Correcting misconceptions: CWGC

Many who know me are probably tired of hearing me go on about the need to get into the primary source documents and see things for yourself rather than rely on secondary source material.

Secondary source material has an important role to play in synthesising and analysing information, for filling in peripheral gaps and for stimulating further research.

The value of visiting, or revisiting, primary source material was reinforced when I visited the CWGC archive. I’d made links with the Technical Adviser for Africa who had invited me to come and see what CWGC does and to see what kind of information is held in the archive. I selected a few files which looked interesting from a selection of the catalogue I was sent (the full list was in process of being put onto a searchable database of which I was also given a preview. This should really help open up the archive for social and cultural historians especially). And boy, were they interesting!

One file contained information on how they differentiated between religions, important for the forces in Africa where a large number were Muslim but also significant numbers of Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. A series of letters explained how unidentified remains could be linked to medical reports of graves – head slope and teeth structure being used to differentiate Caucasian (white), Black African and Indian remains. This was important when mass graves were exhumed for relocation purposes. Yes, there were mass graves in East Africa – and not only as previously assumed for the carriers. (Mass burial appears to have been the norm for the German forces with memorial plaques listing all). The necessity of war and conditions of battle meant bodies were disposed of as best one could. At Salaita Hill, a trench dug for the Allies was filled with 11 bodies – 7 white and 4 Indian – reminiscent of Spionkop during the Anglo-Boer War. Although the individuals could not be named as all identifying marks, including uniforms, were not available – four years after war ended and seven after the battle – the numbers tallied with the war reports and the bodied could be moved to a more permanent resting place at Taveta – following strict protocols to ensure respect.

Where the graves of known individuals were to be moved to a place easier to care for, relatives’ permission was sought. Often this work was undertaken by fellow soldiers or men who had served in the theatre. The local women made wreaths to place in the cemeteries – white flowers dominated. It is worth noting in this regard that this was the process for white British graves, including British citizens in other countries (only in 1926 were the dominions recognised as separate identities).
Another surprising find was a hand-written report which specified ‘Native Officers’. The general belief is that only whites were appointed officers. Here we have evidence that 47(?) people of colour, presumably black, as Indians were classified as such, were made officers – and died, suggesting there were more. The challenge now is to find out who they were.

Returning to the issue of graves and the recording – or lack therefore – of carrier names etc, it was clear from the correspondence that this had been carefully thought through and was not for reasons of race but rather that colour (race) became an identifier because the majority were black. The other main divide was literacy – being able to communicate in English and the written form. Where people were not able to do this, they were not consulted or considered in the same way as those who could communicate in written English. These reasons were not articulated in the files, but consideration of the decisions made and how they were made highlight these issues as delineators.

The decisions made were pragmatic, based on the knowledge of the day. In essence if a person was literate, where their identity was known they were given an independent grave with headstone – this accounts for the carriers and labourers who were known to be Christian being given a grave. The Christian carrier had spent some time in a mission school and had therefore moved some way to being regarded as ‘civilised’ under the definition of the time. The French had a similar practice for according someone from Africa a French citizen.

More reading of the files needs to be undertaken but it appears that the reason for the separate cemeteries (superficially along colour/race lines) were along religious or cultural lines. The Hindi or Indian cemeteries generally containing a plinth and sometimes the graves of individuals.

Although not all were given a headstone, where their names were known these were kept in a register. The challenge was recording the names. This was not always done in the heat of battle as survival was a far greater priority and often it was left to the enemy to bury the dead. In other cases, it depended on the literacy and regard of the person as to whether the name was recorded. This particularly affected labour and carrier records. Some tribes (micro-nations) did not believe in burying their dead so left them along the way for wild animals to dispose of. The exhausting nature of the march and sometimes the large numbers of deaths meant chiefs were too tired to record names, or didn’t tell the white officers, and then of course some officers were better at keeping records than others. (One sees this in the War Diaries where some daily reports include the names of all those sent to hospital, died or arrived, irrespective of contingent).

