Engaging Africa in remembrance

Does having a list of African High Commissioners due to attend a remembrance event prove inclusivity? I’m not sure. It shows engagement at a basic level. I put my theory to the test, again and introduced myself to various of the High Commissioners and/or their Military Attachés. As expected, they were [pick your term] polite, politically correct, giving lip service, saying what they expected others to want to hear. And of course, wearing a poppy. They were present but not engaged in any meaningful way.

This war which was being portrayed as inclusive still had/has no direct resonance with many from the African continent. How do I know? Well, in my encounter at this particular event, as with others, I’ve got to know the signs of polite tolerance, until you hit with a snippet that says, ‘I am serious, this is about YOUR country, how you can start engaging with the commemoration at a local level. It’s about people, not Empire.’

For Zambia, it was realising there was a black Zambian who served on the Western Front in an armed capacity. He was not just a name but a person with a history; not all positive, but that’s life. We won’t know why Samson Jackson (aka Bulaya) really enlisted, and the military records are no longer available, but he served and stayed until 1921.

Tanzania’s moment came when it was realised that the whole territory had been caught up in the war and that everyone was affected in some way, not least the local population having their homesteads overrun and having to supply food and manpower to the various forces. Added to this were the Askari and King’s African Rifles which forms the basis of the present military system. And the fact that their first President, Julius Nyerere’s policies around land were no doubt influenced by his early life experiences in the 1920s.

Kenya is an interesting one. A look at Wikipedia for Jomo Kenyatta shows he joined Masaai family members to avoid enlistment whilst Geoffrey Hodges in Kariokor notes Kenyatta worked for the British administration learning the value of organisation to achieve a goal.

I can go on, but what difference will this engagement make? In the big scheme of things, I don’t know, but it might well help fill in gaps and give confidence to a people told they should remember but who can’t see why. At a more altruistic level, it should create a more level playing field to overcome divisions as greater understanding of the past is understood for what it was.

Of one thing I’m clear, remembrance as it is currently practised in Britain and other British-influenced communities is not (yet) inclusive. This will take time – Hew Strachan points out in an essay on remembrance: ‘[The] 1914-18 [war] drew a clear distinction between the theory and practice of war in their own [European] continent and wars waged outside it.’ It’s taken Britain a century to reconcile these two points at an intellectual level. The challenge now is for Britain and others to explain this at national and local level, and develop an understanding of the African context of the war.

The impetus to remember does not rest with Britain and the European powers alone, Africans can, by looking outside the traditional European narrative, create their own remembrance as witnessed in Zambia in November 2018.


Education and war

It was not unusual to hear South Africans complaining about the state of education during my recent visit and subsequently. This wasn’t the usual issue of curriculum and what is being taught but rather that young people across the board are not able to think for themselves and make up their own minds about events and statements made by politicians. This was further extended to the workplace where automation and reliance on technology to do the work of humans is eroding the skills base. Who will be around in the next generation or two who has a global or ‘out of the box’ take to re-empower individuals when finances and systems are no longer available to support an ever longer-living society?

These are concerns and questions just as applicable in Britain as I’m sure they are in the USA and other countries.

Education is important – on that I think all people are agreed. The contentious issue is what education and for whose purpose. I can’t help but think of Marx’s keeping the masses ignorant in order to uphold those in office. Labour’s introduction of Critical Thinking in the 2000s was a case in point and I’m sure the current teaching on how to identify fake news is not much different.

The significance of education in war has featured in some recent reading (chapters 50, 52 and 54 of Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experience, edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Lidddle). How teachers in Germany and France supported (or not) the war effort in their respective country, what kept children from attending school etc. Unsurprisingly, these factors can still be seen today in many African countries and more subtly across education institutions I’ve had dealings with in England over the years.

But there’s also positives to this potentially gloomy picture:

  • On my recent trip to Zambia I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline the force behind ensuring children in battle-impacted Afghanistan are able to access education again.
  • An initiative in Rwanda to teach English is doing more than that through time-tested books written specially for the locality and teachers who have lost their fluency in the English language.
  • A chance Christmas Eve meeting with Shelley of told me about the bilingual (Arabic/English) books they’re distributing with Trauma Teddies helping children in the Lebanon (and elsewhere) come to terms with what they have witnessed.
  • Seeing young people in South Africa break the technology norm being engrossed in reading real books with historical narrative and making links with discussions around them. And also saying ‘if only school history were this interesting’ – a huge compliment when it’s a ‘dull boring’ historian’s nephew making such a comment.
  • Hearing Johan Wassermann, at the Unisa conference on the legacy of WW1 in southern Africa, explain how much freedom there actually is in what appears to be a narrow curriculum which allows teachers to broaden what content they cover.
  • Knowing individual teachers and academics who do what they can to ensure their learners are equipped for the future – I am eternally grateful to Amy Ansell for the impact she’s had on my approach to teaching and history.

As Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau (chapter 54 – French children as targets for propaganda) noted, children are resilient and get through. Complaints about poor or inadequate education have been around for centuries and no doubt will continue but as our ancestors across the continents have shown, mankind muddles through – somehow.

Little literature appears on education in Africa during the war years. Immediately springing to mind are the novels: Iron Love by Marguerite Poland and Chui and Sadaka by William Powell. Any takers for looking at … missions schools and the war … post-war school policies … settler children being educated in country or going ‘home’ … African nationalism and war-time education … education and the armed forces?

Why remember?

I was asked this question at the 2018 Unisa conference on the legacy of World War 1 in Southern Africa. Specifically, the question had to do with why remember World War 1 and in particular those involved.

At heart, this is really asking ‘why remember the past?’ Simply put, our past made us who we are today, it’s part of our identity.

World War 1 was, for me, a pivotal point in our global past. It influenced, and still does, much of what we do today even if we aren’t aware of it. By remembering the individuals, their actions and the greater war we instil a better understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

I recall once (early 2000s) when I was teaching A Level History and Sociology, one of my white British students asked what British traditions there were. She was feeling rather left out with fellow students participating in Ramadan, Diwali, having foods or clothes they particularly associated with culturally, yet all seemed very comfortable socially in our diverse community. The other students had amalgamated British traditions into their own to the extent that what was traditionally British, was not seen as British. Once this was understood, my young thoughtful student felt able to engage with the others on a more level or equal footing.

More recently, the issue of British identity has come to the fore more overtly: Union Jacks flying where for years only the odd light had been placed at Christmas. I’m try hard not to read the alternative message being given to the ‘foreign’ shop owners in front of whose shops these flags had been placed. Whichever way one reads the placing of the Union Jack (which incidentally replaced the St George’s flag which appeared the Friday of St George’s Day), Britain is marking its identity and giving a message to Britons that they belong, they are important, they have a heritage. With this, I have no objection. As a foreigner-citizen in the UK, I have long felt that Britain hasn’t looked after itself. Its focus has been external to the detriment of itself. How often I hear ‘you can’t look after others unless you look after yourself’, ‘If you’re not well, how can you expect to look after xxx’. The same goes for a country. Britain’s external focus has resulted in more homeless children than for many a year, a drop in life expectancy and and and…

There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled as Britain redefines itself and creates a new identity. Remembering what was achieved socially and culturally during World War 1 with the support of Africans and other minorities, can only help create a Britain (or any other country identity) which feels inclusive and is tolerant of all.  As we bid farewell to 2018, my wish for 2019 is that through our shared humanity which crosses boundaries and divides of all kinds – we break down the growing silo identities and return to a state where all are welcomed, supported and united, simply, in being nice to each other. (And yes, I am an idealist at heart.)

A Dove to Remember

This year I discarded the remembrance poppy in favour of a dove – evidence of my journey over the past 4 years. In preparation for 2014 I had a special choker made with 4 poppies to reflect the four quarters of the globe. However, the start of the centenary commemorations showed just how exclusive this symbol was (and remains) especially when it comes to the conflict in Africa.

Poppies are not an African flower. The symbol, at least as it was linked with the Tower of London display, ignored the mass of Africans who for various (legitimately thought at the time) reasons are not recorded on the CWGC database. Then we have the Africans who served for more than one imperial power including Britain. The ‘other’ is not included. And what about all those who did their bit unofficially? The contributions of the home fronts, those who felt their calling was to keep the economy going or to safeguard some of the population for the future? All suffered through the terrible years of war and after.

Something inclusive was needed in the same way that the two-minute silence is. Something that transcended race, religion, gender, culture, age and … Posing this challenge to a reforming/liberal chaplain, his immediate reply was ‘the dove – it covers all religions.’ An internet search later, I was convinced. All continents except Antarctica have a dove species and all the major religions (at least 6) accept the dove. Most significant though, was what it represented: peace, hope and forgiveness.

The dove became my remembrance symbol. The next challenge was to find a representative dove (the 3 Abrahamic faiths each have a tailored dove). A trip to a local art shop supplied the item. All was set. Except… what to place at the cenotaph? Something natural, eco friendly and sustainable that anyone could easily access and which had symbolic meaning. Religious practice again supplied the answer: stones. They protected the dead from being dug up, were used for cairns to mark special places and were of the earth.

Broaching the issue with a friend, I discovered stones from the beach in Cape Town are used at the Castle Mendi memorial. There couldn’t be any objections to my inclusive suggestion. And at a small private-ish remembrance service at the site where the Germans were informed of the armistice (opposite bank of the Chambeshi River to where the factory was), a group of 22 set stones to remember all those involved in the wars in and from Africa.

