South Africans in WW1 Egypt

At last, some dates have been discovered…most texts referring to the white South African contingent which served in Europe make vague references to the unit having been diverted to Egypt before participating in the battle of Delville Wood. Few specify dates. Working through EWC Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and Sudan (94MB), I made some discoveries on pages 330-332 which I share below, along with a few other snippets.

Having completed the campaign in German South West Africa on 9 July 1915, white South African forces were demobilised by the end of August except for those remaining to garrison the German territory. Those demobilised were free to join another contigent. Some went Britain direct to enlist with regiments there, others waited to see what materialised in East Africa having heard rumour that action there was afoot, and others enlisted in the white South African contingent under Henry Timson Lukin to serve in Europe as Imperial trooops, paid for by Britain. On route, the contingent was diverted to Egypt to help contain the Senussi who were using the opportunity to assert their independence.

On 4 February 1916, Lukin and his brigade arrived at Mutrah. The whole force was under command of Major-General WE Peyton who took over from General Wallace on 10 February. Lukin with a column of 4 squadrons, 3 battalions and a battery set out and on 26 February defeated the Senussi at Agagir, 14 miles south-east of El Barrani. In this they were supported by the Dorset Yeomanry. El Barrani was occupied the next day. By 14 Marc,h, Sollum was occupied and Captain Gwatkin-Williams and 90 others of HMS Tara were released from the Senussi and the returned to Alexandria and the white South Africans continued to England

The white South Africans continued to England where they joined the 9th Scottish Division in Europe by 23 April. They remained in reserve until called on to defend Delville Wood on14 and 15 July 1916.

Later, in 1918, after serving in East Africa, coloured South Africans served with the Cape Corps in Palestine. On route, this Corps arrived in Egypt in April 1918 for two months’ training after which they the British 160th Brigade which formed part of the 53rd Welsh Division. On 18 September they participated in the Battle for Square Hill. They were withrawn to Alexandria until September 1919 when they returned to South Africa.

 

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Beards, moustaches and the army

Did you know that from October 1916 it was no longer compulsory for men to have a moustache in the British army?

We all know the famous picture of Kitchener and his moustache and as this marketing website identified, he wasn’t the only one at the time to sport such a look. I’d recently discovered this myself going through photos in the Desborough collection in Hertford. So I thought it worth a little investigation and see others have done the same.

This obscure little forum gives some interesting developments regarding the moustache and beards, while Major Pillinger provides a more coherent history and some more general info at TodayIfoundout. The art of manliness shares shaving traditions from around the world, and Wikipedia gives an insight into the different country military requirements today. All rather fascinating.

Why the army changed the rule in 1916, the Wellcome Library provides an answer.

So this got me thinking … did Kitchener shave off his moustache when he disguised himself as an Arab in the early 1880s? A painting from 1922 by Sheridan Jones suggests not, but I’m not sure if he’s got K tanned enough. Although this image from V&A by Richard Caton Woodville is in black and white, it seems more realistic. Back in 1883, the Egyptian Army officers sported moustaches – not surprising given they were under British Army regulations, but if you scroll all the way down, you’ll see some drawings of local forces sporting moustaches not much different to their British counterparts. Again, not too surprising considering the British and in particular Kitchener was responsible for training the force. In 1899, Soudanese soldiers look clean shaven with moustached officers.

And in World War 1 Africa? A scroll through online images of the King’s African Rifles suggests the majority were clean shaven. The Zanzibar forces who served in WW1 are also clean shaven – I’m not sure about the tank being WW1 but nevermind, this is the first website/page I’ve come across focusing purely on the island’s war contribution. Similarly, Wavell’s Arabs. Local cultural and religious traditions would no doubt have taken precedence over military regulations with beards being a sign of maturity – I’m not sure British army regulations distinguished between colonial forces in 1914 (must check some time). Paging through The Unknown Fallen supports my assumption of beards being culturally and religiously determined. Today there is a guide on religion and belief in the army – 12 religious groups being recognised.

