I helped find their dead

My name is Maxie.

There isn’t a photograph of me but I am a WaTaveta who lives in Taita-Tsavo in what is today’s Kenya. One hundred years ago it was British East Africa and there had been some big fights between the white and Indian soldiers of the British king and the white and black soldiers of the German king.

We were told not to get involved as it was not our war, but some of us were paid to help with building the railway line, accommodation and other things that needed doing. Later on, when the fighting moved south and more labour was needed, men were sometimes forced or work for little pay. My work kept me near home.

A few months after the big fight at the dusty hill we call Salaita, a man came looking for some bodies of men who had died in the battle. I was able to tell him about 21 graves I knew at Taveta, the local market town.

I told the man, an English soldier that “When the Germans were fighting in the direction of Mbuyuni they used to bring the wounded Englishmen into the District Officer’s house here, (which, at the time was used as a Hospital,) when these Englishmen died the Germans buried them in this place and fired guns over the graves.”

I then took him about 25 paces (20 yards) to the north of the 14 graves I had shown him to show him another 7 which the Germans carried from Mbuyuni. The man said they are going to dig up the graves and move the bodies. I don’t understand why but it seems important to them. He was also trying to find out which were the English or white man’s graves.

The burial practices I saw are strange. The wafu (dead) have a special power and we believe in the existence of Mlungu (High God). Here, the white men laid the bodies down flat. In our tradition, we stand them up in the ground and build a hut over the space. When our people die, we close their eyes so that the evil spirits cannot enter the body. I don’t know who did that for these poor soldiers. Many were lying on the ground for hours before someone found them. We then lie them on a bed. The body is washed and shaved by women past the child bearing age. The head was covered by a foot of soil. One year later we take the skull to the shrine.

At kuchumbua maridia (the end of mourning a year after the burial) we have an event where a goat is sacrificed and the remains scattered over the crops. There is a final day of wailing and shaving. A cow is slaughtered for those who dug the hole and the hut is either sold and dismantled for someone else to use, or if the surviving spouse is a woman, she lives in the hut until she dies.
The man wrote some things down and went away but I was still confused.

A few years later, another white man came along. I took him to a spot about 2000 steps (½ mile) in the direction the sun rises and 125 steps from the railway track near where they used to burn the Hindus who died. The grass was burnt a few times and the ground is swampy, but you can still see where 11 men were buried, about 18 moons ago, by the wire fence and the outlines of holes which were filled in. The fires had destroyed the fence posts and wooden markers saying who was in the ground.
Later in Voi, at the end of the railway line, I heard the man, Milner he said his name was, tell the church man Verbi and Major Layzell about what I had told him. He said that about 1 February 1916, 21 men were brought into the hospital by the Germans near Salaita Hill. They were badly wounded and died soon after. These were the graves I showed him. When other men died, they were buried next to first. There was a strange ceremony which accompanied the placing of the men in the grave. The Askari (black soldiers) fired their guns into the sky. This was strange as they usually only pointed them at people to shoot.

On 4 April 1923, this is what the man said the date was, this man asked me confusing questions which I didn’t understand, something about a Native Christian Cemetery. He then asked me where the camp was of the men who were working on the construction of the railway. He said something about a loose-leaf register, South African natives, South African Railway and Cape Corps being buried.

Oh, I knew where the graves of the railway workers were and also the South African natives. This was 2000 steps from the Taveta Station and 125 steps from the railway track. This was where the cemetery was made and was marked by barbed wire. There were 11 graves.

I also took Milner to the foot of the hills on which the Old Fort stands at Taveta, and showed him a place where I had dug a grave for the Germans to bury an Englishman in. The Englishman had been shot by the Germans for spying and brought into the building on the hill during the latter part of the day. The German Askaris carried him on a rough stretcher and the following morning my friends and I were told to dig this grave. The Germans brought a box which they placed in the grave and fired shots over.

Nineteen nights later (23 April) native minister of the Taveta CMS Mission named Johana Mbela who could talk English told the Englishman that he, Johana, was taken prisoner by the Germans and placed in the building on the hill close to where we were standing. This happened in August 1914. In early September 1914, he said the Germans brought in the man who had been caught spying with a Captain on a small hill towards Serengetti. The Captain was shot dead and the man the Germans brought in ran away to get his motor cycle and was shot in the leg. After the Germans had put this man in the next room to Johana, the Germans brought the man’s clothes and some papers into his room and asked him what was written on them, but he did not tell them. He tried to pronounce a name which sounded like Groarty. He remembered the man calling for water all night until early morning, and seemed to be in very great pain, then all was quiet.

