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.


I know of far too many people who in my lifetime have ended their life through suicide, leaving family in despair and all questioning why they hadn’t picked up on signs, not realising how bad things were for the person and so forth.

Suicide, although at a high at this time, is unfortunately nothing new. What is striking however, are the numbers of trainee or young doctors who fall into this category and those in the military service. This was brought home again whilst proof reading my latest tome.

At the turn of the last century Hector MacDonald was a household name. Known as ‘Fighting Mac’, he’d served in the First and Second Boer Wars, 1881 and 1899-1902 respectively, Afghanistan, India and Egypt-Sudan. Yet, on 25 March 1903 he took his life in a Paris hotel, the result of seeing a newspaper report suggesting he had been involved in inappropriate liaisons. What makes this case particularly poignant is that he left behind a wife and son whom few others, and definitely his military commanders, knew nothing about. The first they got to know of his married life was when MacDonald’s wife arrived to claim the body. Who knows when last they had seen each other. By all accounts there was no foundation to the claims made against him, but the accusations were so severe that he couldn’t see any way to clear his name and felt it best to leave others to pick up the pieces and deal with the accompanying uncertainties.

MacDonald’s was the second early twentieth century suicide I’ve had to deal with this year. The other was Walter Downes who had commanded the Nigerians in East Africa during the First World War. Here flawed claims by his wife led to him losing his life in a ‘shooting accident’ on 5 August 1920 in Nigeria. Downes’ death was not classified as suicide at the time, the evidence presented was too vague, but taking a wider more holistic view with the value of hindsight…

Naturally, given my focus of research, accounts from World War 1 dominate. No 3762 Private Oje Ibadan, E company 4th Nigerian Regiment died on 10 October 1916. It was not clearly determined whether he took his own life or walked overboard whilst sleeping (Martin Willis).

Another First World War East African suicide was that of German Major Fischer who according to Dobley took his life after being given an instruction by his commanding officer – this is still to be confirmed through additional souces: it doesn’t make sense that with a limited number of officers available and a war which was looking to be long and drawn out, why a commanding officer would demand such a sacrifice for a mistake.

Death is a fact of life, and losing one’s life in war or accidentally is in itself an unexpected challenge many deal with, but for someone to feel the need to take one’s own life irrespective of the circumstances is, to me, inconceivable. Yet, so many do so, for reasons we’ll assume but never know for sure: the prevalence and reality of suicide is evident in a simple Internet search of the term, irrespective of your search engine.

A striking feature looking over the cases I know, is that although the final act is a lonely one, reaching that point is not. Far too many parents, family members, friends, colleagues and others blame themselves for not doing enough – isn’t it time we reached out in love and became a rainbow in someone’s life (Maya Angelou video) rather than demanding more or villifying others?



Internment – Behind the Wire

Behind the Wire first came to my attention when Stefan Manz displayed the boards at the Novmeber 2018 UNISA Conference on the legacy of the First World War. The main focus of the portable/mobile exhibit is the Stobs Camp in Hawick in Scotland, but that is only used as a platform to discuss the issue of internment for people across the globe. In September 2019, the education pack was adapted for use in South Africa, a project I was directly involved with.

During September, Stefan visited Pietermaritzburg Museum which has Behind the Wire as a temporary exhibition. I was unable to see the exhibition in situ, but had a behind the scenes tour by Assistant Director Wesley Flanagan. According to the website, the exhibition will be open for a year – and is definitely recommended.

One of the highlights for me was access to material I had been ‘keeping an eye open for’ over some years, it had been in a private collection lovingly compiled by an enthusiast. Without his dedication and tenacity, ‘professional’ historians would often not have access to rich material as this proved. These are often the personal stories which add colour and flavour to the official documents many of us use. For a World War 1 exhibition, there should be material and exhibits not seen in public before which is always a good thing.

A rewarding challenge was linking the past with similar incidents over subsequent years allowing for comparisons, and providing a vehicle for developing understanding of how terminology has changed and how similar people are irrespective of their backgrounds. While finding information on the South African xenophobic attacks as well as a current internment camp for people awaiting deportation was enlightening, it was rather disappointing that one of the milder documents had to be left out as despite being of the time, the language used was still felt to be too sensitive for school children, or more significantly that teachers would not be able to mediate its use in an historical context.

There is much to explore in this exhibition and the education packs. To find out more or to see how your country can be included, see here.

Another group looking to work internationally, and with young people, developing on their First World War work is Never Such Innocence. Both projects are highly recommended.

They are all remembered, living and dead.


