The African Army Band

Many of us in and of Africa are aware of the importance and significance of music, ranging from the talking drums to the crooned lullaby to soothe tiny people to protest songs and religious choral harmonies etc. Jazz and pipe bands also feature, the latter having their roots in the military, I think here of the Transvaal Scottish and Irish regiments who alternate in their support of the annual Remembrance Day services in South Africa.

And it’s not just South Africa which has military bands. At the ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in Zambia on 25 November 2018, the Zambian Army provided a brass band, a practice which dates to before the 1914-18 war as explained by Mel Page in a fascinating article on the role of song over time (“A continuing legacy of song: From Asilikali lyrics into Malawian culture” in Society of Malawi Journal, 2020, 73:1). One of his references is George Shepperson who, in another article in the Society of Malawi Journal (“Malawi and the poetry of two World Wars”, 1990, 43:2), discussed two poems he wrote, one of them emulating the songs the Nyasalander men he led in Burma sang telling of their trials and tribulations but also their successes. Of all the King’s African Rifle units, the Nysalanders were well known for their singing.

Within the same week of reading the above, I then happened by chance upon a 2006 thesis on musicians in the Buganda Court after 1937. A quick look through, invariably such studies have a scene setting chapter which on occasion mentions the war, resulted in the little discovery that

British rule, including their introduction of European brass instruments, influenced the Kabaka of Uganda [Kabaka Chwa II’s reign (the thirty-fourth Kabaka,1897-1939)] to establish a military band for his private army. Native recruits (musicians), who learned skills on these European band instruments (on which they played European tunes), later used these Western instruments to compose and arrange indigenous melodies for their bands. In other words, among the influences of the military band, the musicians adopted non-indigenous musical instruments, which they used in their own shows or parades.

The author, Damascus Kafumbe continues to discuss how music and dance impacted on society, drawing on the past and linking to the present.
It’s one of those things we tend to forget – thinking there was nothing before – there is often a rich heritage which adapts and develops when new ideas and experiences are encountered. No one is an empty vessel waiting to be filled, and the development of the African Army Bands and the influence they had on society speaks strongly of this continuity.

Remembering the war dead

As some readers might be aware, I maintain a few spreadsheets on the Great War in Africa Association listing names of those caught up in the First World War in Africa irrespective of gender, age, culture etc. The focus is predominantly sub-Saharan Africa with Egypt as a tag-on, the info gleaned as my research takes me, so unfortunately French records have little influence. Whilst many sites focus on those who died, the GWAA does not – it aims to record the names of all those involved – whilst those who died are said to have ‘made the final sacrifice’, a large part of me wonders whether those who survived and had to live with the horrors of all they’d seen and experienced didn’t ‘pay the higher price’. Today we know far more about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than they did then and I’ve been astounded at the number of war-time suicides (not recognised as such) for the African theatres suggesting there were far vaster pressures than memoirs and accounts suggest. These men and women deserve to be recognised as much as those who died in serving their country. And then what about those children born in captivity or discovering themselves in camps because their parents were suddenly regarded as a threat to communities they’d been part of for years? What impact did the war have on them? Child evacuees have recalled their experiences, but I can’t recall seeing any of internee children – either in Europe or Africa (but then I haven’t gone out of my way to look for them).

With the lists centering around areas of my own research interests and those of GWAA members (some of whom have kindly supplied lists), it’s not surprising that most records are British and South African. The National Archives allows for lists of medal cards to be downloaded saving many hours of tedious transcribing although most of the smaller forces and African recruited are on lists which are in process of being transcribed. Regimental Nominal Rolls are another great source also requiring transcription as do the records from South Africa as they have not been digitised, the exception being those who have British medal cards which survived the World War Two bombing and fire and those who died, being listed on the CWGC database. The War Graves Project has identified others who potentially should be on the list and once further information has been found, this will be considered.

