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.

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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.

The Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi Strip or Caprivi Zipfel, for those who don’t know of it, is a strip of land between Namibia, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was named after German Count Caprivi, the German colonial minister between 1890 and 1894.

This little strip has been a fascination since I started work on my thesis in the previous century and discovered a reference to it having been loaned by Britain to Germany: a statement which appeared in Silvestre’s edited volume on Namibia. It was also one of the first victories of the First World War for the Rhodesian forces – Schuckmannsberg surrendered to Major A Essex Capell on 21 September 1914 after a two-hour negotiation. The German commanders responsible for the German town were Hans Kaufmann and Viktor von Frankenberg. In 2013, Schuckmannsberg, named after the Governor of SWA Bruno von Schuckmann in 1909, was renamed Luhonono.

The contentious nature of the strip continues. In researching material for a paper on the end of the First World War, I discovered that a petition was put to the UN in 2014 objecting to the treatment of the territory by Namibia. The petition argues that in essence this little piece of land is still under control of Her Majesty’s Government. It had its own agreement at Versailles separate to the South West Africa mandate which meant that when Namibia gained its independence in 1990, it was only the South West Africa mandate which was affected, not the Caprivi mandate.

What is remarkable too, in this petition is a note (p4) which reads:

The eight objective of this legal document is to demonstrate that Caprivi Strip is
inhabited by a people as defined under general international law and that all peoples inhabiting mandated and trust territories and colonies (i.e. sacred trusts of civilization) are entitled to be enabled by administering States to freely and without interference from any quarter, whatsoever, to exercise their inalienable and universal right to self-determination, failing which they have the right, including by means of armed struggle, to fight for independence as a last resort* as envisaged under inter alia UNGA resolutions 2105 (XX) of December 20 1965; 3070 (XXVIII) of November 30 1973; 3382 (XXX) of November 10 1975.

* This doctrine is based on the provisions of paragraph 3 of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”

I had never realised that today it is acceptable/legal for a micro-nation (peoples) to take up arms and fight for their independence.

Writing this post on 11 November 2017 seems appropriate – the end of the war to end all wars and to give the rights of determination to small nations is something some are still struggling for, more than 100 years later.

Continual Remembrance

I was recently asked if I believe in continual remembrance. This was the first time I’d heard the phrase – clearly I’ve not been in touch with the news and general public discussion.

After a brief hesitation, I had to say yes – it hopefully keeps us from perpetuating the mistakes of the past. ‘Isn’t that political?’ was the response. It must be if we are serious about creating the world we want to live in and that those in the past were prepared to give their lives for. Naturally this conversation has been doing its rounds in my head since.

There are three issues at play here all interlinked, as far as I can see: continuity, remembrance and politics.
What are we remembering? Why should we remember? Why is remembering political?

Continuity is ongoing. It is not once a year on a particular day. As an historian of war, it’s probably easier to be in a continuous state of remembering the past than for others. Memorials, statues, telling stories around the fire of past leaders all help keep the continuity of memories, events and persons in our consciousness.

I’m a great advocate of keeping statues around especially of those who we believe did the wrong thing by our standards. Keep the statues (not necessarily in their original location) and avoid repeating what the individual did which offends. Invariably, the statue or memorial was erected for reasons other than what is causing offense and it would be good to explore those aspects before passing judgement. Yes, Cecil Rhodes may have been racist. He was a man of his time when many believed or behaved in the same way (and to be honest, many continue to do so today). He was also generous – Groote Schuur, Cape Town and Rhodes Universities, The Rhodes Foundation and scholarship: where would South Africa’s economy be today if it hadn’t been for Rhodes and his colleagues setting up De Beers etc? Rhodes loved Africa and saw potential. In his eagerness he made some bad decisions; who of us doesn’t?

Verwoerd and Apartheid – was what he did any different to what is happening today with the rise of nationalism and individual groups attempts to ensure their independence? I don’t agree with what he did but I understand why he did it. The question is – was there another way he could have achieved the same protection of his adopted people?

The First World War – the horror of the trenches and men going over the top. Generals maligned for using their men as cannon fodder. Soldiers are servants – they follow orders – those given by politicians and national leaders (yes, some soldiers assume both roles and take matters into their own hands, but I’m not talking of them as soldiers here as they fall into the political category). A sweeping statement I know, some are blood-thirsty and all that goes with it, but they’re in the minority. I can’t help but recall Lord Kitchener’s statement ‘A soldier’s duty is not to get killed’ – a point reiterated by an officer I heard talk at Sandhurst comparing Afghanistan to the Somme. I could go on…

Remembrance. It’s easy to fall into remembering what’s in front of us: The list of war dead on our memorials, the reason for the Bank or Public Holiday, if we’re aware of it. This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was complaining about South Africa having two women’s days. The August date is for the contribution the women made to end Apartheid – Sharpville in particular.

Those often ignored and forgotten especially need to be remembered. A talk with a retired Archbishop of Africa brought this home when we were talking of the victims of Apartheid – all colours, genders and ages: those who went into exile and those family members who had to cope with the outfall back home, the young men, soldiers (both sides), forced into situations which scarred them for life, their families not aware of the wounds still suppurating below the surface manifesting in addiction, violent outbursts or depression.

These are the horrors to remember and to avoid in future, but we shouldn’t forget the positives which we can build on: the comradeship which crossed boundaries – the humanity of mankind (To be human is to be humane: Xhosa: umntu ngumntu ngabanye abuntu; Swahili: Mtu ni utu; Gikuyu: Mundu ni umundu*).

There are so many examples of this – sharing food in a foxhole, leaving medical supplies for prisoners, giving someone a drink or a place to lay their head for a time, keeping the horrors of one’s experiences from loved ones back home. Drawings of birds and animals, beauty, encountered along the way.

And finally, politics. When we think of the term, it evokes emotions often linked to elections and political parties or politicians. However, I look at politics in terms of the polity – ‘the form or process of civil government; organised society, state; condition of civil order’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). We/I have a role to play in the civil order and so everything I do has an impact – it’s political. I often recall the advice given to me by a teaching union representative back in 2009-2011 when I was bemoaning about government decisions around Further Education and our lack of influence. He told me over his 30 years of being a union rep that he’d learnt not to focus on the big things which appeared unchangeable but to rather do what felt right on the ground, in my immediate circle, and the butterfly effect would take care of the rest. These wise words have kept me from being overwhelmed on so many occasions – and goes to the heart of my politics. Treat others as I want to be treated. Memorials (including books and archives) remind me to remember those not mentioned and to remember them all.

* Mary Nyambura Muchiri, Papers on Languages and Culture: An African Perspective (2009)
Musa Victor Mdabuleni Kunene, Communal holiness in the Gospel of St John: The vine metaphor as a test case with lessons from African hospitality and Trinitarian theology (2012)

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.

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!