On the surrender of the German forces in East Africa

It seems fitting that while large numbers of people are remembering the end of the war in Europe, to stop and look at Africa where fighting continued to 13 November and arms finally laid down on 25 November. To mark the events in Mbala (Abercorn in Zambia) in November 1918, the GWAA has published a book containing German and English diary accounts of the last days from 11 November to 31 December 1918. What is does not contain are extracts from newspapers.  By all accounts, little was reported. Below are reports from two newspapers in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Noticeably lacking is detail on Africa but as one of the papers noted, there had been a block on reporting events in Africa. Unfortunately copies of the Nyasaland Times for November 1918 were not available in the same collection. It would have been interesting to see what they had to say.

On 29 November 1918, the Bulawayo Chronicle reported the following on page 3;

The von Lettow Surrender

Discussing the close of the German East Campaign, the Beira News says of Von Lettow:-

“His tactics were perfectly simple in their object, which was only to fight and run away, and all the fine plans of the Allied commanders failed to bring him to a stand or prevent him from scuppering a detachment here and an inferior force there. In the end, not because he was in any real danger of capture, but because it perhaps suited his mood, Von Lettow once more forded the Rovuma despite the elaborate steps taken to stay his flight and proceeded towards Tabora, but finaly, and probably because he was well-posted regarding the imminence of the debacle on the western front, broke back into Northern Rhodesia and have himself and his force into the hands, not of any of the men who had pursued him so long, but of a political officer of another regime!

A great deal was made about the mess in Mesopotamia, and three high officers under the Indian Government were given to the public as hostages for better things along the Tigris. In “German” East the same Indian Government was content to let things go on anyhow, and the Home Government and the War Office, oblivious of of (sic) the waste of life nad the loss of prestige, condoned the mess by making the chief command a matter of political selection instead of handing it over to a professional soldier of repute and seeing that everything necessary was provided to bring it to a speedy issue, either with cavalry or fully-trained troops. If the true story of “German” East is ever told – it is hardly likely that it will – it will be seen to rank as the one great failure of the war and all that is required to give to it the halo of a campaign in keepign with the measure of it record is a ten-column list of awards.”

If the secret agents of von Lettow in East Africa are ever discovered – which is very doubtful, having regard to the inability of the military authorities to run down the culprits while they were most active – there will be a fine story to tell of barefaced treachery and intrigue (says the Beira paper). The last story of the kind which reached Beira just before the surrender was that a native had been caught in the fighting area with a bundle of Reuter’s wires containing all the news from Europe up to the 9th November! It is well known, of course, that von Lettow carried a wireless set with him for receiving purposes, but on this occasion, and even if the latter was still in his possession, he was probably too far away from the coast to pick up the news, and the presumption is that the messages were taken off by an agent within the coastal area and therefore within receiving distance of any ship engaged in passing on the story of the war to another.

On page 7, the following was received on The Casualties:

IN the House of Commons today [Tuesday], Mr Mcpherson, Under Secretary for War, announced that the casualties in the East African campaign totalled approximately 900 officers and 17,000 men.

The following are the detailed figures of Allied casualties: Killed, 280 officers, and 8724 men; wounded, 470 officers and 7876 men; missing and prisoners, 38 officers and 929 men.(*)

A bit further on page 9, we read that von Lettow’s record should: should he be punished

The Guardian vigorously protests against the suggestion in a Rhodesian paper that Von Lettow is entitled to the full honours of war. It quotes from a Parliamentary White Paper on the atrocities in German East, and points out that Von Lettow was in command at the time and knew what was going on, and did nothing. The Guardian says he only merits the honours of war if a fleeing criminal putting up a good fight is excused his crime on that account. The paper hopes that Von Lettow will receive punishment for his loathsome regime.

It is officially stated that the force surrendered by Von Lettow included thirty officers, 125 other Europeans, 1,165 Askaris, and a hundred carriers.The Askaris are being detained at Tabora for repatriation and the Germans for transference to Europe.

What is rather surprising about these entries, and those of 15 and 22 November, is that there is no report on the actual handing over of the notification to von Lettow that the war in Europe had come to an end or of the actual events at Mbala.

It also seems rather odd that the great news about the war having ended is recorded on page 4 rather than emblazoned on the front page as we are used to seeing today. The front page consists of classifieds for those who have not seen a paper from the time.

