Fait accompli – battlefield decisions

One of my interests is the influence of the individual on the course of events, so rather than accepting a statement such as ‘the War Office decided…’, I will try and find out who exactly at the War Office made the suggestion which was eventually accepted. The same goes for ‘x won the battle’ – x being the commander, but there were many little actions taking place during that battle which could have gone either way. X, too, quite often wasn’t even at the site of the battle, having issued instructions via telegraph or command order. The classic case here is that of Horace Smith-Dorrien in England drawing up the battle plan for the battle of Salaita, which was approved by the War Office, Wully Robertson, on 26 December 1915, having to be carried out by General Tighe in British East Africa, now responsible to Jan Smuts who was still on his way to the theatre.

So, I was rather intrigued to come across this article on the Victoria Cross and how decisions made on the battlefield changed the way it was managed. This article raises some other fascinating little snippets to consider:

  • It draws attention to Lord Roberts making poor decisions during the Second Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1920. All to often it’s Lord Kitchener and the battle of Paardeberg which is used as the classic example of poor battlefield management.
  • The impact of family connections – Roberts lost his last son, Freddy, at the battle of Colenso shortly before he arrived to take over command from Buller. Both Lord Kitchener’s brothers joined the military – one, Walter, serving under him in South Africa and the other, Henry, being sent to East Africa during 1914/5 to assist with recruitment amongst other things. How did having family connections in high places in the army affect decisions regarding promotions, awards etc?
  • The fair play and detailed considerations of the War Office when it comes to changing precident. This connects with the previous point – Lord Roberts on arrival back in England sought to ensure that Schofield, who had also been killed at Colenso, was awarded the VC rather than the DSO which Buller had recommended him for.
  • The objectivity involved in making award decisions – Ian Hamilton who was quite involved in the decision-making about the changes to the VC awards, had twice been nominated for one and on both occasions Buller had denied them.

So much, from one little article, although it didn’t hold the info I was hoping to be able to use… the search continues.

Captain Henry Peel Ritchie was the first member of the Royal Navy to receive a VC, for action in East Africa on 28 November 1914 at Dar es Salaam.

John Fitzhardinge Paul Butler (date of action 17 November and 27 December 1914) in West Africa. He later accompanied West African Frontier Force troops to East Africa.

The first military VC awarded in East Africa was a post-humous one – to Wilbur Dartnell who was killed (3 September 1915) having stayed behind despite being wounded to protect some of his men who had fallen. Background can be found here.

William Anderson Bloomfield (date of action 24 August 1916)

Frederick Charles Booth (date of action 12 February 1917)

Andrew Frederick Beaucamp-Proctor, RFC (date of action 8 October 1918)

According to a list of VC winners on Wikipedia (not complete as only one WW1 East African listed), 8 VCs were awarded for actions in South Africa pre-1885, 3 in Rhodesia pre-1896, 6 Anglo-Boer War 1899-1901 – one of these is John David Francis Shaul who is buried in Boksburg, my hometown and who also served in Africa during World War 1; another is Alexander Young who, after serving in South West Africa, died on the Somme (the article incorrectly claims East Africa).

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Life is complicated

I broke my rule the other day and responded to a hot topic article – within minutes I had someone suggest I look at a current news programme. I haven’t and I won’t – the point of my reply was that exploitation is not only a colour or colonial ‘thing’, it often is economic-based and human nature (greed).

I understand the plea for land redistribution and reclaiming. It’s gone on in many countries over many years and not always successfully. Restitution for past wrongs (who determines the wrong?) should be made but this needs to be balanced with the current situation too where often the current inhabitants are oblivious to what happened in the past. If only we’d learn from what has one on before.

Not long ago, I was sent a video of someone complaining about Stella McCartney appropriating traditional African material for her 2017 range. To be honest, I think there are at least two issues here which have become confused and amalgamated. I have no issue with Stella using African material – what a compliment. My wardrobe is a mix of traditional African and European materials and have often questioned black African friends who value their African roots why in England they don’t wear their African outfits. ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is often the answer or ‘I wear them on special occasions’. The main issue I see with Stella McCartney’s range is the price – but again, it’s economics, and a matter of taste – theere is no way I would wear a combination as she has put together, and I’ve been known for doing some obscure fashion things myself.

I wonder what we’re really complaining about? Reasons of colour and colonisation seem to be very easy labels to attribute to things we don’t like these days.

I can hear someone say, ‘you’re white so it’s easy for you to make such a statement’ – Yes, I’m white, but I’m also African (despite what many in Europe, incl Britain, and America may say) and a minority – in both countries I call ‘home’. And in both, I face challenges for similar reasons – being white, African and colonial (that is being from a colony – shorthand inclusion for dominion too – vs living in a previously colonising territory). My experience has been – take away the colour (incl African) and the colonial issue and underneath will be a range of similarities and invariably another reason or three for the difference being expressed through currently politically correct labels. Only getting down to the real issue will we be able to ‘fix’ the problem. (And yes, sometimes once you’ve done this, it may be an issue of colour – linked with ignorance?).

