The SS Mendi shroud – 21 Feb 2017

Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 2017 is an opportunity to remember all those who served in a non-combatant role, especially men of colour from Southern Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

As awful as what the loss of lives on the Mendi was, for the families of the 135 of 700 men who died on the Aragon returning to South Africa from East Africa (also in 1917), the sense of loss was no less. A reviewer of an article I’d written once asked how could I equate the loss of lives on the Aragon with those lost on the Mendi. The loss of any life is significant and devastating for the family and the impact at home on recruitment was noticeable.

What does the Mendi signify?

Today, a political statement. But I want to move away from that. I want to think about the few men – black, white and coloured – who survived the Mendi’s sinking. What did they go back to? Much is made of the medals the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) never received. The story behind that decision is comples and still needs to be fully told.

A medal means nothing if you’re forgotten and ignored. A medal doesn’t put food on the table or et you a job if you’re too depressed and guilt-ridden for surviving. Similarly, those who were physically maimed, suffering from fever, malaria and other debilitating illnesses as well as having lost a limb – of all backgrounds – were unable to get work unless someone took pity on them. These men and their families paid a different price to those who lost their lives – their suffering lasted a lifetime.

How must the men of the Mendi felt every time the songs of protest evoking the words of Wauchope were sung? Bringing back memories of those awful moments of freezing cold and wet, not knowing which breath was going to be your last.

And then, there were those 19,500 men of the SANLC who did see service in Europe, some of whom chose to serve in East Africa too after having been in South West Africa at the start of the war. Their contributions lost and disregarded except as a by-line or example of racial discort in South Africa at the time. Yes, some were commandeered or forced to serve, but many went willingly for adventure and to earn money.

The men made their mark – their quality of work, their upbeat spirit despite the hardships. Life was not easy for many reasons, not least the political and social positions they found themselves in. Pawns on a chessboard as many soldiers of all races and nationalities would testify.

Back home, life went on as usual – work was difficult to obtain, perhaps many were ostracised depending on the areas they lived and worked for having supported the King of England. We know there was little allegiance to the Union then.

The names of the men are known and recorded, despite popular belief. They have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten. As the white government of 1917 rose 100 years ago to honour the black men who lost their lives when the Mendi went down, let us today use the opportunity to also honour those 200 who survived and all of the SANLC and other support workers such as the Indian Bearer Corps, the Cape Boys, Chinese, West Indian, Seychelloise and Kroo Boys from Sierra Leone who all crossed the sea to help make the world a slightly nicer place for us to live.

Let us follow their example today and work together irrespective of race or creed to make our world a better one.

We will not forget. I will not forget – those who lost their lives but more so, those who survived and who lived out the rest of their days in obscurity; no doubt wondering if it had all been worth it.

We will remember!

This is the transcript of a video I did for Diversity House, Breaking the Myths.

Understandably the Mendi and any remembrance of World War 1 in South Africa evokes strong emotions, often underpinned by political views. This is not surprising given the history of the country – surely now is the time to put aside all these differences and acknowledge the humanity of man(kind) in all our conflicts. Perhaps if we did that, we’d go some way to building the better world our ancestors thought they were fighting for.

Tito Mboweni is the descendant of Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni who died on the Mendi. Our starting points differ, but we ask the same questions.

Jacques de Vries is the descendant of Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick who survived the sinking of the Mendi. One of my most moving moments was finding records in Kew relating to Fitzpatrick helping Jacques fill in the gaps.

BBC summary of the story of the SS Mendi.

There are still documents to be studied both in London and in South Africa which will no doubt change the context in which we understand the SANLC to have served, only time will tell how we react to these findings. Every memory matters.

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Delville Wood and Square Hill

Recent enquiries concerning South Africa’s involvement at Delville Wood during the Battle for the Somme in July 1916 has brought to light that there is very little written about it. And although it’s the Western Front, the men I’m focusing on were African (South African to be specific).

Delville Wood is often regarded as the white English South African population’s equivalent of Gallipoli, Verdun or Britain’s first day of the Somme. For those wondering why I’ve specified white English South African, there are four special World War 1 commemorative events in South Africa reminiscent of the cultural diversity in the country then and now. In addition to Delville Wood which is generally commemorated every 11 November along with the rest of the world, there is Mendi Day on 21 February remembering all those who drowned when the SS Mendi went down. For me, it’s a fitting day to remember the over 19,400 black labourers who didn’t drown and who served on the Western Front and in Africa suffering the same privations and consequences of war others did. Then we have the white Afrikaans 1914 Rebellion more specifically the execution of Jopie Fourie who was found guilty of treason – he hadn’t resigned his commission before joining the rebels and finally, 20 September is Square Hill Day which is when the Cape (Coloured) Corps held their ground in Palestine. For readers aware of South Africa’s involvement in World War 1, these four remembrance events together demonstrate the richness of the country. However, missing from the ‘official’ events is that of East Africa and South West Africa. I don’t know of anything to commemorate South Africa’s invasion of South West in 1914/5, but the East Africa campaign is commemorated (knowingly or otherwise) by the Comrades Marathon which is run every year.

