On death and remembrance: more unsung heroes

I went to a white British funeral the Friday of the same week as the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi. It was for a remarkable man, a person I only knew for about two years. The emotions caught me unawares – from the moment the piper started warming up (whilst I was doing some other bits in the area). How and why?

Here in the church was a body in the coffin, once at the front of the church, the ashes of his wife carefully wrapped in a scarlet velvet cloth were gently placed on top. After nearly two years the couple were together again. I’d been to Jean’s funeral too. And I couldn’t help but think of others in the congregation who were looking forward to the day when they too would join their partner in rest and peace.

On Thursday, I was paging through the records of York Hospital which had treated men suffering from various ailments as a result of the Peninsular Wars – letters of what happened to the effects of those who died were stapled to returns.

Wednesday afternoon was spent with the student Historical Society of Warwick University, talking about cross-cultural research around World War 1 Africa. A focus being on how different cultures remember their past and how we record it – traditional Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries and Indian Cremation memorials for those of recognised faiths and unmarked mass graves for the others. I’ve often spoken of my encounter with the Masai women at the foot of Salaita Hill who couldn’t understand why white people keep coming to this dusty hill and walk up it. Their remembrance takes place telling stories around the fire. And then my other African friends who believe that a person still lives (a little bit in everyone) until the last person who knew them dies.

Tuesday was remembering the Mendi dead, all those labourers (of all colours) who survived and others who crossed the seas to serve elsewhere during the Great War. And in particular, thinking of the family members of those closely linked with the Mendi, praying the day would not be used for political gain but to truly honour the sacrifice all made in different ways. This had been preceded by my writing and recording an oral history piece for Diversity House on Lifting the Mendi Shroud.

And not to be left out, the previous Friday remembering those who struggled with the conditions and challenges presented by flight, aeroplanes and falling bombs, with a diversion afterwards to the Biafran War and whether childhood recollections could be valid. While on the Thursday I’d been proofreading a piece of work on military chaplains.

There are so many ways of dealing with death and remembrance – and on the note of chaplains, they have a special role to play irrespective of their religious or cultural background as seen in the Chaplain War Diaries of East Africa (WO 95/5308). A moving account or two appears in David Mannall’s Battle of the Lomba. Death at the best of times is difficult to deal with and one can perhaps become immune. However, when it’s a friend or person who departs this earth before their time due to age or violence, it can only be a challenge for these people of faith who give the rest of us succour. They are the unsung and oft-forgotten heroes in all the commemoration events.

What always catches me and one of the reasons I like to go to funerals and memorial services of people I’ve known where I can, is what you discover. I can’t think of one service I’ve been to where I haven’t learnt something extraordinary. This latest funeral revealed that Jim and his wife had not been allowed to marry in a church because they were ‘mixed-race’ – two different Scottish Christian denominations. That was in 1950’s Scotland and not what one generally thinks of as ‘mixed marriage’. At least it was not quite as draconian as the Mixed Marriages Act in South Africa which banned people of different ethnic backgrounds marrying. Digging a bit brought this interesting article to light which suggests that South Africa was not too far removed from what was happening elsewhere. It’s reassuring to know that there were people like Jim who rose above the mass beliefs of the day and fought for equality in their own way.

And today, Saturday, typing this post, I heard about another friend in his eighties who suddenly departed this earth – as Ken had been a professional singer I’m sure the angelic choir has already been enriched with the addition of another baritone.

To all religious men and women, then and now, who cross so many boundaries to bring peace and comfort to the families, friends and comrades of those departed – thank you. Your silent work is recognised.

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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.

West Africa in World War 1

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.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

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!

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!

 

Carriers, labourers and others in WW1 EA

@WW1EACampaign is responsible for this post following a tweet on 1 April 2016 which read ‘Getting a proper perspective on nos & names of Africans who participated in EastAfrica may be a whole project on its own!’

