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.


General Joffre in Africa and East Africa’s false French connection

Going through some Times Literary Supplements of 1915, thetitle General Joffre in Africa caught my eye. What had General Joffre to do with Africa?

It materialises that General Joffre was involved in the occupation of ‘Timbuctoo’, a fact made known in 1915 when a book entitled My march to Timbuctoo was published. One can only assume the text had been written and completed before the outbreak of war in late July/early August 1914 – depending on which European countries one is talking of – and that someone else did the proofing for him … or perhaps finalising the text gave Joffre a chance to reflect on different battles in a different time and whether something from then could be applied to the situation on the Western Front.

I’ve always had the impression that Joffre and Kitchener got on better than Joffre and French or even Kitchener and French for that matter, because Kitchener spoke French which French didn’t. But it seems they might have had a bit more in common, in addition to Kitchener having served for a bit in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian War.  In 1894, Joffre, then a major, took control of Timbuctoo, a desert city. He was ostensibly in charge of constructing a railway in French Sudan. It would have given the two men, Kitchener and Joffre, something more to talk about – both had been involved in railway construction in Africa.

The current publication was apparently a reissue of a piece he wrote soon after his return which was published in a periodical under the title Operations of the Joffre column before and after the taking of Timbuctoo. Apparently, this is Joffre’s only publication.

Another thing the two senior military men had in common was that they had both led African forces with few white officers. It is not clear which people Joffre was leading against the Tauregs, as the comment is only that ‘His entire force amounted to a little over 1,000, a few of whom were Europeans, while more than half were porters and non-combattants’. Kitchener led an army of Soudanese and Egyptians whom he had trained and handpicked officers for.

The book was thought to be a disappointing adventure-read, it was too official in tone. However, the main interest was thought to be ‘its evidence of unusual gifts of insight, method, and thorougness in the engineer officer who is now Commander-in -Chief in the west.’ Another similarity with Kitchener. The review continues, ‘It indicates high qualities as an administrator, as well as military capacity.’ Joffree also looked at the Taureg economy and ‘intestine rivalries of the Taureg tribes’. The tone and style, according to the reviewer gave confidence in the military command in contrast to the more usual ‘romantic’ take such books tended to have. The read would be of benefit to English readers who wanted to better understand the man in charge in France during the current conflict.

Not being a student of the Western Front or really on French involvement in Africa, I cannot say how much of Joffre’s management was influenced his African experiences. Kitchener definitely brought a bit of African flare to his understanding of war and was one of the reasons he was very reluctant in 1915 to reinvigorate the campaign in East Africa – he knew African wars could become long drawn out affairs stretching lines of communication to their utmost.

For anyone interested in the full review of Joffre’s book, it is available at Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 1915, p93.
For more information on Joffre, B Singer has an article, as does the Historical Dictionary of Mali and Andrew McGregor.

Whilst there is no dispute about Joffre being in Africa, there is some debate over another Frenchman, one who had East African connections … Gustav Eiffel, the man after whom the famous tower in Paris is named, has a little known, albeit questionable, connection with Portuguese East Africa and the First World War. However, many have thought that the railway station in Maputo and the war memorial were designed by him. As this discussion on Maputo’s Casa de Ferro sets out, there is some question over whether these were Eiffel’s creations. I leave you to decide for yourself…


REVIEW: Remembrance, Memories and Representation after 100 years – edited collection

Africa and the First World War: Remembance, Memories and Repesentation after 100 years, edited by De-Valera NYM Botchway and Kwame Osei Kwarteng, 2018

The pending collection was brought to my attention by someone who had hoped to attend the conference where these papers were first presented. Having seen the list of papers presented, I was keen to get hold of any published version and eventually tracked the publisher down. Thankfully I was able to get a review copy as the book is retailing at an unbelievable £116.00. I am aware this is within keeping of academic tomes but it does price texts out of the general researcher’s pocket and for an obscure topic such as Ghana’s role in the Great War, is rather depressing, especially if little of the profit makes its way to the authors.

With that out the way, the publication promises more than it delivers but is definitely worth a read if you can access a copy. The first few papers after the introduction, are a little of a let down with either not being referenced or citing Wikipedia for detail on Africa’s involvement in the war. This raises another of my bug-bears related to the price of the book. I often hear UK institutions complaining about the price of academic texts which makes me wonder how African institutions with smaller budgets are able to purchase books and articles. Without decent access to published material, how can scholars in the ‘west’ (Britain, America and Europe) expect scholars in Africa to produce material of an ‘acceptable’ standard?* And it’s not just me, See here for a local SA perspective on the value of archives/historical libraries.

The great value of this collection is the use of local archival material, allowing us in other parts of the world to get a glimpse into what can be found in Ghana, in particular. While it is not the same as doing one’s own research, having local researchers with local cultural knowledge interpreting local material is welcome and hugely valued. The richness of the local archival material is unfortunately missing from this sample but it does contain the list of Contents.

The regional approach taken with the book, and it being published through a non-traditional academic publisher has meant the contents/text have not been ‘airbrushed’ for the western audience, allowing further insight into cultural differences and acceptabilities especially where terms, generally frowned upon in western publications, are used quite freely by the authors. My experience of Africa is that we have vivid descriptive ways of saying things and one or two chapters in this book employ these effectively. In this way, I learnt about ‘Hyphenated-Americans’ being those first and second generations in the USA, effectively making me a ‘hyphenated-Brit’.

Another value is that readers are exposed to different interpretations to those we generally come acoss in American, British and European oriented texts. While some thinking from the west has clearly influenced African interpretations, there is much that is still local which is refreshing and opens new avenues for exploring concepts and ideas.

The chapters I engaged with most were towards the end of the book, possibly because they were a little out of the ordinary: Italian and Libyan involvement in the war by Stefano Marcuzzi, making historical connections by Adjei Adjepong, and an overview of cinema in Ghana with brief reference to the 1914-18 war by Vitus Nanbigne. The chapter on the flu epidemic by Kwame O Kwateng and Stephen Osei-Owusu had some interesting insights as did the chapter on the role of chiefs by Samuel Bewiadzi and Margaret Ismaila.

Overall, this is a book worth accessing, and I’ll definitely be making use of some of the content in future publications. I only wish it had a more accessible price-tag for others to be able to access as easily, and that colleagues in Africa are able to access a wider range of scholarly material than they currently do.



*It is for this very reason that the Great War in Africa Association has set up a publishing arm – to facilitate information transfer more cost-effectively and fairly for authors/contributors.