They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.

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Comparatively speaking: 1899 vs 1914

The 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902 saw the following numbers involved on the British side:

  • 365,693 British Imperial troops
  • 82,742 Colonial troops (white)
    • 448,435 total

of these 22,000 died:

  • 5,774 killed in action;
  • 16,168 from disease and wounds
    • 21,942 (4.9%)

In comparison, the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918 saw the following total numbers in the British forces:

of the armed force

  • 3,443 killed in action
  • 6,558 disease and wounds
    • 10,001 (11%)

Carriers and labourers during the 1899-1902 war have not been recorded as readily as for the East Africa campaign:

  • 90,440 (14.6%) in East Africa

In places where large numbers had died – Bloemfontein, for instance – the government took responsibility for the graves. To tend – even to find – where those killed in battle had been buried was more difficult, for ‘the number of small skirmishes … made the task of keeping each grave in order very hard, while the [frequent] necessity … of marching a few hours after men had been killed made even the marking of graves difficult’ (Lord Methuen, The Times, 14 October 1904)

I couldn’t help compare the two campaigns – descriptions in Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War being reminsicent of so many diary entries for East Africa. Methuen’s quote struck a cord too, leading to the conclusion that, if it was this difficult to keep track of so few dead in a relatively compact campaign such as that conducted in South Africa, the achievement in East Africa, where the fighting took place over a far greater area despite the territories being of similar size,* of those identifying and caring for the graves is quite remarkable. And it explains why we’re still finding names** of those who have not yet been officially recognised for their service on the African continent during 1914-1918.

* According to https://www.mylifeelsewhere.com Tanzania is approximately 947,300 sq km, while South Africa is approximately 1,219,090 sq km. Meanwhile, the population of Tanzania is ~54.0 million people (890,617 more people live in South Africa).

** the South African War Graves Project has identified numerous names as part of its project as have others researching specific areas. As these are verified they’re being added to the CWGC site. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the 1899-1902 graves in South Africa as well.

Reference for 1899-1902 info: Elizabeth Riedi, Imperialist women in Edwardian Britain: The Victoria League 1899-1914, PhD University of St Andrew’s, 1998, p.69
WW1 figures: GWAA, Huw Strachan WW1 in Africa

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Lasts matter too

I was asked about this a little while ago in the context of Africa and WW1 and wrote about it in October 2018. In short, firsts allow the context of a situation to be set, they provide a point on the timeline that other events can be related to, but there is also the chance that the first is not the real first and in confirming what happened and when it did, other potentially valuable insights can come to light.

Similarly, lasts do the same. Specialists on the Western Front will be able, no doubt, to give the time of the last shot fired whether it was by rifle, machine gun, heavier artillery, unit and the last soldier killed will be known (Private George Ellison of the 5th Irish Lancers and George Price of the 28th Battalion Canadian Infantry). Answers will be dependent on the searcher’s context, eg American. And if you’re looking at Africa, each of the lasts meant something different depending on the area under discusion, with the final shots of the war fired on 13 November 1918 and the laying down of arms/surrender on 25 November 1918 in Abercorn.

As with the discussion on firsts, exploring lasts opens up the conflict in its diversity. It also necessitates clarification of terminology as fighting or rather civil war continued in Russia which withdrew from the Great War in 1917. Similarly, territories in Eastern Europe continued to experience conflict as different groups fought for their rights and independence. The lasts merge into something else.

Lasts, as with firsts, can give rise to myths, and ‘lessons’ – what is the significance between the first and last British soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict being buried 3 miles apart? In Africa, 1/4 King’s African Rifles from Uganda and the Northern Rhodesian Police, both involved from the outbreak of war, accepted the German arms in Zambia in November 1918 – what is not known (yet) is how many who started in 1914 were still there in 1918.

And then we have the veterans – as far as is known, there are no more veterans alive from the 1914-1918 war. There might still be a few alive who were born around the time but none who served. As the list grew smaller, historians and others became more aware of lost opportunities to find out first hand. (Last widow, Scottish) By all accounts this realisation has spurred families and researchers to capture accounts of minority groups who participated in World War 2 before they are lost forever. We might yet get a more comprehensive account of Africa’s involvement in WW2 Burma and other theatres than we so far have with WW1, as a result – I certainly hope so.