Yes, it is a whole project and one which I started on behalf of GWAA. I don’t think we’ll ever get a complete picture of the numbers who served in the East Africa Campaign, although I think we should for the other African campaigns as they were ‘cleaner’ in terms of force differentiation.

The East Africa campaign was ‘messy’ – from a logistical and organisational perspective, if nothing else. In 2014 I attempted to gather the existing information on numbers in one place but wasn’t happy with this as it was confusing and didn’t give a clear overview. @WW1EACampaign has prompted my latest attempt to clarify the position – which I’ve done in the attached. In this approach, I’ve used the map of Africa (you’ll have to stretch the imagination a bit here) and looked at the number of men (and women) each territory supplied. For some, you’ll see there are different numbers provided for the same country which raises the question of how were men counted? At what stage of the war? The German author Boell notes that although there were about 18,000 German forces, they were at their peak in early 1916 with approximately 16,000 in the field.  He also has a number of 40,000 KAR which were British forces. However, we don’t know how many of these were recruited from German territory. The KAR position is further complicated from before the outbreak of war as KAR forces from Nyasaland were serving in Uganda and BEA whilst KAR from Uganda could be found in Nyasaland. This situation applies to other forces too, especially as the war dragged on and white soldiers were transferred and commissioned into the KAR from the 2nd Loyal North Lancashires and 25th Royal Fusiliers. The East African Mounted Rifles was an amalgamation of various Scouting bodies and never officially discharged although its members too were absorbed into other contingents.

The only way I think we’re going to be able to unravel all these movements and get some accurate idea of how many served and in what capacities is to try and gather all the names we can and then analyse the data. Having captured nearly 20,000 names for the East Africa campaign, 250 for the West and North African campaigns and just over 4,000 for the Southern African theatres, the complications become apparent:

  1. How do you account for men who served in different theatres?
  2. How do you work out what nationality (or micro-nationality) people were?
  3. How do you account for men who found their own way to a theatre to enlist?
  4. Where do you find the records when at least 6 different administrative bodies were involved in managing the campaign with the ability to pay for forces?

Let’s start with answering question 4 as this relates directly to @WW1EACampaign’s tweet.

In short, whichever administration paid for the force enlisted will hold the records. So, for East Africa, we have lists (in theory) held by Britain’s War Office (Imperial Service Troops such as the South Africans who served in EA) and India Office. Those recruited for purposes of labour would have been through the Colonial Office representatives so British East Africa, the British South Africa Company for the Rhodesias, Nyasaland, South Africa for labour from the Union, Swaziland, Basotholand and Bechuanaland.

So far, so good. However, fate has worked against us: During WW2 when London was bombed, the records for most South Africans who served in WW1 were destroyed, as were about 1,000 Indian Office files (those dealing with EA). In addition, we lost some of the East African files when, in 1924 the archive in Nairobi caught fire. So, we are left to rely on what we have available. On the link above, I’ve provided references for some of the Medal lists which are available in Kew. Transcribing all these names onto the spreadsheets takes time so progress will be slow, but the info is available and will in time become more widely so. In addition, there is a fantastic project underway in South Africa where tw researchers are painstakingly capturing all the details on the SANLC attestation cards which they stumbled upon in the SANDF Doc Centre. When I met them on my previous visit to SA, they believed they had every attestation card and were all already able to trace some individuals who had served in GSWA, Europe, EA and then went onto Palestine – all by choice! I can’t wait for this project to be completed.

The War Diaries (kept @UKNatArchives) contain some nominal rolls – incuding gun carriers, special porters and camp followers. This is hit and miss – as is the general quality of the War Diary – as it depended on the meticulousness of the recorder and presumably the challenges they faced in the field. This means that the recording of casual labour is less likely to be recorded as is comandeered labour – this is the position facing us particularly with regards German and Portuguese records.The other challenge is getting into the local National African archives to see what they hold and hoping that the records are in a usable state (record preservation doesn’t address housing, health and education issues which have greater priority for governments).

