From “there came a darkness” to “it saw the light”

I’ve been overdosing on WW1 related events and information recently – more than usual. Following on from a week of conferences in Stellenbosch, Friday 17 July saw a different group of people gather in London at the British Library for the SCOLMA conference entitled There came a darkness: Africa, Africans and World War 1. Sunday provided the light as I attended the unveiling of the Rhodesia Native Regiment/Rhodesia African Rifles memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA).

It was my first visit to the NMA and I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were other memorials to regiments which had seen service in East and Central Africa during World War 1. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place with so many Zimbabweans/Rhodesians (all races) congregated and being South African, felt a little out of place. But that didn’t stop the warm welcome and discussion flowing. The unveiling was a time for reflection – of days gone by, good times and other, and of what might have been… The flypast by two Alouette helicopters was a significant moment as noted by a couple of men standing alongside who commented that the last time they’d heard that sound was when they were in the field over 30 years ago. As the choppers passed, so another reflected – that was the worst sound, hearing them go while we stayed behind… It made me reflect on how many sounds we discount or take for granted that conjure up raw emotions for those involved in conflict situations. The closest I get is recalling the feeling of seeing a ratel on a public road from when they did ‘peace-keeping’ duties in Johannesburg.

Edward Paice in the keynote talk provided some insight from the Pike Report (see p17) and from the private diary of Captain Caulfeild who had commanded the naval vessels in the Battle against Tanga in November 1914.

This was followed by Holger Hansen providing an overview of the letters Karen Blixen sent home to Denmark during the war, David Stuart-Mogg on Frederick Njilima, a Malawian, who served as an armed soldier in the British forces on the Western Front. The significance of Njilima’s service is that this was at a time that Britain was not keen to have black colonials serve in an armed capacity in Europe whereas the French had no issue allowing this. John Pinfold and Alison Metcalfe provided some further insight into the East African theatre through their presentations on Geoffrey Hodges (how the transcripts of his interviews differ to what he published in his Carrier Corps book) and Archibald Clive Irvine (joined the RAMC in East Africa working with the Carrier Corps and after the war remained as a missionary).

Missionaries provided a theme for the day as Terry Barringer gave an overview of what appeared in the missionary periodicals about the war and Ben Knighton spoke of the missions as political grievance among Christian Agikuyu in Kenya.

Another theme was that of image. In addition to Irvine’s photo album, Daniel Steinbach linked verbal images with those of visual drawing attention to the role of the ‘other’ on the Allied side. This continued over refreshments with discussions on the violence those seen as superior (rank and race) meted out on those perceived to be inferior and also the use of images and quotes to illustrate a point when society has quite different views of what is acceptable. This resonated with the talk by Sandra Swart on the Dangers of History. Others who brought to light the different roles of Africans during the war were Martin Plaut who reminded the audience that African forces in East Africa included white South Africans.

Dan Gilfoyle provided some insight into what the War Diaries can tell us of experiences. His specific example was that of the King’s African Rifles War Diaries (80 of them held at The National Archives in WO 95), while Allyson Lewis of Essex County Record Office shed light on the service of an Essex man in East Africa – Harry Ripper, RFC. He was one of 24 men who served in East Africa and was the one who came home to marry the nurse who cared for him. He served with the King’s African Rifles but saw field service for only 2 weeks out of his 18 month enlistment.

As a change from the East African front, I looked at why and how South Africa invaded German South West Africa while Iris Wigger, a sociologist, looked at the Black Horror campaign which was started in response to black soldiers being used to guard prisoners in Germany during the occupation. And amongst all the war and battle that was discussed, Sarah Longair turned to the peace in looking at the struggle to get the Zanzibar <a href="http://” target=”_blank”>Peace Memorial Museum built.

All in all, both events were good with much discussion and further opportunity to touch base with colleagues of old and forge new relations in remembering the past.

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2 thoughts on “From “there came a darkness” to “it saw the light”

  1. Pingback: Review: The First World War in Namibia 1914-1915 by Gordon McGregor & Mannfred Goldbeck | Anne Samson - Historian

  2. Pingback: Review: World War 1 Reads and finds of 2015 | Anne Samson - Historian

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