Crossing Africa in War

Working through the Society of Malawi journals I came across a fascinating account of a woman explorer who in December 1916 arrived unexpectedly in Bauchi, Nigeria who informed the young colonial officer that she was going to Yorla, then into German territory, Congo and Nyasaland with one servant and seven carriers.

The woman was Gertrude Benham. Born in 1867, she was the first woman to climb Kilimanjaro (1909) and various other mountains including the Himalayas. She also crossed Africa west to east taking 11 months at the age of 36. She would do so again at least twice. In 1916/7 she was crossing Tanzania at the time it was the scene of war. How she managed to do traverse the territory is unknown. David Stuart-Mogg was wondering this in 2005 when he wrote a short article about Gertrude which is how I discovered her story. Gertrude died in 1938. (Society of Malawi Journal, Miss Gertrude Benham, 2005, 58:1, pp29-30)

Others such as Ewart Grogan had crossed Africa before Gertrude, Ewart covering the continent south to north. Accounts of his exploits have been recorded, most notably by Edward Paice and Grogan himself. While Gertrude has written accounts of some of her adventures her name remains relatively unknown. However, there is now a biography (2009) on her by Ray Howgego as summarised by the New York Times (2019). Ray’s article contains quite a bibliography, yet none seem to cover her time in Africa during the war and David’s question remains unanswered. I wonder if any record does exist about her war-time adventure in the diaries and memoirs of those who encountered her.

Being sent places…

Growing up Timbuktu was a mythical place one would say they were going to: “from here to Timbuktu”. It was only in adulthood when I started travelling that I discovered it was a real place. Until then, it was an isolated place, “far away, at the end of the world” or as the Oxford Dictionary notes “the most distant place imaginable.” The link has more detail on how this phrase came to be and some history of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo).

On arrival in England, I discovered people were being “sent to Coventry” – a place I knew as the home of Lady Godiva.

More recently in reading about the 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902, some places closer to home seem to have been popular relocation terms:

To be Stellenbosched – Kipling explains it is to be demoted and sent back to base, while Arthur Anderson Martin in A Doctor in Khaki (p32) recommending the practice in 1914 explained, “it is indicative of a quiet retirement, where they can live without thinking, where there are quiet clubs, cigars and cocktails, and comfortable chairs for an afternoon nap.

In contrast to the quiet nature of Stellenbosch was “to Mafek” – to party boisterously as they did on the relief of Mafeking on 17 May 1900.

However, one that continues to stump me, is why the soldiers in Africa used to sing “It’s a long way to Tipperary” (1915 recording) if the unit or person wasn’t Irish. It was written in 1912 and made popular in 1914 with the outbreak of war. Having this extra bit of background info, it now falls to checking personal memoirs etc to confirm whether the song was sung on the African battlefields of WW1… and apparently it was popular in Germany too.

Drawing the line

One of the things that struck me whilst working on Kitchener: the man not the myth was his distinction between faith and religion. A man of faith himself, he saw how religions were used to control people, especially in illiterate or oral tradition communities. Realising that those being suppressed would eventually try to have their shackles overthrown, he looked to alleviate inequalities through education, improving health and work conditions. To do this he encouraged British control (as he saw this as the most liberal at the time) however, he refused to allow Christian missionaries to set up in places where Islam was successfully embedded. He also learnt Turkish or Islamic law to address inequalities whilst he was in Egypt recognising that to tackle the issue from a British or Christian approach would not work as the cultures and underpinning values were different.

So, it was with interest that I came across the following quote by Jinnah in March 1940. In declaring the Muslim League’s decision to call for a separate state of Pakistan, Jinnah observed that: the real nature of Islam and of Hinduism [are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but they are in fact, different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and the Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality.

More significantly, he noted that they derive inspiration from different sources of history. They have different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other… (in Gandhi: A life by Yogesh Chadha, p368)

Lord Wavell, one time Viceroy of united India, on hearing of Gandhi’s death wrote: but who am I to judge, and how can an Englishman estimate a Hindu? Our standards are poles apart; and by Hindu standards Gandhi may have been a saint; but by any standards he was a very remarkable man. (in Gandhi: A life by Yogesh Chadha, p468)

For these men, the recognition was difference, not inequality. The challenge was how to reconcile these differences in a way that would not lead to conflict but to peace. Where does the give and take lie?

Gandhi in 1942 observed that: Whether my master of yesterday becomes my equal and lives in my house on my own terms, surely his presence cannot detract from my freedom. Nay, I may profit by his presence which I have permitted. (in Gandhi: a life by Yogesh Chadha, p379)

This brings us back to migrations and people moving in and settling into new territories as discussed in Journey to the Mayflower, and many other instances of cultures meeting and mixing, sometimes successfully and living in harmony whilst on other occasions friction and conflict eventually erupt. Perhaps the latter as a result of not being genuine or fair in striving for equality as Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse tried to explain in his 5-hour explanation of his actions. The history of the African continent (and no doubt others too) is riddled with such examples.

In this political time, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from the above. For myself, I think there’s a clue to how we can move forward to live together in peace and harmony.

The importance of transport

One of the biggest complaints one hears in connection with the East Africa campaign of the First World War concerns logistics and the lack of food getting to the front line. The person who is most riled against in this regard is Jan Smuts when he was commander in chief between February 1916 and January 1917. His rapid moves meant that his lines of communication became overstretched with the result that on occasion men were on as low as 1/4 rations for a few days. This when rations were already at their minimum.

So, it was with interest that reading Conan Doyle’s Letters to the Press (pp60-), I discovered that he had something to say about the importance of transport during the Second Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902. Early in the war, Conan Doyle was a doctor in a private hospital in Bloemfontein, his offer of service to the War Office having been declined (see Something of themselves for more detail on Conan Doyle’s work in South Africa).