Back to Delville Wood. As far as I can tell, the best overarching account of South Africa’s involvement at the Somme remains Ian Uys’ work. I haven’t read any yet so cannot comment further. Peter Digby has written unit histories, a few others have compiled family history accounts, and then there is the website of Delville Wood itself. It is high time some brave historian (enthusiast or academic took on the challenge of writing a comprehensive account of South Africa’s involvement on the Western Front).

For those living in the Durham area, a novel approach to theatre-going featured the Battle of the Somme in a production 1916: No turning back (Thursday 21 July to Sunday 28 August 2016). The production takes an unusual approach to engaging the audience in experiencing the war and gives a flavour of what the South African troops might have experienced.

For those unable to get to Durham to see 1916: No tunrning back, Peter Dicken’s speech at Delville Wood 2016 gives some idea and an overview of what happened.

We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heardFrightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.

Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.

This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!

This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.

To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.

On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.

I’ve recently spent time at the SANDF Document Centre (South African Military Archives) in Pretoria and have as usual been astounded at the amount of material held. Yet, most researchers only access the military service cards. With this in mind and the snippets I accessed, I wonder what what treasures are still to be uncovered about South African involvement at Delville Wood and on the Western Front generally for men (and women) of all South Africa’s ethnic groups.

It’s become clear to me that World War in Africa cannot exclude what happened at Delville Wood and Square Hill – these experiences helped mould the country into what it is and should be given the same historical treatment that the East Africa campaign currently receives. A hundred years later is not too late to remember!

 

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.

Centenary Stitches

I’d heard The National Archives (TNA, @UKNatArchives) in Kew was going to introduce exhibition displays on the first floor in the Open Reading Room. Having a few minutes on my last visit, I went to investigate – it wasn’t difficult to know the exhibition was in place because all the way up the stairs to the first floor, the bannister was decorated with crotched poppies.

What a refreshing display! Enough written words to supply context to the exhibit but not too much to overwhelm or detract from research time. This display in particular, Centenary Stitches comprises knitted and crotched items, recently made using the patterns of 1914-1918; the items being war-time comforts – socks, gun gloves, balaclavas, scarves and soldiers’ pillows. Alongside these were jerseys, jackets, berets, tam o’shanters (fittting for Burns Night on 24 January), shawls and other bits which would have been used on the home front. Many of the items were used in the filming of Tell them of Us.

You can read more on the website dedicated to the exhibition. The exhibition runs until 19 March 2016.

I was excited to discover there is a book to accompany the exhibition which has a brief overview of the project but all the patterns converted to twenty-first century logic. My wardrobe will soon be expanding… What added to the book was the explanation of how patterns were constructed a 100 years ago and what needed to happen to covert them to ‘modern’ language.

Although this is a London exhibition based on a UK family’s war-time experience, the patterns are international and would have been used by the women in Africa (led by people such as the Governor General’s wife and Mrs Lionel Phillips – Florence) and other dominions and colonies to provide the men with comforts – I can’t help but think of young Munro‘s complaint about a gift of knitted socks in the African heat!

East meets West on the Great War …

… in Africa on Africa.

Attending a World War 1 conference in Senegal, I got the opportunity to meet with colleagues working on West and North Africa – all except one I hadn’t met before. The attendees were mainly historians, sociologists and anthropologists of African origin, who if not still resident on the continent received their basic education there. The result: a completely different focus to the African conferences held in Europe. This meant I was able to draw comparisons between the experiences of the some of the different countries involved in the Great War in Africa.

Now I know a fair bit about (but definitely not everything) East, Central and South Africa’s involvement but very little of West Africa (unless it’s their involvement in East Africa) and even less of North Africa. Despite the conference mainly being conducted in French, I was able with my smattering of the language and the assistance of a young student doing her degree in English translation to glean a fair bit of what happened in West Africa.

What struck me during day one, and which continued throughout the remainder of the papers, was the experiences of the indigenous or local peoples. The emphasis on the experiences of those who lived in forest, on mountain and near the sea and how they used this knowledge either in their fighting or to avoid being caught up in the conflagration was not much different to East and Central African experiences.

The other strong influence in the war on both sides of the continent (mentioned more in German East African accounts as opposed to the British) was the role of the slave trade. We know of Mzee Ali who had been a slaver but many of the routes used, the use of porters and management of the troops with camp followers and discipline was grounded in the earlier experiences.

