Perceptions of Identity

Some time ago I posted about beards and moustache wearing in the British Army. How we present ourselves is part of our identity, and that is determined by the situations within which we find ourselves. In searching for information about beards etc, I came across this fascinating insight into the Moroccan veil as it is presented in the French media.

It brought to mind Michelle Moyd’s work on the Askari in the Schutztruppe (Violent Intermediaries) and the various photographs we have of different communities in WW1 Africa. Soldiers, at least in the early days of campaigning were identifiable by their uniforms and badges. I’m constantly amazed at medal collectors being able to identify the campaign etc from black and white photos based on the stripe width, shade and order it’s worn. Then we have the photos of labour supporting the Lake Tanganyika expedition – the variety of dress suggesting levels of European/mission education and encounter. The photographer Dobbertin who accompanied the German forces also shows the differences in dress and relationship.

How individuals were identified determined how they were treated and the extent to which they were accepted. Kitchener only became tolerably accepted by the British establishment when he adopted more British ways; otherwise he remained an enigma and outsider. Jan Smuts did not follow British military ways and his reputation has suffered accordingly, while Jaap van Deventer accepted the fact that British officers had to do staff work behind the lines and was regarded as a better soldier despite his reluctance to speak English.

Yet, taking on others’ identities has led to accusations where cultural nuances have not been understood. The most obvious WW1 example is of the white South African forces taking on the Zulu impi tradition on the Western Front. As Bill Nasson points out, this was reflective of South Africa’s admiration for Chaka, the Zulu warrior and how the military tradition he forged has been assimilated into South Africa per se – not unlike the Haka the New Zealand rugby team performs.

Identity is tricky – both for the individual at the time in terms of how they perceive themselves and are accepted, but also for the historian trying to make sense of a different time and place. Memoirs, diaries, letters, photographs and other primary source documents all help in constucting the context to better understand an individual or group’s place within the wider community. My research into Kitchener has been a salutary lesson in identify and how myth and dominant cultural ideas can distort the person in question.

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