South African WW1 remembrance days

While some African countries seem to be moving away from 11 November as the day to remember those who died making the(ir) world a better place such as Nigeria and Egypt, South Africa seems to be adding days.

That we have a one-two minute silence on 11 November was thanks to South Africa’s own Percy Fitzpatrick. In the past, the day tended to focus mostly on the Western Front of World War 1 and South Africa’s involvement in World War 2, in particular North Africa and Italy. Today, the East Africa campaign of 1939-1942 is getting greater recognition while South Africa’s involvement in the campaign of the same name of 1914-1918 remains relatively glossed over in the public domain. Today, 11 November, in line with the more integrated South Africa, is more inclusive in its remembrance across the armed forces of the republic.

In addition to 11 November, we have:

20 February – Mendi Day when the 600+ souls who perished when the SS Mendi was sunk, or as I prefer to think of it Labour Day, commemorating all South African labour who served, survived and died during the First World War.

20 September – Battle of Square Hill when the Cape Corps suffered huge losses in helping the Allies gain a victory in the Middle East in 1918.

And then we have not quite a day, but the figure of Jopie Fourie who symbolises the rebellion and opposition to the British Empire.

I’ve written about these in various articles, but more recently, in response to someone reading one of my articles, I have come to realise another date in the military calendar:

20 July – commemorating South Africa’s losses at Delville Wood in 1916. Whilst this has been the feature of 11 November public commemoration until recently, it has been a feature of military commemoration for some years. Now, 20 July is becoming more well known as this 2018 article shows, at least in Pretoria.

Other posts: Delville Wood and Square Hill ; SS Mendi Shroud ; Aragon vs Mendi ; Dove to remember ; Why remember ;

Publications: The end of the war in Africa

Remembering the war dead ; Some thoughts on African war burials

Novelist: PC Wren

Percival Christopher Wren was another prolific writer, publishing over 33 novels and short story collections. Most have soldiering in Africa as a theme although only one concerns the Great War in Africa. He had a fascination for the French Foreign Legion although a recent researcher (Martin Windrow) suggests he never joined but knew people associated with the Legion. He was by all accounts secretive about his life.

1875 – 1 November, born in London
1903 – appointed headmaster to Karachi High School in India
1910 – 19 May, daughter died in India
1914 – 26 September, wife dies
1914 – 1 December, Reserve Officer of Indian Infantry Regiment, 101st Grenadiers
1915 – October, leaves reserves to join civil service
1917 – November, resigns from Indian Education service
1941 – 22 November, dies

Although Wren joined the 101st Grenadiers and that the Indian unit he was attached to served in East Africa during the war, it appears that he was recorded sick from 17 February 1915 until he left to join the civil service in October of that year. It is most likely that he never saw service in East Africa.

He published much on Indian education and related topics from 1910, his first collection of short stories being published in the UK in 1912.

Books on World War 1 in Africa

1920 – Cupid in Africa (Reading of Reading has a reader’s report on the book)


FictionDB for list of books by Wren
Fantastic Fiction
Wikipedia entry

A history lesson from Star Wars

“If an item is not in our archive it means it doesn’t exist” – Archivist/Librarian to Obi-Wan Kenobi Star Wars 2 (no 5; Attack of the Clones, 2002) A little later the suggestion is made that the information was erased but to find the information (a missing planet) Obi was to go to the centre of where gravity concentrated. It precedes the discussion on ‘losing a planet‘.

Who would have thought one could obtain such helpful research advice from a space film? 

There have been cases of documents removed from archives (FOI request) and on occasion fake documents added to collections (news report)- hence the strict restrictions some have for consulting material. Other documents go missing or are destroyed due to poor archive practice invariably through ignorance or lack of funding (Endangered Archives Programme).  However, an astute historian paying attention to silences and triangulating material to check logic and plausibility is generally able to locate the ‘center of the pull of gravity’ in time.

While secondary sources hold their own logic in that they address a specific question the author had (my biography on Kitchener is a good example), reading across multiple sources can highlight discrepancies and raise questions. Accessing primary source material might appear disjointed but it is important to engage with to ensure information is not accidentally erased from the constructed narrative.

It is through these primary sources that the involvement of so many has been brought to light in the Great War in Africa. Compare what we know today with what was published in the 1960s. If any further incentive is needed for getting into the archives, it should be this: dis-erasing (is there such a word?) the past.