We’re yet to identify the last names in Africa – and probably never will. However, consideration of the task to do so allows other questions to be asked:

  • where is the line drawn? Where do those who died from influenza fit into the equation?
  • did the person still need to be enlisted to be counted as a war statistic?
  • where are the records? In the home country languishing in some basement? hidden amongst other papers in the old imperial archives?
  • how are those whose home front became a battle front fit accounted for?
  • was there a major sense of relief, sense of celebration linked with any of the cease fires in Africa or did life ‘go on’?

What is significant looking at diaries of the last days of those who served in East Africa, whether personal or official, is the lack of mention of the end of the war either on 11 November or the weeks after. Those who have tended to mention the date were directly impacted by the news such as officials managing the armistice and peace discussions, involved in the final fighting or some administrative/logistic role. This lack of mention prompts questions over how men got to learn of the end of the war and what it meant for them stuck out in the bush. The Commander in Chief, van Deventer was keen to get men home as quickly as possible, and later Jan Smuts and Louis Botha were putting pressure on Britain to get South Africans home fast – why?

And as a final consideration, lasts give an end, in the same way firsts give a start, in other words: periodisation…which in itself is useful and constraining, but that’s for another day.

 

 

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.

Faith and service: is there a connection?

The general perception of WW1 military Generals is that they saw their men as cannon fodder. I’m not sure that’s true.

  • A veteran my age who survived a recent war in Afghanistan said, ‘the Army trains its soldiers not to become dead’. A dead soldier is a lost asset which has been hugely invested in. The same was generally true in WW1. One of the things Lord Kitchener was berrated for was not getting men and munitions to the front fast enough. He insisted on the New Armies receiving at least 6 months’ training before being sent to the Western Front and that weapons be made to a high standard as he had lost too many men due to defective weapons in his early Sudan campaigns.
  • A senior military official commented that as he had got older and higher up the ranks so he had become a pacifist. Again this resonated. I’d been reading Kitchener’s farewell speech in India where he commented that a General’s role was to prepare for war and ensure his country was prepared, but to do all he could to stop war from breaking out.
  • Reading John Lee’s chapter in Facing Armageddon (edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddell), I was surprised to read of Hamilton’s objections to the Treaty of Versailles and that he referred to the Treaty of Vereeniging being ‘a generous, soldierly peace’ made by Kitchener himself. Kitchener did not believe in the complete destruction of an enemy. Comments he made before his death in 1916 suggested that he was all in favour of Germany retaining colonies at the end of the war in order to maintain the balance of power.
  • Louis Botha was prepared to forego the annexation of South West Africa in favour of the mandate system in order to bring the war to an end.

I can’t say whether the two non-WW1 soldiers referred to above are men of faith or not, because I didn’t ask them. However, I’d be surprised if not, as there is a strong religious focus in remembrance services across the Commonwealth, chaplains quietly get on with their task across the faith groups and I get the impression that the majority of military people I have contact with are people of faith. Reading about some of the Generals who served in World War 1, I was struck by the role of faith in their lives.

Kitchener is a good place to start. He wasn’t brought up strongly religious by all accounts but whilst at Staff College, he joined the English Church Union and enrolled in the Army Guild of the Holy Standard. His first official military posting was with the Palestine Exploration Fund where he mapped Palestine identifying over 400 new places and creating the basis of the maps of the area we still use today. Many of the places he came across are mentioned in the Bible and Torah and gave him a sense of connection with the past and by all accounts had a profound effect on him. At this time he also became fluent in Arabic and was able to pass quite convincingly as an Arab even whilst imprisoned. This suggests that he knew more than the language and got to know and understand the religious culture too. By the time he became Agent General in Egypt in 1911, he had a clear understanding of Turkish Law as he worked to improve the rights of the Egyptian peasants. His religion seems to have become all inclusive but it was not something he spoke about. This was evident in his becoming a Free Mason and an active one at that. Numerous Lodges in Africa and India bear his name. Kitchener was completely against the war being fought in East Africa as he knew it would be a long, drawn-out affair for no particular gain but was over-ridden by the politicians back in London.

The next General is Douglas Haig who was part of Alan Clark’s Donkey brigade. There are reasons for Generals having their bases behind the lines – security being one. Haig’s religious background was Church of Scotland. During and after the war he was very involved in the Church of Scotland, St Columba’s Pont Street in London where he served as an Elder. The church also had a close affinity with the British Legion due to Haig’s involvement in both. He had a personal chaplain whilst on the Front and would regularly take communion and attend Sunday Services. Haig’s connection with Africa goes back to the Anglo-Boer War where he made his name leading one of the forces and during World War 1 he sent Smuts a telegram of congratulations after the Central Railway line and the coastal towns had been taken over from the Germans. The two men were to see each other when Smuts moved to London in 1917 and consulted him over the 3rd battle of Passchendale.