The reasons stated for not giving everyone a headstone was mainly financial – a stone cost between £12 and £60 depending on where it needed to be transported to. For families who were not likely to visit the grave or to ask questions about the resting place of a loved one (ie those less literate, not of one of the recognised major religions), they were not accorded a tombstone or even a listing on a wall. Their names however are on registers in each of the relevant cemeteries.

Trying to reconcile data in remote Africa four years after the war ended could not have been easy. The challenge for us today, with our evolved values, is to find a way to accord those without a tombstone the same recognition as those with one. It’s worth knowing that the idea behind the askari monuments in Nairobi and Mombasa including carriers and other labourers, was an attempt by those in the 1920s to collectively remember the men who had no headstone.

Getting into the primary source material is imperative if we want to avoid ‘broken telephone’ and mis-understandings or perpetuation of myth. Reading the material for ourselves with all our past individual experiences brings new interpretations and understanding which adds to the jigsaw of history.

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Matchbox full of diamonds

Matchboxes are wonderful things. You can build towers and other buildings with them and once the matches inside have been removed, they can be used for storing all sorts of things – tiny things. Someone’s even created a museum of matchboxes.

David Kramer, a South African musical social commentator has a song with the same title as this blog. In the song, he tells the story of men who leave the mines in South West Africa (now Namibia) with diamonds hidden in matchboxes. No doubt these diamonds are later sold in the illegal markets for additional income.

Diamonds in Namibia were discovered in the years preceeding the outbreak of World War 1 and as a result of what today could be regarded as insider trading, but then looking out for national interests, the MP Hull set in motion the formation of Anglo-American which was to obtain the rights to these mines soon after South African received the German colony as a C-type Mandate at the Treaty of Versailles. It was in the setting up of Anglo-American that Sir Ernest Oppenheimer was invited by Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts to be an observer at the Peace Talks.

At the outbreak of war, there were 1500 Coloured South African citizens working in German territory who had to be brought back to the Union. They had presumably been working either on the mines or on farms. The difficulty they faced was that the German bank notes they’d been paid with were not accepted by South African banks. This was because the banks weren’t sure whether they would recoup the money from Germany. The Government had to step in and help make decisions to ensure these men were fairly compensated.

And here’s a place you can go and get your own diamonds: Diamond Crater

I don’t understand

Having travelled around Cuba for over a week staying in family homes or rather in rooms attached to homes, we spent two nights in a resort on an island (Cayo Santa Maria) connected to other islands and the mainland by a road, built for the purpose. All I can say is thank goodness there were as few people as there were – that was bad enough.

We’d been warned that food in Cuba wasn’t very good. Now we know why – although meals were a bit hit and miss elsewhere, the quality was better outside the resort. Intriguingly, the dishes which weren’t all that good outside were the best inside. I wonder how much the fact that things like lobster, shrimp and beef are restricted to tourists accounts for this?

What I don’t understand is why come all the way to Cuba to stay in a resort cut off from the local population, society and culture. And it’s not just Cuba – we have spent a night or two in similar set-ups at the start/end of holidays in The Gambia, where people ventured out to the local beach two minutes’ walk away to encounter the local touts. We did a ‘beach holiday’ early on after moving to the UK – we spent a Christmas in Tunisia. That in itself was fascinating. Two South Africans in a predominantly German-focused resort for a week. Three days in and we were chomping at the bit having seen all in the local neighbourhood.

What is it that attracts people to such places – where everybody tries to outlook the other in body or clothing (or lack thereof) lying in the sun turning the colour of lobster depending on your original skin colour, or developing a brown so dark you could be missed if standing amongst some trees. I can’t get my head around people wanting to sit in straight lines on lounges crammed up against each other in the only bit of shade available – either on a beach where if there’s only one line you do get to see the ocean, or around a swimming pool – with the music blearing.
Solace was found on the room balcony, looking into natural vegetation where the birds and cicadas dominated the music scene and not a person was to be seen.
The only consolation I have with a place such as this is the import duties which must be paid on the drinks and ‘Pringles’ brought in for those missing ‘home’ comforts and presumable, as the Cuban resort is government-owned and run, the money made from the residents in the resort helps keep other parts of the economy going.
But what irks is the inequality and the shutting off from reality.

