Experiential learning

I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.

So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.

Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.

While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.

In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?

And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.

Kitchener and his gang of murderers

The week before my book Kitchener: the man not the myth was published, my attention was drawn to a demo song by Piet Botha called Kitchener. It’s an Afrikaans song, the main line translating to the title of this blog. Unfortunately the lyrics are not all that clear – this is what I think they are:

Hy het lotte geskiet in die veld net buite die dorp op ‘n stooltjie vasgebind, nog verwond
In die ongebluste Kaap en die water kou las daar
Kitchener en sy bende moordenaars
In die Kaap het hy nog gehoor nog drie rebelle is vervang Maar deur die goeverment swaar windpomp opgehang
En die hele dorp word gedwang werk suiwer bekend
Kitchener en sy bende moordenaars
Swaar swaar in die see waarop jy val
kalm kalm is die see wat jou kom haal
En diep o so diep is die donker ja
hiep hiep hoera vir die ou Transvaal
Kitchener en sy bende moordenaars

This translates (roughly) to:

They drew lots in the veld/field just outside the town tied up on a chair/stool, still wounded
In the windblown Cape and the chilling water
Kitchener and his gang of murderers
In the Cape he heard of another three captured rebels who were hanged from a windmill by the government
And the whole town is knowingly forced to work
Kitchener and his gang of murderers
heavy heavy in the sea where you fell
calm, calm is the sea which comes to fetch you
and deep, so deep, is the dark, yes
Hip hip hooray for the old Transvaal
Kitchener and his gang of murderers.

It’s not quite clear what event Piet is referring to out of all that happened in the 1899-1902 war. What is clear is his recognition of Kitchener’s drowning.
The reference to Kitchener’s gang of murderers is a general perception of how the Boers saw the British and Kitchener. As head of the British army after Lord Roberts handed over in 1900, Kitchener took the brunt of blame. Kitchener’s reputation has suffered the ravages of time of a nationalist people – yet those who negotiated the peace with him in May 1902 preferred Kitchener to Milner.
I initially wondered if the reference to Kitchener’s gang of murderers was a reference to Breaker Morant who was one of the few men Kitchener approved being executed. There’s still much discussion over Morant’s death, but it was believed at the time that Morant and others had murdered innocent refugees in angered retaliation.
As with Smuts and Jopie Fourie, Kitchener made his decision by the book, with little consideration of how their action would be read/understood. Both Morant and Fourie are still revered today as martyrs.
Had it not been for the clear link to Kitchener’s death by drowning, the reference to the Transvaal could well have applied to Kitchener’s brother Frederick Walter who was a General in the area.

Piet’s songs tell stories – incredible stories – yet this one doesn’t quite get there. It is definitely a work on progress (demo) and one that will leave me wondering what story he would eventually have told had he lived a little longer. What is significant about the song Kitchener is that 120 years after the war, the name Kitchener still elicits strong emotions proving that myth is stronger than truth.

My Sarie Marais

My Sarie Marais  or simply Sarie Marais – pronounced ‘may sari ma-re’ as in ma(terial)-re(d) – is an Afrikaans song dating back to the 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African or 1899-1902 War although it goes back to an English song from 1815 – the link has various versions and the lyrics in Afrikaans. (p292 has the 1815 lyrics alongside the Afrikaans – for Afrikaans readers this looks a fascinating publication.)

For years, I’ve known the piece of music has been played on bagpipes and heard it once a the Edinburgh tatoo. The links between the Scots and Boers go back to a time when Scottish missionaries to South Africa would go to Holland to learn Dutch before heading south. John McKenzie covers this in his excellent book, The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Race, 1772-1914. There was a definite mixing of cultures, during the First World War, many Afrikaners who decided to serve in Europe joining the Transvaal Scottish which wore the Atholl Tartan.

Sarie Marais, the name of a young girl, has a far reach:

Who knows what else (excluding the parodies which I’ve purposefully ignored) will come to light around this young girl who is now over 100 years old.


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.

Comparatively speaking: 1899 vs 1914

The 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902 saw the following numbers involved on the British side:

  • 365,693 British Imperial troops
  • 82,742 Colonial troops (white)
    • 448,435 total

of these 22,000 died:

  • 5,774 killed in action;
  • 16,168 from disease and wounds
    • 21,942 (4.9%)

In comparison, the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918 saw the following total numbers in the British forces:

of the armed force

  • 3,443 killed in action
  • 6,558 disease and wounds
    • 10,001 (11%)

Carriers and labourers during the 1899-1902 war have not been recorded as readily as for the East Africa campaign:

  • 90,440 (14.6%) in East Africa

In places where large numbers had died – Bloemfontein, for instance – the government took responsibility for the graves. To tend – even to find – where those killed in battle had been buried was more difficult, for ‘the number of small skirmishes … made the task of keeping each grave in order very hard, while the [frequent] necessity … of marching a few hours after men had been killed made even the marking of graves difficult’ (Lord Methuen, The Times, 14 October 1904)

I couldn’t help compare the two campaigns – descriptions in Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War being reminsicent of so many diary entries for East Africa. Methuen’s quote struck a cord too, leading to the conclusion that, if it was this difficult to keep track of so few dead in a relatively compact campaign such as that conducted in South Africa, the achievement in East Africa, where the fighting took place over a far greater area despite the territories being of similar size,* of those identifying and caring for the graves is quite remarkable. And it explains why we’re still finding names** of those who have not yet been officially recognised for their service on the African continent during 1914-1918.

* According to https://www.mylifeelsewhere.com Tanzania is approximately 947,300 sq km, while South Africa is approximately 1,219,090 sq km. Meanwhile, the population of Tanzania is ~54.0 million people (890,617 more people live in South Africa).