Africa (the West in particular) has made the Great War in Africa its own in a way I hadn’t thought of having had a strong, dare I say it, European-influenced education albeit in Africa. The Great War was just one of the many wars Africa experienced. This single statement explains the almost nonchalant regard of the Great War centenary across the continent.

What sets the Great War aside from all the other wars is its consequences – how the interactivity of the war broke down beliefs and stereotypes which eventually led to independence. The white man was no longer infallible. They died the same way and lost their moral ground as Albert Grundlingh quotes ‘white men should have better ways of solving their differences.’ (War and Society). Black men, Indians and others tasted the lure of cities and other work seeing its attractions when compared to farming. The value of organising, discipline and working together to achieve a goal was recognised. All this and more eventually gave rise to the independence struggles.

Review: World War 1 Reads and finds of 2015

This year has been a bumper year for books related to World War 1 in Africa. This is not too surprising given the centenary commemorations which has brought the little known campaigns in Africa to a wider audience.

Highlights of texts I became aware of this year include fiction and non-fiction and not all produced during this year. I’ve taken the opportunity of reflecting on the year’s finds to comment on those books I’ve not reviewed on the site.

On the non-fiction side, Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis broke away from the traditional military related accounts of the campaign in East Africa. Ed’s book sheds light on the relationships between the British metropole, the British South Africa Company, missionaries, settlers and local communities in a way reminiscent of Mel Page’s 1977 ground breaking work on Malawi and the First World War. I’m not going to say much more about Ed’s book here as I’m reviewing the book for an academic journal (details to follow in due course).

In a related vein, we have Albert Grundlingh’s War and Society: Participation and Remembrance. This is an updated and expanded account of Albert’s account of black South African involvement during World War 1. Many will be familiar with his Fighting their own war; however War and Society takes the story a bit further to include coloured involvement and the development of memory amongst black and coloured South Africans over the past 100 years. He pays special attention to the SS Mendi and the part it has played in South Africa’s remembrance of the war. Although I’m really pleased Albert released this publication, it’s a pity he left out the Indian involvement. As with Mel’s thesis being ground breaking, so was Albert’s – upon which both these books are based (and a recommended read if you can track down a copy and read Afrikaans).

Another two similarly ground breaking publications this year include Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries and Myles Osborne’s Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c.1800 to the present. This book, as I note in a forthcoming review soon to be published by New Contree, compliments that of Michelle’s.

Moving away from the ‘big’ picture, I was given a copy of Your Loving Son, Yum (available through GWAA for people outside South Africa), the story of Grahame Munro of Grahamstown who saw service in East Africa. His World War 1 letters, edited by Kathleen Satchwell, open up the war on a personal level with discussions about farming back home.

Another which gives more personal accounts of Belgians, Germans and British, and which has been available for a year now, is The Fate of the Prisoners during the East Africa Campaign. This translation of the 1919 Belgian report on prisoners contains amongst other accounts that of Ada Schnee, the German Governor’s wife. The accounts are of prisoners and guards who were captured and released when the Belgians occupied Tabora in 1917.

2015 saw the centenary of the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland, now Malawi and in commemoration of the uprising, the Society of Malawi dedicated an edition (vol 68, no 1) of its journal, The Society of Malawi Journal, to the event. Contributors included George Shepperson, David Bone, David Stuart-Mogg and Brian Morris. The publication provides a useful summary of the events which took place in 1915, adding some additional context to the general accounts and some reflections on the impact of the uprising on later generations.

An autobiographical account linking non-fiction and fiction was MJ Vassanji’s And Home was Kariakoo: A memoir of East Africa. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel The Book of Secrets.

It also proved a year of discovery on the fiction side with a number of novels coming to light. As I wrote last week, there is Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband drawing on the experiences of Karen Blixen and other settlers in the early years of the war. Margeurite Poland’s 2009 Iron Love starting in South Africa in 1913 and covering the campaign in East Africa, Escott Lynne’s 1921 Comrades Ever based on diary jottings of an unnamed person who served in the East Africa and finally regarding the war in East Africa, Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan alive: A definitive biography of Lord Greystoke which contains a couple of chapters (18-19) on the war.

My best novel discovery, which took place this week, must be my first novel mentioning a theatre other than East Africa and that is Roelof Steenbeek’s The Black Knight: The loss of innocence which mentions the West African campaign. It appears that this is a translation from Norwegian and a paper copy will set you back £30 but there is a e-version available through Amazon or Google Books.

I am yet to read all of these, other than Maya’s, so keep an eye on this site for updates on what I discover.