It seems fitting that at this time of the year, I share with you my dove and all it symbolises: peace, hope and forgiveness.

Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.


War Diaries of the Base Commandant DSM – a little gem

Finishing off a book on the end of the war in East Africa, I thought I’d check some War Diaries. Per chance I came across the Bast Commandant for Dar es Salaam and it is a little treasure trove.

The diligent Base Commandant(s) have dutifully recorded the names of all who died under the command irrespective of position – with the result that we have some records of Chinese Labour still being in EA at the end of the war and the names of some of the German prisoners of war (all ranks). In addition to listing the person, the date and cause of death are recorded as well as initials where available and force number. This should prove a very useful source for indentifying names not on the Imperial lists (and when I get a chance I’ll transfer them to the Great War In Memory lists).

In addition to the death records, there are the embarkation notfications for shipping. This includes the names of officers travelling and numbers of other ranks. What stands out here is the diversity of ‘other ranks’ – including the number of women and children attached to units who are being transported between bases 22 women and children of the KAR were going from Dar-es-Salaam to the Detail Camp at Kilindini (Mombasa) on 31 December 1918. Animals, vehicles and equipment are all listed – quantity and destination.

And then there are church services listed for the forthcoming week – a range of venues and denominations are covered. As are significant general orders and various Courts Martial and enquiries including the verdict in many cases,

For the patient researcher who is prepared to strain their eyes with the poor quality print (it is clearly copy x of xx rather than the original here), there should be more than a few gems which come to light.

Ref: The National Archives, Kew: WO 95/5359 parts 4 and 5
The book commemorating the end of the war is called Zambia: the end of the war, 25 November 1918 – 25 November 2018 (GWAA, 2018)


On the surrender of the German forces in East Africa

It seems fitting that while large numbers of people are remembering the end of the war in Europe, to stop and look at Africa where fighting continued to 13 November and arms finally laid down on 25 November. To mark the events in Mbala (Abercorn in Zambia) in November 1918, the GWAA has published a book containing German and English diary accounts of the last days from 11 November to 31 December 1918. What is does not contain are extracts from newspapers.  By all accounts, little was reported. Below are reports from two newspapers in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Noticeably lacking is detail on Africa but as one of the papers noted, there had been a block on reporting events in Africa. Unfortunately copies of the Nyasaland Times for November 1918 were not available in the same collection. It would have been interesting to see what they had to say.

On 29 November 1918, the Bulawayo Chronicle reported the following on page 3;

The von Lettow Surrender

Discussing the close of the German East Campaign, the Beira News says of Von Lettow:-

“His tactics were perfectly simple in their object, which was only to fight and run away, and all the fine plans of the Allied commanders failed to bring him to a stand or prevent him from scuppering a detachment here and an inferior force there. In the end, not because he was in any real danger of capture, but because it perhaps suited his mood, Von Lettow once more forded the Rovuma despite the elaborate steps taken to stay his flight and proceeded towards Tabora, but finaly, and probably because he was well-posted regarding the imminence of the debacle on the western front, broke back into Northern Rhodesia and have himself and his force into the hands, not of any of the men who had pursued him so long, but of a political officer of another regime!

A great deal was made about the mess in Mesopotamia, and three high officers under the Indian Government were given to the public as hostages for better things along the Tigris. In “German” East the same Indian Government was content to let things go on anyhow, and the Home Government and the War Office, oblivious of of (sic) the waste of life nad the loss of prestige, condoned the mess by making the chief command a matter of political selection instead of handing it over to a professional soldier of repute and seeing that everything necessary was provided to bring it to a speedy issue, either with cavalry or fully-trained troops. If the true story of “German” East is ever told – it is hardly likely that it will – it will be seen to rank as the one great failure of the war and all that is required to give to it the halo of a campaign in keepign with the measure of it record is a ten-column list of awards.”

If the secret agents of von Lettow in East Africa are ever discovered – which is very doubtful, having regard to the inability of the military authorities to run down the culprits while they were most active – there will be a fine story to tell of barefaced treachery and intrigue (says the Beira paper). The last story of the kind which reached Beira just before the surrender was that a native had been caught in the fighting area with a bundle of Reuter’s wires containing all the news from Europe up to the 9th November! It is well known, of course, that von Lettow carried a wireless set with him for receiving purposes, but on this occasion, and even if the latter was still in his possession, he was probably too far away from the coast to pick up the news, and the presumption is that the messages were taken off by an agent within the coastal area and therefore within receiving distance of any ship engaged in passing on the story of the war to another.

On page 7, the following was received on The Casualties:

IN the House of Commons today [Tuesday], Mr Mcpherson, Under Secretary for War, announced that the casualties in the East African campaign totalled approximately 900 officers and 17,000 men.

