Some thoughts on African burials in World War 1

There’s been some discussion on and off over the past few years about African Indians, Black and Arabs not having individual headstones. For those of us visiting the cemeteries in Africa, it raises questions, some of which I’ve been investigating and still have some way to go. Researching Africa in World War 1 is complicated for various reasons not least because of so many different cultures being involved each with their own traditions. In essence, there are two main strands: logistics/practical issues and beliefs.

All men who enlisted were generally recorded. There are a few problems with the records though:

  • not all administrators were fluent in the language of the people they were communicating with which has led to multiple spellings of the same person’s name. On the Great War in Africa Memory lists (scroll down), which I’ve been working through, I’ve noticed someone recorded as Private John No 2 on the Zomba memorial, force number 5429. He was with 2/4 KAR. There are also 7 scouts named as s/o … , that is son of… all were enlisted in Nairobi given their service numbers and served in the Military Labour Corps attached to the 25th Royal Fusiliers. These names were extracted from the 1914-18 Forum. And we know from Martin Willis’ work on West Africa that many men enlisted there were listed by their tribe or region as surname. Some South Africans recorded their names as they were commonly known rather than give their family names, so we have men registered as ‘Left Foot’ with no further information available at this stage as to where they came from etc.
  • In the OC files at the SANDF Document Centre, South Africa, there are complaints from officials that in the field military officers enlisted labour without going through official channels and that the necessary paperwork was not kept. Where they were, the nature of the war in East Africa meant that some records were destroyed before they could be delivered to an administrative centre.
  • It still needs to be confirmed but it appears records were kept with varying accuracy and detail depending on where men enlisted. In territories where there was a longer history of British military operation, systems and processes were more developed. This meant better records were kept and accounts for more memorials in Zambia and Malawi and West Africa being maintained.

The outcome of all this, is that verifying bodies was not always that easy, not all had identification documents or discs, known in Kenya as the kipande.

Where reports were sent to the CWGC as in CO 534/37, the names are on the CWGC list, on occasion with a different spelling eg
624 Private Yafesi Kironde of the East Africa Medical Corps who died on 6 August 1917 was notified via the Colonial Office on 27 May 1919 with the spelling Jasesi Kironde. Others such as 419 Eria Kagwa who died on 23 November 1917 has the same spelling in the CO record and on the CWGC site. Both men were East Africa Medical Corps where enlistees had to be literate according to JG Keane.
Another 733 Lorenti Bin Jiridanu, died 23 August 1917 does not at first search appear on the CWGC list, however a cross reference with Keane’s list of the African Native Medical Corps in the East African Campaign shows the name as Lorenti Ziridanu and a search on CWGC for Ziridanu brings up 733 Rolenti Ziridanu, who along with his colleagues is remembered on the Dar es Salaam Memorial Wall. This demonstrates one of the record keeping issues mentioned above, quite often in East Africa, the ‘r’ and ‘l’ is transposed. It took me some years to work out that East Africans in the Tsavo area talking of Bula were actually referring to Bura.

Keane claims 113 men of the medical service died, yet the CWGC list for the unit only shows 31. This huge omission suggests documents went missing along the way or information was insufficient to verify.  However, as names mentioned in Keane’s  record do not appear on the CWGC list so there are names within these 31 CWGC East African Army Medical Corps who do not appear on Keane’s list – at least 3 identified: 1227 Yusufu Karuna, died 16 July 1918 remembered on the Lumbo British Memorial, 1441 Abraham (no surname), died 13 December 1918 and 1293 Aloni Kawesa died 22 November 1918, the last two both remembered on the Pemba Memorial. The conclusion that it was location relevant was dispelled by the mention of 387 Anolido Basajabalaba, died 29 October who is listed on the Pemba Memorial also being in Keane’s list.

Many of the names of men of colour which are recorded on memorials suggest the men were of one of the recognised religions: Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. These men are likely to have been more educated, those being identified as Christian being more literate in English and western ways. It is likely that units they enlisted in would have been more organised, such as the Bishop of Zanzibar’s carrier corps and other missionary led groups.

