Delville Wood and Square Hill

Recent enquiries concerning South Africa’s involvement at Delville Wood during the Battle for the Somme in July 1916 has brought to light that there is very little written about it. And although it’s the Western Front, the men I’m focusing on were African (South African to be specific).

Delville Wood is often regarded as the white English South African population’s equivalent of Gallipoli, Verdun or Britain’s first day of the Somme. For those wondering why I’ve specified white English South African, there are four special World War 1 commemorative events in South Africa reminiscent of the cultural diversity in the country then and now. In addition to Delville Wood which is generally commemorated every 11 November along with the rest of the world, there is Mendi Day on 21 February remembering all those who drowned when the SS Mendi went down. For me, it’s a fitting day to remember the over 19,400 black labourers who didn’t drown and who served on the Western Front and in Africa suffering the same privations and consequences of war others did. Then we have the white Afrikaans 1914 Rebellion more specifically the execution of Jopie Fourie who was found guilty of treason – he hadn’t resigned his commission before joining the rebels and finally, 20 September is Square Hill Day which is when the Cape (Coloured) Corps held their ground in Palestine. For readers aware of South Africa’s involvement in World War 1, these four remembrance events together demonstrate the richness of the country. However, missing from the ‘official’ events is that of East Africa and South West Africa. I don’t know of anything to commemorate South Africa’s invasion of South West in 1914/5, but the East Africa campaign is commemorated (knowingly or otherwise) by the Comrades Marathon which is run every year.

Back to Delville Wood. As far as I can tell, the best overarching account of South Africa’s involvement at the Somme remains Ian Uys’ work. I haven’t read any yet so cannot comment further. Peter Digby has written unit histories, a few others have compiled family history accounts, and then there is the website of Delville Wood itself. It is high time some brave historian (enthusiast or academic took on the challenge of writing a comprehensive account of South Africa’s involvement on the Western Front).

For those living in the Durham area, a novel approach to theatre-going featured the Battle of the Somme in a production 1916: No turning back (Thursday 21 July to Sunday 28 August 2016). The production takes an unusual approach to engaging the audience in experiencing the war and gives a flavour of what the South African troops might have experienced.

For those unable to get to Durham to see 1916: No tunrning back, Peter Dicken’s speech at Delville Wood 2016 gives some idea and an overview of what happened.

We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heardFrightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.

Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.

This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!

This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.

To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.

On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.

I’ve recently spent time at the SANDF Document Centre (South African Military Archives) in Pretoria and have as usual been astounded at the amount of material held. Yet, most researchers only access the military service cards. With this in mind and the snippets I accessed, I wonder what what treasures are still to be uncovered about South African involvement at Delville Wood and on the Western Front generally for men (and women) of all South Africa’s ethnic groups.

It’s become clear to me that World War in Africa cannot exclude what happened at Delville Wood and Square Hill – these experiences helped mould the country into what it is and should be given the same historical treatment that the East Africa campaign currently receives. A hundred years later is not too late to remember!

 

Malaria

A post on the topic of Malaria has been due for some time. It ravaged the forces and others who served during the First World War in Africa and is one of the highest killers in Africa today. The World Health Organisation Africa Region notes:

In 2015, 88% of global cases and 90% of global deaths occured in the African Region. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of malaria cases declined by 42% while the malaria death rate declined by 66% in the African Region.

How to prevent being bitten and whether or not to take anti-malarials is an on-going debate and one I keep an eye on as I’m allergic to some of the prescribed anti-malarials, don’t see why the price of the tablets should be so high if bought outside Africa, are insisted upon by travel clinics across a region even if it is known that mosquitoes are only to be found in specific locations and do not trust the long-term effects of putting such drugs into my body. However, I am aware enough to know that I do not want to contract Malaria as its consequences can be quite horrific. So what are the options?
Over the years I’ve gathered snippets of advice – alas my favourites are not socially accepted and so I can’t say I’ve tried them all, but it is worth pondering on. I wonder, too, if those serving during the First World War had been aware of some of these if the instances and severity of malaria would have been reduced…

The most recent research suggest chicken odour deters the anopheles mosquito. The photo in this article (sort of) proves another point I’d been meaning to check – anopheles mosquito has striped legs!! I have tried on recent visits to Africa to ask mosquitoes to just hang on for a bit before embarking on their vampire exercise so that I could look at their legs first. Alas, none of them has been that interested in my looking at their legs. (This handy site explains the different mosquitoes for anyone interested – although it doesn’t mention stripy legs for the anophales; also no mention of stripes in this article but a short history of research into Malaria in South Africa including findings from World War 1). And the last paragraph of this article, gives some other identifiers of anopheles mosquitoes – I might put these to the test on my next visit to a malaria area.

