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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Never such innocence – where was Africa?

On 24 May 2018 I was one of the guests at the 2017/2018 Never Such Innocence Awards which was held at the Guards’ Chapel in London.

My being on the guest list stemmed from providing additional input on Africa to the 4th edition of their book. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect as I hadn’t really looked further into the organisation. It turned out this is a group with a punch – it was one of the most diverse events I’ve attended with young people attending from Canada, Greece and Romania, with apologies from New Zealand.

Although there were no winners from Africa, 4 African countries had submitted entries. These were South Africa, East Africa and two West Africa (that is if my memory serves me right). What this equates to out of 7,000 entries, I’m not sure but given the challenges of getting African countries involved in remembrance activities on the African continent and in Britain, it was good to see some entries had been received.

Regarding the winning entries, the standard was high and although most focused on the Western Front, the sentiments expressed by the young people were incredibly global. All credit to those who worked with the young people in providing background, context, encouragement and support. Two poems that struck me were The Indian Soldier by Jasleen Singh dedicated to the 1,4 million Indians who had served during the war, and Joel Brassington’s Forget Us Not in the Thank You section which was about the Gurkhas.

Inspiring art works such as We will remember in sign language and thought provoking songs, especially Remember by Lydia Grigg. The two commendation awards deserve mention too. The first was a collection of sweetheart badges set in wing, while the second was a quilt composition created by three schools who collaborated, both capturing the diversity of function in war.

In all, it was an afternoon of celebrating the achievements of the young with the seriousness of commemorating those who served in war in the hopes of making our world a better place to live. Fittingly, before everyone dispersed to socialise, we had a moment of remembrance and the Last Post.

For us cynics about the future, this day was rather reassuring that there will be appropriate remembrance of those who have taken up arms and supported the armed services to safeguard us and given the general inquisitiveness I discovered in talking to some of the young people, I’d be surprised if Africa (and other ‘minority’ theatres) doen’t get more coverage in future. All who attended received a copy of The Unknown Fallen – a book published by Forgotten Heroes 14-18 Foundation which is sure to stimulate thinking and hopefully more engagement with the theatres of war which hardly feature in the British remembrance narrative. And who knows, perhaps given that entries were accepted in Gaelic and Welsh and some quoting Maori, we might get yet get some in different African languages. I live in hope…

Other groups working to engage Africa and remembrance of Africa include Diversity House and Away from the Western Front.

 

Faith in Action

The basis of what follows is the introduction I gave at the MFest event for The Unknown Fallen on Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1.

I was told to ‘speak from the heart’, so I did, feeling a need to clear the air on a few matters.

Firstly, I recently watched an interview conducted by Yusuf Chambers and have to correct one point. He said it was the work of Allah who had brought us all together on this project. I disagree, it was God who guided me, but thankfully, God, Allah, Jehovah, Nkosi, Mungu are all names for the same being. Behind the differences, are many similarities – we need to scratch for them.

Secondly, this seems the perfect opportunity to say thank you to my students who helped me see the world differently. Time has erased many of their names from memory and due to data protection, I can’t refer back to notes I would have kept to remind me – I don’t envy the historians of the future. Significantly, back in November 2000, I was asked by two relocated Muslim brothers from the old City of Jerusalem what all the fighting was about. ‘We are all brothers and sisters’, they said, ‘all children of Abraham’. My world opened and I was to learn that Apartheid which I’d lived through and seen the end of was not just about colour. It extended to religion too and was really about economics and self preservation of specific groups. People who were not white or black, were likely to be Muslim or Hindu and they lived, as blacks and whites did, in separate spaces so we couldn’t mix although in my home town there was a Muslim Indian family who owned prime property in the city centre and who by decree of Boer Paul Kruger could not be moved even at the height of Apartheid – and they’re still there today. Lesson: don’t take things at face value.

Thirdly, I need to confess that had I come to The Unknown Fallen cold post-publication, it’s unlikely I would have bought the book. Why? It’s only on allied involvement, therefore biased. Islam is contentious within its own communities and more widely. Why, for example, am I told that the Aga Khan whom I understand, from the documents I’ve used, to be the Islamic leader in East Africa isn’t Muslim? And given the divide between north and sub-Sahara Africa, the latter would be ignored and left out, as it often has been in general overviews of the war published before 2014.

At a conference in June 2017, Luc, Vera and I met. The conference organised by Diversity House aimed to Break the Myths around World War 1 in Africa and as a result of my challenging a statement made about Britain being racist by not giving black porters shoes at the start of the war, I was invited to speak at an earlier event and invited back to this one. About three months later, Luc got in touch – I hadn’t put him off by my ranting about Africa being ignored in remembrance events in Britain and how Africa will remember its involvement if Britain gives due regard to the sacrifices its Empire made. For Africa, World War 1 was just another war in a string of many, this one differed in length and that now black men were instructed to shoot and kill white men.

