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.

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Review: Percy Sillitoe by AW Cockerill

Not too long ago I heard someone who had become head of MI5 (the British internal secret service) had served in East Africa during World War 1. As can be imagined, this got the cogs going and eventually the name Percy Sillitoe was revealed as the man.

The opportunity to divert from immedate research priorities came with having to prepare my talk on the formation of the Legion of Frontiersmen and MI5/6. Surprisingly, there was no direct link but it is clear that Sillitoe’s experiences in Africa set him in good stead for his future career back in the UK.

In short, Sillitoe ended up in Africa with the BSAP (British South Africa Police) in 1911, moving to the NRP (Northern Rhodesia Police) soon after. It was in this capacity that he saw service in World War 1 on the Northern Rhodesia – Congo border, before being taken ill requiring some time to recouperate in South Africa and returning to a political role in Northern Rhodesia. Marriage led him to a career in England and Scotland reforming police services wherever he went, until he was eventually appointed head of MI5 after World War 2. On retirement he ended up working on a diamond smuggling project which took him back to Africa.

This was a fascinatig and insightful read into a man, little known, who had a huge impact on policing as we know it today. And it seemed only appropriate that the two events which marked new stages in his career involved Africa – the first with the BSAP/NRP both controlled by Cecil Rhodes initially and concerning gold and diamonds. The second, being employed by Ernest Oppenheimer of De Beers – originally a Rhodes’ company.

A striking feature of Sillitoe’s work was his understanding of human nature and the realisation that a happy workforce would lead to a loyal workforce – something many of today’s managers could take on board. His time in Africa reinforced and honed this perception.

And for more of the African story not published in the biography, see this Exclusive.

It seems appropriate to consolidate here what is currently known of Percy’s World War 1 and Africa experience based on Tim Wright’s The History of the Northern Rhodesia Police.

22 May 1888 – born in Tulse Hill, London
25 April 1808 – Joins BSAP
Oct 1910 – Corporal at Vic Falls
8 Feb 1911 – Lieut Barotse Native Police (BNP)
13 Nov 1911 – At Fort Rosebery on route to Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission escort officer to end of 1912.
Suffered Blackwater fever
1914 – served with Town Police detachment – opened the first police station in Lusaka, was the only commissioned officer
His sleeping quarters were struck by lightening, but he was in the livingroom having tea with the Assistant Magistrate from Chilanga
Prevented game poaching by Boers
August 1914 In Lusaka during attack on Abercorn; left to meet the gun crew (May Jackson) at Broken Hill to go north. With 600 carriers undertook 520 mile march averaging 18 miles a day when the norm for carriers was 15 miles.
After reaching Abercorn, Percy was sent with 50 NRP to link with the Belgians and engage with the Germans at Kituta. He returned to Abercorn when it was discovered that the Germans had left.
19 Oct 1915 – at Fife with 50 NRP
29 Jan 1916 – Edward Northey arrives in Zomba (Sailed 4 Dec 1915, Cape Town 24 Dec, 7-11 at Livingstong with Cmdt Gen Edwards)
Orders Sillitoe with two columns totalling 138 men to go from Fife to take Luwiwa ad organise food collections once occupied.
2 Apr 1916 – Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP) Temporary Captain Officer Commanding E Company
Enteric Fever
30 Oct 1916 – in command of the area Alt Iringa to Salimu
15 August 1917 – Transfers to Tanganyika Service adn becomes OETA Bismarcksburg (Occupied Enemy Terrritory Administrator)
Nov 1918 – Political Officer, Dodoma
26 May 1920 – relinquishes command of NRP
1953 – Chief Investigator, De Beers
5 Apr 1962 – died Eastbourne

 

The Northern Rhodesia Police Association online archive

Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

I heard about this book from a friend who wanted my opinion on the idea of geography impacting on politics, particularly around Africa. I jumped at the opportunity as geo-politics was one of the theories underpinning my thesis which looked at why Britain and South Africa went to war in East Africa in the Great War. The war didn’t feature too much in terms of Africa, although there was mention of the boundaries having stayed relatively static from before the war.
This is an informative book and Tim has covered a huge amount of ground – geographically, politically and over swathes of time. It’s quite an accomplishment and reflective of the ‘hot’ areas. Those territories which are most volatile and which have the potential to impact on the greater part of the world get the most attention, so it’s not surprising that Africa is covered in fewer pages than most other areas. It’s not a case of discriminating against Africa, it’s what the geography dictates.
There were a couple of eye-brow raising moments, most notably around the Artic and the consequences of the melting ice packs. Linked to this surprisingly is Bangladesh and the fact that it could be drowned. My geography was clearly challenged and corrected on a number of occasions – and that was without looking at the maps. Having had the discussion on the book, my friend thought the maps quite accurate – I can’t comment as I don’t tend to ‘do’ maps, I can spend hours trying to work out relationships and other quirks to the benefit of no one or thing other than time-wasting.
Comparing what was written about South America and South Africa, I wonder what led to the difference in approach to the plateau? – was it the Boers’ complete desire for independence which drove them up the escarpment while there was no such impetus in Brazil? The discovery of diamonds and gold consolidating the movement inland.
It could be a worthwhile book to read for those considering changing country – I recall being taught at school that it wouldn’t be wise to move to Belgium or Poland as those two countries are always invaded in a regional conflict. Prisoners of Geography bears this out.
I wonder how military strategy colleagues would use the theories suggested by Tim in interpreting the direction of battle and skirmishes…

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.