In Tunisia, I remember the resorts being behind high walls, the locals working there having to travel miles on cramped buses to get to the set of six-foot walls which allowed them a basic standard of living. Somehow we found ourselves outside these high walls across from a local village – it was life at its rawest. Scrawny dogs and children ran around on stone ground littered with broken bottles and plastic packets. The houses across the road in the distance rickety wood and brick constructs barely able to stand upright, yet we were in beautiful (? the eye of the beholder) air-conditioned, brightly painted, stable buildings with bar, dining rooms and swimming pool.

Gambia was similar, although we were more used to the Sub-Saharan traditional African village way of life. The starkness though, of the two environments was still jarring.

In Cuba, it wasn’t clear if the staff stayed on the premises or if they travelled over 46 kilometres each way to get to and from work to the nearest town. If their accommodation is on site, I hope it’s better quality than the ‘squatter’ or shanty town development I spotted in the state run hotel/resort at Playa Largo – near Plaza Giron where the Bay of Pigs incident took place.

It shows how conditioned we get to our environments. In a couple of places we stayed – Trinidad and Playa Lago in particular, I wondered to myself what we had got ourselves into as we were driven down the dilapidated, dusty, pot-holed streets between run-down buildings and others being constructed. Only to stop outside the most recently renovated or colourful building on the street – luxury awaited. In Santa Clara, it was slightly different – down the main road through town to an exterior which reminded me of colonial buildings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi as well as in Moscow which had seen better days. Yet, again, behind a door, a library in a court-yard with air-conditioned comfort of city standards. In all these places, family life continued either in the residence or around, children playing with their parents, babies out and about at 9.30pm in bars and restaurants, barbers and hairdressers cutting hair on their verandahs or in their front rooms. A neighbour sticking her head in next door to ask for the TV volume to be turned down – all in good friendly nature. Another serving mohitjas from a grill which replaced their front window and when we asked to sit down were directed inside to tables just behind the grills. Grandad coming up to us, a towel wrapped around him telling us in Spanish there was a ‘banjos’ at the back where we could ‘pipi’. Priceless experiences missing from the ‘meat processing’ resorts.

(And hopefully now, those I was travelling with can understand why I was so grumpy for the last two days.)

What is Corned Beef?

Doing a workshop with year 6 pupils on life in World War 1 provided some interesting points of discussion and as usual led to more questions and revelations.

Fortuitously, in the days before the workshop, transcribing the Pike Report into medical conditions in East Africa, I came across the minimum rations prescribed for the different groups of people campaigning in the theatre (Section 9).
– European and Cape Coloured Corps
– Indian Troops and Followers and local Indians
– African Troops, Arab Company and Gun Porters and Stretcher Bearers
– Carriers
– Cape Boys
– Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops
– West India Regiment
– East Africa Forces:
o Europeans, West Indians, British West India Regiment, Cape Corps, Indian Christians, Goanese Clerks
o Indian Troops, Followers and Local Indians
o Cape Boys, Somalis
o Chinese
o East African Troops, Followers, Porters
o Arabs
o Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops (European rations to Native Dressers, Telegraph Operators, Linesmen)
o Prisoners of War (manual labour, children)
o Animals
Despite the contents and amounts having been scientifically worked out, the men were lucky if they got the full quantity on a daily basis, and if they did, able to cook it. Most frustratingly, when India improved the dietetics for those in Mesopotamia, the Indian Government neglected to pass the information onto East Africa which resulted in unnecessary illness due to poor food intake.