I couldn’t believe it. Minister Johana Mbela had seen the man I had to dig a grave for. These Englishman kept saying ‘what a small world.’

Burial rights
Commonwealth War Grave archive, Maidenhead: CWGC 1/1/7/E/57 WG 122/8 pt 2; Verbi and Layzell who reside in the Voi District had both been Intelligence Officers during the campaign in the Taveta District.
This account was written for Diversity House Micro-nations event on 27 October 2017.


Aragon vs Mendi: two carrier ships

I have written before on how I could equate the deaths on the SS Aragon with those of the SS Mendi. Transcribing the Pike Report prompted this posting.

As awful as the sinking of the Mendi was – an accident, the deaths of the more than 120 South African Native Labourers who gave up on life and who saw no future in continuing to live is a sad indictment on those tasked with their well-being. What makes it worse, is that their suffering was long drawn out, months of labour, lack of sleep and inappropriate diet, exaccerbated by the tropical conditions in which they found themselves. Later that same year, 30 December 1917, the Aragon was sunk with the loss of 610 lives.

Yes, the Mendi saw 600+ lives lost in one go, the Aragon far fewer over a a few days, but for each of the families concerned, the loss of life – Mendi or Aragon – was a huge blow: an income supplier, loved and cherished – father, son, brother, friend.

The impact on recruiting labour in South Africa was tangible. The loss of the Mendi lives saw the South African government stop recruiting for labour to serve on the Western Front. The loss of the Aragon lives was more subtle: men didn’t enlist and found excuses not to.

Until recently, the detail of the Aragon losses have been limited, if one is lucky, to a sentence or two in an historical narrative. However, the opening up of the Pike Report allows us a medical insight into the deaths, and the decisions – right or wrong – that doctors, officers and ships’ captains made in tring to ease the situation in which the men found themselves.

This is, for me, a heart-moving story of neglect through ignorance, and for some contempt on the one hand and of concern and care for humankind on the other. In the same way the survivors of the Mendi, both of the ship itself and of the Darro, had to live with their guilt and self-loathing of not being able to do more, so did the survivors of the Aragon.

Note: I’ve purposefully kept numbers approximate as records seem to differ in detail.

Correcting misconceptions: CWGC

Many who know me are probably tired of hearing me go on about the need to get into the primary source documents and see things for yourself rather than rely on secondary source material.

Secondary source material has an important role to play in synthesising and analysing information, for filling in peripheral gaps and for stimulating further research.

The value of visiting, or revisiting, primary source material was reinforced when I visited the CWGC archive. I’d made links with the Technical Adviser for Africa who had invited me to come and see what CWGC does and to see what kind of information is held in the archive. I selected a few files which looked interesting from a selection of the catalogue I was sent (the full list was in process of being put onto a searchable database of which I was also given a preview. This should really help open up the archive for social and cultural historians especially). And boy, were they interesting!

One file contained information on how they differentiated between religions, important for the forces in Africa where a large number were Muslim but also significant numbers of Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. A series of letters explained how unidentified remains could be linked to medical reports of graves – head slope and teeth structure being used to differentiate Caucasian (white), Black African and Indian remains. This was important when mass graves were exhumed for relocation purposes. Yes, there were mass graves in East Africa – and not only as previously assumed for the carriers. (Mass burial appears to have been the norm for the German forces with memorial plaques listing all). The necessity of war and conditions of battle meant bodies were disposed of as best one could. At Salaita Hill, a trench dug for the Allies was filled with 11 bodies – 7 white and 4 Indian – reminiscent of Spionkop during the Anglo-Boer War. Although the individuals could not be named as all identifying marks, including uniforms, were not available – four years after war ended and seven after the battle – the numbers tallied with the war reports and the bodied could be moved to a more permanent resting place at Taveta – following strict protocols to ensure respect.

Where the graves of known individuals were to be moved to a place easier to care for, relatives’ permission was sought. Often this work was undertaken by fellow soldiers or men who had served in the theatre. The local women made wreaths to place in the cemeteries – white flowers dominated. It is worth noting in this regard that this was the process for white British graves, including British citizens in other countries (only in 1926 were the dominions recognised as separate identities).
Another surprising find was a hand-written report which specified ‘Native Officers’. The general belief is that only whites were appointed officers. Here we have evidence that 47(?) people of colour, presumably black, as Indians were classified as such, were made officers – and died, suggesting there were more. The challenge now is to find out who they were.