Looking ahead, 2016 promises to be another bumper year of publications making their way into my library (oh for more time to indulge in reading!). I’m waiting with eager anticipation for Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa which will contain some information on the First World War, and Ross Anderson’s soon to be released book on the King’s African Rifles. Norman Jewell’s On Call in Africa 1910-1932 which I was involved in editing should also be out in the new year bringing to light the life of a doctor who served with the East Africa Field Ambulance. Norman served for a time with Edward Temple Harris whose 17 Letters to his brother Temple have been around for a few years already (copies are available here). If all goes to plan, we should be seeing a range of memoirs and other official accounts of men who served in the King’s African Rifles, German forces, transport corps and so forth coming into the public domain – all on the East African theatre.

Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War as there are constantly new articles being added. They provide a broad introduction to aspects of World War 1. A lot of effort by the expert editors (those on the African front include Bill Nasson, Richard Foggarty, Mel Page, Michelle Moyd and Tim Stapleton) has gone into sourcing the contributors and to ensure they meet a minimum academic standard yet are accessible to a general audience.

Thank you to all who brought publications to my attention and for helping to keep the memory of all those involved in the Great War in Africa alive. May their experiences, positive and negative, help us to make the world a better place for all to live. We will remember them!

Day of the Ring: 21 September – Linking War and Peace

I recently received a message from the organiser of The Ring, a call for peace. He was looking for people in Africa to participate in this, The Ring’s, first international outing. I quote relevant aspects of the letter, and although we might not be physically participating in The Ring, we can wish it well on its way and that it has some impact in helping make the world a better place to live – as many of those who fought in WW1 and other conflicts then and now believed they were doing.

Delighted to tell you all that we now have our last piece in place. The Spirit of Peace Dinner will be on the evening of 21st of September. We have chosen Northern Ireland as a venue for the start and end of the phone relay as it is a major example of who peace can only be brought about by talks and goodwill….and an expressed desire for peace by the ordinary folk of a county. It is our intention each year to chose a location anywhere in the world for the start and end of The Ring, as it is an intention to make it an annual event, run by volunteers, at minimum cost and with no political agenda.

During that day, our message, chosen from those suggested by people around the world, will pass through over 200 messengers in 100 countries and regions around the world. Many more will hear about it through the Ringlet programme and the families programme. The climax will be the Spirit of Peace Dinner at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast

The Spirit of Peace Dinner.

This will be an event with 80 people present. Yes there will be some VIP’s, but mainly and in keeping with our policy, most of those invited will be the ordinary folk. During the meal, we will be showing film of the early people in the Ring passing on the message, filmed by Smartphone and sent to Peter Ferris for editing during the day. We shall be having a talk on the Magic of the Ring, and most excitingly, we will be waiting for the final message to come to us from our final messenger-this will be broadcast to all at the dinner and should be a very moving moment. At the dinner, we then plan to send the message by phone to the UN for onwards transmission as the message of peace from the people of the world to the leaders of the world.

The Ringlet programme

Some of you are taking part in the Ringlet programme. Quite simply, anyone taking part in the Ring can organise their own ring to pass on their own local message. So we have the astonishing programme being run by Campbell College in Belfast, where 126 former pupils are each representing one of the 126 pupils who fell in World War 1, and are passing around a message of tribute to them, submitted by one of the present pupils. Also Violeta Tsonga in Bulgaria has linked up schools in three cities and their Ring is to pay tribute to local World War 1 hero George Milov, Nubaru Pekol is organising a Ring with schools in Turkey, these are just three examples of the rapidly expanding Ringlet programme. If anyone wants to form a Ringlet, just go ahead and let us know. However, as always, our prime need is for you to pass on the message-anything else you do is entirely your choice.

The Family Ringlet

This is a new sector, suggested by an enthusiastic supporter of the Ring programme. His Grandfather fought in World War 1 and there is now a large family of descendants around the world, many of whom know little about the rest of the family. So, they are compiling a directory of all the family around the world and on the Day of the Ring, they are going to pass a tribute to their Grandfather, Great Grandfather and Great Great Grandfather, around the whole family. It will be the first time many of them have spoken to each other and the main family directory will be made available to all of them. If it works, they plan to do this every year. What a wonderful idea! This is part of the magic of the Ring.

Last lap
I was fully expecting to see there was still a need for people in Africa to join the link so was overjoyed to see this was not the case when I read the last paragraph:

We have the numbers to complete the ring, but some major countries are still missing. Maybe you can help. In Europe, I would like someone in Spain, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Estonia, in Eastern Europe any of the so called “stan” countries, in Asia Pacific Japan is still missing, as is mainland China, we do have Hong Kong. In Latin America we need Peru, Panama, Brazil and Mexico-and if you have any friends in the more obscure countries, do let me know, or you can approach them yourselves and if they agree, pass on their e-mails.

I’m happy to pass on any messages to Robin if you add them to this blog, otherwise you can do so through the website.