Astute visitors to the GWAA listings might well have noted the inclusion of Belgian and German dead – thanks to these countries having over the past while made these lists publicly available. During the centenary years the Belgian lists have been tidied up which means the GWAA lists need to be checked and corrected. But what has prompted this post is the discovery of the Portuguese list – still to be incorporated into the GWAA lists.

Comparing the lists, it is intriguing to note that it’s the British and Belgian lists that include their African dead – these lists might well be incomplete, but they at least give a flavour of the range of culture and nationality involved in the war. The German and Portuguese lists only include white or European names. Another striking discovery is the large number of Portuguese dead – for Angola as well as Mozambique. The numbers for Mozambique although high as a proportion of the expeditionary forces who served there, it was the number of Angolan deaths which caused surprise – the only encounter one generally knows about in that theatre is the attack at Naulila where some lives were lost (16 dead on the German side). The 486 names suggest something more was happening, the death spanning the war years 1914 to 1919. The German lists cover the whole of the German colonial period with 232 names recorded and 6 unknown for the East Africa campaign of World War One. Namibia and Cameroons are also included. Interestingly, while German South West Africa was under mandate to the Union of South Africa, approximately 49 names are recorded for World War Two service with the German forces. The number of deaths for 1904 seems to far outweigh any other year in GSWA. At the other extreme only 4 names are listed of German dead in Cameroon/Kamerun (1914-1915).

Anyone visiting the GWAA lists should be aware that these are works in progress and are regularly added to. Gremlins sometimes creep in and can take a while to resolve, however, all is referenced so can be checked and followed up. If you have names or sources of names to be included, please get in touch.

Behind a Tusker

A Tusker is a beautiful animal. It’s also the name of Kenya’s premier beer but how that rates I cannot say as I am teetotal.
I was however, intrigued to discover how the beer got its name especially as it has a World War 1 link.

The beer was the idea of two brothers, Charles and George Hurst. George had served in the East Africa during the war and at the end had stayed on and applied for a settler farm – he was an elephant hunter as well. After trying a few things such as coffee, Charles hit on the idea of beer and investment sought. In 1923 the first cases of beer were delivered to the Stanley Hotel.
Not long before the beer was delivered, George was out hunting when he was killed by a large male elephant – brother Charles decided to name the beer in memory and so Tusker Beer came into being. According to SDE, the tusks were kept as a memento of the tragedy – although where they are today I do not know. Brother Charles died in 1966.

During the war, George was awarded the Military Cross (LG 27 July 1918) for his services during the war. He was with the East African Mounted Rifles and then on the EA Special List.

Interestingly, if you go onto Kenya Breweries site, before you can look at anything you need to disclose your age…I understand the need for age restrictions on sales, but on information?
Another little interesting snippet, is that Kenya Breweries consume 6% of Nairobi’s water supply – for a brief history of the company’s development and owners, HapaKenya provides an overview for which you do not need to disclose you date of birth…

I wonder how many other institutions have their origins linking back to the First World War in Africa? For starters, alongside Tusker, there is the South African Comrade’s Marathon started by Vic Clapham in memory of those he served alongside in the East African bush…

Another special remembrance

I attended a remembrance service with a difference on Monday 10 February 2020. It was to mark the 75th anniversary of the day a V2 bomb hit the central office of the then Presbyterian Church of England killing 10 people. Today it is the central office of the United Reformed Church (and between 1868 and 1970 the lodging of cross-dressers according to the blue plaque outside). I can just see those of you who know my blogs going – no Africa, no WW1… and yes, to a large extent you’re right. However, one of the men who died in the blast had served as a Church of England chaplain during the First World War. Africa featured through some of those attending.

