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.

“ten years no great war”

Discussions between the War Office and Colonial Office in September/October 1919 concerning the return of the Imperial Garrison to the Cape Peninsular in South Africa, specifically to safeguard Simons Town and Table Bay carried the following statement following the Union’s objection to the garrison returning:

“… I am inclined to think that it would be very difficult now to justify doing so [send the garrison], especially in view of the decision to assume that for the next ten years no great war need to be anticipated and of the consequent sweeping reductions which we propose making in the strengths of the garrisons at other places [including Sierra Leone].” (TNA: CO 323/708 51212 Colonial Garrison; italics added)

Does this mean they expected one after that? What does it imply regarding the role and future of the League of Nations. Jan Smuts took Leo Amery to task for his cynical view of the League earlier in the year (Hancock and van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts papers, vol 4).

While the garrison for the Cape was to protect the maritime bases, that for Sierra Leone concerned “maintenance of internal order”. The thought was that the British West Indian Regiment which had traditionally filled this role was no longer of a sufficient standard to do so, suggesting perhaps another force (not specified) be considered. Mauritius, too, was felt in need of internal order being maintained. The acting governor there suggesting a force of “100 European Regulars”. In terms of numbers, there was an overall reduction of British forces for Sierra Leone while the local WAFF garrison increased by two. Of the British forces, there was an increase of 20 amongst the Royal Engineers suggesting infrastructure development. Mauritius was to see a significant decrease in British forces and the introduction of local peace keeping regiments – of a size similar to that of Sierra Leone. Figures were not included for the Cape Peninsular.

While a greater war wasn’t anticipated for at least 10 years, what internal unrest was expected in Sierra Leone and Mauritius? And what of the other African territories, especially those which had recently been under German control? The difference in treatment might well revolve around who was responsible for the different territories: the War Office having traditionally supplied armed support for those mentioned whereas the Colonial Office undertook its own peace keeping in the remaining territories.

And where does all this leave “the war to end all wars”?

Society of Peoples of African Origin

I came upon the Society of Peoples of African Origin in a Colonial Office file (CO 323/807 41495). The society was asking the Colonial Office whether any of the African military units would be represented in the forthcoming ‘Peace March‘. Not having heard of the Society, I did a little digging.

While the letter was signed by WFE Taylor, Felix Eugene Michael Hercules was a leading figure in the Society which was involved in the 1919 Cardiff and Liverpool riots. The Society had been ‘founded in 1918 by a group of black businessmen and students in London.’ Their aim was ‘to further the general interests of blacks everywhere, to bring their grievances to the notice of the British public, and to promote closer relations between the Mother Country and the colonies in Africa and the West Indies.’ They produced a newspaper, African Telegraph. (WF Elkins, ‘Hercules and the Society of Peoples of African Origin‘, Caribbean Studies, 1972, 11:4, p47)

Despite its remit, it did not seem to engage too much with peoples from Africa, although Hercules did get to West Africa in 1919 around the time the Society associated with the African Progress Union to become the Society of African Peoples. In December 1919, African Telegraph stopped publishing and the attempt to set up an African League had failed. Not long after the Society of Peoples of African Origin disappeared too.

Regarding the Peace March which brought the Society to attention, the Colonial Office replied that it would not be possible to arrange for African units to be there. The cost of bringing the forces to the UK would be too much, let alone deciding which units would be best to attend. There seem to have been a few peace marches in 1919, another earlier in the year was on 3 May where already most colonial forces were not represented as they had returned home.

While none of the groups were long-lived, they are evidence of groups of people trying to give themselves a voice, independently and collectively, unable to overcome the various hurdles they encountered.

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.

Another special remembrance

I attended a remembrance service with a difference on Monday 10 February 2020. It was to mark the 75th anniversary of the day a V2 bomb hit the central office of the then Presbyterian Church of England killing 10 people. Today it is the central office of the United Reformed Church (and between 1868 and 1970 the lodging of cross-dressers according to the blue plaque outside). I can just see those of you who know my blogs going – no Africa, no WW1… and yes, to a large extent you’re right. However, one of the men who died in the blast had served as a Church of England chaplain during the First World War. Africa featured through some of those attending.

What made this remembrance service special was its inclusiveness in a way others I had attended had not been. Others had been nationally, give or take, inclusive but this one was religiously inclusive, for all its being overtly a Christian service. Accompanying the service was an exhibition which had been put together of the area and the aftermath of the bomb’s visitation alongside short biographies on each of the people who lost their lives – men and women, clergy and other, from the receptionist, to the bookseller, the visitor and general secretary. All were regarded as equal, during the service their contribution to the work of supporting others read out in alphabetical order by those who fill similar roles today – crossing ethnic and gender lines. And all of this had been lovingly and carefully put together by the archivist – a sister of the Muslim faith. The main challenge in putting the exhibition together was that the building then belonged to the Presbyterian Church so no material was available in the current archive, and being sensitive to conditions of GDPR in a way those of us dealing with World War 1 don’t. Material had to be sourced elsewhere, including from Cambridge.

Together archivist and historian stood while the past was remembered – poignant for those who work in the building realising that one minute you’re all getting on with the day’s business and busyness, the next, ten of your friends and colleagues are no more, you’re a survivor along with 100 others in the area who were injured. Not content with only remembering the past, thoughts turned to those who suffer similar experiences today across the world.

I was the outsider in so many ways, but what a feeling of togetherness…and to think, I nearly didn’t attend.