translates them into sketches and then explains them – there were recently similar explanations of WW1 training trench discoveries in southern England and Time Team as in the past ‘drawn’ over the image to show the pattern. Welsby’s are separate which allows for a clarity and clearness. He discusses ritual deposits, ticket offices, floor coverings, wells, redoubts, war memorials and more. This is then followed by 70 pages of ‘finds’ – photos and descriptions – of all sorts, railway materials, camp items and war related. One could spend hours pouring over the detail – not unlike visiting some museums. In fact, the book can best be described as a museum in print – at least with this museum you don’t have to get info overload before leaving, you can dip in as desired.

In addition to the texts mentioned by Welsby, for the UK railway specialist, The National Archives in Kew has a fascinating collection of pamphlets and booklets at reference ZSPC 11 and then for Cape to Cairo info, there’s Leo Weinthal’s epic publication in 4 volumes.

The railways of Africa provide a fascinating insight into the development of the continent, the economics and politics of the day. I’ve had to stop myself being diverted into all sorts of new imperialist explorations – but it won’t be for long, there are too many names from WW1 who are linked with African railway dicussions and surveys over the turn of the previous century.