They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.

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Engaging Africa in remembrance

Does having a list of African High Commissioners due to attend a remembrance event prove inclusivity? I’m not sure. It shows engagement at a basic level. I put my theory to the test, again and introduced myself to various of the High Commissioners and/or their Military Attachés. As expected, they were [pick your term] polite, politically correct, giving lip service, saying what they expected others to want to hear. And of course, wearing a poppy. They were present but not engaged in any meaningful way.

This war which was being portrayed as inclusive still had/has no direct resonance with many from the African continent. How do I know? Well, in my encounter at this particular event, as with others, I’ve got to know the signs of polite tolerance, until you hit with a snippet that says, ‘I am serious, this is about YOUR country, how you can start engaging with the commemoration at a local level. It’s about people, not Empire.’

For Zambia, it was realising there was a black Zambian who served on the Western Front in an armed capacity. He was not just a name but a person with a history; not all positive, but that’s life. We won’t know why Samson Jackson (aka Bulaya) really enlisted, and the military records are no longer available, but he served and stayed until 1921.

Tanzania’s moment came when it was realised that the whole territory had been caught up in the war and that everyone was affected in some way, not least the local population having their homesteads overrun and having to supply food and manpower to the various forces. Added to this were the Askari and King’s African Rifles which forms the basis of the present military system. And the fact that their first President, Julius Nyerere’s policies around land were no doubt influenced by his early life experiences in the 1920s.

Kenya is an interesting one. A look at Wikipedia for Jomo Kenyatta shows he joined Masaai family members to avoid enlistment whilst Geoffrey Hodges in Kariokor notes Kenyatta worked for the British administration learning the value of organisation to achieve a goal.

I can go on, but what difference will this engagement make? In the big scheme of things, I don’t know, but it might well help fill in gaps and give confidence to a people told they should remember but who can’t see why. At a more altruistic level, it should create a more level playing field to overcome divisions as greater understanding of the past is understood for what it was.

Of one thing I’m clear, remembrance as it is currently practised in Britain and other British-influenced communities is not (yet) inclusive. This will take time – Hew Strachan points out in an essay on remembrance: ‘[The] 1914-18 [war] drew a clear distinction between the theory and practice of war in their own [European] continent and wars waged outside it.’ It’s taken Britain a century to reconcile these two points at an intellectual level. The challenge now is for Britain and others to explain this at national and local level, and develop an understanding of the African context of the war.

The impetus to remember does not rest with Britain and the European powers alone, Africans can, by looking outside the traditional European narrative, create their own remembrance as witnessed in Zambia in November 2018.

Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.

 

Reviews: WW1 history through Art

I’m not a great one on works of art. I know what I like and what I don’t but ask me for more than that and I’m stuck. Words are my thing. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of photos to the historian – for what they tell you that words don’t or can’t. Photos concerning the Lake Tanganyika expedition are a case in point. More recently, though I’ve begun to realise that art produced after the time is a good indicator of how the memory of events has developed. This final year of the centenary of the Great War has provided an opportunity to see four (well three in their entirety)  artistic exhibitions on the war.

The first was William Kentridge’s Head and the load, previously reviewed. Next was Aftermath at Tate Britain which I saw with a friend, followed by a first-day viewing of the Singularity of Peace exhibition in partnership with Forgotten Heroes in Hammersmith and then a taster of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Of the three later exhibitions, that of Singularity of Peace was my favourite. Yes, perhaps my bias at having worked with the book The Unknown Fallen which gives rise to the exhibits is part of it, but it is also the most human and African. I’ve also discovere I’m not really a moving visual fan so solid art takes preference in my books.

Regarding Aftermath, what was significant was the absence of Africa in any of the pieces – both those created during the war and after. It shows how little attention was given to labour and behind the scenes (or is that indicative of the curators who selected the pieces for display?). The exhibition is explicit in stating that it is about French, British and German art and in this, it doesn’t fail. It was fascinating to see the different artistic styles around a similar theme. And of the pieces on display, those which most appealed to me were: Otto Griebel, Clive Branson, Curt Querner, Glynn Waren Philpott’s Entrance to the Tragada, and Edward Burra’s Les Folies de Belleville. The last two because they gave a hint of Africa and ‘other’ being involved, although both these are post war, 1931 and 1928 respectively. The first three for getting to the heart of man. Many of the war-time images showed little new (at least to those of us not familiar with the detail). In this category the remain of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling was probably the most moving.

