A postal discovery

I received an email the other day from a friend saying she’d received some real post for the first time in ages and what a wonderful feeling it caused. It might help to note that she’s in South Africa where the postal system doesn’t have a very good reputation and with travel and other restrictions the postal and courier services had been completely suspended for over a month.

Although the quantity of postal deliveries has reduced phenomenally over the years since email and smartphones have taken over our lives, there is still a need for the good old fashioned delivery system and, if I’m honest, I still tend to pop a handwritten letter or card into the post box rather than send an email (especially if the recipient doesn’t connect electronically). Writing a letter is so much quicker than typing one out and printing it… the challenge is keeping it legible.

So, I was quite taken when reading Gann and Duigan’s Colonialism in Africa vol 1, p443 to learn that Ethiopia had joined the International Postal Union in 1908. The surprise was not that it was Ethiopia but rather that there has been an international postal society, association, union for that length of time. So, it got me investigating.

The Universal Postal Union as it is known today is the second oldest such association still in existence. It came into existence in 1874 based in Berne, Switzerland and its purpose is to provide a ‘forum for cooperation between postal sector players’. It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but this little excursion raised awareness of the logistical infrastructure that goes into delivering a letter or parcel, not just locally, but internationally, and it’s been going for nearly 150 years. Britannica has some more information for anyone interested and this archive is rather impressive, including stamps and other items from Africa during the First World War.

For anyone interested in the British post office’s involvement in World War One, the Postal Museum has some information. Although it doesn’t cover the colonies and dominions in the discussion, we know letters were sent to and from the UK to the front lines. Memoirs concerning the war in East Africa often lament the fact that no letters were forthcoming for some time, and WW Campbell in his East Africa by Motor Lorry talks of sorting out piles of post which had gathered in a base camp. Francis Brett Young’s sense of hopelessness and loss on hearing that his manuscript Marching on Tanga had been sunk on route to his publisher.

The army postal service arrived in East Africa with the Indian Expeditionary Forces in November 1914. Under Lieutenant Colonel Appleby, the post office was set up in the base depot at Kilindini serving all troops operating in East Africa. In January 1916, the unit was supplemented with a draft from South Africa and was assisted by the South African Postmaster General, Mr J Wilson. It is recorded that the roads were so bad, motor transport could only move at 9mph. In 1917, the postal service consisted of 5 British officers, 5 inspectors, 85 postmasters and clerks, and a contingent of the South African Postal Corps and Royal Engineers (4 British officers, 25 rank and file). On 1 June 1917 a base was opened in Dar es Salaam, while 6 Field Post Offices and 3 postal agencies were opened in Port Amelia. A base depot was opened in June 1918 in South Africa to deal with UK post. While KA Appleby, Director of Postal Services in East Africa for the duration of the war, does not give statistics for mail in East Africa, he notes that between June 1918 and the end of the war, the Durban office had processed 4,516 mail and 2,070 parcel bags going to the East Africa theatre. (The Post Office of India in the Great War, p264)

And somewhere in my photo collection, I have a photo of the oldest known post office in the Kilimanjaro region, in Himo on the route from Taveta to Himo to Moshi. Built by the Germans before the 1914-18 war, when I last saw it, it was a small convenience store in disrepair. One or two locals knowing its significance were starting to explore how it could be rescued and its history made more widely known. Unfortunately I’ve not been back and don’t know its current status.

Then as now, getting a letter creates a sense of eager anticipation, unlike the image of the person standing on the doorstep holding a pink telegram sheet…

The African Army Band

Many of us in and of Africa are aware of the importance and significance of music, ranging from the talking drums to the crooned lullaby to soothe tiny people to protest songs and religious choral harmonies etc. Jazz and pipe bands also feature, the latter having their roots in the military, I think here of the Transvaal Scottish and Irish regiments who alternate in their support of the annual Remembrance Day services in South Africa.

And it’s not just South Africa which has military bands. At the ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in Zambia on 25 November 2018, the Zambian Army provided a brass band, a practice which dates to before the 1914-18 war as explained by Mel Page in a fascinating article on the role of song over time (“A continuing legacy of song: From Asilikali lyrics into Malawian culture” in Society of Malawi Journal, 2020, 73:1). One of his references is George Shepperson who, in another article in the Society of Malawi Journal (“Malawi and the poetry of two World Wars”, 1990, 43:2), discussed two poems he wrote, one of them emulating the songs the Nyasalander men he led in Burma sang telling of their trials and tribulations but also their successes. Of all the King’s African Rifle units, the Nysalanders were well known for their singing.

Within the same week of reading the above, I then happened by chance upon a 2006 thesis on musicians in the Buganda Court after 1937. A quick look through, invariably such studies have a scene setting chapter which on occasion mentions the war, resulted in the little discovery that

British rule, including their introduction of European brass instruments, influenced the Kabaka of Uganda [Kabaka Chwa II’s reign (the thirty-fourth Kabaka,1897-1939)] to establish a military band for his private army. Native recruits (musicians), who learned skills on these European band instruments (on which they played European tunes), later used these Western instruments to compose and arrange indigenous melodies for their bands. In other words, among the influences of the military band, the musicians adopted non-indigenous musical instruments, which they used in their own shows or parades.