(*) on 22 November (page 5), the following figures were given to the House of Commons concerning all British casualties:

… British military casualties in all theatres of war to November 10, excluding the Air Force, but including Domonion and Indian troops, totalled 3,050,000, whereof 142,634 were officers and 2,900,000 men.

The number killed totalled 27,875 officers, 620,628 other ranks.
The total of casualties for France was 125,700 officers, 2,539,999 men, of whom 32,800 officers and 527,000 men were killed.
In the Dardanelles 5,000 officers, 115,000 men, of whom 1,800 officers and 32,000 men were killed.
On the Salonika front casualties numbered 1,200 officers, 25,000 men.
In Mesopotamia 4,300 officers, 93,000 men.
Egypt 3,600 officers, 54,000 men.
East Africa 900 officers, 17,000 men.

In contrast, the Rhodesia Herald ran the following Editorial on page 10.

There was the usual crop of rumours in town yesterday concerning Von Lettow and his attitude towards the armistice signed by his country on Monday. Most of them were absurd and are not worth repeating, although the idea held by some people that he would continue guerilla warfare as an outlaw is mentioned to show how little the situation of the distinguished General was appreciated. From such meagre accounts of the progress of affairs in East Africa that the Press of this country has been privileged to publish, there seems to be little doubt that von Lettow has conducted the campaign in a soldierly fashion, has taken “sporting chances”, has proved himself to be a tough fighter, and – to use the words of another distinguished soldier, General Northey – “he had played the game all through”. In fact, von Lettow appears to be one of the few German commanders who did not countenance the practice of Hunnish methods, although, of course, cases of cruel treatment have been reproted even from East Africa, but he is not held to be responsible for them. In these circumstances it was supposed that when Germany signed the armistice General Von Lettow, like the good soldier he is, would naturally continue to play the soldier’s part and accept the inevitable. That, ideed, we are advised, is what occurred. Von Lettow has accepted the armistice and is now engaged in fulfilling the terms of the conditions that apply to East Africa. We are not in a position to interpret the somehwat vague reference to East Africa, contained in clause 17 of the armistice; but we imagine we are right in drawing the conclusion that hostilities have now ceasedin that country and that steps will at once be taken to restore ordered government pending the ultimate decision to be arrived at by the Peace Conference. Whilst we do not desire to detract from the great performances of General Von Lettow, but pay him the British tribute of having fought like a man, we are not prepared to fall upon his neck and kiss him. He has done his duty in a praiseworthy manner in the same way that every British soldier has performed his duty, and we hope there will be no maudlin sentiment indulged in at this time. Let our first regard, be for our own noble men. There is always a tendency to allow sporting instincts to predominate as against common sense; but we trust on this occasion that if any one is tempted to allow his feelings to run away with him, he will cast his mind back to the atrocities committed by the Germans in France and Belgium and to the long record of odeous crime which is laid at their doors. Before we are generous we are bound to be just over this war. Moreover, we have to remember that for the hell let loose in the world the Prussian has to pay and to pay to the uttermost mark. At the same time, we rejoice in the cessation of hostilities in East Africa and offer our grateful thanks to those brave Rhodesians, including that gallant soldier, Colonel Murray, of the British South Africa Police, and those of our allies who have assisted to bring the war to a close. We believe that with the acceptance of the armistice a new era in East Africa has dawned, and the future is bright with the promise of peace and prosperity.

Copies of the original newspaper articles can be accessed free with a British Library login.

Notably lacking from the above reports are mention of the King’s African Rifles and the porters who played such a vital role in the last years of the campaign.

We remember them all – known and unknown.

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Reviews: WW1 history through Art

I’m not a great one on works of art. I know what I like and what I don’t but ask me for more than that and I’m stuck. Words are my thing. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of photos to the historian – for what they tell you that words don’t or can’t. Photos concerning the Lake Tanganyika expedition are a case in point. More recently, though I’ve begun to realise that art produced after the time is a good indicator of how the memory of events has developed. This final year of the centenary of the Great War has provided an opportunity to see four (well three in their entirety)  artistic exhibitions on the war.