Related to this has been what I’ve seen as divisive discussion about Winnie Mandela following her death. Personally, I distinguish between two Winnies – the early political activist and the later politician. I admire the early Winnie who gave confidence and hope to so many, but I cannot agree with what she did later in life – possibly a response to thinking she had to compete with Nelson for the limelight. Irrespective, I can’t help but recall the plea made by Margaret Thatcher’s family after her death – remember she was somebody’s wife, mother and daughter. Let them grieve the person they knew and loved.

The morning I was inspired to write this blog, another parallel link with current events and the complexity of life came to light. In 1908, Jan SMuts was being taken to task for trying to repatriate Indians (Asiatics as they were called then) who had been resident in the Transvaal for years. Volume 2 of his published papers, by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, contains numerous pages on this topc and the outcry of those in England and the Cape around what he was trying to do. The biggest outcry though seemed to be around his wanting to fingerprint all the Indians, and not just their thumb but all ten fingers, the latter being regarded as necessity for criminal cases and the former for civil cases.

This brings me back to where I started. It’s all complex and more than colour and colonialism. What the solution is to greater equality is, I don’t know, but I’m sure we’d get a lot closer to one which would satisfy all sides if we took time to understand the real issues underpinning the predicament and worked to solve these – treating all with respect and humanity.

The morning I typed this blog, a quote by Jesse Jackson speaking at Wits at some point caught my eye.

‘After 24 years of freedom, Black’s are freer, Whites are richer’

But who, is happier and more content?

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.

A musical tangent

Continuing with my reading of the Smuts Papers, vol 2, by Hancock and van der Poel, I couldn’t help but do a double-take on reading Lord Selbourne’s 1908 missive on the Transvaal policy for ‘Coloured people and Natives’ (pp374-394). This document, 20 pages long, was clearly written in the time before social media and short attention spans.

What made me stop, and there were many such occasions, was Selbourne’s thoughts on black education. For him, this should be allowed, be optional and to show commitment, part paid for by the person attending. More was to follow… The curriculum (p364) says it all:

The Native must be taught a little ordinary elementary knowledge, elementary arithmetic, and how to read and write, and I should add a considerable proportion of music. The former would make him a more useful servant, and the latter a happier being; but the main lines on which I should like to see his education developed, are those of what in England I should call a first class agricultural labourer… the one work for which the Native is most suited is agricultural work; and as an agricultural labourer he will never come into competition with the white man.

Wasn’t this, other than the agricultural aspect, what aristocratic white young women in Britain were to be taught? So much can be pulled from this quote alone, so I say no more other than that Selbourne’s paper has to be read to be believed today, but these were the thoughts and views of the time. Interspersed amongst Selbourne’s class and racial views, are some insightful comments. His statement about preventing competition between the black and white man being one such – this was the main reason for the colour divide. Education today is still used to divide and rule, across the board.

Still reeling from what I’d read in this paper, I was later following a lead on the Rhodesian Regiment which served in WW1, only to discover another musical link: this from after the war.

Percival Kirby had gone to Natal in 1914 and worked at the university before going to Wits in 1921. By all accounts he didn’t enlist. His fame is for recording ‘the music of the South African people’. He collected instruments and recorded their sound on wax cylinders. The collection is now at UCT forming the basis of various studies – how research was conducted during colonial times, what was included/left out and so forth.

I wonder how much of what Kirby recorded was influenced by black education as promoted by Selbourne? – I imagine not much. What I do know is that music is an integral part of South African life and is as diverse in genre as the people.

And for those wondering, I didn’t find what I was looking for on the Rhodesian Regiment…

The Fear of Equality

It’s common knowledge that South African Native Labour Corps men who served in France during World War 1 were kept separated behind barbed wire fences and were not allowed to fraternise with the local populations. The men had to be supervised and controlled by white South African men who had experience of managing black labour in South Africa.

This scenario is often used to prove white South Africa’s racial tendencies.

Recently, I came across the following description:

Among other regulations, smoking was prohibited on duty and in public places. Alcohol was forbidden – except when prescribed ‘for medicinal purposes’ – and no member of the Corps was allowed even to enter an establishment which sold it. All letters were read by administrators, while a stringent system of chaperoning existed … The barbed wire fences around the camps served to keep the women in as well as the men out.

Yes, you read women, not black South African Native Labour Corps. Women, white, also denied the vote at the time were being treated in a similar way to black South African men.

The quote comes from “The Forgotten Army of Women: The Overseas Service of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps with the British Forces 1917-1921” by Diana Shaw in Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle.

Isn’t it interesting how we shut off that which frightens us? We don’t want to engage with what we don’t know or fear.

