An alternative take on a history talk

My sister-in-law attended the talk I gave on novels in August 2016. As someone not interested in history, she accompanied her husband who was listening to me present a history talk for the first time. Knowing the likely boredom levels, I provided a pen and paper for the inevitable doodling (she’s got an artistic streak) and this was the outcome:

A Review of Dr Anne Samson’s talk by Sr S… S… [that’s the young one]

Dr Samson is dressed in a minion-like suit complimented by yellow, black and blue and slight white. Other people at the talk were all old [she’s 32 – I’m old]. You don’t need to worry about being overdressed only if you are old!! The auditorium is dressed in carpet – that is on the wall.

If you give talks here you get wine – so worthwhile thinking of doing a talk here.

The being referred to as the GANG aka supporting party – are just known as the ‘medical party’.

Anne promises to only talk for 20 minutes – hope she keeps to her time. Also she needs more colours in her pencil bag. The other speaker hasn’t arrived yet. Maybe he doesn’t like wine – shame. With all these old people here, X and I might be at danger – lots of health risks. There is one other young person ere. Maybe I must introduce him to Y… The chairs aren’t very comfortable – not suitable for a movie theatre. The MC is clearly Afrikaans [so is she] The Boris guy sounds important [a book launch was being promoted]. Anne is almost coming up – Yeah! They have just turned off the lights. Eish difficult to make notes in the dark.

Anne looks kinda scary in that dim light – whooo she is talking about East AFrica.

Gertrude Page (Northern Rhodesians, protect, Britain) like JK Rowling now!! Wow!! and talks about some other dudes (dead ones). Gertrude was a farmer and used their car as an ambulance. They said tese books are novels, don’t sound very romantic.

These chairs are really not comfortable.

Anne starting to lose me now. Something about marching tangoes [Marching on Tanga] wonder if these people can even do the Tango? There were nurses there too – Yeah [she’s a nurse].

Anne seems to know her s*** ag I mean stuff desn’t look on her notes very often. People here think the history stuff is funny, maybe they must be introduced to a comedy bar. Lion King also came up [Simba – Cherry Kearton’s dog which went up in a plane]. Covers of the books look interesting – and something of ice-cream [An Ice-cream war by William Boyd]. King money or shilling [The King’s Shilling by Hamilton Wende] and Shidaka [Chui and Sadaka by William Powell] – must have eaten a lot of toffees.

Anne really likes the book A Matter of Time [Alex Capus] – came to Germany in a crate or something – something about Spies Simpson [Spicer Simson]. Ok there are more books. Annd did a lot of reading – a lot of boring reading. Note self: get Anne a stick to show people pictures on slide thing.

Anne – it’s not Kloetie – it is Cloete (pronounced Kloe-te) [Stuart Cloete – How young they died]. We on the last slide now with 4 books about Intelligence. Anne don’t worry bout spelling mistakes on slide. All the people here are clearly old and I don’t think they can see that far!

Karen Bliksem [Blixen] – shame having a vloekword [swearword] for her surname. They get excited about dogs named after a lion going up in planes. Yeah dog!!

Maybe the bee also featured. They keep going on about planes.

Anne uses novels to make people understand concepts. OK I thought we done but we are NOT! More boring questions. Now hiatuses…look at that page 9. Don’t feel like writing any more. I’m out!

I might try and convince her to attend a few others in the future – some interesting perceptions and an honest take. In its own way, a history of the evening and one which no doubt differs to many of the others of the same event if they were to be written.

Thanks Sussa! [Afrikaans term of endearment for sister]

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!


I can’t believe how long it has been since my last post and I’d been doing so well having one a week. The simple reason (or excuse) is that life just got too busy with my new publishing venture, part of which includes GWAA now publishing. Spending a month in South Africa added its own complexities to the situation but what a month of encounters it proved to be.

It was quite depressing reading that the country is, according to the World Bank, the lowest on the equality rankings with the gap between rich and poor being the greatest of the countries the World Bank assesses. Also, whilst meeting people across the racial spectrum in the Gauteng area, it became apparent that not only is the economic gap huge, but so is the racial gap in the realms of employment and official positions. There is only black and other – no fifty shades of any colour. BUT despite this negativity, the people I encountered (including those in official capacities), irrespective of racial background were as open and relaxed in ways I hadn’t yet experienced in South Africa, but had in other African countries. It appears the political and social divide is also on the increase. (It made me think of our trip to Mongolia a number of years ago when we were told that the people don’t care about what happens in the political realm – they let the politicians get on with their games and just live life the way they always have. It’s probably easier to do so in a sparsely populated territory than in built up areas where people are living on top of each other.)