The author, Damascus Kafumbe continues to discuss how music and dance impacted on society, drawing on the past and linking to the present.
It’s one of those things we tend to forget – thinking there was nothing before – there is often a rich heritage which adapts and develops when new ideas and experiences are encountered. No one is an empty vessel waiting to be filled, and the development of the African Army Bands and the influence they had on society speaks strongly of this continuity.

Novelists who served in East Africa

For some time now, Leo Walmsley has been on my list of people to investigate – he was a flight observer in the East Africa campaign writing about his experiences in Flying and Sport in East Africa published in 1920 and later So Many Loves published in 1969.

After his stint in East Africa, Leo returned to Robin Hood Bay where he had grown up and there wrote various novels of which, until recently, I was unaware. It was looking up Turn of the Tide to check if there was a link to East Africa that I discovered there was so much more to Leo than initially thought. Despite all his adventures in Africa – apparently surviving 14 crashes, Leo chose rather to concentrate his novels on life on the water around Robin Hood Bay, not far from where Bram Stoker was inspired with Dracula as Michael Clegg explains.

I’m still to read Leo’s memoirs – there have been other priorities – but I was so taken with my discovery of him being a novelist, I had to share it.

And in common with the other novelist to come out of the East Africa campaign – in fact he was writing books whilst in the field – Francis Brett Young, both have societies in their names. The Walsmley Society and FBY Society respectively.

Brett Young actually wrote Marching on Tanga in East Africa, the first version being lost at sea when the ship it was on was torpedoed. His letters at the Cadbury Library in Birmingham are quite moving on this account. He was able to eventually rewrite it but could not recover the lost photographs. Unlike Walmsley, Brett Young who was a doctor with the Indian Army in the East Africa campaign, used the campaign for a couple of his books, notably Jim Redlake (1930) and Crescent Moon (1918), the first of which I have read.

A German writer, Balder Olden served as a transport rider at the start of the war, capturing his experiences in Kilimandsharo and On Virgin Soil (1930)

A final novelist to have been in theatre at the time is Gertrude Page who lived in Rhodesia. She wrote a book of short stories and a novel, Follow After (1915) and Into the Limelight (1918) about life on the Rhodesian front and the challenges of deciding whether to serve and, if so, where to serve.

Various other novels and stories involve the East African campaign in particular which were published during, or soon after, the war but these were based on news travelling to England.

More on the novels can be found in two papers I’ve had published – Fictional Accounts of the East Africa Campaign and The End of the 1914-1918 War in Africa (Anglica) whilst the Historical Association has an article on CS Forrester’s The African Queens.


A different isolation

Forty years ago, on 1 June 1980, so I was reminded when reading Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa, the ANC’s military wing Umkonto Isizwe (MK) attacked the storage tanks at Sasolburg. This marked the start of attacks on other installations such as Koeberg nuclear power station and military bases.

I was too young to remember much about it other than the concern and anxiety this fostered but more significantly it marked the start of withdrawing from a life outdoors. Until then, together with neighbours and friends, we would ride the streets on our bicycles without a concern in the world, play football and catch across the road (thankfully outside of peak hours, the streets were quiet), walk a few blocks to visit each other and to catch the bus to school. All of a sudden, this was stopped, although as a group we could still walk to catch the bus and later, so long as we weren’t on our own, could work home from school – about 30 minutes. Now, we had to phone when leaving somewhere or arriving, parents would stand at the front door and watch us go across to the neighbour to play etc – to the extent that we gave up on this and rather scaled the 6 foot wall between our properties at the back. One didn’t question it, one just got on and did…unaware of the wider picture as young children tend. It was only on arrival in England in the mid-1990s that I realised how restricted our lives had become. A weight literally lifted off my shoulders. Today, when visiting home, I make a point of walking the streets despite the cautions – it’s an opportunity to engage with thought and reflection, to put myself in the shoes of others and to imagine what their lives were/are like. Had I not had the privilege of being able to do this in other African countries over the years being able to discover the commonality and humanity of man, I probably would not be so bold today.

But there’s another side to learning the start date of the attacks and one which, as an historian, raises questions about the validity of memory on the one hand, and the need to verify facts on the other. By 1980, I was in my third year of primary school (we start later in South Africa compared with Britain), and have clear recollections of sitting in a classroom, which would have been my first year – ie 1978 – of barricading ourselves under our desks in case of bomb attacks when a certain alarm rang, and evacuating in orderly fashion when another rang suggesting fire. Surely, we would not have started taking such precautions two years before any major attack… had there been smaller attacks that resulted in our school having started these actions. My slightly older husband who grew up in Pietermaritzburg doesn’t recall doing such things at school, but did raise the possibility of our school reaction being related to the Soweto riots of 1976, where the students objected to the education they were receiving.* Was the Broederbond controlled Boksburg that fearful of the future? or has my memory conflated different scenarios. I would go for the latter, had it not been for the specific visual of the classroom. In my later years at the school, 1984, we no longer barricaded ourselves but did evacuate for bomb and fire drills regularly and at least one teacher used to have a firearm close at hand – he was in charge of security. This evacuating practice which we continued at high school never made sense given the scenarios we had explained to us as justification for these actions. Logic told me we were being put in danger going out onto school fields along the perimeter rather than staying indoors, but who were we to question?