Another deterent, one I’ve been aware of for some years now, is elephant dung. The challenge here is collecting it and then transporting it cross border… This seems to be a popular repellent in India though.

One of the things we were brought up to use was citronella oils etc, however the effectiveness of this has been called into question and research suggests citronella is not as effective as other preventatives. The UC IPM supports this suggesting citronella works best outdoors with little wind movement. I had heard from a scientist but haven’t been able to find documentary evidence that citronella actually attracts mosquitoes. This makes sense if citronella is being burnt as it is generally away from the body.

Vitamin B1 and garlic have also been recommended as a repellent because they change your blood scent to something offputting to mosquitoes. They don’t work for all but then there’s also the challenge of having to remember to take tablets religiously for x amount of days before encountering mosquitoes – requirements just open to failure…

Covering up – a challenge getting the balance right between keeping cool and wearing enough clothing to cover the body which is thick enough to stop mosquitos penetrating.

Despite all these precautions some of us are just prone to getting bitten so it’s rather reassuring to know that there are now test kits (SA version) which can be administered personally. I’ve come close to using one but thankfully one or two crucial symptoms were missing which delayed the need.

Research into malaria has developed over the years. During the First World War, quinine was the main preventative as was covering up – the German officers kept a close eye on their men taking precautions whereas the British appeared more lax. However, quinine had its own issues which may have exaccerbated the signs and symptoms of malaria and the liquid form known as Lettow Schnapps wasn’t all that tasty.

It’s incredible how something so small can be such a significan killer and that we’re still struggling to find a way to deal with it.

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.

Marconi

A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.

Pecking order

Looking out my window, I’m fascinated at the order in which birds come to the feeder and how they arrange themselves to access food on the ground. There is a definite pecking order and from what I can see, it’s not always the big birds who get preference.

I’m currently helping a heritage group with some research into the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) during World War 1* and was struck by correspondence highlighting the differences between the various contingents making up the WAFF – the pecking order persists.  The issue of martial race has been discussed by many authors and until recently has been taken as read when selecting micro-nations for military service. The correspondence in @UKNationalarchives CO 445 shows how wide-ranging the pecking order was and the reasons for it.

Understandably to some extent, the needs of the Western Front dominated what was happening in the peripheral theatres of war. So, when on 3 December 1914, Lord Lugard (Gov Gen Nigeria) let the Colonial Office know that 6 maxim guns and two 2.75 / 2.95in guns had been lost in the Cameroons campaign and needed replacing, he didn’t stand much chance. The discussion in the CO papers (CO 445/34 48111) notes:

It is quite impossible to replace them at once. I understand that it has not yet been found possible to arm the Canadian Contingent with machine guns. We can of course send a copy of this to WO and ask them what they can do… say [to Gen Dobell­­­] that there is much difficulty and delay in procuring war like stores for Colonies and ask whether he considers the matter urgent.

The Canadian Contingent was headed to the Western Front. There was also some question regarding the request for replacement guns as it had been noted that on the outbreak of war there were 51 maxim guns in Nigeria (1 with each of the 34 Companies and 17 in reserve), 14 2.95inch guns (6 with No 1 battery and 4 with No 2 battery and 2 with each reserve battery). (CO 445/34 48111) What had happened to these?

The issue of weapons to the Western Front was not a ‘white’ versus ‘black’ issue which could be inferred by Canada getting preference over the WAFF, South Africa sufferened similar shortages of weapons and had to scrounge  from Malta, Australia and Portugal (forthcoming publications).

However, race did play its part in who fought where. As noted in October 1916, the War Office wanted white men in subsidiary theatres moved to Western Front asap and to be replaced by locally raised black troops including from South Africa. (CO 445/37 55218)

Closer to home, in Africa that is, the pecking order persisted as seen in the discussions over which troops were to serve in East Africa from 1916 onwards. In CO 445/37 48999 men from Sierra Leone were preferred over the West African Regiment, whilst the recruitment drive undertaken by Colonel Haywood clearly showd the military prefernce for troops from Gold Coast and then Nigeria. (CO 445/37 56748)