Related to St Columba’s is the fact that it offered it’s crypt as a place for rifle training during the Great War. Although this might seem strange, it’s not that odd when one considers that the Church of Scotland did not dissociate itself from politics, and that the Pont Street church was a home away from home for Scots living in London. The lunches and soup kitchens provided by the church are well-known in Scottish circles. It also helps to know that the rifles used for training purposes did not fire real ammunition which is what I’d struggled with for years when I first discovered this little-known crypt-fact.

This brings us to Jan Smuts, the South African who served in East Africa and who later sat on the British War Cabinet and wrote the Charter for the League of Nations amogst other things. He was brought up Dutch Reformed and was technically meant to go into the Ministry when his brother died at a young-ish age. He did not seem to be a strong adherent to the Dutch Reformed Church. During the Boer War he was known to ride with a copy of the Old Testament in his saddle – in the original Greek and Hebrew. During WW1, whilst in England, he would often be found in the company of Quakers, of whom the Gilletts became long and lasting friends and he supported them in their conscientious objector campaign.

And more recently, the other South African who shares a place on Parliament Square with Smuts, is Nelson Mandela who was only born during the Great War years. He was brought up in a strong Methodist faith and attended the Lovedale University run by Methodist Missionaries. His faith remained quietly strong throughout his years in prison. But what is often overlooked is that he was one of the young lions who was instrumental in the formation of the ANC armed wing Umkonto Isiswe and the decision to launch attacks against Government buildings in the struggle against Apartheid.

Other religions feature too: Wavell of Wavell’s Arabs was known to have undertaken the Pilgrimage to Mecca. And my references have let me down – there was a commander of one of the Indian units in Nyasaland or Northern Rhodesia who also had made the hajj or pilgrimage. (I’ll add his name when I find it). And strong Christians such as Kitchener and General Gordon (of Khartoum fame) were involved in ensuring Muslims under their supervision were allowed access to their places of worship – Gordon being noted for building a mosque in the Sudan.

This leaves some questions:

  • what role does faith play in a soldiers’ life?
  • how does a fighting man reconcile the peaceful instruction of the major faiths with their occupation? (note, this question is different to how religion has been used to further cultural values, economic benefits etc)
  • how many officers of the Sikhs, Hindu and other Muslim forces shared the same faith as their men? and do we know who they are? The significance of this question being that during World War 1, officers in the British imperial forces were white which then implied Christian.

A little Chinese help

I’m not usually one for picking up on anniversaries/notable events in time, but thanks to the British Library’s Asia and Africa blog, I see it’s time for Chinese New Year – 5 February 2019. This provides an opportunity to remember the Chinese Labour Corps who served in East Africa during World War 1 and to say “Happy New Year” again…

There is still much work to be done on this group of men. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Register, six men of the Chinese Contingent died in East Africa and are named on the Screen Wall in Dar es Salaam CWGC (see also). What is fascinating about their entries are the dates of death – November 1917 through to November 1918. This was during the ‘mopping up’ operations phase when many of the other Labour contingents had been sent home and even the Cape Corps was being moved to Mesopotamia. A search on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue doesn’t give any obvious link to how many others served in East Africa. But there are some entries in War Diaries (available from The (UK) National Archives) which can shed some light:

WO 95/5302/5, 4 Aug 1918 (Dar es Salaam) – The AAG had been asked for ‘sanction of certain personnel for preliminary work in IWT [Inland Water Transport] Chinese Camp, pending approval of establishment’. On 5 August the erection of the camp commenced. On 5 August, the AAG was informed that ‘1,035 Chinese were awaiting transhipment to Rangoon.’ Simla required only 629 and ’15 interpreters essential.’ It appears that India was also sourcing Chinese manpower from elsewhere: on 24 August  ‘India had arranged diversion of 30 at Rangoon’ and on 16 August, ‘6 interpreters had been arranged.’