The first was William Kentridge’s Head and the load, previously reviewed. Next was Aftermath at Tate Britain which I saw with a friend, followed by a first-day viewing of the Singularity of Peace exhibition in partnership with Forgotten Heroes in Hammersmith and then a taster of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Of the three later exhibitions, that of Singularity of Peace was my favourite. Yes, perhaps my bias at having worked with the book The Unknown Fallen which gives rise to the exhibits is part of it, but it is also the most human and African. I’ve also discovere I’m not really a moving visual fan so solid art takes preference in my books.

Regarding Aftermath, what was significant was the absence of Africa in any of the pieces – both those created during the war and after. It shows how little attention was given to labour and behind the scenes (or is that indicative of the curators who selected the pieces for display?). The exhibition is explicit in stating that it is about French, British and German art and in this, it doesn’t fail. It was fascinating to see the different artistic styles around a similar theme. And of the pieces on display, those which most appealed to me were: Otto Griebel, Clive Branson, Curt Querner, Glynn Waren Philpott’s Entrance to the Tragada, and Edward Burra’s Les Folies de Belleville. The last two because they gave a hint of Africa and ‘other’ being involved, although both these are post war, 1931 and 1928 respectively. The first three for getting to the heart of man. Many of the war-time images showed little new (at least to those of us not familiar with the detail). In this category the remain of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling was probably the most moving.

The Unknown Fallen felt like a return home. All the familiar photos were there – large and small – now juxtaposed against windows showing buildings being constructed. In addition to the familiar, were pieces from the Never Such Innocence awards – wonderful to see them in original form compared to print. And then there were some new pieces which had been created specially for the exhibition – artwork from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the UK all depicting the aftermath of war and a move towards peace. This exhibition was also the most basic in that it was a form of ‘pop up’ art – an opportunity seized. Again, I discover I prefer the rough and ready to the perfectly choreographed.

Finally, Mimesis by John Akomfrah. Despite the publicity it hadn’t struck me that this was a 75 minute sit down and watch exhibition until the person I was lunching with mentioned it. I happened to be at the IWM to do some research and thought I’d whizz through – not expecting much given what I’d previously seen in the new WW1 display. I’m afraid I lasted about 10 minutes – it was definitely too innovative and obscure for me. And then an Australian or New Zealand flag appeared in the picture – I thought this was about Africans in World War 1… so on my way out made a particular point about reading the ‘blurb’ at the entrance: it mentions “African and colonial soldiers” so don’t be deceived by the title of the production. How much of the 75 minutes is about the colonial contribution I cannot say, I was lost with a person sitting on a chair under a solitary tree in a desert with the tree wrapped in red, who then fell over as though shot. Then a bed with a red matress in the desert with a solitary woman walking in the distance… and I’m not sure the men were dressed appropriately for WW1, so in effect I spent the 10 minutes I was there trying to work out how this all could potentially relate to the war I know with music so loud my ear drumbs reverberated and no words or language to guide me. I’m clearly a child of the past. One day I might find 75 minutes to explore the whole show and what is says about remembrance, but for now will rely on what others have to say.

Never such innocence – where was Africa?

On 24 May 2018 I was one of the guests at the 2017/2018 Never Such Innocence Awards which was held at the Guards’ Chapel in London.

My being on the guest list stemmed from providing additional input on Africa to the 4th edition of their book. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect as I hadn’t really looked further into the organisation. It turned out this is a group with a punch – it was one of the most diverse events I’ve attended with young people attending from Canada, Greece and Romania, with apologies from New Zealand.

Although there were no winners from Africa, 4 African countries had submitted entries. These were South Africa, East Africa and two West Africa (that is if my memory serves me right). What this equates to out of 7,000 entries, I’m not sure but given the challenges of getting African countries involved in remembrance activities on the African continent and in Britain, it was good to see some entries had been received.

Regarding the winning entries, the standard was high and although most focused on the Western Front, the sentiments expressed by the young people were incredibly global. All credit to those who worked with the young people in providing background, context, encouragement and support. Two poems that struck me were The Indian Soldier by Jasleen Singh dedicated to the 1,4 million Indians who had served during the war, and Joel Brassington’s Forget Us Not in the Thank You section which was about the Gurkhas.

Inspiring art works such as We will remember in sign language and thought provoking songs, especially Remember by Lydia Grigg. The two commendation awards deserve mention too. The first was a collection of sweetheart badges set in wing, while the second was a quilt composition created by three schools who collaborated, both capturing the diversity of function in war.

