Review: For the Honour of My House – Tony McClenaghan

So much of what we hear or know of the EA campaign is that 75% manpower was lost with the majority being due to disease, 10% war related. Tony McClenaghan provides figures for the Jind Imperial Service Infantry which challenge these figures. On 5 December 1917 when the regiment returned to India after three and a half years:

“A total of 15 officers, 2 Sub Assistant Surgeons, 281 rank and file and 30 followers embarked for India.” An original draft, arriving September 1914, of 380 combatants and 52 followers had been sent with thirteen additional drafts totaling 678 combatants and 34 non-combatants, resulting in 1,144 men sent overseas.

The casualties were (p150):

23 killed in action (2 British officers, 2 Indian officers and 19 other ranks)
47 other ranks died of wounds
47 other ranks died of disease
81 wounded in action. 

This is the level of detail Tony McClenaghan gives in For the Honour of My House. It is a detailed account of Indian Imperial Service troops contribution to the First World War using sources from London and India – footnoted rather than end-noted (a huge plus in my books and appreciated by other researchers I’ve spoken with too). What is also refreshing is that Tony explains where he has not been able to verify information in official sources such as Watson’s mention of camels being sent to the African theatre of war (pp154-5) or how his information differs to that of others (he has 40 extra names compared with the CWGC listing – Appendix II; since Tony published his book, the CWGC report on Inequality in Commemoration has been published which sets out some reasons for these omissions and plans to address them.)

Although the reporting of military action as Tony has done is not my favourite style, this is a very welcome contribution to the history of the war in Africa. Tony’s attention to detail means that we now have access to where and when Indian Imperial Service troops were during the EA campaign, placing other units in context. He also very helpfully points out when Indian Imperial Service troops were not used which too is helpful. Until van Deventer took command of the EA theatre, it does not appear that Indian Imperial Service troops served in the Brigades commanded by South Africans. It doesn’t appear that Tony addresses this but the 1915 report that South Africans would not be comfortable serving with Indians seems to have played a part here. It is a book I will be revisiting for the detail.

What drew my attention to the book initially was an online appendix to the book – a role of honour (appendix II). There are two appendices online (Appendix II – awards) with others in the book. Scroll down on the Helion link to get the appendices. The officer lists can also be found at the British Library.

While I’ve focused on the Indian Imperial Service troops involvement in Africa for this review, the book considers with the same level of detail their involvement in all theatres they served, including an overview of how they came to be raised, the honours they received and how they are remembered.

For anyone wondering why I didn’t just refer to Imperial Service Troops, the South African forces were also Imperial Service troops, in their case the British government effectively paid for their service to overcome internal politics within the Union. The Indian Imperial Service Troops were raised and paid for by the Independent Indian Princes/Rajahas etc and served at Britain’s request alongside the Indian Army.

The Global First World War

The Global First World War: African, East Asian, Latin American and Iberian Mediators is a collection of essays edited by Ana Paula Pires, Jan Schmidt and María Inés Tato published in 2021.

A review of the book seems inappropriate given that there are only essays on Africa, one by myself – looking at how the press reported the news in Africa and from Africa in Britain. For the latter, two newspapers are compared – The Globe distributed in London and The Driffield Times, Yorkshire. Within Africa, a range of newspapers and territories is considered allowing for a comparison of reporting related to the different interests for each country or group concerned.

The other by Ana Paula Pires and Rita Nunes considering Portuguese humanitarian efforts during the war. In particular they consider the role of the Red Cross in mainland Portugal, the two African territories, Portuguese East Africa and Angola, and other territories. The range of function the Red Cross assumed ensured it was a mediator of information between various players.

And this is the theme of the book – how individuals and groups mediated the war for others who could not be present at a given space and time. Now at last my copy of the book has arrived, I can safely tell you about it – it’s been a while holding back the excitement as I had a preview, the result of proofing and editing the text with the editors.

What a refreshing range of topics and there are a few other similar collections recently released or due soon – and I say this not only because I have a chapter in them. These are all books where the editors have taken an innovative look at the First World War and addressed what could be called obscure aspects. What these show, however, is the wide-ranging impact and influence the war of 1914-1918 had on the world.

I’ll be looking at each of the publications in turn highlighting what appealed to me in terms of my narrower interest of Africa – it might inspire you to take a wider look at non-traditional aspects of the war too.

Chinese involvement in the war is a rarely mentioned topic, these two essays being welcome contributions to the slow growing literature on their involvement. Although Chinese labour was to serve in East Africa too, the two essays concern life in Europe and in China. Xu Guoqi considers the Chinese workers on the Western Front and the art works they produced. Poetry, trench art using old shell casings and how they welcomed the British king are all considered. The other essay by Kwong Chi Man looks at Chinese intellectuals understanding of war in the interwar period and how their interpretation of the war led to the China developing into the country it did. The realisation that mass mobilisation of a population was possible and what it could achieve. I could see parallels with the development of African nationalism post-war.