Also on 5 August, ‘A draft of Indians and Chinese Mechanics arrived at Daressalaam by SS “Magdalena” for the Construction and Maintenance Section.’ On the 6th, ‘9 Chinese, 12 Anglo-Indians and 35 Indians disembarked’ from the Magdalena, while ‘One Chinese Follower, One Ango-Indian, sailed for Dar-es-Salaam from India, on HT “Shuja”. On 7 August, those who had arrived on the 5th were assigned to MLO and Mechanical Section.

8 August saw a ‘telegram sent by 3rd Echelon to CHIEF SIMLA requesting 40 Chinese Stevedores to be diverted, owing to recent developments’ [what the ‘recent developments’ were needs further investigation].

On 10 August, 8 Chinese personnel who had arrived from India were sent to Construction Section.

We get some clarification of the diversion on 21 August: 360 Chinese Stevedores, diverted at Rangoon. Remainder of about 690 saild for DaresSalaam about 22nd August.’

An entry on 28 August might not be very politically correct today, but it shows the challenges of trying to work with diverse cultures in a specific place and time and attempts to keep relations harmonious: ‘In view of the peculiarities of the Chinese [not specified], it is considered advisable that not more than two should occupy one 80lb Tent.’

Somewhere there had been a Mutiny, as the entry on 28 August refers to one, noting that concerning the Ivy, ‘crew undesirable, 34 under arrest charged with Mutiny’. The crew was being returned to Bombay India with a new ‘crew consisting of Nigerians Swahilis.’ Whether this was purely a mutiny on the Ivy or had any connection with the Chinese is not clear.

That something was amiss is revealed in the entry for 2 September noting that ‘Wire fence for IWT Chinese Camp approved by DA and QMG. Necessary instructions issued’ and on 3 September it’s recorded that ‘Q gave authority for wiring in Chinese Camp, owing peculiarities Chinese.’

At last on 5 September there is mention of a name in relation to the Chinese: ‘Lieut JH Goby IARO and 669 IWT Chinese disembarked from HT “Trent”. No contract papers arrived with Draft.’ Goby was Serjeant James Henry of the Indian Army Reserve of Officers – medal cards ref: WO 372/8/40154; WO 372/26/1473.

On 7 September, ‘Q authorises issue of opium to Chinese personnel, ie 20 grains per day’.

On 10 September, 15 Chinese Interpreters were requisitioned from India. Whether these are the same or new interpreters from those referred to earlier, is again not clear without further research.

Five gangs Chinese, consisting of 328 men reported for duty on the wharf on 13 September in Dar es Salaam.

A return of employment on 14 September for the Mechanical Section, showed no Chinese being employed there:

  • Europeans       18
  • Anglo-Indians   6
  • Indians            17
  • Goanese            7
  • Swahilis           22
  • total               70

On the 16th, ‘Communications sent to COO recommending an issue of Thin Suits, Felt Shoes and Tarbosh for Chinese Stevedores’. This was followed with ‘Six specially selected Chinese sent to APM for training as Police. Remainder of Chinese reported at Wharf.’

At 5pm on 27 September, van Deventer inspected the Chinese camp in Dar es Salaam.

Another War Diary file WO 95/5359/4, provides a little more tantalising information for anyone wanting to research the topic further:

2 November 1918, Hospital Ship “Dongola” had 75 Chinese Contingent and 4 Chinese Labour Contingent on board.

9 December 1918, HT Karagola had 8 Chinese Interpreters IWT

18 December saw 12 Chinese of IWT and 35 Chinese from Base MT scheduled to embark on MT “Iran” on 20 December.

On 11 December, No 1205, Chang King Yine, Stev, Chinese Labour Contg died of VDH, as reported in Base Orders by Major HGF Christie, Officiating Base Commandant, East Africa Force, 13 December 1918, Dar es Salaam.  For some reason his name missed being added to the CWGC wall.

On 16 December, No 396, Yoh Zoa Kin, a driver for the Chinese Contingent died of Influenza, while No 1540 Stevedore, Chen Yung Foh, Chinese Labour Corps died of Dysentery on 20 December 1918. Neither are listed on the CWGC list.

This is what I’ve found fortuitously whilst looking for other information. It’s limited in scope but provides a flavour of what Chinese Labour did in East Africa and the  challenges faced by all. It allows another three men to be remembered by name and hopefully together with an officer’s name, will enable others to dig a bit deeper and open up more on the contribution of the Chinese to the British war effort.

As someone recently said, many still need to discover the true meaning of ‘World’ in World War 1 – and 2.