In all, it was an afternoon of celebrating the achievements of the young with the seriousness of commemorating those who served in war in the hopes of making our world a better place to live. Fittingly, before everyone dispersed to socialise, we had a moment of remembrance and the Last Post.

For us cynics about the future, this day was rather reassuring that there will be appropriate remembrance of those who have taken up arms and supported the armed services to safeguard us and given the general inquisitiveness I discovered in talking to some of the young people, I’d be surprised if Africa (and other ‘minority’ theatres) doen’t get more coverage in future. All who attended received a copy of The Unknown Fallen – a book published by Forgotten Heroes 14-18 Foundation which is sure to stimulate thinking and hopefully more engagement with the theatres of war which hardly feature in the British remembrance narrative. And who knows, perhaps given that entries were accepted in Gaelic and Welsh and some quoting Maori, we might get yet get some in different African languages. I live in hope…

Other groups working to engage Africa and remembrance of Africa include Diversity House and Away from the Western Front.

 

Faith in Action

The basis of what follows is the introduction I gave at the MFest event for The Unknown Fallen on Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1.

I was told to ‘speak from the heart’, so I did, feeling a need to clear the air on a few matters.

Firstly, I recently watched an interview conducted by Yusuf Chambers and have to correct one point. He said it was the work of Allah who had brought us all together on this project. I disagree, it was God who guided me, but thankfully, God, Allah, Jehovah, Nkosi, Mungu are all names for the same being. Behind the differences, are many similarities – we need to scratch for them.

Secondly, this seems the perfect opportunity to say thank you to my students who helped me see the world differently. Time has erased many of their names from memory and due to data protection, I can’t refer back to notes I would have kept to remind me – I don’t envy the historians of the future. Significantly, back in November 2000, I was asked by two relocated Muslim brothers from the old City of Jerusalem what all the fighting was about. ‘We are all brothers and sisters’, they said, ‘all children of Abraham’. My world opened and I was to learn that Apartheid which I’d lived through and seen the end of was not just about colour. It extended to religion too and was really about economics and self preservation of specific groups. People who were not white or black, were likely to be Muslim or Hindu and they lived, as blacks and whites did, in separate spaces so we couldn’t mix although in my home town there was a Muslim Indian family who owned prime property in the city centre and who by decree of Boer Paul Kruger could not be moved even at the height of Apartheid – and they’re still there today. Lesson: don’t take things at face value.

Thirdly, I need to confess that had I come to The Unknown Fallen cold post-publication, it’s unlikely I would have bought the book. Why? It’s only on allied involvement, therefore biased. Islam is contentious within its own communities and more widely. Why, for example, am I told that the Aga Khan whom I understand, from the documents I’ve used, to be the Islamic leader in East Africa isn’t Muslim? And given the divide between north and sub-Sahara Africa, the latter would be ignored and left out, as it often has been in general overviews of the war published before 2014.

At a conference in June 2017, Luc, Vera and I met. The conference organised by Diversity House aimed to Break the Myths around World War 1 in Africa and as a result of my challenging a statement made about Britain being racist by not giving black porters shoes at the start of the war, I was invited to speak at an earlier event and invited back to this one. About three months later, Luc got in touch – I hadn’t put him off by my ranting about Africa being ignored in remembrance events in Britain and how Africa will remember its involvement if Britain gives due regard to the sacrifices its Empire made. For Africa, World War 1 was just another war in a string of many, this one differed in length and that now black men were instructed to shoot and kill white men.

Luc wanted information on Muslim involvement in sub-Sahara Africa during World War 1. Thankfully I’d been working on the topic for a journal article. The challenge was I couldn’t use the same material for copyright reasons and as I didn’t know when the article was being published, couldn’t cross-reference it. As it turned out, the article wasn’t published as I refused to discuss how the campaign in East Africa had influenced the development of Islam and I had stated that the German Governor had declared a jihad. This was not possible, I was told, as he had no authority. I couldn’t argue – Islam is not my specialism; World War 1 Africa based on documentary evidence is.