The Unknown Fallen felt like a return home. All the familiar photos were there – large and small – now juxtaposed against windows showing buildings being constructed. In addition to the familiar, were pieces from the Never Such Innocence awards – wonderful to see them in original form compared to print. And then there were some new pieces which had been created specially for the exhibition – artwork from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the UK all depicting the aftermath of war and a move towards peace. This exhibition was also the most basic in that it was a form of ‘pop up’ art – an opportunity seized. Again, I discover I prefer the rough and ready to the perfectly choreographed.

Finally, Mimesis by John Akomfrah. Despite the publicity it hadn’t struck me that this was a 75 minute sit down and watch exhibition until the person I was lunching with mentioned it. I happened to be at the IWM to do some research and thought I’d whizz through – not expecting much given what I’d previously seen in the new WW1 display. I’m afraid I lasted about 10 minutes – it was definitely too innovative and obscure for me. And then an Australian or New Zealand flag appeared in the picture – I thought this was about Africans in World War 1… so on my way out made a particular point about reading the ‘blurb’ at the entrance: it mentions “African and colonial soldiers” so don’t be deceived by the title of the production. How much of the 75 minutes is about the colonial contribution I cannot say, I was lost with a person sitting on a chair under a solitary tree in a desert with the tree wrapped in red, who then fell over as though shot. Then a bed with a red matress in the desert with a solitary woman walking in the distance… and I’m not sure the men were dressed appropriately for WW1, so in effect I spent the 10 minutes I was there trying to work out how this all could potentially relate to the war I know with music so loud my ear drumbs reverberated and no words or language to guide me. I’m clearly a child of the past. One day I might find 75 minutes to explore the whole show and what is says about remembrance, but for now will rely on what others have to say.

Quiet recognition

Recently, I’ve been discovering acknowledgements to various forces which have tended to be kept out of the media spotlight.

The first was an article on Johannesburg’s oldest war memorial – one to Indian troops. It dates back to 31 October 1902.

And by the time I got to visit Delville Wood on Friday 16 March 2018, I had discovered that when the memorial was opened in 1926, there were three acknowledgements which didn’t make it into the white press. Thanks to Bill Nasson who discovered a newspaper record of it and referenced it in an article entitled Delville Wood and South African Great War Commemoration (English Historical Review, 2004).

  • Leo Walmseley laid a wreath to the carriers and labourers who served in Europe and Africa. Leo himself had been a pilot in the East Africa campaign.
  • Petals were thrown to remember the 250 Indian Stretcher Bearers from South Africa who served and
  • Major William Cunningham remembered the Cape Corps who had served in East Africa and Palestine.

The newspaper which carried the info was African World Supplement, xi Abantu-Batho, 1 October 1926.

It’s a pity such remembrance was done on the quiet but it shows that there are always some who stand out from the crowd.

Review: Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward

Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward (2016) is a book with a difference. It’s clearly self published, the lack of proofing and editing are obvious but more so, it’s a record of a journey of discovery into the story behind the SS Mendi which was sunk on 21 February 1917 off the Isle of Wight, the result of an accident.

Nick takes the reader through his discovery of the first Mendi graves he found and how this led to his search for the story behind the sinking and to find relatives of those who lost loved ones on the ship. The value of the book lies, at least for me, in Nick’s journey – the challenges one faces and how doors can open when all seems at a dead end – literally.

From a content point of view, Nick tells the story of the Mendi as he discovered it, using extensive quotes from reports and enquiries. This works if you have a basic knowledge of the Mendi saga but I’m not sure how easily someone new to Mendi would be able to construct the story.

I struggled with the Titanic link, until Nick explained how this came to be. And then later made links with Lord Buxton, Governor General of South Africa who had been at the Board of Trade when the Titanic went down. In fact, had it not been for that shipping incident, it is unlikely he would have been in South Africa as Governor General. Needless to say, it all helps get the story across to a wider audience.

