The Global First World War

The Global First World War: African, East Asian, Latin American and Iberian Mediators is a collection of essays edited by Ana Paula Pires, Jan Schmidt and María Inés Tato published in 2021.

A review of the book seems inappropriate given that there are only essays on Africa, one by myself – looking at how the press reported the news in Africa and from Africa in Britain. For the latter, two newspapers are compared – The Globe distributed in London and The Driffield Times, Yorkshire. Within Africa, a range of newspapers and territories is considered allowing for a comparison of reporting related to the different interests for each country or group concerned.

The other by Ana Paula Pires and Rita Nunes considering Portuguese humanitarian efforts during the war. In particular they consider the role of the Red Cross in mainland Portugal, the two African territories, Portuguese East Africa and Angola, and other territories. The range of function the Red Cross assumed ensured it was a mediator of information between various players.

And this is the theme of the book – how individuals and groups mediated the war for others who could not be present at a given space and time. Now at last my copy of the book has arrived, I can safely tell you about it – it’s been a while holding back the excitement as I had a preview, the result of proofing and editing the text with the editors.

What a refreshing range of topics and there are a few other similar collections recently released or due soon – and I say this not only because I have a chapter in them. These are all books where the editors have taken an innovative look at the First World War and addressed what could be called obscure aspects. What these show, however, is the wide-ranging impact and influence the war of 1914-1918 had on the world.

I’ll be looking at each of the publications in turn highlighting what appealed to me in terms of my narrower interest of Africa – it might inspire you to take a wider look at non-traditional aspects of the war too.

Chinese involvement in the war is a rarely mentioned topic, these two essays being welcome contributions to the slow growing literature on their involvement. Although Chinese labour was to serve in East Africa too, the two essays concern life in Europe and in China. Xu Guoqi considers the Chinese workers on the Western Front and the art works they produced. Poetry, trench art using old shell casings and how they welcomed the British king are all considered. The other essay by Kwong Chi Man looks at Chinese intellectuals understanding of war in the interwar period and how their interpretation of the war led to the China developing into the country it did. The realisation that mass mobilisation of a population was possible and what it could achieve. I could see parallels with the development of African nationalism post-war.

Near neighbour, Japan, is also the feature of two essays. Japan’s foreign book market by Maj Hartmann shows how even during war a country could maintain relationships with both sides on a scientific and intellectual level. It wasn’t easy due to regulations such as Britain’s Trading with the Enemy Act but it was possible – especially with the help of neutral countries and sufficient justification of purpose. In contrast, Jan Schmidt looked internally at Japanese mass media, bureaucracy, schools and department stores and how teachers interpreted the war for students, as well as a photographic display or exhibition of the war in a large department store. Creativity abounds.

On the other side of the globe, in South America, Stefan Rinke considers Propaganda in Latin America. This fascinating chapter shows how consulates, ambassadors and the press all worked to appeal to different communities. A challenge where countries were ostensibly neutral and had first and second generation expatriates resident from belligerent countries on both sides. How did they distribute their loyalties to their country of heritage and to their country of residence, especially when conflict of interest arose? This theme continues through Guillemette Martin’s essay on The Mexican Press, particularly El Informador in Guadalajara and in María Inés Tato and Luis Esteban Dallas Fontana piece on Lieut Col Emilio Kinkelin who was an Argentine reporter based in Europe during the war years. While we tend to hear more accounts of people escaping the war, a read of this chapter suggests Kinkelin was reluctant to leave the theatre of war despite having his family with him.

Finally, as a companion to Portugal on the Iberian Peninsular, there is a paper on Covert wars in Spain by Carolina Garcia Sanz which considers how foreigners used the territory as a base for spying – themes of James Bond, Le Queux and other such spy thrillers emerge.

As you can tell from this short summary, an eclectic collection of papers revealing for me new aspects of what was a global war.

How we see things

“Isn’t it wonderful how one lot of human beings can think and act so differently to another lot; and yet each party considers that nobody is right but those who believe as they do? Supposing one day some black missionaries landed in England, dressed in large earrings, bead necklaces, pocket handkerchiefs and nothing else, and tried to persuade us to worship some hideous idol and leave off wearing so many clothes. How astonished we would be … and yet they would think they were doing right, just as our missionaries do who go out to teach savages the Gospel …”

So wrote Harry Johnston, administrator of East Africa, in his novel The Man who did the right Thing, published in 1921, although set in 1886.

The conversation continued: “Well I confess I don’t see the resemblance. What we preach is the Truth,  the Living Truth. What they believe is a lie of the Devil.” … “When I was teaching geography the other day, I was quite astonished to find in the Manual that about four or five hundred millions of people were Buddhists. Isn’t it dreadful to think of their being wrong, all living in vain…”

Given how colonialism and imperialism are generally regarded today, the above statement (paragraph 1) stood out as radical thinking for the time, and even today given my experiences. I worked with a project in Tanzania where our guiding principle/philosophy in introducing any new idea to school teachers was ‘how would this be accepted if say a wealthy Sheikh insisted on doing the same at a school in England?’ It prompted careful thinking and encouraged an ethos of working in partnership. We all had something to learn from the other. I was bringing in knowledge and expertise from elsewhere, they were bringing in local knowledge and expertise and together we created something new (well that was the idea). It’s a principle or philosophy which has stood me in good stead since and allows an “out of the box” take on trying to understand and interpret events of the past.

The continuation of the conversation, between a man going out as a missionary and his soon to be wife, brought it back to earth. How, despite our open-mindedness, we can still be closed to what we think is right. In fact the conversation continued to the missionary (a Chapel worshiper) effectively telling his betrothed that her father might be saved as he was Church of England and so that although following a broadly accepted Truth was not completely on the right path.