There is much more to be said – and at least another 3 questions to answer, but this post is already long enough and I think/hope gives an overview of what is available which for various reasons hasn’t before made it into the public domain.

 

 

On Call

With all the technology we have today, one feels ‘On Call’ 24/7 unless one purposefully switches off – pretty much as I did this past weekend. However, there are still professions where people are ‘On Call’ outside of ‘normal’ (what is ‘normal’ these days?) working hours. Plumbers, road side assistants and police are some of those who remain ‘On Call’ as do nurses, paramedics and doctors. All are unsung heroes. And it’s around a doctor ‘On Call’ that leads me to write today.

At the end of last week, a parcel arrived containing some copies of On Call in Africa in war and peace 1910-1932 by Dr Norman Parsons Jewell. This parcel marked the culmination of over a year’s work getting to know Norman Jewell; and what an honour.

Norman led an extraordinary life. He left for the Seychelles in 1910 serving in the Colonial Services as a doctor and where his soon to be wife, Sydney, joined him. With a young family, he asked to enlist in the armed forces and found himself in East Africa during December 1914. He remained in East Africa save for a few trips ‘home’ to Ireland (Bloody Sunday 1920) and the UK before being made redundant as a result of the 1932 austerity measures.

Norman was one of the few doctors to serve virtually all through the war in East Africa and more significantly, he served with the 3rd East Africa Field Ambulance (3EAFA) – responsible for black and Indian soldiers and carriers. As a result, his memoirs open up a whole new understanding of life during the war in East Africa. The memoirs were written a few years after the war, Norman’s original diaries having gone AWOL but the accuracy and sharpness of his recall was consistently reinforced as I looked up dates, names and events. I seem to recall only one instance where there was a minor misalignment of fact – the dates of death of Frederick Selous and his sons; easily done when news only arrives every six months…

But perhaps the highlight for me was the discovery at #UKNatArchives of the war diaries of 3EAFA written in Norman’s own hand. A study of the War Diaries involving Norman provide an interesting insight into diary and record keeping of the time. Norman did not keep (or the diaries were not retained) during the time that Norman reported into Temple-Harris of Seventeen Letters to Tatham fame (available), while there are two concurrent diaries maintained by Norman at the time he was in charge of 3EAFA and acting Senior Medical Officer in Lindi following South African Dr Laurie Girdwood’s capture by the Germans.

What this suggests, keeping in mind the AWOL personal diary is that Norman at one stage was keeping 3 diaries – all for different purposes about the same thing. The two in his official capacity are interesting to compare: little is duplicated showing how the gdound level 3EAFA fed into the Divisional level. Given the comments in Norman’s memoir, it would be fascinating to see what he had recorded in his personal diary at the time – did he contemplate then making aspects of it public? He clearly had a routine to his day, one which he maintained as well as circumstances would allow – virtually all diary entries are made at 6pm – half an hour before sun-down. This too, opens up questions and thoughts about life on campaign in East Africa…

Another outstanding feature of Norman’s memoir and war diaries is his recognition of others, especially Zorawar Singh, and the work they did, as well as the importance of friendship. He met many of the Legion of Frontiersmen and following his move back to London, remained in touch with many he had befriended in Africa. His memoir is more than ‘just’ a military account, it opens a window onto colonial life in the early part of the Twentieth Century, while his post-war work introduces us to the challenges the medical world faced in the tropics and busveld.

And, in keeping with his time, he protected his family – there is little mention of them in the memoir. BUT, they are not ignored in On Call – Part 3 of the book pays tribute to Norman’s wife Sydney – a remarkable woman in her own right: if only she had kept a diary!

I hope others who encounter On Call in Africa in War and Peace 1910-1932 find it as eye-opening, rewarding and enjoyable as I did working with the manuscript (and the family). The #WW1 #Africa jigsaw has had another piece fall into place…

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!