Looking back and watching life in England over the years, while I’ve been reclaiming the freedom of walking the streets, I see so many withdraw, concerned to allow their children play in the park and ride their bikes (this, before the restrictions placed on us in March 2020). We lived in a time of fear and some do now, but I wonder how much of that fear we created ourselves. My life in SA was easy compared with the woman who travelled in by taxi and train three days a week to clean our house and the man from Malawi who worked on the mine during the week and did our garden on a Saturday or Sunday depending on what day he had off, and our older males who had to ‘go to the border’ and do ‘call ups’. While I was aware that times were anxious in the 1980s and I knew instinctively not to ask any questions, my parents ensured a mental freedom and social liberation which later life experiences have built on – and when the going gets tough and I want to withdraw into my own secure world, my dad’s words haunt me – get on with life, when it’s your time to go, you’ll go, you can do nothing about it (but don’t be reckless) – and he was the worst at worrying when we didn’t phone in or get home when he thought we should have arrived.

It’s incredible what one sentence in a book can trigger – for those interested in reading about the development of South Africa’s military and its three amalgamations within 100 years, Ian’s book is a good place to start. Between the narratives of historical event which set the scene, his insightful analysis (of which I’d have liked more) demonstrate the commonality of man across time and culture. The players may have changed, but the issues and challenges remain the same.

* (A year earlier, in 1977, Steve Biko was killed in police custody – and Boksburg was the home of anti-apartheid activist and Communist Party leader Chris Hani – later assassinated in 1993).

Remembering the war dead

As some readers might be aware, I maintain a few spreadsheets on the Great War in Africa Association listing names of those caught up in the First World War in Africa irrespective of gender, age, culture etc. The focus is predominantly sub-Saharan Africa with Egypt as a tag-on, the info gleaned as my research takes me, so unfortunately French records have little influence. Whilst many sites focus on those who died, the GWAA does not – it aims to record the names of all those involved – whilst those who died are said to have ‘made the final sacrifice’, a large part of me wonders whether those who survived and had to live with the horrors of all they’d seen and experienced didn’t ‘pay the higher price’. Today we know far more about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than they did then and I’ve been astounded at the number of war-time suicides (not recognised as such) for the African theatres suggesting there were far vaster pressures than memoirs and accounts suggest. These men and women deserve to be recognised as much as those who died in serving their country. And then what about those children born in captivity or discovering themselves in camps because their parents were suddenly regarded as a threat to communities they’d been part of for years? What impact did the war have on them? Child evacuees have recalled their experiences, but I can’t recall seeing any of internee children – either in Europe or Africa (but then I haven’t gone out of my way to look for them).

With the lists centering around areas of my own research interests and those of GWAA members (some of whom have kindly supplied lists), it’s not surprising that most records are British and South African. The National Archives allows for lists of medal cards to be downloaded saving many hours of tedious transcribing although most of the smaller forces and African recruited are on lists which are in process of being transcribed. Regimental Nominal Rolls are another great source also requiring transcription as do the records from South Africa as they have not been digitised, the exception being those who have British medal cards which survived the World War Two bombing and fire and those who died, being listed on the CWGC database. The War Graves Project has identified others who potentially should be on the list and once further information has been found, this will be considered.

Astute visitors to the GWAA listings might well have noted the inclusion of Belgian and German dead – thanks to these countries having over the past while made these lists publicly available. During the centenary years the Belgian lists have been tidied up which means the GWAA lists need to be checked and corrected. But what has prompted this post is the discovery of the Portuguese list – still to be incorporated into the GWAA lists.

Comparing the lists, it is intriguing to note that it’s the British and Belgian lists that include their African dead – these lists might well be incomplete, but they at least give a flavour of the range of culture and nationality involved in the war. The German and Portuguese lists only include white or European names. Another striking discovery is the large number of Portuguese dead – for Angola as well as Mozambique. The numbers for Mozambique although high as a proportion of the expeditionary forces who served there, it was the number of Angolan deaths which caused surprise – the only encounter one generally knows about in that theatre is the attack at Naulila where some lives were lost (16 dead on the German side). The 486 names suggest something more was happening, the death spanning the war years 1914 to 1919. The German lists cover the whole of the German colonial period with 232 names recorded and 6 unknown for the East Africa campaign of World War One. Namibia and Cameroons are also included. Interestingly, while German South West Africa was under mandate to the Union of South Africa, approximately 49 names are recorded for World War Two service with the German forces. The number of deaths for 1904 seems to far outweigh any other year in GSWA. At the other extreme only 4 names are listed of German dead in Cameroon/Kamerun (1914-1915).

Anyone visiting the GWAA lists should be aware that these are works in progress and are regularly added to. Gremlins sometimes creep in and can take a while to resolve, however, all is referenced so can be checked and followed up. If you have names or sources of names to be included, please get in touch.