Culture Day

It was a Thursday when I visited the National Archives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa – a little used archive but a friendly one. I happened to be the only visitor at the time which was probably a good thing, given my reaction when a document was brought to me by someone in almost traditional Zulu dress. There’s all this nonsence about appropriating other cultures clothing, yet I seldom see people of different cultural backgrounds wear their culturally related items unless they’re going to a formal occasion. One of the many things I get angry about having grown up under Apartheid was that I, classified white, was deprived of experiencing our rich South African cultural heritage. It’s only in subsequent years and having spent time in Tanzania and visiting other African countries that I’ve been able to do so and proudly embrace it despite some of ‘my own’ [white and black] having issues with it. So, you can imagine my reaction on seeing a South African black employee in near traditional dress in a government building during working hours. I therefore did the natural thing and asked, only to be told, ‘we’re a cultural institution.’ I prompted further, explaining I’d not come across this in Pretoria or Cape Town on any of my visits to similar institutions. It then materialised – it was ‘Culture Day.’

Not long after another staff member came through in a Madiba shirt, not too unsual in post-1996 SA, but the context was becoming apparent. Permission was given for taking a photo but before it could be taken, my Zulu had disappered. He returned carrying his own camera for our cultural day photo – I, fittingly, was wearing trousers made out of Masaai blanket. The reading room assistant then disappeared saying he was going to ‘call the chief’ – ‘what now?’ was going through my head when a tall white woman and a man came in. She was addressed as Chief – I still don’t know her name, and she explained about Culture Day. Once a week, usually Friday, but as that Friday would be Heritage Day and a holiday Friday had become Thursday, was deemed Culture Day when staff were encouraged to wear something specific to their culture. So, my Zulu man was dressed appropriately, as was his colleague in a Madiba shirt, the white man whom I’d seen come in earlier to explain something was wearing ‘vellies’ or veldskoens – shoes for the field/veld – made of leather. The premier/head of Arts and Culture of Kwa-Zulu Natal was the inspiraton behind the day and encouraged staff across the province to participate. More photos were taken – black and white standing together in front of a map of Africa celebrating our diversity and unity.

Natal, in feel, is very different to other parts of South Africa, perhaps because there are fewer different cultural groups and that it’s relatively small, but as a visitor in my own country, I felt incredibly welcome and more importantly ‘part of’. Thank you Nicholas Maduna, Siyabonga Mncwango, Thando Maphumulo, the Chief and others for making my visit to your place of work such an incredible experience – wouldn’t it be wonderful if this spirit could be spread across the rest of the country?

Walther Dobbertin raises questions

Walther Dobbertin was a German photographer who spent time in East Africa before and during World War 1. Many of the photos we know of German askari were taken by Dobbertin.

Suprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Walther. He was born in 1882, emigrated to German East Africa in 1903, served with the German army in East Africa during World War One until his capture in 1916. After being released as a prisoner of war, he returned to Germany where he died in 1961. There is a lovely photo of him here.

What I find intriguing though, is that many of his war photos are dated 10/4/1918. I discovered this when completing the book Zambia: The end of the Great War in Africa 1918-2018. We were, and still are, trying to identify the British officer in a photo with von Lettow-Vorbeck and Georg Kraut. This particular photo is marked March 1918, although the commons licence notes March 1919, and to the credit of the Bundesarchiv, it does not identify the photographer.

The photo and date pose some challenges:

– in March 1918, von Lettow Vorbeck was in Portuguese East Africa, so highly unlikely he’d be posing in a relaxed photo with a British staff officer.
– it is most likely this photo was taken after the surrender/laying down of arms once the German officers had arrived in Dar es Salaam which places is between December 1918 and 5 February 1919. At this time, Dobbertin was in a prisoner of war camp somewhere having been taken prisoner in 1916.

The conclusion here is that someone other than Dobbertin must have taken this photo, a British soldier who gave a copy to von Lettow-Vorbeck? This seems the most likely explanation for how this got into the Bundesarchiv.

But what about the other photos Dobbertin took which are dated 4/1918? eg 1, 2, 3

  • Was Dobbertin part of a prisoner exchange which saw him return to Germany earlier than post-war?
  • Was he allowed to send his wife all these photos or negatives whilst a prisoner? Surely the British authorities would have wanted to see the photos themselves and possibly kept a copy – are these hidden away in an archive or private collection somwhere?
  • Did Dobbertin manage to give the negatives to one of the captains of a blockade runner who then was able to return to Germany via Portuguese East Africa?
  • Are these the dates the negatives were developed by Dobbertin in his prison camp, which were then later adopted by the Bundesarchiv when it catalogued the collection? eg 2 looks like it was taken at Tanga in 1914

Other questions which then come to mind:

  • Did Dobbertin only take photos for his own pursposes? or
  • were any of his photos used for intelligence purposes such as those taken by Cherry Kearton?

From the sample of photos available on the internet, it appears that none were taken for intelligence purposes, which begs the question, why?
And then, the German photos referred to in the Bohill collection at Hendon RAF Archive – who were they taken by? And what did they consist of? And where are they now?

A sample of Dobbertin’s photos was published in 1932, since reprinted, but with the advent of the internet, many can be found online thanks to the Bundesarchiv’s accessibility policy.

Perhaps one day someone will consider investigating this man who has provided us with a fascinating collection of photos from the German colonial period in East Africa.