Back to Year 6. They were going to get a taste of African food as prepared during World War 1 – without palm oil or ghee. This meant boiling yams, sweet potatoes and beans. The women preparing the food started cooking at 7 am the morning of the workshop, to be ready to serve at 1.30/2pm. They just managed it including about 30 minutes to travel to the venue and 30 minutes to set up. Their cooking had been done on modern appliances. How much longer would they have needed on an open fire? They were catering for about 40 people and only a taster as these young British people had not likely tasted food like this before.

The reactions ranged from ‘this is disgusting’ to ‘is there more?’ The flavour was rather bland – boiled food without spice. Personally, these were the best yams I’ve ever eaten so not sure what it says about me. But it also became apparent while thinking about it that boiling yams and potatoes would help purify water for drinking – not all that tasty at the best of times but it would have retained some of the nutrients usually cooked out of vegetables. Although cooking maize meal to a runny porridge state would have been quicker than to stodge form for fufu or ugali, spoons would have been required – finding spoons would be another challenge as the war progressed. Having the maize meal stiff meant it could be eaten more easily with fingers. If the men were lucky enough to have leftovers, some forms of maize meal would safely last a few days.

One of the featured meat items was corned beef (preserved). This led to the questions: What is it? What corn is mixed with it? We’ve had it for years but not thought until now what it is.

Surprisingly, the corn is salt – large grained rock salt, known as ‘corns’ of salt. It’s the introduction of nitrates which results in the meat turning pink, reducing the risk of botulism. Potassium nitrate – also referred to as salt peter (Source: Amazing Ribs, wikipedia)

Bully/corned beef could be eaten cold if you could get the tin open, it could be cooked, mashed and added to yams, rice etc to make a more filling meal and to provide variation – that is, providing supplies got through.

Diversity in the military

Working through WO 132/21 on military intelligence from Delagoa Bay during the Anglo-Boer War, I came across the following figures of foreigners fighting for the Boers. The information, 19 July 1900, ‘was obtained from a well-informed foreigner recently arrived from Machadodorp; but judging by former information, it seems an overestimate.’

Germans and Hollanders – 5000
French – 2000
Russians – 1000
Scandinavians – 500
Italians – 600
Austrians – 600
Total – 9700

Diversity in war is nothing new and World War 1 in Africa was no different. In addition to the 177 micro-nations which participated in the East Africa campaign specifically there are references to Americans, Australians, Canadians, Scandinavians, Italians and Greeks. The numbers involved were not as great as those participating in 1900 but it reminds us that what might appear as a homogenous group invariably wasn’t.

Were these men mercenaries or professional soldiers? The definition of a mercenary is a person who is primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics, while a professional solider is hired to serve in a foreign army. Those who served in the Boer War and EA campaigns were professional soldiers although might not have received the training they needed to have.

Significantly, the Americans who served in the East African Forces and Legion of Frontiersmen did so at a time that the United States of America was neutral. The implications of this and the consequences at an international level do not appear to have been investigated. The Scandinavians generally were to be found in the Belgian Force Publique, many have been involved from before the outbreak of war. Many, however, were in the area enlisting to protect their territory or for the adventure. The numbers and extent of foreigners serving in the war in Africa is still to be fully determined.

A hot train

In the centre of Cuba lies a town called Santa Clara. Here, the revolutionaries under the guidance of Che Guevara derailed a train carrying military equipment and soldiers. In memory of this event, a museum has been created using the train wagons captured on the day. Inside each closed wagon, a part of the story is told. Visiting this at 4pm, when we thought things would be cooler, proved how much we underestimated the heat.

A step inside the first wagon, was a step into pure airlessness and I couldn’t help my mind wondering to another train derailment – that by the Germans of the British line in Tsavo in 1915. And whilst writing this yet another sprung to mind – the derailment of the Whisky Train near Val during the Anglo-Boer War. The soldiers in all were in an unenviable position and stood no chance against those ambushing the train.