But isn’t life amazing? The day I met with Luc and Vera to discuss my contribution, researching at the British Library I came upon a telegram from the Muslim League of Southern Africa to the Governor General Lord Buxton. It expressed sympathy on the loss of his only son and gave reassurance that the Muslim community was fully behind the British war effort. There was the new information I required which could be built on.  But that was not enough.

Over the years, I have learnt to check assumptions and to do so carefully. For this I have my phd supervisors to thank. I challenged the view of Lord Kitchener which they would only accept with documentary evidence, which I found. What a pity he hadn’t been allowed to return to Egypt at the start of the war, although I also believe he was the best man to head Britain’s war effort but that’s all for another day. Lesson: Dig down, till you find the truth.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the Cape Corps, comprising Cape Coloureds, were not Muslim. How did I get to that assumption? Dr Abdurahman of the African People’s Organisation had written something like 32 letters offering to raise a contingent of 500 Cape Corps for service in the war, and he was Muslim. Documentary evidence though pointed out that the Cape Corps was Christian – important for dietary provisioning. So, I learned only last year (2017) of the difference between the Cape Coloured and the Cape Malay – people of my own country. I now wonder how many Muslims renounced their faith in name to serve in the two Cape Corps. There’s no mention in the white officers’ memoirs of the two corps of any religious differences, or of religion being mentioned at all that I’m aware of.

In fact, the absence of any mention of religion in most memoirs suggests it was not an issue – remarkable when you know that the majority of Indian, Arab and black troops were likely to be Muslim based on where they were recruited from – tribes or micronations along the African coast and slave routes. We know there were Christians, Hindus,  Sikhs, men of Jewish faith and ‘pagan’ as they were referred to then, all serving together with Muslims – all suffering together from ration shortages and surviving on what got through and was scavenged. Yet, no one mentions religious requirements, and neither do they feature in the ration allocations recorded in the Pike report into medical conditions. In fact ration quotas are based on function and ethnicity, not religious.

Men served together, loyal to their commanding officer, the one who would ensure their safety and security, not ideals of right and wrong and this is why the jihad declared by the German Governor failed. Neither did his instructions to fly the crescent moon above the German bomas or forts attract British soldiers away from their fight. They had all confidence in their leaders. As a result, I had no issue writing about Muslim involvement on both sides of the war and had to have Luc explain the impact of doing so on the overall project. Entering the realms of politics would be messy – this together with the comments received on my article reconciled me to The Unknown Fallen being about the Allied involvement. We cannot run before we can walk and within one camp, that of the Allies, there is much to discover about the diversity of contribution and the humanity of man – that is mankind.

The book appears unbalanced. In all, there are at least 4 sections on Africa, three contributed by myself and I’m conscious I’ve not said anything today about West Africa – it’s in the book. Luc was addressing knowledge gaps, looking at what would entice people to become engaged. And it’s worked as I’ve subsequently been hearing from non-Muslim people I’ve introduced to the book.

We argued over the images which are meant to be ‘unique’ – I instantly recognised Juma, but none of Luc’s invisible (to me) experts had – everything was double and triple checked to ensure appropriateness of language and content. I’ve said on numerous occasions, this is the most thoroughly reviewed and rigorously checked book I know.

Now, looking at the book, it’s good to see Juma’s familiar face, those of the South African Native Labour Corps and the West African Frontier Force. It feels like home in some ways. But I’m constantly awed by the image of the Christian service taking place at the same time as Muslim prayers, the vast sky over Verdun and the regalness of some of the portraits.

Isn’t it sad though, that I felt I had to ask Luc to include a disclaimer that the original author was describing people as he saw them – with an artist’s eye – in admiration. I think he,  the artist, would be horrified to learn that what he’d written was seen as hurtful and derogatory by some today. We can’t apply today’s criteria to assessing the past. We need to understand the past as those who were there lived it and interpreted it – warts and all. Only in this way will we truly understand the sacrifices all made in their attempt to make our world slightly better.

