They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.


The Grand Rand Easter Show

Do you remember the Grand Rand Easter Show held at Sturrock or Milner Park every year? I used to go along on First Aid duty with St John Ambulance for many years and remember fondly going to explore the military section standing with awe looking at machines, many towering over me and reading about the latest technological developments. This was South Africa proving to the world that isolation had no negative impact on the country. My other ‘must see’ were the farm animals – prize cows, bulls and sheep on display – what more can I say…

But for the life of me, despite having gone there once a year for at least 10, I would never be able to direct you to the place and struggled to identify the location when travelling near by outside of show time. Sense of direction and maps are not my strong point! The place has always held a fascination, and was a part and parcel of South Africa and its politics – it was here on 9 April 1960 that there was an attempt was made to assassinate Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd .

During World War 1 the grounds were a collection point for soldiers in Johannesburg before they were sent on their way, and between the outbreak of war and September 1915, it was the prisoner of war camp for enemy aliens before they were moved to Roberts’ Heights [Voortrekkerhoogte and now Thaba Tshwane] and then Fort Napier. But there is obiously more to the space than meets the eye and as shown in this blog on Johannesburg 1912. What a wonderful rich resource opening a window on a part of Johannesburg few might recognise today. And for those wondering, the grounds today form part of the Wits sports complex. For anyone in the Johannesburg area, with a car, it’s worth “getting lost” in the area as I did last year – some of the old buildings from before the 1914-18 war are still standing – it felt a step back into the past without having to visit a museum.

The Rand Show still continues, 125 years after its first event in 1894, now at the NASREC Centre.

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.

Baragwanath origin

Busy searching to see what the relationship between Lords Ardagh and Kitchener was, the word Baragwanath caught my eye. Specifically, the sentence

It was a cold winter’s eve in June 1900 when engine driver RH Baragwanath and his fellow Cornishman, Richard Williams sat down to dinner at Moss’ Grill Room in Central Johannesburg

Was this the man behind the naming of the now Steve Biko Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa? Back in the late 1980s I had friends training as doctors at the hospital, then only under the name Baragwanath, and visited it on occasion – what an experience when contrasted with the ‘white only’ hospitals in the main towns. Yet, it was sought after by foreign doctors who wanted to train in specific injuries which were well-known to be local to the hospital. And as Soweto itself holds special memories for me – I was warmly welcomed with a shaking of hands by Godfrey Moloi as a youngster still at school at one of his sporting events where I was part of the first aid team.

I just had to look this up – was RH Baragwanath the man behind the hospital’s name and if so, what had he done? Alas, it was another Baragwanath who gave his name to the medical centre: John Albert. In short, according to the hospital’s website, John Albert after trying various ways to make a living during the gold rush in Johannesburg set up an inn, one day’s ox journey from Johannesburg, which became known as Baragwanath. Apparently Bara in Welsh means ‘bread’ and Gwanath means ‘wheat’. Eventually in 1940 when South Africa was needing more military hospitals for men serving in World War 2, it was decided to build on Corner House mining property close to where Baragwanath had been. And the rest, as they say is history – which you can read about on the hospital link above, including the Royal visit in 1947. Winnie Mandela was reputedly the first black social worker at the hospital in 1955.

So, who was RH Baragwanath who featured in Diana Rose Cammack’s The Rand at War, 1899-1902: The Witwatersrand and the Anglo-Boer War (University of California Press, 1990)? Well, he used to frequent Moss’s Grill Room in Johannesburg – there is a write-up in Henry Longman’s Progressive Johannesburg for some info of the time, although no photo of Moss’s by all accounts. He and his friend Williams were arrested with many foreigners in Johannesburg at the time, the name Baragwanath not recognised as British and were eventually deported, arriving back in Britain on the Braemer Castle in September 1900. They had been mistaken for ruffians, whom Milner and Mckenzie were clearing out of Johannesburg which had been occupied by the British forces in May.

And further digging shows there was a Baragwanath Airfield which closed down in the early 1980s. It was the home of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club.

And the relationship between Ardagh and Kitchener, nothing of note, other than that Ardagh offered advice on various areas Kitchener was also involved; not enough to feature in my forthcoming publication on K of K.

Cold War exhibition – subtly inclusive

I wasn’t going to see it, but being a member of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group, we had a special tour of the Cold War exhibition.

The exhibition focuses on the British home front – perfect for a nation’s archive, but how in this day and age of everything having to be diverse, did they manage it?

With subtlety and taste.

You enter into a mock government bunker giving an overview of the Cold war – it just can’t ignore the superpowers of the day. Spies and MI5/6 with Dame Stella Rimington dispelling the myths of James Bond and emphasising how ‘boring’ intelligence work really is in comparison.

Next, into a typical middle-class British home to see how the Cold War impacted daily life. Civil defence measures and protective spaces in the home in case of a nuclear attack give a good idea of how life changed as politicians grappled with how to deal with something out of their control – should an attack take place. TV, music, film and books make an appearance, the mock-up under the stair refuge speaking to many in the UK and others who have read about, or seen pictures of, a typical terrace house.