An intriguing feature in another Cuban wagon, one pock-marked with bullet shots, contained a section inside showing how the wagon was protected. A board was placed around the inside of the train and between that and the outer casing, sea sand was poured in. This created a protective layer which deflected the bullets as evidenced by the marks on the side of the wagon. It’s unlikely the trains in Tsavo had such protection but similarly, Batiste’s army hadn’t realised the value of having a wagon or two at the front of the train to provide a buffer for mines and to lure hidden gunmen into giving themselves away.

While there was much fraternising when the contents of the whisky train were offloaded, there was little in the Cuban scenario. Guerrilla fighting continued in the town as evidenced by the bullet holes in the walls across the road from the 1726 church. Apparently the rebels moved through the houses and scaled down walls from the second storeys in order to make it difficult for Batiste’s soldiers to hit them.
The final wagon was dedicated to the women who had served the revolution. Interestingly all the info was only available in Spanish – this was the case for all the wagons except the first overview one and those showing weapons and the bullet marks (is this what most English speaking visitors are interested in?).

One thing I found intriguing in all the places we’ve visited in Cuba is the absence of AK-47s – weapons of choice (used) by the Angolans and Umkomto uSizwe during the struggles in southern Africa. The rebels had very few weapons, hence the need to derail a supply train. But what was rather startling – with the Bay of Pigs incident was that the invading army (Batiste’s men) were using 1897 and 1903 US weapons: this in 1961 and it has generally been regarded that the 1870 black smoke rifles used in 1914/18 Africa were outdated! One almost got the impression that the Americans did not expect Batiste’s men to be successful and so set them up to fail with poor quality weapons. The absence of Russian weapons for use by the rebels suggests that this relationship only developed after Castro and the rebels were successful and by all accounts the derailing of the train in Santa Clara was the turning point which saw the rebels gather support and succeed.

It’s cultural – masculinity

In a conversation with Cuban artist Vladimir Rodriguez at his studio in Cienfugos, Cuba, the topic of masculinity came up as we were taking our leave. We’d spent some time talking to him and on leaving he gave us a Cuban farewell – a kiss on each cheek. Looking at my husband he said ‘and one for you too. Here in Cuba, showing emotion and men hugging each other is a sign of masculinity, not with all the connotations it has in America and Britain. Handshakes are also more gentle – not a showing off of power.’

How refreshing!

Recently reading Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Johannesburg, the same point was raised. African men don’t cry says one of the ANC stalwarts to his young mixed-race nephew. When the young lad witnesses two men in a relationship, his mother cleverly guides him along the lines of respect for people rather than the social/moral rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships. It’s often struck me rather odd to say ‘Boys don’t cry’, as it’s not a manly thing to do, yet often you will see black African men walking down the road fingers interlocked. I’ve seen this in south, central and east Africa. In no way is this intimacy a sign of sexual preference – it’s a sign of friendship, trust and being comfortable with one another. In Africa, and as recently discovered in Cuba, touching and showing emotion is far more natural than in Europe and particularly Britain and America. Where people in Africa do keep apart such as in Tanzania, where holding hands and kissing is a ‘no-no’, it’s been the result of religious teachings.
Why is it in these hotter climate territories, men are more affectionate than in places where it’s colder? Naturally one would assume, at least I do, that colder temperatures would lead to more physical contact in order to keep warn, yet it’s the other way round.

In this increasingly global community where cultures are mixing more – I wonder which masculinity is going to win through. I certainly hope it’s one which shows more respect and empathy for others, irrespective of strength and power. What’s also rather fascinating in connection with this topic, comparing Cuban men to white South African men in general (I distinguish here as this is the dominant culture I have experienced), is that Cuban men are more gentle than the white South Africans who tend to be more ‘macho’ – both groups in question having had compulsory military service – some Cubans having served in Angola against South Africa in the 1980s. Military training is therefore not a great determining factor in the formation of the macho male identify – there is something else at play…