Reading today’s regulations, with exceptions for religious and health reasons or even at the officer’s discretion, one wonders why they are not generally allowed if the person wants to grow one?

Review: Sudan’s First Railway by Derek A Welsby

I just have to share this little gem of a find. Not my usual, I admit, but relevant for a forthcoming book. Thanks to members of the Specialist Research Group which meets at The National Archives, Kew, every few months, I was introduced to John who has a specialist interest in railways not least because he worked on numerous in Africa and Asia. He had a book which might be of use – and it most definitely has been, but there’s more to it than what I was looking for, hence sharing its find with you.

Sudan’s First Railway: The Gordon Relief Expedition and The Dongola Campaign, by Derek A Welsby was published in 2011 by the Sudan Archeological Research Society, as Publication Number 19.

Now, to be absolutely honest, the book did not directly answer my questions but in the succinct overview of the origins of the railways in Egypt and Sudan, I was able to follow references which filled in gaps we (my SA railway expert Sandy and I) were still struggling with. Derek has distilled from the copious autobiographies and other histories of the area, the development of the railway in a manner easily digestible and with some explanatory footnotes directing the intrepid researcher to other sources.

What makes this book special though are the photographs – of then and now. Derek has actually travelled the lines giving us a vision of what it looked like at the time from photographs and illustrations and how it compared in 2010. Apart from rolling stock, there are some clear maps and tables further explaining details for those particularly interested. Descriptions are given of camps and bases as well as the challenges faced in constructing particular parts of the line.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the desert has retained the ‘wounds’ of yester year – not dissimilar to the aged markings we saw through the Namib desert dating to WW1 and before. Welsby takes these photos, translates them into sketches and then explains them – there were recently similar explanations of WW1 training trench discoveries in southern England and Time Team as in the past ‘drawn’ over the image to show the pattern. Welsby’s are separate which allows for a clarity and clearness. He discusses ritual deposits, ticket offices, floor coverings, wells, redoubts, war memorials and more. This is then followed by 70 pages of ‘finds’ – photos and descriptions – of all sorts, railway materials, camp items and war related. One could spend hours pouring over the detail – not unlike visiting some museums. In fact, the book can best be described as a museum in print – at least with this museum you don’t have to get info overload before leaving, you can dip in as desired.

In addition to the texts mentioned by Welsby, for the UK railway specialist, The National Archives in Kew has a fascinating collection of pamphlets and booklets at reference ZSPC 11 and then for Cape to Cairo info, there’s Leo Weinthal’s epic publication in 4 volumes.

The railways of Africa provide a fascinating insight into the development of the continent, the economics and politics of the day. I’ve had to stop myself being diverted into all sorts of new imperialist explorations – but it won’t be for long, there are too many names from WW1 who are linked with African railway dicussions and surveys over the turn of the previous century.

 

 

 

 

Isandlwana – new discoveries

The battle for Isandlwana is a little before the period I usually focus on, but it has featured indirectly through my research into Lord Kitchener as Lord Wolseley left Egypt to take over command in South Africa. The accounts we have are usually from the British perspective and in passing, I had wondered if there was a Zulu account but thought nothing more of it until I met the grandson of one of the Zulu commanders on my last visit to South Africa. It’s amazing how a personal connection makes an event more real and can tweak research interest. It’s part of joining the dots – all those individual accounts make up the narrative, and then when revisited, help dispel the myths created by the narrative.

At the time of Isandlwana, Kitchener was moving between Cyprus and Egypt, trying to get a taste of some military action (he saw very little comparatively speaking), and clashed with Wolseley. Kitchener’s break came when Wolseley was sent south. This led to another name popping up in connection with Egypt which I only knew in connection with South Africa, namely Redvers Buller. Buller had been in the First Anglo-Boer War of 1881, then in Egypt with Evelyn Wood – who had fought under Chelmsford in the struggle against the Zulu – before returning to South Africa to participate in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. For the newcomer to these conflicts, it can all be rather confusing as the battles and wars seem to overlap. Oh, and don’t forget, between these all there is the war against the Ashanti in West Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Names of leading British officers feature in numerous of them challenging concepts of time and travel 150 years ago.

