History, storytelling and song

On Saturday 21 June, history came to life through storytelling and song. I’ve written of my work with the Northwood VAD Hospital before and 21 June saw all the work come to fruition when a selection of the stories were shared with the community in an afternoon of storytelling and song.

As a purist when it comes to history, I must admit that I was a little anxious about how this was all going to work out, but under the guidance of Dvora Lieberman, storyteller and oral historian, and singer Vivien Ellis, I had nothing to worry about. Both artists took the stories and worked with young and old alike to mould an afternoon of theatre, poetry, song and history. Watching the process unfold made it appear seamless and although I knew what was coming, I was still taken by surprise at the little additions which put the pieces into context and rounded off the performance. Hopefully, you’ll be able to catch video snippets of the event on www.northwoodcommunityarts.co.uk in due course.

This has been an incredible journey for me as an historian. I’ve a network of enthusiasts and academics who have been researching the First World War in Africa for years and whom I really value. However, we all tend to work individually. This project enabled me to watch individuals interested in the past learn how to do research (thanks to a session at the Institute of Historical Research) and come together as a team ferreting out information in order to tell the story of the VAD Hospital.

In addition to the experience of working as part of a research team, looking at a completely different aspect of the war has led to new insights and possible avenues to explore in Africa. Looking at local county papers has shed some light on men who served in Africa and even a comment that there were African (ie Black) soldiers from East Africa being treated in French hospitals in Europe – this is something that will need to be investigated as the French were not involved in fighting in East Africa and the French soldiers who fought in Europe were from West Africa. Perhaps they were from French Congo? In addition, there were hospitals in East Africa and the natural place to send those who needed to be evacuated would have been to South Africa, Egypt or Britain. Why send soldiers to hospitals in France which would have been pressed with men injured in that theatre? But all this discussion is diverting from song and theatre…

What I haven’t seen too much of concerning the wars in Africa is whether there was any entertainment for the men in hospitals, convalescent or base camps outside of South Africa and possibly Egypt. We know the men went hunting (with gun or camera), wrote poetry, diaries and on the odd occasion when paper and facilities allowed, printed local newspapers. Sport was played as recorded by Floris van der Merwe but song, theatre and other activities remain elusive.



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