More specifically, in December 1916, following the WO request for 4,000 carriers to be recruited in West Africa for service with the Nigerian battalion in East Africa, the CO dsiscussion contained the following statements: The WO see Hausas being needed in Nigeria and that ‘the Sierra Leone Carrier is greatly to be preferred and is the only stamp fit for service with combatant troops.’ If carriers could not be obtained from Sierra Leone, then they should be raised from Nigeria but not from areas used for recruiting ‘combatant material’. ‘The Ibos should also be able to furnish large numbers of men of excellent physique who should make good labourers in Base Ports, and Lines of Communication releasing others who may be more suitable for employment with troops.’ (CO 445/37 62587)

What has also been striking about this correspondence is the clear understanding that the CO officials had of the different territories under their control and how this compared with the WO officials who saw no difference between the micro-nationalities comprising East and West Africa. It was nothing to the WO to suggest that King’s African Rifles (KAR) recruits be used to bring the Nigerian and Gold Coast Regiments up to establishment if men could not be found and trained quickly enough in West Africa. (CO 455/37 42406).

Another area where differences were seen was in the application of the King’s Regulations for the British Army to the African forces. Officers seconded from the British Army to the WAFF recommended that conditions for serving African rank and file be the same as for those serving in the British Army. Whilst this principle of equality was generally accepted for the WAFF, there were local conditions which had to be taken into account which mitigated against the King’s Regulations – notably the payment of separation allowances to families who had no knowledge of, or need for, money.

The above are snippets I extracted from my rapid trawl through the series, anyone wanting to delve more deeply into aspects can see the full catalogue listing for the WAFF during  WW1 CO 445 on the GWAA site.

* The African Heritage and Education Centre (AHEC) is looking for records and accounts of West Africans who were involved in the war during World War 1 – soldiers, carriers, garrison forces, home front etc. If you are able to help, please get in touch either with Christine or myself.

 

 

Review: Information History of the First World War

I recently received a copy of Information History of the First World War edited by Z Karvalics, Lazlo (L’Harmattan, 2015) from Marika Sherwood who contributed a chapter – An information ‘black hole’: World War 1 in Africa.

This is an interesting (genuinely) collection of articles around the theme of information: How information was transmitted in the field, between the war front and home front, propaganda through the use of photos and posters.

Unfortunately the book has been poorly edited – most chapters have been written by non-English writers and most are well-written. However, the introduction and a few others apear to have been translated using something like Google Translate. This makes for difficult reading and reduced clarity of expression especially around abstract topics such as knowledge and information transfer.

For someone interested in the areas described above, I encourage you to persevere as the content is stimulating and, was for me, eye-opening. I can only identify the areas I found fascinating from the other chapters as my knowldege of the theatres covered is limited: how the term ‘hate’ differed depending on whether you were a soldier or at home, the origin and impact of the term ‘Hun’, how the same photo was used in different contexts with different titles and the development of technology are the aspects which stand out.

As I have a fair knowledge of Marika’s topic, I can say a lot more. As someone who has worked on the African theatres of World War 1 for 18 years now, Marika’s article was both a pleasure and a frustration to read. On the positive side, Marika has tried to reconcile the various numbers given by different researchers of black soldiers and carriers involved in the East and West African campaigns as well as give reason for the lack of information in the press at the time and why it is that we historians cannot agree on the numbers. She also touches on the Boer rebellion of 1914.

The areas I found frustrating and which I’ll detail below, might appear ‘picky’ but I think it’s important to raise these in relation to the historiography (history of history) of the theatre and my own learning curve in the hope that it will help other scholars ‘new’ to the World War 1 African fronts consider their approach and assumptions. Marika’s chapter is the case study bringing together concerns from a number of articles, conference papers and reflecting back on my early years of engaging with the war.

My biggest concern, brought about by the centenary and increased interest, is the reliance on secondary material, and particularly the internet for compiling accounts of the campaigns. This information, that is secondary source (not internet) was credible and compiled by recognised experts in the field but, as I noted in an article for the 1914-1918 Enclyclopedia, there has been a revolution in information available on the theatres which challenges the previously accepted accounts. It is imperative that historians of all kinds consult primary material as much as possible as so much more has been opened to the public since the 1970s and 1980s.