What has been brought home to me, apart from the connectedness of all these African conflicts with other parts of the world, are the other side’s accounts which can be found if one searches for them. These have started to make an appearance on the battle of Isandlwana and I’ve discovered one or two on Kitchener’s time in the Sudan. Africa is slowly realising it has an interpretation of past events which is as valuable as the, till now, dominating narrative. As these accounts are increased, developed and become more well known, a clearer and more rounded understanding of the past will be achieved. With people actively looking for Africa’s experiences during World War 1, and a growing interest in African involvement in World War 2 with a few veterans still alive, we might well start seeing more rounded and balanced interpretations of Europe and Asia’s involvement in Africa.

And for those who hanker after the past, don’t forget Johnny Clegg’s wonderful coverage of the battle of Isandlwana in his song Impi– and that has a history of its own.

Egypt and World War 1

Writing a paper on the end of World War 1 in Africa, I thought it only appropriate to include something on Egypt having discovered through a paper presented by Lanver Mak that there’d been ‘homefront’ involvement there too.

Further investigation led to a litttle book by Stuart Hadawayon the events at Qatia in 1916 – a note in the front explaining that a “battle” needs one or more Army Corps and an “action” one or more divisions. Anything else is an “affair”. Put like that, there were no battles in East Africa – perhaps an action or two. I wonder where skirmishes fit? But I digress…

Blood on the Sand: The Affair at Qatia, Sinai Desert 23 April 1916 is simply told through official accounts and diaries – a military outline which for the novice provides an overview but one which is also jam-packed with detail for the more seasoned historian or student of the theatre to follow through. Numerous maps and some photos help to shed further light on this ‘more forgotten’ campaign of World War 1, Africa. (review)

And of course, one book leads to another…
Chris Vaughan’s book on Darfur: Colonial Violence, Sultanic Legacies and Local Politics, 1916–1956 explores British occupation of the territory from 1916-1956. This links with the Egyptian campaigns as Darfur was brought into the Anglo-Sudanese condominium as a result of the actions taken in 1916. (review)

Where Stuart’s account is military, Chris’ is political and you have to dig a little for the military. It’s richness is showing how colonial policy and ignorance impacted on decisions with sometimes disastrous consequences for future generations. Threading its way through both accounts is that of the Senussi – a group which tends to be better known than many of the others mentioned in both books.

How the Raid dominates…

I don’t dispute the significance of the Jameson Raid in the lead up to the Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1902, but I do wonder if by just focusing on the Raid without looking at what went before and after we are missing something.

I have started to question emphasis being placed on specific events to the exclusion of almost everything else when it comes to understanding or looking at an individual. Jameson is the most recent case in point, although it is by delving behind Kitchener’s avenging of Gordon‘s death at Khartoum, the Boer War concentration camps and Paardeberg that I’ve set myself the challenge of completing a biography of the man on the poster. There is so much more than what meets the eye.

This was brought home to me again by a reading of Chris Ash’s The ‘If’ Man – a biography on Jameson which by all accounts has had some mixed reactions.

What I did find intriguing in The If man is that there was no mention (or perhaps I missed it) of those others who were initially sentenced to death with Jameson – JG Farrar springs to mind. I would have expected some mention of Jameson and Fitzpatrick in terms of the court hearings and their fate especially as they were involved in organising the Uitlanders in Johannesburg. These men were also Members of Parliament and being in the mining world, their paths clearly crossed with Jameson’s.

There are numerous publications on the Jameson Raid – I wonder how many of them really have new insights into the events and how many just repeat the generally accepted views? One day I’ll get round to reading at least some of them… I might be as pleasantly surprised as what I have been reading the biographies on Kitchener.