The following are the detailed figures of Allied casualties: Killed, 280 officers, and 8724 men; wounded, 470 officers and 7876 men; missing and prisoners, 38 officers and 929 men.(*)

A bit further on page 9, we read that von Lettow’s record should: should he be punished

The Guardian vigorously protests against the suggestion in a Rhodesian paper that Von Lettow is entitled to the full honours of war. It quotes from a Parliamentary White Paper on the atrocities in German East, and points out that Von Lettow was in command at the time and knew what was going on, and did nothing. The Guardian says he only merits the honours of war if a fleeing criminal putting up a good fight is excused his crime on that account. The paper hopes that Von Lettow will receive punishment for his loathsome regime.

It is officially stated that the force surrendered by Von Lettow included thirty officers, 125 other Europeans, 1,165 Askaris, and a hundred carriers.The Askaris are being detained at Tabora for repatriation and the Germans for transference to Europe.

What is rather surprising about these entries, and those of 15 and 22 November, is that there is no report on the actual handing over of the notification to von Lettow that the war in Europe had come to an end or of the actual events at Mbala.

It also seems rather odd that the great news about the war having ended is recorded on page 4 rather than emblazoned on the front page as we are used to seeing today. The front page consists of classifieds for those who have not seen a paper from the time.

(*) on 22 November (page 5), the following figures were given to the House of Commons concerning all British casualties:

… British military casualties in all theatres of war to November 10, excluding the Air Force, but including Domonion and Indian troops, totalled 3,050,000, whereof 142,634 were officers and 2,900,000 men.

The number killed totalled 27,875 officers, 620,628 other ranks.
The total of casualties for France was 125,700 officers, 2,539,999 men, of whom 32,800 officers and 527,000 men were killed.
In the Dardanelles 5,000 officers, 115,000 men, of whom 1,800 officers and 32,000 men were killed.
On the Salonika front casualties numbered 1,200 officers, 25,000 men.
In Mesopotamia 4,300 officers, 93,000 men.
Egypt 3,600 officers, 54,000 men.
East Africa 900 officers, 17,000 men.

In contrast, the Rhodesia Herald ran the following Editorial on page 10.

There was the usual crop of rumours in town yesterday concerning Von Lettow and his attitude towards the armistice signed by his country on Monday. Most of them were absurd and are not worth repeating, although the idea held by some people that he would continue guerilla warfare as an outlaw is mentioned to show how little the situation of the distinguished General was appreciated. From such meagre accounts of the progress of affairs in East Africa that the Press of this country has been privileged to publish, there seems to be little doubt that von Lettow has conducted the campaign in a soldierly fashion, has taken “sporting chances”, has proved himself to be a tough fighter, and – to use the words of another distinguished soldier, General Northey – “he had played the game all through”. In fact, von Lettow appears to be one of the few German commanders who did not countenance the practice of Hunnish methods, although, of course, cases of cruel treatment have been reproted even from East Africa, but he is not held to be responsible for them. In these circumstances it was supposed that when Germany signed the armistice General Von Lettow, like the good soldier he is, would naturally continue to play the soldier’s part and accept the inevitable. That, ideed, we are advised, is what occurred. Von Lettow has accepted the armistice and is now engaged in fulfilling the terms of the conditions that apply to East Africa. We are not in a position to interpret the somehwat vague reference to East Africa, contained in clause 17 of the armistice; but we imagine we are right in drawing the conclusion that hostilities have now ceasedin that country and that steps will at once be taken to restore ordered government pending the ultimate decision to be arrived at by the Peace Conference. Whilst we do not desire to detract from the great performances of General Von Lettow, but pay him the British tribute of having fought like a man, we are not prepared to fall upon his neck and kiss him. He has done his duty in a praiseworthy manner in the same way that every British soldier has performed his duty, and we hope there will be no maudlin sentiment indulged in at this time. Let our first regard, be for our own noble men. There is always a tendency to allow sporting instincts to predominate as against common sense; but we trust on this occasion that if any one is tempted to allow his feelings to run away with him, he will cast his mind back to the atrocities committed by the Germans in France and Belgium and to the long record of odeous crime which is laid at their doors. Before we are generous we are bound to be just over this war. Moreover, we have to remember that for the hell let loose in the world the Prussian has to pay and to pay to the uttermost mark. At the same time, we rejoice in the cessation of hostilities in East Africa and offer our grateful thanks to those brave Rhodesians, including that gallant soldier, Colonel Murray, of the British South Africa Police, and those of our allies who have assisted to bring the war to a close. We believe that with the acceptance of the armistice a new era in East Africa has dawned, and the future is bright with the promise of peace and prosperity.

Copies of the original newspaper articles can be accessed free with a British Library login.

Notably lacking from the above reports are mention of the King’s African Rifles and the porters who played such a vital role in the last years of the campaign.

We remember them all – known and unknown.