Review: For the Honour of My House – Tony McClenaghan

So much of what we hear or know of the EA campaign is that 75% manpower was lost with the majority being due to disease, 10% war related. Tony McClenaghan provides figures for the Jind Imperial Service Infantry which challenge these figures. On 5 December 1917 when the regiment returned to India after three and a half years:

“A total of 15 officers, 2 Sub Assistant Surgeons, 281 rank and file and 30 followers embarked for India.” An original draft, arriving September 1914, of 380 combatants and 52 followers had been sent with thirteen additional drafts totaling 678 combatants and 34 non-combatants, resulting in 1,144 men sent overseas.

The casualties were (p150):

23 killed in action (2 British officers, 2 Indian officers and 19 other ranks)
47 other ranks died of wounds
47 other ranks died of disease
81 wounded in action. 

This is the level of detail Tony McClenaghan gives in For the Honour of My House. It is a detailed account of Indian Imperial Service troops contribution to the First World War using sources from London and India – footnoted rather than end-noted (a huge plus in my books and appreciated by other researchers I’ve spoken with too). What is also refreshing is that Tony explains where he has not been able to verify information in official sources such as Watson’s mention of camels being sent to the African theatre of war (pp154-5) or how his information differs to that of others (he has 40 extra names compared with the CWGC listing – Appendix II; since Tony published his book, the CWGC report on Inequality in Commemoration has been published which sets out some reasons for these omissions and plans to address them.)

Although the reporting of military action as Tony has done is not my favourite style, this is a very welcome contribution to the history of the war in Africa. Tony’s attention to detail means that we now have access to where and when Indian Imperial Service troops were during the EA campaign, placing other units in context. He also very helpfully points out when Indian Imperial Service troops were not used which too is helpful. Until van Deventer took command of the EA theatre, it does not appear that Indian Imperial Service troops served in the Brigades commanded by South Africans. It doesn’t appear that Tony addresses this but the 1915 report that South Africans would not be comfortable serving with Indians seems to have played a part here. It is a book I will be revisiting for the detail.

What drew my attention to the book initially was an online appendix to the book – a role of honour (appendix II). There are two appendices online (Appendix II – awards) with others in the book. Scroll down on the Helion link to get the appendices. The officer lists can also be found at the British Library.

While I’ve focused on the Indian Imperial Service troops involvement in Africa for this review, the book considers with the same level of detail their involvement in all theatres they served, including an overview of how they came to be raised, the honours they received and how they are remembered.

For anyone wondering why I didn’t just refer to Imperial Service Troops, the South African forces were also Imperial Service troops, in their case the British government effectively paid for their service to overcome internal politics within the Union. The Indian Imperial Service Troops were raised and paid for by the Independent Indian Princes/Rajahas etc and served at Britain’s request alongside the Indian Army.


How often have you thought of taking up ox-taming as a career?

It’s not something I’ve explicitly thought of but I have been subconsciously aware that there is a skill to getting oxen to move specially when pulling big loads up steep hills as in the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

So, it was with some interest that I read this article on South Africa’s Famous Ox-Tamer, William Kenneth Shuman. Although he was born after World War 1, the article provides some insight into the skill required and the relationship between the driver and the ox. This relationship has been supported and explained by Marthe Kiley-Worthington in her autobiography Family are the Friends you Choose in which she explains how she managed to get Cape buffalo (Africa’s indigenous bovine) to operate in the same way.

During the Great War in Africa, next to the carriers, ox-wagon was a major means of transporting goods between bases and the front line – many oxen succumbing to tsetse fly or sleeping sickness. In addition there was ‘beef on the hoof’ to move as herds of live cows were moved to provide fresh meat for the forces in base. Herding this number of bovine required skill and an intimate knowledge of the animal concerned. For this specialist labourers were brought in from South Africa in particular, mostly part of the Cape Labour Corps – a group we know even less about than the Cape Corps. While most of these labourers were coloured, there were white farmers and others who were employed as conductors to oversee the drivers. With the introduction of motorised vehicle units where similar terms seem to have been used, the contribution of these skilled cattle-men has been relegated to the depths of memory.

With little bits of information continuing to come to light through archival investigation, we might yet obtain an clearer picture of those, other than the veterinary staff, who looked after the animals on campaign. That cows were important was brought home recently when I transcribed the Kirkpatrick report (24min zoom video; transcript) into conditions in East Africa. One of the big complaints concerned milk and its availability.