 

 

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.

Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

Where to start? I found this book challenging to read, I didn’t like the style of writing and I had been annoyed before I began reading when a glance at the bibliography showed that once again we have a memoir of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck where German texts have been ignored other than those by Lettow-Vorbeck himself. In addition, all the myths of the First World War in Africa have been perpetuated as no primary or archival research was undertaken. How very frustrating, but thankfully all was not lost …

I always try and find something positive and for this book, it was a timely read as it reminded me of certain aspects of the campaign I had forgotten about and which were necessary for a paper or two I was writing. The basics are there.

Mixed feelings abound over Gaudi’s sidetracking – the opening scene for example is a long drawn out account of how Britain got the German codebook which eventually allowed it to pick up on the Konigsberg. And there are many others besides. The pros of this approach include new info and ideas, widening the scope of the war, showing how inter-related it was but on the con side, I just couldn’t help thinking the author was showing off.

It seems I am not the only one to have mixed feelings about this book. Mark Thatcher posted on Facebook (and I purposefully ignored it until I read the book) as follows:

Mark Thatcher So far so good with a couple of exceptions. I love the LOTR and all things Tolkien but mixing fantasy and History…hmmmm ….maybe on HBO. Also the author describes the Pour le Merite as a ‘metal’. It may be comprised of metal but the Pour le Merite is a ‘Medal’, as in medallion not metallion. Ugh.

For those not sure, LOTR = Lord of the Rings. I have no issue with including fiction in a history book – I do it myself, it’s more about how it’s done and which fiction is being referred to.

A librarian friend sent the Spectator review to me coincidentally just as I was starting the book – it must have been something in the ether – the copy I had was marked ‘Uncorrected proof, not for resale’ – it appears as though the Spectator reviewer had a similar copy. I sincerely hope that the errors, typos and other gremlins were all sorted for the release. Many of the major errors are listed in the Spectator review and I’m really pleased to see that one of the myths I had fallen for and have been trying to unravel, has been confirmed or at least sufficient evidence has been supplied for me to double check – that Max Aitken (newspaper mogul) and Arthur Aitken (Tanga fiasco) are not related:

And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).

The Spectator refers to the Washington Post review – I can only agree with what was said in the Spectator, but I can understand where the Washington Post reviewer is coming from. If this is the first you’re reading about the East Africa campaign or von Lettow-Vorbeck, then it will be rivetting and an eye-opener, and the writing style – well, that may be a matter of taste. This is not the first American write-up I’ve seen on the campaigns in Africa which show a general ignorance of Africa and what was happening there.

Would I recommend this book? I think on balance I would, just, but with lots of cautions. The main one being to double check everything before you use it.

Review: In search of Willie Patterson by Frank Reid

In search of Willie Patterson: A Scottish soldier in the age of imperialism by Frank Reid is a short and intense read.

Initially I wasn’t sure this book had anything to do with World War 1 in Africa, but it clearly does. Frank Reid goes on an exploration of his grandfather in an attempt to discover what he did that was so bad his, Frank’s, mother wanted nothing to do with her father. The result is a case study shedding light into growing up in Glasgow at the turn of the last century, why a young man enlisted in the same year, but at the end, of the Anglo-Boer War, and the consequences of actions.

For the student of the First World War in East Africa, this genealogical account opens up some fascinating doors to explore further. Of particular and current interest is a medical reference. Willie had contracted VD in his early army life which impacted on his military career. Despite having been cured of the ‘disease’ in 1911, he struggled to complete his army service with his home regiment, the Connought Rangers. Having been discharged, he refused to sign up again until he was conscripted – at this point he was felt to be medically unfit for the Western Front but suitable for service in East Africa! This raises some interesting questions regarding the War Office perception of the war in Africa.

Willie arrived at Dar-es-Salaam on 26 February 1917 (I write this 26 Feb 2018) – this is before the Pike Report into medical conditions is commissioned but after the official complaint into the treatment of soldiers by Colonel Kirkpatrick of 9 South African Infantry. The War Office clearly knew about the poor conditions in Africa, so why were they sending out men whose health was not the best? In addition to Willie’s VD complications, he had served in India before the war and had suffered from Malaria. The decision to send him to serve in East Africa as a Royal Engineer Signaller seems irresponsible to me.

On a related note, Frank points out that Willie was awarded the Military Medal for action at Medo and apart from a time soon after arrival in Dar when he went AWOL, he was a model soldier. How many others with a similar background to Willie were sent to East Africa and how does this link with the statement by Dr Pike that VD cases in the theatre were below average? Were the men so busy, as Frank implies, that there wasn’t time for socialising? Or were the men too remote to encounter women?

Apart from these fascinating questions about health and the attitude of the War Office, Frank’s little book provides a vivid account of his own experience in trying to locate the site of the battle of Medo in which Willie won his Military Medal. This sheds light on how ground mapping and air mapping differ as well as how subtle changes to the terrain can impact on perceptions. What is absolutely remarkable with this account, is that Frank is blind and totally reliant on the Zimbabwean Karl Wolf who is his guide into Mozambique.

And of final interest to the student of World War 1 in Africa, is the role and function of the signaller – Frank provides some insight into how this worked in practice – who would have thought that the Germans tracked the British allied forces by following copper telegraph wire? (p120).