But the inclusive part comes at the end when visitors are invited to share their experiences, type them up on old ‘tick tick’ typewriters and post them on the info board. Stimulated by our whistelstop tour, we verbally shared our experiences: Some spoke of their parents having been involved as scientists, others their experience of being in another European country while some had no idea of preventative measures at the time. By all accounts, some schools made a point of not scaremongering. Our 1980s experiences in South Africa, although not directly nuclear attack oriented, were similar during the Cold War years. My last years of school were peppered with ‘bomb evacuations’ as students or their friends phoned in to have a test or exam deferred. Even if a crank call was suspected, we had to take it seriously and became adept at packing things up and filing out to the playing fields at least twice a week. Thank goodness it doesn’t rain as frequently in South Africa as Britain…

At primary school, in the early 1980s, we quickly learned to discern between the ‘fire alarm’ or ‘get out alarm’ and the ‘baracade alert’. The latter being where doors were closed to stop attackers getting in, but windows were opened to reduce the impact of shattering glass, desks were pushed together and chairs and schoolbags packed around to create the walls to our makeshift ‘caves’. On the occasions we had to evacuate, I could never understand why we had to line up beautifully in rows along the perimeter of the school grounds near open fields – and one specially trained Civil Defence teacher was allowed to carry a hand-gun: to protect 1000 of us! Thankfully, children were not the target in South Africa’s ‘Cold War’.

And our literature? I recall Neville Shute’s On the beach being the best read. We were split: move to Australia where you could possibly miss the fall out of a northern hemisphere attack or move to the north anticipating where the bomb would explode so you’d be killed and not have to suffer the consequences. Incredible how the power of suggestion worked/still works.

Intriguingly, it was only discussing the exhibition with someone who hadn’t been with us at the time that I realised how subtly inclusive the exhibition had been and how conditioned we’ve become to having inclusivity thrust in out faces and blatently obvious. True inclusivity is not always obvious at a glance.

For a topic as broad as the Cold War, a point of departure was needed. Something compact. And this was achieved though the home front approach – all based on documents in the archive, but there is so much more hidden in the files as I discovered some time ago [May 2009] before narrowing my focus to WW1 and Africa.

If you’re in the neighbourhood and the exhibition is still on, it’s definitely worth a visit – you can even see how nuclear weapons have grown in impact – and for those with children, there are appropriate activities for them to do.

And for anyone wondering, the song Duck and Cover which I remember watching when we did a module on Propaganda in my MA in History was 1950s USA. In the UK, there was Protect and Survive in the 1970s.

Diverted by war – dinosaurs

A little sidetrack into the experiences of a district commissioner in British East Africa led to the discovery of a book by Gerhard Maier recording the experiences of an expedition to find a dinasour: African Dinosaurs unearthed: The Tendaguru Expeditions (2003). In this Gerhard touches on the impact of the war.

The expedition had gone out for the big National Exhibition German Governor Heinrich Schnee was organising. This exhibiton led to huge quantities of food and supplies being imported into the colony. An unexpected little supply for when the war broke out.

News of Britain’s declaration of war was received in Dar es Salaam at 6.15am on 5 August 1914.

Schnee had apparently started a small pox innoculation programme.
There were about 100 government schools for African blacks while missionaries had a total of 1,832. 115,000 were enrolled out of a population of 7 million.
These and other developments were undone by the war, exaccerbated by the movement of people across the country and then the influenza outbreak. Maier estimates between 50 000 and 60 000 died from illness in the German colony.

The geologists, scientists and others involved in the expedition served in different capactities, some armed, others looking after supply etc. A couple managed to source bones which they then lost along with their notes. Maier suggests some of the dinosaur bones were taken to South Africa, while after the war the British picked up researching the dinosaurs.

I haven’t read the rest of the book yet, which looks rather fascinating. It might be one to recommend to my nephew and commission a synopsis.

Feeding an army

Much has been written about the poor feeding of the forces in the East Africa campaign of World War One, the men often on less than full rations. The Pike Report of 1918, published on the GWAA website provides insight into the different rations that each group was entitled to, which was rather an eye-opener, the level of detail and attention is rather astonishing even to the extent of animal rations.

It was therefore with some interest to discover rations for the Turkish Army at Gallipoli and the problems the Ottoman Empire had provisioning the men.

It doesn’t excuse the paucity of rations to the African troops, but it is rather reassuring that it was a more global issue. Having a very specific interest such as the war in East Africa can lead to thinking the situation was unique – indeed some authors have claimed this to be the case, myself included in earlier years. However, it’s helpful taking a peak into other areas of the war and other military encounters to see how similar wars are in many respects and that as with life in general, few learn from others’ mistakes.

For anyone interested in the Ottoman/Turkish side of the Gallipoli, Macquaire University have some useful links as I discovered on James Patton’s site Kansas WW1. And for those wondering how I was side-tracked to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire – it’s all Lord Kitchener’s fault.