What better way to commemorate 100 years of the ending of the Great War than to have a conference – this one focusing on southern Africa in southern Africa. What made this conference ultra special was its diversity. As anticipated most of the speakers would be African and white – encouraging others to research into the war is an ongoing challenge – but the audience was one of, if not, the most diverse I’ve ever encountered concerning World War 1 – and the ensuing discussions around each paper showed an engagement and desire to understand this conflict and its impact on southern Africa for what it was. My thanks to all involved and to our Tanzanian and Zimbabwean colleagues who had to withdraw at the last moment, sorry you couldn’t be with us to share your discoveries on invisible histories in Tanzania and the Askari Beni dance in Malawi respectively.
The conference, opened by Russel Viljoen provided a fitting historical context for southern Africa’s involvement followed by an almost double act by the German Ambassador, Dr Martin Schaefer (he has some interesting posts on Huffington Post), and the British High Commissioner, Nigel Casey. The day before they’d stood together at the Pretoria war memorial paying their respects as did a couple of us (German & South African/British) at the Johannesburg cenotaph.
Topics ranged from how World War 1 was a catastrophe (Herbert Behrendt, German Cultural Attache) to local reminscences by the women of Kroondal (Lize Kriel) and white childhood and racial degeneracy in Southern Rhodesia post war (Ivo Mhike). Jacques de Vries explained how the Cape Corps continued to be side-lined and how it was used in World War 2 despite the Corps valuable armed contribution in World War 1. Alex Mouton provided a fascinating insight into the Union Party and how it influenced Louis Botha’s actions, while Evert Kleynhans looked at how South Africa prepared for war in the interwar years and Tilman Dedering considered South Africa’s secret chemical weapons project from 1933 to 1945. My own contribution considered the impact of the war on various African leaders who took (or tried to take) their countries to independence.
Balancing the social, military and cultural aspects were some intellectual challenges posed by Gerhard Genis who analysed Mqhayi’s Mendi using epi-poetics (The conceptualisation of epi-poetics is based on the field of epigenetics that indicates that humans are psycho-biologically and inter-generationally linked through their historical environments and experiences.’ – Genis) and Ian van der Waag who looked at the writings of South Africa’s First World War involvement – suggesting there’s an prescribed cycle of publications by poets, memoirists, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and official histories. Johan Wassermann‘s overview of the South African school curriculum concerning World War 1 provided some insight into how flexible teaching could be if teachers were open to using the curriculum as intended.
For something a little different, Neil Parsons took us on a whirlwind tour through films of South Africa between 1910 and 1920 n terms of racial representation, and Stefan Manz kept us occupied during breaks with his poster exhibition ‘Behind the Wire: The internment of “enemy aliens” in the British Empire’ and its relevance to all peoples who find themselves interned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wide ranging in its focus, the conference provided insight into the interest and reach of the war. With more opportunities to share these ‘minor’ interests, we can only enrich our knowledge of the war and its lasting impact. Hopefully, with publication in due course, others will be encouraged to engage with the war and provide an even greater breadth of understanding. And, give a platform for objective discourse which can only bring people together in countries still divided by their past. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the German Embassy Pretoria, these initial steps were possible.
My thanks to fellow organisers, Surya Chetty, Tilman Dedering and Stefan Manz, additional session chair Nick Southey, all the speakers and attendees for making the event what it was.
It was an absolutely fascinating diversion from my usual research but one which proved incredibly rewarding as so many links appeared to themes and topics I’m currently working on. In case you’re wondering – I was asked to give a talk on the topic and am grateful to the team behind the request for supplying much of the basic info and suggesting where to look for the other. They are in no way responsible for the output… other than ensuring I was able to meet the deadline and have something coherent to say.
Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.
The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.
The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.
Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.
In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM and Military Medal).
Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!
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.