What made this remembrance service special was its inclusiveness in a way others I had attended had not been. Others had been nationally, give or take, inclusive but this one was religiously inclusive, for all its being overtly a Christian service. Accompanying the service was an exhibition which had been put together of the area and the aftermath of the bomb’s visitation alongside short biographies on each of the people who lost their lives – men and women, clergy and other, from the receptionist, to the bookseller, the visitor and general secretary. All were regarded as equal, during the service their contribution to the work of supporting others read out in alphabetical order by those who fill similar roles today – crossing ethnic and gender lines. And all of this had been lovingly and carefully put together by the archivist – a sister of the Muslim faith. The main challenge in putting the exhibition together was that the building then belonged to the Presbyterian Church so no material was available in the current archive, and being sensitive to conditions of GDPR in a way those of us dealing with World War 1 don’t. Material had to be sourced elsewhere, including from Cambridge.

Together archivist and historian stood while the past was remembered – poignant for those who work in the building realising that one minute you’re all getting on with the day’s business and busyness, the next, ten of your friends and colleagues are no more, you’re a survivor along with 100 others in the area who were injured. Not content with only remembering the past, thoughts turned to those who suffer similar experiences today across the world.

I was the outsider in so many ways, but what a feeling of togetherness…and to think, I nearly didn’t attend.


Preserving the past

Seeing the tweet below recently resonated with thoughts I’ve been having over Africa and its remembrance of World War 1.
Remembrance on the continent seems to be rather divided between peoples with European/Caucasian heritage and experience knowing about the conflict and feeling all should remember and those who don’t. This is a broad-brush divide as even within these two groups there will be people with differing opinions.

This division was further brought home by a ‘twitterstorian’ a few days later asking what three books historians would recommend to introduce students to the Great War. The few responses I saw were all British/Western Front related. Is there any one book which provides a truly global view of the war?  It’s also been rather interesting reading the comments on the film 1917 in terms of how people perceive the past and its study. As a student of WW1 in Africa, I see huge value for understanding many of the issues we face today in terms of historical context. It helps remind me that we’re only here temporarily as part of a continuum but one who can actively change things for better (or worse). But this is not the case for all. Others live in the now and see the past through a narrow window coloured by simplification and inuendo or even ignore it. So, is it right to insist that others remember past events we think are important? and if so, how much should they align? And, where does ‘progress’ and ‘development’ come into it?

I’m a keen one for preserving aspects of our past irrespective of how uncomfortable they make us feel. Removing statues because our values today differ to those of the time when the statue was commissioned doesn’t change the past. In fact removing these icons leads to forgetfulness and stops us reflecting on why change is important. On the other hand, if we were to keep everything from the past, there wouldn’t be space for the new and as our tweet below shows, nature plays its part too. Life is transient and ever changing, resulting in a diversity which is further enhanced through our mingling of different and individual experiences.

Is it therefore right that because I feel it’s important to remember WW1 in Africa that others should too? How do I reconcile my views on remembrance with peoples who have different traditions of remembering and who don’t see the same events in the way I do? (the Mendi is my favourite example) In Africa, as I’m sure there are examples elsewhere, the situation is complex. Generally, the people doing the remembering today of events 100 years ago are now the minority – in terms of local political power and policy determination. Those who don’t (yet) see or recognise the war as significant for their identity have other events they regard as important and see the events of 100 years before as a time of suppression and hardship, something they were part of but not involved or engaged in. Should they be forced or encouraged to adopt what is perceived in certain circles to be the dominant thinking or ideology? Should we be forcing/encouraging ways to remember on a peoples who haven’t engaged and won’t unless there’s political or economic mileage in doing so? It goes both ways . . . how accommodating would we be to others telling us we should remember/put up a reminder to them of a time gone by in our environment? How do we align our cultures which are distinct yet integrated?

These are questions which challenge me as an historian and as a citizen of this world.  It prompts a need to engage with diverse groups on an equal footing to gain insight and understanding. Yet, I’m not sure we’ll ever get to a satisfactory answer for all. Irrespective, I strongly feel that we should record and preserve our past – as truthfully and objectively as possible – in some form or other so that we and future generations can look back and understand how we got to where we have and hopefully learn from the mistakes of our forebears.