I’d like to think we’ve moved on considerably from this position, and while some have, many others haven’t; which is the reality we live with and as historians have to mediate – then and in future.

But back to Harry Johnston (1858-1927) – he was the first colonial administrator of Nyasaland (Malawi) and then at the turn of the century was in Uganda, as well as having spent some time in Tunis and Eastern Nigeria (before Nigeria was united). Johnston’s reputation as a colonial administrator is almost the antithesis of Frederick Lugard. It turns out he was also a prolific author. The (UK) National Archives has a piece on his fantasy mapping of the African continent – in 1886, the year he set the story which inspired this posting. Yet, despite his having been involved with African colonial administration for over 40 years, there is very little about him – an article on his geographical work and a 6 page biography (1927), although Roland Oliver’s Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa seems to include a biography – more on this in due course when I’ve read the book; this little excursion again having opened new windows on the past and challenging preconceived ideas.

Letters – a lifeline for historians

One of the reasons I stuck to 20th century history was because of the abundance of paper – in fact for some things there could be too much paper whilst for others finding the papers to open a window on the past is a real challenge. The thought of trying to compile history from a fragment or two of parchment was (and remains) incomprehensible. Now I wonder how historians of the future are going to cope. All these emails under password protection, that is if they haven’t been deleted, tweets on Twitter, Facebook… the options are almost endless – have you tried to find something on social media you saw some time ago and didn’t manage to download or save somehow? It’s almost impossible – but then perhaps I’m not looking properly… who knows…

But back to letters. The correspondence of Jan Smuts was published in 7 volumes by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel. These published letters are not everything as they selected what they felt was the most important – not much on the East Africa campaign. You’ll have to go into the unpublished letters for that info. And then there are the letters in other collections. One interesting collection I happened across was after reading about May Hobbs in volume 4 of the Smuts Papers. A quick internet search revealed this on May Hobbs by Liz Stanley. On inspection it suggests these letters are in the Smuts collection in Pretoria.

While there may not be anything ground breaking in them, they do shed some light on the social and cultural aspects of the day and show Smuts as a person rather than the politician or soldier one generally sees him as. A timely reminder that behind all great leaders, there is a person – a human one. And often through these snippets, we get to see some thinking behind the political decisions being made. Although reconciling them with the politics can be a challenge – take his correspondence with the Gilletts… I’ll leave you to read vol 4 to see for yourself.

Novelist: Herbert Strang

Herbert Strang is a pseudonym for the writing partnership of George Herbert Ely and Charles James L’Estrange. The two men were too old to serve in World War One and continued their employment in the publishing world.

1866 – George Herbert Ely is born
1867 – Charles James L’Estrange is born
1904 – the men meet in Glasgow and are first published
1906 – move to London and change publisher to Hodder and Stoughton
1909 – start move to Oxford University Press which is finally accomplished in 1916
1942 – retire from writing
1947 – George Herbert Ely dies
1958 – Charles James L’Estrange dies

They had no experience of life in Africa which shows through their story which, like Westerman’s depiction of the German is stereotypical, in this story young Tom brings an end to German slavery. Siege and trench warfare are the dominant military experiences. The story is inspired by the victory of Kasama in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) with the central action taking place in a triangle of Bismarckburg (Kasanga), Neu Langenburg (Tukuyu) and Kasama. The distances between these locations are 10x what Herbert Strang make out but that doesn’t detract from the story and the insight it provides of how life in Africa was construed back in Britain. Presumably they drew on the news of the success at Kasama for their inspiration.

World War 1 Africa books by Herbert Strang

Tom Willoughby’s Scouts (1918)


“ten years no great war”

Discussions between the War Office and Colonial Office in September/October 1919 concerning the return of the Imperial Garrison to the Cape Peninsular in South Africa, specifically to safeguard Simons Town and Table Bay carried the following statement following the Union’s objection to the garrison returning:

“… I am inclined to think that it would be very difficult now to justify doing so [send the garrison], especially in view of the decision to assume that for the next ten years no great war need to be anticipated and of the consequent sweeping reductions which we propose making in the strengths of the garrisons at other places [including Sierra Leone].” (TNA: CO 323/708 51212 Colonial Garrison; italics added)

Does this mean they expected one after that? What does it imply regarding the role and future of the League of Nations. Jan Smuts took Leo Amery to task for his cynical view of the League earlier in the year (Hancock and van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts papers, vol 4).

While the garrison for the Cape was to protect the maritime bases, that for Sierra Leone concerned “maintenance of internal order”. The thought was that the British West Indian Regiment which had traditionally filled this role was no longer of a sufficient standard to do so, suggesting perhaps another force (not specified) be considered. Mauritius, too, was felt in need of internal order being maintained. The acting governor there suggesting a force of “100 European Regulars”. In terms of numbers, there was an overall reduction of British forces for Sierra Leone while the local WAFF garrison increased by two. Of the British forces, there was an increase of 20 amongst the Royal Engineers suggesting infrastructure development. Mauritius was to see a significant decrease in British forces and the introduction of local peace keeping regiments – of a size similar to that of Sierra Leone. Figures were not included for the Cape Peninsular.

While a greater war wasn’t anticipated for at least 10 years, what internal unrest was expected in Sierra Leone and Mauritius? And what of the other African territories, especially those which had recently been under German control? The difference in treatment might well revolve around who was responsible for the different territories: the War Office having traditionally supplied armed support for those mentioned whereas the Colonial Office undertook its own peace keeping in the remaining territories.

And where does all this leave “the war to end all wars”?