Near neighbour, Japan, is also the feature of two essays. Japan’s foreign book market by Maj Hartmann shows how even during war a country could maintain relationships with both sides on a scientific and intellectual level. It wasn’t easy due to regulations such as Britain’s Trading with the Enemy Act but it was possible – especially with the help of neutral countries and sufficient justification of purpose. In contrast, Jan Schmidt looked internally at Japanese mass media, bureaucracy, schools and department stores and how teachers interpreted the war for students, as well as a photographic display or exhibition of the war in a large department store. Creativity abounds.

On the other side of the globe, in South America, Stefan Rinke considers Propaganda in Latin America. This fascinating chapter shows how consulates, ambassadors and the press all worked to appeal to different communities. A challenge where countries were ostensibly neutral and had first and second generation expatriates resident from belligerent countries on both sides. How did they distribute their loyalties to their country of heritage and to their country of residence, especially when conflict of interest arose? This theme continues through Guillemette Martin’s essay on The Mexican Press, particularly El Informador in Guadalajara and in María Inés Tato and Luis Esteban Dallas Fontana piece on Lieut Col Emilio Kinkelin who was an Argentine reporter based in Europe during the war years. While we tend to hear more accounts of people escaping the war, a read of this chapter suggests Kinkelin was reluctant to leave the theatre of war despite having his family with him.

Finally, as a companion to Portugal on the Iberian Peninsular, there is a paper on Covert wars in Spain by Carolina Garcia Sanz which considers how foreigners used the territory as a base for spying – themes of James Bond, Le Queux and other such spy thrillers emerge.

As you can tell from this short summary, an eclectic collection of papers revealing for me new aspects of what was a global war.

Review – Chiwaya War Voices: Melvin E Page

One of the benefits of being a publisher and coordinating the Great War in Africa Association is early access to some material. One of these has been Chiwaya War Voices by Melvin E Page published in March 2020 by the Great War in Africa Association.

In discussion with Mel about what best to do with the hundreds of interviews he’d conducted back in the 1970s and some later in the 1990s, we decided it would be helpful to future researchers for these to be printed and made generally available. I hadn’t seen the full scope of the interviews at this stage but was fully aware of the quality and range of interviews through my thesis work on the Great War in Africa.

Rather than use Mel’s Chiwaya War book or KAR: A history of the King’s African Rifles , I had chanced upon his thesis and what a treasure trove as it contained transcriptions of the interviews as opposed to their essence being integrated into a monograph. Now, we have access to over 140 interview transcripts in a two-volume book with no commentary other than Mel setting out in how he conducted his research and the structure of the material. The Index at the back of the book is a table rather than the traditional-style index. This was done purposefully to assist researchers in identifying the the broad type of material they are after – KAR, askari, carrier, male/female, WW1 or WW2. Mentioning WW2, there is some reference to that in Chiwaya War Voices as comparative to WW1 experiences with some fascinating insights although the main World War Two interviews will be made available in a future publication which Mel is currently working on: Chiwaya War Echoes.

Chiwaya War Voices is a valuable addition to the published primary source material on the war in East Africa. To date, most researchers have quoted Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews for black African experiences. Having looked at the Hodges collection at the Bodleian Library, there is no comparison between the two collections. Chiwaya War Voices is wider reaching in terms of people interviewed, quantity and topic covered. For anyone interested in war burials you will find numerous mentions in Chiwaya War Voices, but not one in any of Hodge’s interviews, However, this is not to discount Hodges’ work but rather to encourage researchers to consider their material carefully within the regional context. Hodges’ interviews were Kenya based whilst Mel’s are Malawi based. Hodges had an interest in the political repercussions whilst Mel’s is more social, The differences continue to echo – relationships appear far more egalitarian between different cultural groups based on the interviews Mel conducted than those by Hodges.

And for anyone questioning some of the experiences in Distinguished Conduct, Mel’s constructed history of Juma Chimwere, Chiwaya War Voices is a good place to look (and then the KAR records at TNA).

Review: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – Martin Plaut

A biography on Dr Abdurahman has been a long time coming so it was with some keen anticipation that I was looking to get a copy of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician by Martin Plaut.

Abdurahman was one of the characters who has featured from quite early on in my research into South Africa’s involvement in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. Dr A was the man behind the formation of the Cape Corps which was to see two units serve in East Africa and later a contingent in Palestine. This in addition to the Cape Boys who provided labour in the various theatres where South Africans served. Dr A, leader of the African People’s Organisation, was a tenacious person – in a year he sent 32 letters to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence encouraging them to employ the Cape Coloured in the war. Eventually writing to the Governor General, and a change in attitude to the war in Africa, the South African Union Government saw its way to recruit Cape Coloureds as Imperial troops. Martin touches on this but sadly from my perspective didn’t do more on Dr A and the Great War. Partly this is due to scarce material – finding out more about Dr A has been on my ‘to do’ list for 20+ years.