This raises another point, about those men who were not of one of the recognised religions. Local traditional beliefs meant there was a different approach to death from what many of us today recognise. According to Derek Raymond Peterson, p125, it was Christian Missionaries who introduced the idea of burying the dead to the Gikuyu – around the time of the Great War. Before that the community had left the body for the wild animals and nature to deal with. This is supported by MM Karangi, p131. This suggests that if a carrier fell along the wayside there would be great reluctance by others to touch the body, let alone bury it. Reporting deaths also becomes an issue as the headman or chief who invariably accompanied a carrier corps would be reluctant to report the death, and if as is suggested there were occasions where large numbers died remembering all would be quite a challenge if one did not have the literacy skills or means to record details – remember carrier lines often stretched for kilometres, all exaccerbated if one was not going to touch the body for fear of contamination and the unknown. The number of literate officers accompanying a carrier corps would be too few to keep track of all deaths without relying on the headmen or other leaders, and then there was the issue of reporting someone dead who had actually gone AWOL or deserted. Rather than give someone away, it was easiest to keep quiet. Other burial traditions existed for the WaTaveta who buried their dead standing up, and the Zulu, although not completely happy would accept multiple burials in one space providing the individuals knew each other. For them, moving bodies was taboo (HSRC, South Africa, 1978). Were officers not burying the dead then being disrespectful or were they being sensitive to the beliefs of the men they were commanding? This is a difficult question to answer without more research being done but it suggests that the decisions made 100 years ago in burying the dead were far more complex than we can imagine today with Africa having become ‘Christianised’ in many ways. That there remain different approaches to death and remembering was brought home to me in 2011 by a group of Masai women who couldn’t understand our visiting the dusty Salaita Hill and not long after a body in a neighbouring area which needed to be moved by court order, having been buried in an inappropriate place by the local priest, having a goat and other items placed with it to appease the ancestors despite the burial party being Christian. Some other thoughts are contained in this piece on bereavement and mourning in Africa.

Together with poor reporting of deaths and inaccurate recording of details, the CWGC decision back in the 1920s to remember through a visual representation in the major centres such as the Askari monuments in Mombasa, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, seems rather a good idea and where details can be verified the names are added to a wall of remembrance – irrespective of ethnic background. The War Graves Project in South Africa regularly submits names of men, and women, who are not on the CWGC list and who died in service for adding and I have it anecdotally from South African researchers that the person recording names of war dead for CWGC back in the 1920s died on the job with a batch never making it to London – place this at the time of political change to a Nationalist Government in 1924 who had never wanted to go to war in 1914 against Germany and who were fighting for independence from Britain (culminating in the 1926 Statute of Westminster), and it’s not surprising that a whole stack of names were not recorded on the CWGC lists.

Knowing the challenges I have verifying details on the Great War in Africa lists (scroll down) from the available and accessible records and how long it’s taken to get online what is there, doing anything at a more official level to ensure accuracy of information, is going to take a long time… all not helped by there being no agreed number for the African theatres of those who died in service or complete record list of contingents who served. However, in due course as complete a listing as possible should be achievable… a quick check shows there are names on the GWAA list which do not appear on the CWGC list yet, but the individual details are still insufficient to verify correct spellings, units and cause/place of death.

The above are rough jottings of where my investigation on the topic of death and burial in Africa during WW1 has got to date, all spurred by visits to the African war cemeteries. More detailed research is required on a number of fronts before conclusions can be drawn. And a recent perusal of the Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews and research he conducted for his books on the Carrier Corps found absolutely no mention of burials at all, but a fair bit about pay and pensions – not all in his books but more of that another day. This suggests that burials in the 1970s were not a big issue for the indigenous peoples and neither was it at the end of the war; not even the Christian missionaries refer to burials.

And I can’t help but end with mention of having seen my first WW1 death plaque the day I wrote the above. It was to none other than Rhodesian Native Regiment private M/1099, Mbaluka Mdala, who died on 15 December 1918 from pneumonia/influenza away from the military authorities. No knowledge of where he is buried either. Nevertheless, he is still remembered, as are all the others, named and unnamed.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on African burials in World War 1

  1. During the years when the IWM Lives of the First World War website was “open” a number of volunteers set up communities to remember the South African contribution to WWI. https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/6640 .
    https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/8002
    https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/4884
    The IWM site closed for further contributions in April 2019 .
    Our efforts have more recently been supported by
    https://astreetnearyou.org/#=undefined&lat=-28.659514689424906&lon=24.18913744999998&zoom=5.
    This added resource created by my on line colleague James Morley provides an opportunity for further reflection and remembrance.

  2. Pingback: Review: The Corfield Papers – Kim Leslie | Anne Samson - Historian

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