Returning to the issue of graves and the recording – or lack therefore – of carrier names etc, it was clear from the correspondence that this had been carefully thought through and was not for reasons of race but rather that colour (race) became an identifier because the majority were black. The other main divide was literacy – being able to communicate in English and the written form. Where people were not able to do this, they were not consulted or considered in the same way as those who could communicate in written English. These reasons were not articulated in the files, but consideration of the decisions made and how they were made highlight these issues as delineators.

The decisions made were pragmatic, based on the knowledge of the day. In essence if a person was literate, where their identity was known they were given an independent grave with headstone – this accounts for the carriers and labourers who were known to be Christian being given a grave. The Christian carrier had spent some time in a mission school and had therefore moved some way to being regarded as ‘civilised’ under the definition of the time. The French had a similar practice for according someone from Africa a French citizen.

More reading of the files needs to be undertaken but it appears that the reason for the separate cemeteries (superficially along colour/race lines) were along religious or cultural lines. The Hindi or Indian cemeteries generally containing a plinth and sometimes the graves of individuals.

Although not all were given a headstone, where their names were known these were kept in a register. The challenge was recording the names. This was not always done in the heat of battle as survival was a far greater priority and often it was left to the enemy to bury the dead. In other cases, it depended on the literacy and regard of the person as to whether the name was recorded. This particularly affected labour and carrier records. Some tribes (micro-nations) did not believe in burying their dead so left them along the way for wild animals to dispose of. The exhausting nature of the march and sometimes the large numbers of deaths meant chiefs were too tired to record names, or didn’t tell the white officers, and then of course some officers were better at keeping records than others. (One sees this in the War Diaries where some daily reports include the names of all those sent to hospital, died or arrived, irrespective of contingent).

The reasons stated for not giving everyone a headstone was mainly financial – a stone cost between £12 and £60 depending on where it needed to be transported to. For families who were not likely to visit the grave or to ask questions about the resting place of a loved one (ie those less literate, not of one of the recognised major religions), they were not accorded a tombstone or even a listing on a wall. Their names however are on registers in each of the relevant cemeteries.

Trying to reconcile data in remote Africa four years after the war ended could not have been easy. The challenge for us today, with our evolved values, is to find a way to accord those without a tombstone the same recognition as those with one. It’s worth knowing that the idea behind the askari monuments in Nairobi and Mombasa including carriers and other labourers, was an attempt by those in the 1920s to collectively remember the men who had no headstone.

Getting into the primary source material is imperative if we want to avoid ‘broken telephone’ and mis-understandings or perpetuation of myth. Reading the material for ourselves with all our past individual experiences brings new interpretations and understanding which adds to the jigsaw of history.

Diversity in the military

Working through WO 132/21 on military intelligence from Delagoa Bay during the Anglo-Boer War, I came across the following figures of foreigners fighting for the Boers. The information, 19 July 1900, ‘was obtained from a well-informed foreigner recently arrived from Machadodorp; but judging by former information, it seems an overestimate.’

Germans and Hollanders – 5000
French – 2000
Russians – 1000
Scandinavians – 500
Italians – 600
Austrians – 600
Total – 9700

Diversity in war is nothing new and World War 1 in Africa was no different. In addition to the 177 micro-nations which participated in the East Africa campaign specifically there are references to Americans, Australians, Canadians, Scandinavians, Italians and Greeks. The numbers involved were not as great as those participating in 1900 but it reminds us that what might appear as a homogenous group invariably wasn’t.

Were these men mercenaries or professional soldiers? The definition of a mercenary is a person who is primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics, while a professional solider is hired to serve in a foreign army. Those who served in the Boer War and EA campaigns were professional soldiers although might not have received the training they needed to have.

Significantly, the Americans who served in the East African Forces and Legion of Frontiersmen did so at a time that the United States of America was neutral. The implications of this and the consequences at an international level do not appear to have been investigated. The Scandinavians generally were to be found in the Belgian Force Publique, many have been involved from before the outbreak of war. Many, however, were in the area enlisting to protect their territory or for the adventure. The numbers and extent of foreigners serving in the war in Africa is still to be fully determined.

Serbian barrels in WW1 East Africa

Working on the Pike Report (WO 31/141) I came across reference to ‘Serbian barrels’ (para 138) under the topic of disinfection. What are Serbian barrels and what are they doing in East Africa?