On 7 July 1900 in a letter to The British Medical Journal under the heading “The Epidemic of Enteric Fever at Bloemfontein”, he wrote:

When the nation sums up its debt of gratitude to the men who have spent themselves in this war I fear that they will almost certainly ignore those who have done the hardest and most essential work. There are three classes, as it seems to me, who have put in more solid and unremitting toil than any others. They are the commissariat, the railway men, and the medical orderlies. Of the three, the first two are the most essential, since the war cannot proceed without food and without railways. But the third is the most laborious, and infinitely the most dangerous.

He continues to expound the word of the orderlies who had to deal with the enteric outbreak where in one month there “were from 10,000 to 12,000 men down with this, the most debilitating and lingering of continued fevers. I know that in one month 600 men were laid inn the Bloemfontein Cemetery. A single day in this one town saw 40 deaths.”

The medical men and “the devotion of the orderlies” saw this through:

When a department is confronted by a task which demands four times more men than it has, the only way of meeting it for each man to work four times as hard. This is exactly what occurred, and the crisis was met. In some of the general hospitals orderlies were on duty for thirty-six hours in forty-eight…

The rest of the article is devoted to the medical conditions and how despite the lack of resources, the Medical Services achieved what they did.

An army marches on its stomach (Napoleon?) and ill men need decent food to heal properly, and for this transport would be required. When Millicent Fawcett met Kitchener to find ways to ease the issues in the concentration camps, he acknowledged that food was important but for him as commander of the army, the army was his priority. However, he had no issue adding an extra carriage with food (providing Fawcett’s group paid for it) to the trains delivering food along the railway lines. His soldiers had been suffering too from food shortages.

While South Africa had the railway line which ran the length of the country, as opposed to the three lines in East Africa which ran across, all three were single track meaning trains could move only in one direction or the other limiting the time they could run. More significantly, those needing to be fed were not always close to the railway line requiring other means to get them their rations. Porters in East Africa, ox-wagons in South Africa – each with their own limitations and challenges to overcome. As Army Surgeon General Dr Pike recorded in the report he wrote on the East Africa campaign, the transport drivers were the most hardworking, often up before most in camp and the last to go to bed, often without meals as they ensured their vehicles were fit to undertake the journey.

One could argue about whose role was most difficult and important in conducting the war, in both conflicts all were called on to exceed expectations and did. It’s where they worked together harmoniously and in sync that success was achieved. What Conan Doyle and Pike remind us of in their comments, is that those working “behind the scenes” are as significant as those on the front line.

SA Indian Stretcher Bearers

Reading about Gandhi by Yogesh Chadha, I was reminded of the stretcher bearer contingents he raised during his time in Africa and beyond.

During the 2nd Anglo-Boer, South African or 1899-1902 War, he raised 300 volunteer Indians and 800 indentured labourers who had been furloughed by their masters into the Indian Ambulance Corps. It seems that raising this Corps was rather a challenge as the Natal government initially refused their help. Dr Lancelot Parker Booth trained the volunteers. They were Hindu, Muslim and Christian and served for 6 weeks. They were noticeably involved at Spion Kop in January 1900. They were awarded war medals for their services. On hearing of Queen Victoria’s death, they sent a letter of condolence.  Heather Brown has written a more detailed history of the Indian Ambulance Corps.

Later, in the 1906 Zulu uprising (Bambatha Rebellion), Gandhi offered to raise a stretcher bearer company which was accepted with far less hassle than his first. This company consisted of 20 men. Little is known about this group of stretcher bearers although I see that Goolam Vahed, the SA expert on Indian history, has co-authored a book on Gandhi in South Africa which addresses the topic. It understandably has mixed reviews as myths are being challenged. (Another overview of Gandhi’s work with the SA military.)

Gandhi left South Africa just before the outbreak of World War One, on 18 July 1914, arriving in England after the declaration. In line with his earlier support of the empire, he became involved with forming the Indian Ambulance Corps at Netley. The plan was that when his health recovered, he would take command of the unit, but this was not to be as Gandhi was encouraged to leave for India to protect his own health. The Corps initially consisted of 80 Indian volunteers who were mostly students in London. Due to differences with Gandhi, not all proceeded to Netley Hospital. George Paxton gives a brief overview of events. The Ambulance Corps was to serve at Brighton, Brockenhurst and on hospital ships. It was not just the Indian Ambulance Corps which served, there were other Ambulance units such as that of the Maharaja of Barwani who served in Europe.

Back in South Africa, the practice started by Gandhi of Indians supporting armed conflict by proving medical assistance was continued with the South African Indian community offering to raise 250 men for service where required. They were to join the South African forces in East Africa where there were various medical forces serving.

In working through Chadha, it became apparent that the South African Indian community was/is far more diverse than it appears. For example, it included: Hindu, Muslim (Gujarati), Nathan, Tamil and South Indians (Madrasis) amongst others including Tagaru. No doubt there are other local differences which to the outsider (South African and other), are not apparent, but are recognised to those of Indian heritage. Yet, despite these differences, they came together to work in unity at a time of need.

Finally, it was rather interesting to discover was that the South African Immigration Act of 1913 was based on that agreed for Australia. This had been one of Gandhi’s bug-bears: the restrictions on Indian immigration into the Union. One of Smuts’ reasons for accepting the offer of an Indian stretcher bearer company for service in World War 1 was that they would see the benefit of leaving South Africa especially if they were to serve in Asia, rather than in East Africa where the War Office sent them. I wonder how much else in terms of SA policy had been tried and tested in other parts of the empire and vice versa?