Martin’s book has therefore been welcome in putting the meat onto the bones of the man. This has been a challenge given the scarcity of material – as noted in the introduction, the late discovery of Dr A’s private papers yielded little as they were illegible. The focus of the book therefore falls into what has been available in the public domain resulting in a book which explores South Africa’s race relations and collaboration between cultural groups within South Africa, particularly those who were not white. This is a vital contribution in understanding or exploring the relationship between the ANC (formed 112 as the SANNC) and other political parties.

Apart from more on the First World War, there are two aspects of the book I felt a little challenged by – one being Dr A’s Muslim identity and the other the use of the term African. Dr A was a Muslim – his first wife, a Scot, was married under Islamic law in Britain. Martin mentions a second wife with no records being available. All indications are, given his continued relationship with Nellie, that his second marriage was also under Islamic law. This was acceptable in South Africa, although such marriages are still not legally accepted (despite the emphasis on human rights etc in the 1994 Constitution, 2000 legal comment; 2020 position). While perhaps not important for the question Martin was answering, for my work on WW1 in Africa, this is an important aspect. Research to date suggests that the rank and file enlisting in the Cape Corps had to renounce their Islamic faith – for dietary purposes. Yet, looking at medical registers of the time, patients note Islam under religion. How did they reconcile these positions? Dr A walked/lived life both as a Muslim and as a ‘Westerner’ achieving at the time what few others were able. How did he do this? What debates did he have with himself, friends, family etc in walking this tightrope of different cultures? And even more controversially at the time of the 1914 outbreak of war, how did he reconcile the British Empire being at war against the Ottoman Emperor of which by marriage he was linked? My quest continues… Few historians, if any, in South Africa are working on related topics making this a rich research field for anyone interested.

And then the term ‘African’. While Martin has gone some way to use terms interchangeably, namely black, Coloured, Indian, white, there is still an overwhelming tendency to refer to black South Africans as African. This is something I probably need to write a more considered paper on as the term (politically acceptable and promoted in Britain, the USA and Europe) encompasses so many cultural groups. The term Afrikaner translates to person of Africa aka African, the Coloured, Cape Coloured or Cape Malay (an accepted term in South Africa – interestingly even people born in the 1980s to mixed couples were officially registered as ‘Cape Coloured’) is African in origin culturally and ethnically. So while the term jars as a single group descriptor and gave me a roller-coaster of a read, Martin has gone some way to mediate the cultures he writes for and knows (South African and British) in mixing the terms.

I’ve noted the gaps above but these should not prevent you from exploring Dr Abdullah Abdurahman by Martin Plaut. A far greater window has been opened on the man which gave me the hook to explore Islamic marriages in SA (there are some very interesting legal papers on the issue for anyone interested in trawling the web). For anyone visiting Cape Town and District Six in particular, the book is definitely worth reading for background – and then visit the District Six Museum to experience some of the transformation of the area Dr A represented for so many years. A remarkable man with a remarkable wife and daughter to boot.

Review: The Great War: World War 1

I somehow came across the three DVD box set of The Great War: World War 1 – a seven part documentary on three discs which I recently watched.

What I hadn’t realised was that this was an American interpretation of the war and is one of at least three documentary series all called The Great War. There is the 26 episode BBC documentary from 1964 (online) which was a military overview, the PBS 8 episode series of 1996 with Jay Winter as the main historian behind the series with Judi Dench narrating taking a wider social, cultural and personal view of the war and this 2008 MM&V edition produced by Marathon Music & Video (MM&V) and distributed by Delta Leisure group with Gary Rhay as historian.

The series is an interesting one in that it doesn’t tell the ‘usual’ story of the First World War. It starts off giving an overview of film and motion picture in the USA and then follows a thematic approach within a broad chronology. This means that there is some repetition throughout of narrative but also image. It is very slow moving (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and the narration style suggests the documentary is older than what it appears.

There are three mentions of Africa across the series – episode 2 mentions the conflict spreading to Africa which was not intended to be involved; episode 3 has a bit more with some detail on von Lettow-Vorbeck and the events in East Africa while episode 7 makes mention of the King’s African Regiment as part of the list demonstrating diversity of the war. There are a few inaccuracies in the documentary such as that of the King’s African Regiment which should be Rifles and also reference to the German Axis which is corrected by Rhay as soon as he’s said it but not edited out.

Gary Rhay seems to have been most involved with capturing veteran accounts of war which were incorporated into documentaries for MM&V. His work on World War 1 being a diversion from his main focus being World War 2 and the Vietnam War in which he served between 1971 and 1972.

There is very little on the worldwide web (3 search engines used) on the series which perhaps says a lot about the production. The reviews of the series, if you can find them, are not very complimentary, one teacher complaining about the footage only being primary source and slow. It’s the primary source material which makes it for me as does insight into another culture or person’s take on the conflict. And while there is no mention of Stilwell (who was quite involved on the Western Front) and the role he played in World War 2 Burma (in which British African forces served too) while there is a fair bit on Pershing, Patton, McArthur etc, he at least recognises that World War 1 extended to, and was fought in, Africa.