Another frustration is the assumption that the war in Africa was fought along the same lines as that in Europe. It was not – whereas the Western Front was overseen by the War Office, in Africa, the War Office, Colonial Office, India Office and local administrators all had their own agendas concerning the war. The fact that so many departments were involved – based on pre-war responsibilities – has resulted in information being scattered between archives and across different series within archives. To compile accurate numbers is a challenge – who recruited the individual? who paid the individual? in what capacity were they employed? The answers to these questions will determine who created and maintained the records, so military service records in London can be found in WO, CO and ADM files, but one also needs to consult the CWGC for deaths as those who died during the war were not necessarily issued with a medal. For all the African campaigns, the records in London are not enough. Local records need to be consulted especially for the recruitment of labour – there might be mention of labourers in the War Diaries but this is not consistent.

Application of World War 2 practices to World War 1 is another common practice. Things had moved on. World War 1 saw a major change from early colonial military practices which evolved further after the war and then changed again as World War 2 approached. The organisation structures imposed during the First World War allowed for closer management of the colonial territories and there was increased mixing between the settled and the settlers. This lead to opportunities being seen and taken by all concerned with the result that local inhabitants were more confident, more Western literate and more politically involved than during World War 1.

My final major point concerns using how we see the world today to judge how things were in the past. This is a natural human tendancy but it does an injustice to all those who served (willingly or otherwise). Times were different, so were beliefs and these impacted on actions and decisions of the day. What happened then should be looked at in the context of the day – without judgement.

Baring the above in mind, and the limited sources Marika used, it is good to see others grappling with some of the issues of the campaigns in Africa and bringing the little remembered theatre to light. It helps those of us immersed in the theatres to take stock of how the world still sees the campaigns and to realise how much work with primary source material still needs to be done (and published).

Bare Feet

Walking across the local playing fields on a lovely sunny warm day in Hertfordshire, I kicked off my shoes to experience the freshly cut grass. It made me think of a paper I’d recently read on the carriers in World War Africa where the author was commenting on the carriers not having shoes and that this was a sign of mistreatment. I wonder if it really was.

My logic?
Growing up in South Africa, even in a city, I was barefoot as often as I could be and was even comfortable walking to the shop on the hot tar road shoeless. I couldn’t do it today as my feet are out of practice and too tender.

In East Africa today, most people on the Kilimanjaro wear flipflops (with socks and legwarmers in winter). If it wasn’t for the jiggerflea still prevalent, I’m sure bare feet would be preferred – the children definitely prefer no shoes when playing. At first, we were amazed at the flipflops, but they have the best grip on the slippery slopes in virtually all weathers (and it’s my preferred footwear).

The Zulu impi trained under Shaka were well used to running across the South African veld bare footed. Although this was 100 years before the First World War, during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the Zulu were still fighting bare foot and photos of the Bambatha rebellion of 1906 suggest no footwear was still ‘part of the uniform’.

Walter Dobbertin who served in German East Africa with the Germans during the war, recorded his experiences through photographs (Lettow Vorbeck’s soldiers) A quick perusal of these (also found at the Bundesarchive) shows that some askari wore shoes whilst others were shoeless – including photos from the late 19th century. Pictures taken by Dobbertin of village scenes show that all the civilians were bare footed. This suggests bare feet was natural.

In May 1914, the Standing Orders for the Nigerian Regiment, West African Frontier Force were amended. This document which includes the issue of uniform to officers and rank and file mentions ‘sandals’ but has nothing annoted next to the term. They were issued with 2 pairs puttees on enlistment and 2 pairs annually. This suggests that the West African local soldiers also fought bare footed. (TNA, UK: CO 445/34 29603)

If people were not used to wearing shoes and were then expected to wear them because they were now enlisted (willingly or otherwise) in the armed forces (in whatever capacity) with little time for training and getting used to the changed circumstances, new shoes would be far more painful than possibly going without.

The urgent mass demand for manpower (including women and children) to undertake war work would have put an incredible strain on the Ordnance Department when the focus was on Europe and getting weapons to that theatre. The pressure on the supply units was great. There are accounts of white soldiers walking around in uniforms which were almost non-existent (Norman Parsons Jewell in On Call gives a graphic account of the state of uniforms at one point in the war as do AW Lloyd’s cartoons). It wasn’t for not caring – the items were just not available in the field and the demands of war meant there were no ships to transport such ‘luxuries’.

Another thought which crossed my mind when reflecting on the shoe issue was trench foot. How did that Western Front condition compare with shoeless carriers, askari and soldiers in Africa?

My plan isn’t to justify the failure to issue shoes or not, but to challenge how we look at the actions of the past. We cannot look at the past using today’s accepted practices. We need to step back in time to understand the conditions, beliefs and social practices prevalent at that time and in the particular space.