There had been a fair bit of concern that the election was going to result in violent outbursts – just my luck. Having been in Britain for Brexit, I was now in SA for the earth-shattering local elections. For both leading parties, neither vote went the way they expected, and having experienced the after effects of both, the people of South Africa have stood by each other in a way I haven’t yet experienced post-Brexit-vote.

On a more personal level, it was wonderful meeting up with colleagues at conferences and talks which I was involved in. The range of topics and approaches followed being refreshing: at least on this front the gap between military, social, political and other history (other than gender) is reducing. Travelling to and from the events was an eye opener. It showed how dependent one becomes on having sisters etc cart one around – having driven the roads of Johannesburg by myself regularly over 20 years ago and despite visiting it every year since, getting behind the wheel by myself and having to navigate the area proved a challenge and eye-opener.

My most incredible experience was early on missing the turn-off onto the motorway and ending up in Hillbrow – initially I wasn’t concerned. My early dating days with my husband had been in this part of Johannesburg, my sister regularly travelled through parts of it with me accompanying her to work or other events, so I felt confident I knew where I was. What I didn’t count on was Friday night traffic, the sun going down at 6.30pm, the reconfigured landscape after years of re-development and entering at a place I hadn’t been before. Now, being a lone white woman in a predominantly black area, with the reputation of Hillbrow, is not somewhere you would want to find yourself. And to top it up, I ended up on a side road, packed with taxis stopped in various positions across three lanes of traffic, car doors opening all over the place and having to drive in zig-zag fashion at walking speed. Horror story time… Time to think logically… get off the side road and back onto the bigger road where traffic was flowing. It’s Friday night and people just want to get home – they don’t care about me and as long as I look confident as though I know where I’m headed, don’t take out my mobile phone to consult Google Maps, I’ll be fine. And so it was. Heading in roughly the directions I thought I should be, I found some street names I recognised and arrived home after two hours (a journey which should have taken 45 minutes).

The remainder of the journey through Johannesburg was one of quiet reflection and observation – how certain areas made me feel more tense than others, was there a link between the amount of rubbish lying on the side of the road or not? Why/how was it that certain blocks were absolutely spotless with people sweeping the streets and pavements whilst almost across the road, the next few blocks were filthy? How many buildings which had been office blocks are now accommodation – bright gaudy colours with washing hanging out the windows and the extent to which bank headoffices had expanded. It’s clearly a city of contrasts.

Not to be outdone, I had to drive through GermistonRand Refinery looking resplendent* (1922 photo) having recently had a paint make-over contrasted with the derelection of the remainder of Germiston and opposite what was before an active mine, a squatter camp (I was told these are now officially ‘informal settlements’). Driving past this settlement, one which has a reputation for not being safe (a friend was killed there a good number of years ago dropping off a colleague), I entered a cloud of darkness – the smoke from the fires covered the road so thickly, you could hardly see 2 meters in front even with headlights on. It reminded me of descriptions of London which Charles Dickens wrote about. Past the traffic lights (robots they’re called in SA), and the air was clear again. Boksburg was next on the way, and instead of going round the outside, I thought I’d take in the old CBD (Central Business District). This was my home town. The old women’s prison is now a refuge for children and young adults (this had been the base for General van Deventer when dealing with the 1922 strike; and had seen the last women hanged in 1952). The Town Hall in its pink paint and red brick was looking cleaner than it had for years and although the war memorial had no copper left on it, it and the cannons were looking in a pretty healthy state compared to a previous visit. Vibrancy was evident even at 7pm on a Friday night in an area which would have shut down in pre-1994 years.

And so my visit went on. Encounters with the past and the present. Light and dark moments – both sides of the same coin.

On the research front, discovering death registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) proved a huge excitement – the stories we can glean from these meticulously kept records, including the discharge and desertion registers, will be invaluable to understanding another aspect of the First World War in Africa, and in particular South Africa’s role. Watch this space, as well as the new GWAA medical project, for more on these registers.

No doubt, you’ll be reading about other encounters on this South African trip in future posts, but my experience of ‘getting lost’ in Hillbrow will no doubt stay with me for a while. On the light side of Hillbrow, I have heard (and seen) it is being cleaned up: the residents are reclaiming their rights and their streets. I wish them well – Hillbrow is one of the hearts that is South Africa.


*looking for a photo of Rand Refinery today (doesn’t seem to be one), I found this link which has the old Johannesburg drive-in on top of a mine-dump. Together with colleagues in 1992 we used to run up and round the drive-in at lunch-time.

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!



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.


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.