It’s time to get rid of all this ‘colonial’ and ‘decolonising’ speak, recognising that the world view of Africans is different to that of Europeans and that within each group there are other differences. It undermines honest discussion of the war and its legacy. And I believe we have a lot to learn from Africa in this regard. There were no nationalist agendas impacting on the war in East Africa. Nationalist ideas came later evident in the Rwanda genocide,  Nigeria’s Biafran war, Idi Amin’s policies in Uganda and the current strife in Sudan amongst others. We can’t recreate the World War 1 context and in many ways I don’t think we want to, but I do believe we can learn a lot from how people worked together because of a common understanding and faith which was not nationalist or religious based, a situation where mankind realised the value of others because of who they were as individuals.*

I’m constantly reminded of this in my research and it’s what makes The Unknown Fallen a special book. It’s been, and remains, an honour. And I’m the proud owner of a copy of The Unknown Fallen – ask anyone who’s had to be subjected to me showing the book off.

Baraka Allahu fika (May God’s blessings be upon you). Shukran.

Reflecting on the talk, slightly changed above, and the huge interest the French instruction on Muslim burial received, I started thinking about the burials in Africa – I don’t know how many CWGC headstones there are representing the different religions, although we know there are cenotaphs for the Indian soldiers and Askari Monuments for the Carriers, Porters and local soldiers some of whom might have a headstone (if they were known to be of one of the major religions). So I did a simple search on the CWGC website and discovered the following ‘war dead records’ in WW1:

Christian  – 407 (19 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Muslim – 7 (15 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Jewish – 0 (90 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Sikh – 2 (1 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Further investigation proves that all relate to first or family names… It’s obviously going to take some more digging to identify the religious breakdowns as depicted on the headstones than a simple search. If anyone gets there before me, please share your findings.

* I don’t usually listen to recordings but this one by Ben Okri caught my eye and supports exactly what I feel about ‘colonising’ and ‘decolonising’. A legace of the British Empire is the British Commonwealth of Nations – something else Okri addresses and appropriate to be included here.

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Review: The Head and The Load by William Kentridge

Wednesday 11 July 2018 was the premier of the William Kentridge exhibition The Head and The Load – the telling of the story of the carriers of World War 1. To be honest, I hadn’t been sure whether or not I wanted to see it, but prompted by David McDonald (CWGC) I went and am glad to have done so.

The venue was the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – a fitting space for the topic, and the idea but I’m not sure it worked as effectively for the audience which extended the length of the stage – this meant that if you sat at the end, you couldn’t see what was happening at the other – and there was a lot going on. I recall thinking at one stage, there’s too much energy on the stage to fully reflect the exhaustion the carriers would have experienced and which we were being told about.

Trying to capture four years of conflict and the role of the carriers from across the African continent on both the African continent and the Western Front in 70 minutes would be a challenge for most. In all, one can only expect the essence to be conveyed and this was aptly done. Although I did wonder to what extent someone with limited knowledge of Africa’s involvement in the war would have been able to make connections.

The value in such a production though is its reflection of current memory and understanding of aspects of the war. The three direct mentions of the two boats – Mimi and Toutou – being dragged across land from Cape Town to Lake Tanganyika, the Chilembwe uprising and allusion to the Western Front, are telling; although the title originates with the Gold Coast bringing in an awareness of West Africa. Significantly absent despite all the media was mention of the SS Mendi and the loss of over 600 lives when that ship went down. Many myths are by nature perpetuated, not least in the short history appearing in the programme booklet.

In contrast, however, to much of what has gone before, The Head and The Load shows how knowledge of the diversity of men and women involvd has filtered through – this was most refreshing. The inclusion of a French West African, Frenchman and German character (a screetching Eagle hovering above the men on the ground – how the actress protects her voice to enable her to make such noises is beyond me) as well as a ‘White Father’ missionary musician being a taster. The diversity of language too, mostly aided by translation on the wall again reflected some of what it must have been like at the time.

A very effective scene was the apparent never-ending carrying of the loads, the use of cut-outs and lighting to create large shadows on the wall behind of the diversity of load transported, as many of the wide-pan photos of carrier lines indicate.

The highlight for me, though, has to be the performances by the two carriers on the march, the one flagging, the other trying to keep his companion going. This followed from a foot-stomping session reminscent of mine dancing I grew up with. The energy and realism of the two was something to behold and rather moving as the flagging man eventually ‘died’ to be drag-carried across half the stage by his companion – his eyes glazed over unblinking for quite some time. This is sure to be an enduring memory of the show.

I’m not sure I understood all or even most of what Kentridge was trying to portray, but it was definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason than to gain insight into perceptions today of African involvement in World War 1.

See what BBC had to say and show.

 

 

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.

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.