Writing this I was reminded of an incident a good few years back now when I was still in almost full-time education. The BNP in the UK were looking as though they were going to do quite well in the general election and I was horrified at how colleges and others refused to invite BNP representatives to their institutions to be questioned by the students. It was acceptable to have the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green candidate visit and be challenged but not the group most feared. Ostensibly this was to ‘protect the students’, but what it did was increase curiosity and, at least, verbal support for the party – everything education leaders were trying to avoid.

Similarly, my initial intention as an historian was to study communism as, at school we’d been told this was what Apartheid was against. Communism was bad and our boys had to fight it. This made Nelson Mandela and others all terrorists. Other factors got in the way of my specialism, but I still hold a sideline interest in all things communist.

Today, as in years past, we continue to put people into camps until we’re sure about them – the Boer women and children, refugees, asylum seekers. Cross-dressers and others suffering from physical and mental differences get put in asylums or care centres, those who don’t follow our rules are put in prison… and yet others seem to languish because we’re too afraid to let them out having discovered they weren’t a threat to begin with.

Hiding people away and shutting them off from the mainstream doesn’t seem to me the best way of dealing with difference. Somehow we must find ways to engage – as the men working alongside the Women’s Auxilary Service and the SANLC found, we have more in common than not and together made working for a common goal more easily achievable.

Every time I experience new cultures and meet others who travel in the same way, it reinforces the need to cross barriers and engage. Understanding the ‘other’ leads (more often than not) to respect and a greater sense of community.

The times they are a changing…

Walking back from the SANDF Doc Centre in its last years in Visagie Street, Pretoria (it’s now in Irene – at the end of the road joining onto Pierre van Ryneveld at Nellmapius Drive) to Pretoria General Station on my first day back in Pretoria after a year, I couldn’t help ponder over all the warnings I’d been receiving about walking in Pretoria Central.

When I was a student in Pretoria (early 1990s), we used to walk the streets until quite late without a problem. Now, as on my previous trip, I was being warned against it. As usual this got me thinking – everyone who was warning me, except for the very last person, was white. I therefore tested out my views of walking the streets with a few people of colour and was told to ‘continue walking as though you own the place’.

The next day I set out as usual but on this occasion paid close attention to the car drivers travelling along the roads I walked – I was by now quite used to being the only white person on the pavements, but hadn’t really thought about the drivers. The blunt thought struck me: where have all the white folk gone? It was almost the complete reverse of my student days.

Pretoria used to heave with whites, now they are almost non-existent. My thoughts immediately equated this with the days gone by and the Bantustans – what do we call the still predominantly white enclaves behind huge walls, fences, prected by alarms and security guards?

Thankfully pure white enclaves are rare, Oranje being the most (in)famous. The traditionally white areas are becoming more diverse and although many white South Africans still tend to avoid the CBDs (Central Business Districts) for reasons of ‘safety’, they have far more character and warmth than the clinical streets of my youth.

Later in the week (2015), I accompanied my mother to the Whitney Houston show at the then Civic Theatre (now Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex) where I’d last been a year before with my sister for Elvis (they both do first aid duty for the theatre). Again, the contrast between these two visits was remarkable, so refreshing – the Civic has clearly got its line-up right, presenting a programme which appeals to all the different cultural groups. How wonderful it was to see a previously ‘whites only’ theatre packed with ‘mocha skin’ [as per the star of the show] enthusiasts of all ages. And to top it off, it was a South African, Belinda Davids performing the tribute to Whitney (and much better in my humble opinion).

The perception of South Africa as being dangerous persists – I’ve written about this before and it’s interesting typing up this blog piece I wrote a few years back but didn’t get to post then as to how my views haven’t changed. I feel safer now than I did in the 80s and early 90s in Johannesburg and as with all cities, one has to remain vigilent.

The other complaint I often hear is that the country has deteriorated, it is no longer what it used to be. Well, no, it isn’t and neither should it be the same country. Wasn’t that the point of overthrowing apartheid? Has the country deteriorated? In some cases, yes (and we won’t go into the corruption of politicians and others here) and there is still a lot of work to do politically and economically. But in other ways, the country hasn’t deteriorated. It is on the cultural and social fronts that the country has undergone its most radical transformation and in humble opinion – for the best.

I typed this as the ANC leadership has changed and we wait to see what transpires – the implications are huge but I hope and pray that the social and cultural progress which has been made to date influences and impacts positively on the economic and political. And I can’t but help remember the words Winnie Mandela uttered back in the early 1990s – the new South Africa will ‘accommodate everybody’ (1:18:00).

PS: In 2017 I drove into Pretoria to visit the National Archives – too far too walk from the station – but I arrived from Johannesburg rather than Boksburg and duly got myself lost! Many of the street names have changed. Whilst at the National Archive the young reading room assistant tried to explain to a white woman how to get to the courts where she would likely find the info she was needing. To the relief of both, and my amusement, he, a Tswana (we’d had a very enlightening conversation about Swahili earlier), gave up on the new street names and reverted to the old. It was just too confusing. Perhaps the next generation not knowing of the old names will find it easier.