Serbian barrels were designed by William Hunter who was working as a doctor in Serbia during World War 1. The barrel, quite a complex but simple system, was used to eradicate lice to control typhus (more incl WW1).

So how did they get to Africa? It would appear that when the Serbian army moved into Greece and joined in supporting France and Britain on the Salonika front that information was transferred. I’m hoping that Dr Aimée Fox-Godden (@DrAEFox will be able to provide a little more detail on who took the idea and first barrels to East Africa.
All this within two years (October 1915 to November 1917).

Talking unclean

Working through the Pike report (WO 32/141) into the Medical Services in East Africa, I was struck by the number of times Pike commented on a camp being clean or fair but the sanitary conditions being poor. Therefore the camp was unacceptable. Pike appeared to be fixated on ‘latrines’. Not just on their state of cleanliness but he also goes on about how they should be treated. He regularly suggests the appointment of a Medical Officer (Sanitation) and makes the recommendation that the Medical Officers should have the final say over where any army camp is based.
Later on in the report Pike discusses the ‘Collection and disposal of human excreta’. In this section he refers to the different methods employed, often noting that faeces were removed from camps and disposed of on beaches, apparently an improvement from being disposed into the harbour! Of further interest is the adoption of practices from the Germans: water closets and cesspools as well as smoke latrines which were devised in the Cameroons. Quite astoundingly, Pike approves of the use of ant-hills for urinals and is particularly impressed by one which combines being used as a urinal and an incinerator. (I can’t help but wonder what the ants or ant-eaters made of this arrangement.)
It might seem rather odd for a Medical Officer to be so fixated on latrines especially where camps themselves are well run and clean. But the one place all have to visit, and often at night, is the latrine. It is one place where disease spreads and spreads quickly. It was over toilet practices that the concentration camps of the Boer War became notorious. Not taking local habits into account and placing people in close proximity led to the unhygienic practices and spread of disease which led to so many innocent deaths.
I’m sure I’ve commented on it before, so apologies in advance to those who recall so. Corrigan in Mud, Blood and Poppycock deals with this very sensitive issue on the Western Front. I remember reading it over a lunch time sitting on Kilimanjaro thinking ‘what a topic to be digesting at this time’. Corrigan goes into the detail of average bodily output a day, the number of men in a particular area and other necessary bits of information to determine how deep and how far apart from each other long-drops should be placed.
What for most of us is a taboo topic or at least something ‘not mentioned in polite society’, in the military it’s an important consideration in keeping the forces healthy.
Whilst on this topic, one thing I’ve always been baffled by are the comments in diaries or official histories where it’s been recorded that the enemy defecated over houses, and all the contents inside. Given how people react to a slightly untidy public toilet, preferring to find a cleaner spot, organising a group action on the scale often suggested is beyond my imagination. Perhaps one of my military readers could shed some light on this – are you trained to perform on demand to this extent?

Medical discoveries

My most recent trip to South Africa was significantly focused on medical things. Having fallen ill on arrival followed by three days in bed, I eventually visited a doctor as I was due to record an interview on the Versailles talks and SA with Classic FM with no voice. The day of the doctor visit, a colleague had commented that I was no longer sounding like a frog but rather like a bullfrog. Miraculously, having seen the doctor at 4.35pm on Wednesday, I was able to speak, and feel human, by 12.30pm the following day when the recording was scheduled.

Getting into the SANDF archive in its new location in Irene and delving into things medical made me wonder how the chaps out in the bush during WW1 suffering from malaria and pneumonia managed to get themselves to medical support as they did. How medical treatments have developed in so many ways(!), yet remain the same in others. A trip through a game park in Limpopo Province highlighted the use of the Buffalo Thorn for medicinal purposes and cleaning teeth.

On the last day of my last trip to the ‘old’ SANDF Doc Centre, we (myself and an archive colleague) discovered some medical files which apeared untouched since being filed in the 1970s. This trip we worked out how they linked together. I was able to discover some useful material on General Sir Jaap van Deventer for my talk (more in due course) and a young academic can develop some case studies for his MA dissertation on the Cape Corps as a result. This will also help provide supporting evidence and documentation for the GWAA Medical project which is focusing on the Pike Reports (context and composition added since last related post).

For those interested, the type of information contained on the Medical Cards can be seen here. Two records have additional information from the medical reports as an initial example of how the medical boards related for one person. A sample of information contained on the Death Registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) recruited in South Africa promises further insights into those who supported the fighting forces. These records as well as the Catalogue listings will continue to be updated as time permits.