I have a few issues with the book, not least the huge amounts printed in italics which can be hard on the eyes and the above-mentioned proofing errors. I’m also not sure about the emphasis Nick gives to Wauchope, over whom there are questions as a spiritual leader – to the extent that he was not employed in this capacity but rather as a clerk to the force.  The other interesting aspect I found is that Nick doesn’t deal with the myth of Wauchope’s poem which apparently helped keep the men calm. In fact, there is no mention of it at all in the book and the accounts Nick has included of the ship going down suggests the usual panic and chaos at such a time, recognising that the men had been well-drilled and that this played an valuable part in containing what could have been a made rush and free for all. I would be interested to know where and how this myth began. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t retract from the role Wauchope and his family have played in the struggle for equality in South Africa. If only Nick had been able to do the same with others who had lost their lives or even survived.

And, as I usually gripe, we hear so much about the Mendi and the sacrifice the men made to the exclusion of all the other SA Labourers who served and did their bit. But to be fair to Nick, he does touch on this a bit and it was not what he set out to do. What he does and, it’s sad to write, is show how fickle remembrance can be. The memorial garden opened by the Queen and Nelson Mandela is now, or was at the time of his writing, in disrepair. Government ministers promised things would be done and when it came to the crunch, fell silent. Those of us with African backgrounds  and who have spent time in Africa have all experienced this but it doesn’t make it right.  Sad to say, the Mendi continues as with Delville Wood to be a political pawn in South Africa’s World War 1 remembrance and this is something Nick brings home, even if he does so sub-consciously.

This is a worthwhile read on many levels and I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it on occasion – but I leave one plea. Let the men rest in peace where they lie – most who gave their lives in World War 1 rest in far flung places – Rather, let’s remember and honour them and what they, and their fellow SANLC, undertook to do to help make the world a better place.

The SA Heritage portal reviewed the book in 2017.

Mankind – the common denominator

You may have picked up that I was involved in the production of The Unknown Fallen, a book about Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1. It’s been a fascinating journey, almost 17 years in the making so far with the book being one of the more recent markers along the way. I should clarify, my involvement with the book has only been a year or so, my journey getting to know other faith groups started about 17 years ago when I was teaching recently arrived young Muslim Palestinian men in an inner-London college trying to make sense of what had happened to their family existence in Jerusalem. Their questions only fuelled a curious mind already questioning how religion, in particular, Christianity, had been used to uphold the idea of Apartheid.

Listening to the recording of Yusuf Chambers and Dr Bilal Philips discussing The Unknown Fallen I had to smile towards the end when the two discussants commented that the conceptualiser of The Unknown Fallen had been guided by Allah to undertake the task. You call him Allah, I call him God, others call him Jehovah, HaShem, the God of Thunder, Creator – they’re all a cultural title for a force we cannot explain. And those of us with a deep-rooted faith know how things fell into place to ensure our involvement to produce this incredible book and to learn from each other.

Whilst the interview on The Unknown Fallen is naturally Muslim-oriented – talking about a book which concerns a part of Muslim history, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with other religious and cultural groups whose involvement in the conflict is also struggling to be heard.

Many of these cultural groups feature in The Unknown Fallen. Broadly speaking, the African, Chinese and Russian spring to mind. As Dr Bilal Philips tells us today we tend to hear more about British/French or German Muslims, not Muslim Germans/French or British. This goes for so many other groups too – where the man-made community or nation the person is residing in expects preference in the identity stakes. As all the major religions teach us, respect and love for fellow mankind will ensure a more harmoneous co-existence. These divisions have become more apparent over the centenary years of the war – memorials are being put up for individual groups which have been forgotten or ignored to date. On one level, I fully understand this – it’s a visual representation and a way to ensure longer remembrance, however, it’s also divisive – where do we stop? At company or platoon level?

What struck me from the interview is how many different ways people are continuing to discover how their families and communities were involved or impacted by the war. Today the media has a big role to play, particularly in raising African awareness as noticed over the four years of the centenary of the conflict. And with this will come more desire for memorials and outward manifestations to show remembrance – a situation that could lead to further conflict as one group determines to be bigger and better (whatever that might be) than the next.

My journey continues, and as part of this, it strikes me that it’s time we start to recognise the one common denominator in all this remembrance and study of war. Humankind. With this in mind, shouldn’t we have an all-inclusive reminder? Not the poppy which is exclusive, but something as simple and all-encompassing as the minute or two’s silence we spare at times of remembrance whether on 11 November, 4 August, 19 September, 21 February, at a funeral or memorial service. So far, in my quest – a Dove: accepted by all religions and present in all countries except for the driest parts of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the Arctic.

In line with the message of The Unknown Fallen: Brothers/Sisters in Arms, Together we Stand – all faiths, all cultures, one people.