** the South African War Graves Project has identified numerous names as part of its project as have others researching specific areas. As these are verified they’re being added to the CWGC site. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the 1899-1902 graves in South Africa as well.

Reference for 1899-1902 info: Elizabeth Riedi, Imperialist women in Edwardian Britain: The Victoria League 1899-1914, PhD University of St Andrew’s, 1998, p.69
WW1 figures: GWAA, Huw Strachan WW1 in Africa




The pros and cons of alcohol

Going through some old emails, I discovered a link to the London Beer Flood of 1814. Why this was in my email collection, I’m not sure, but it’s provided a good reason to blog on alcohol and World War 1, not least in Africa.

Many a soldier has used alcohol to build stamina before ‘going over the top’ and into battle – rum rations being a feature of diary accounts especially when they’re in short supply. Other evidence (German) (French) of the importance of alcohol, rum in particular, can be found at British Pathe. The tradition of rum rations was finally ended in 1970 – initially it had been beer which was used, but rum took over because it took up less space, was cheaper and didn’t go off as quickly (economics always seems to play a role, although health and safety seems to be the justifiable reason given – at least for its ending).

In contrast, the Americans were not permitted alcohol and one of the inspirations behind Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was to control alcohol intake which it was believed was negatively impacting on productivity. To make the point, the King declared the palace alcohol-free (teetotal) and Kitchener supported it.

In East Africa, rum was rationed according to rank and role (search rum). Driscoll who led the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) was teetotal, however, it was reported that his troops at Bukoba went on the rampage getting drunk in the process. Dolbey talks of the whole campaign being virtually teetotal for transport reasons.

It wasn’t just alcohol which played a part in the war: tobacco too was important. It even featured in ration quotas, although female nurses received cigarettes instead as noted in the Pike report into medical conditions in German East Africa, which also reported the following:

2 November to 6 November 1917
Inspected No 1 African Stationary Hospital, Officer Commanding – Lieut-Col McGillivray, Indian Medical Service. Not on the whole a good unit. The Admission and Discharge Books are badly kept, Pack Store dirty (especially rifles). African and Indian troops receiving no Red Cross comforts, cigarettes, etc, as Matron (Miss Belcher, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service) states she has not enough to go round more (p44) than the Europeans. We think this a wrong attitude on her part. We wired for cigarettes to Red Cross to be sent direct to Officer Commanding for the African section.

Finally, I don’t know of a monument to alcohol during the First World War, but there is one for the 1899-1902 war in South Africa: specifically to the Whisky Train.

Fait accompli – battlefield decisions

One of my interests is the influence of the individual on the course of events, so rather than accepting a statement such as ‘the War Office decided…’, I will try and find out who exactly at the War Office made the suggestion which was eventually accepted. The same goes for ‘x won the battle’ – x being the commander, but there were many little actions taking place during that battle which could have gone either way. X, too, quite often wasn’t even at the site of the battle, having issued instructions via telegraph or command order. The classic case here is that of Horace Smith-Dorrien in England drawing up the battle plan for the battle of Salaita, which was approved by the War Office, Wully Robertson, on 26 December 1915, having to be carried out by General Tighe in British East Africa, now responsible to Jan Smuts who was still on his way to the theatre.

So, I was rather intrigued to come across this article on the Victoria Cross and how decisions made on the battlefield changed the way it was managed. This article raises some other fascinating little snippets to consider:

  • It draws attention to Lord Roberts making poor decisions during the Second Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1920. All to often it’s Lord Kitchener and the battle of Paardeberg which is used as the classic example of poor battlefield management.
  • The impact of family connections – Roberts lost his last son, Freddy, at the battle of Colenso shortly before he arrived to take over command from Buller. Both Lord Kitchener’s brothers joined the military – one, Walter, serving under him in South Africa and the other, Henry, being sent to East Africa during 1914/5 to assist with recruitment amongst other things. How did having family connections in high places in the army affect decisions regarding promotions, awards etc?
  • The fair play and detailed considerations of the War Office when it comes to changing precident. This connects with the previous point – Lord Roberts on arrival back in England sought to ensure that Schofield, who had also been killed at Colenso, was awarded the VC rather than the DSO which Buller had recommended him for.
  • The objectivity involved in making award decisions – Ian Hamilton who was quite involved in the decision-making about the changes to the VC awards, had twice been nominated for one and on both occasions Buller had denied them.

So much, from one little article, although it didn’t hold the info I was hoping to be able to use… the search continues.

Captain Henry Peel Ritchie was the first member of the Royal Navy to receive a VC, for action in East Africa on 28 November 1914 at Dar es Salaam.

John Fitzhardinge Paul Butler (date of action 17 November and 27 December 1914) in West Africa. He later accompanied West African Frontier Force troops to East Africa.

The first military VC awarded in East Africa was a post-humous one – to Wilbur Dartnell who was killed (3 September 1915) having stayed behind despite being wounded to protect some of his men who had fallen. Background can be found here.

William Anderson Bloomfield (date of action 24 August 1916)

Frederick Charles Booth (date of action 12 February 1917)

Andrew Frederick Beaucamp-Proctor, RFC (date of action 8 October 1918)

According to a list of VC winners on Wikipedia (not complete as only one WW1 East African listed), 8 VCs were awarded for actions in South Africa pre-1885, 3 in Rhodesia pre-1896, 6 Anglo-Boer War 1899-1901 – one of these is John David Francis Shaul who is buried in Boksburg, my hometown and who also served in Africa during World War 1; another is Alexander Young who, after serving in South West Africa, died on the Somme (the article incorrectly claims East Africa).