Luc wanted information on Muslim involvement in sub-Sahara Africa during World War 1. Thankfully I’d been working on the topic for a journal article. The challenge was I couldn’t use the same material for copyright reasons and as I didn’t know when the article was being published, couldn’t cross-reference it. As it turned out, the article wasn’t published as I refused to discuss how the campaign in East Africa had influenced the development of Islam and I had stated that the German Governor had declared a jihad. This was not possible, I was told, as he had no authority. I couldn’t argue – Islam is not my specialism; World War 1 Africa based on documentary evidence is.

But isn’t life amazing? The day I met with Luc and Vera to discuss my contribution, researching at the British Library I came upon a telegram from the Muslim League of Southern Africa to the Governor General Lord Buxton. It expressed sympathy on the loss of his only son and gave reassurance that the Muslim community was fully behind the British war effort. There was the new information I required which could be built on.  But that was not enough.

Over the years, I have learnt to check assumptions and to do so carefully. For this I have my phd supervisors to thank. I challenged the view of Lord Kitchener which they would only accept with documentary evidence, which I found. What a pity he hadn’t been allowed to return to Egypt at the start of the war, although I also believe he was the best man to head Britain’s war effort but that’s all for another day. Lesson: Dig down, till you find the truth.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the Cape Corps, comprising Cape Coloureds, were not Muslim. How did I get to that assumption? Dr Abdurahman of the African People’s Organisation had written something like 32 letters offering to raise a contingent of 500 Cape Corps for service in the war, and he was Muslim. Documentary evidence though pointed out that the Cape Corps was Christian – important for dietary provisioning. So, I learned only last year (2017) of the difference between the Cape Coloured and the Cape Malay – people of my own country. I now wonder how many Muslims renounced their faith in name to serve in the two Cape Corps. There’s no mention in the white officers’ memoirs of the two corps of any religious differences, or of religion being mentioned at all that I’m aware of.

In fact, the absence of any mention of religion in most memoirs suggests it was not an issue – remarkable when you know that the majority of Indian, Arab and black troops were likely to be Muslim based on where they were recruited from – tribes or micronations along the African coast and slave routes. We know there were Christians, Hindus,  Sikhs, men of Jewish faith and ‘pagan’ as they were referred to then, all serving together with Muslims – all suffering together from ration shortages and surviving on what got through and was scavenged. Yet, no one mentions religious requirements, and neither do they feature in the ration allocations recorded in the Pike report into medical conditions. In fact ration quotas are based on function and ethnicity, not religious.

Men served together, loyal to their commanding officer, the one who would ensure their safety and security, not ideals of right and wrong and this is why the jihad declared by the German Governor failed. Neither did his instructions to fly the crescent moon above the German bomas or forts attract British soldiers away from their fight. They had all confidence in their leaders. As a result, I had no issue writing about Muslim involvement on both sides of the war and had to have Luc explain the impact of doing so on the overall project. Entering the realms of politics would be messy – this together with the comments received on my article reconciled me to The Unknown Fallen being about the Allied involvement. We cannot run before we can walk and within one camp, that of the Allies, there is much to discover about the diversity of contribution and the humanity of man – that is mankind.

The book appears unbalanced. In all, there are at least 4 sections on Africa, three contributed by myself and I’m conscious I’ve not said anything today about West Africa – it’s in the book. Luc was addressing knowledge gaps, looking at what would entice people to become engaged. And it’s worked as I’ve subsequently been hearing from non-Muslim people I’ve introduced to the book.

We argued over the images which are meant to be ‘unique’ – I instantly recognised Juma, but none of Luc’s invisible (to me) experts had – everything was double and triple checked to ensure appropriateness of language and content. I’ve said on numerous occasions, this is the most thoroughly reviewed and rigorously checked book I know.

Now, looking at the book, it’s good to see Juma’s familiar face, those of the South African Native Labour Corps and the West African Frontier Force. It feels like home in some ways. But I’m constantly awed by the image of the Christian service taking place at the same time as Muslim prayers, the vast sky over Verdun and the regalness of some of the portraits.

Isn’t it sad though, that I felt I had to ask Luc to include a disclaimer that the original author was describing people as he saw them – with an artist’s eye – in admiration. I think he,  the artist, would be horrified to learn that what he’d written was seen as hurtful and derogatory by some today. We can’t apply today’s criteria to assessing the past. We need to understand the past as those who were there lived it and interpreted it – warts and all. Only in this way will we truly understand the sacrifices all made in their attempt to make our world slightly better.

It’s time to get rid of all this ‘colonial’ and ‘decolonising’ speak, recognising that the world view of Africans is different to that of Europeans and that within each group there are other differences. It undermines honest discussion of the war and its legacy. And I believe we have a lot to learn from Africa in this regard. There were no nationalist agendas impacting on the war in East Africa. Nationalist ideas came later evident in the Rwanda genocide,  Nigeria’s Biafran war, Idi Amin’s policies in Uganda and the current strife in Sudan amongst others. We can’t recreate the World War 1 context and in many ways I don’t think we want to, but I do believe we can learn a lot from how people worked together because of a common understanding and faith which was not nationalist or religious based, a situation where mankind realised the value of others because of who they were as individuals.*

I’m constantly reminded of this in my research and it’s what makes The Unknown Fallen a special book. It’s been, and remains, an honour. And I’m the proud owner of a copy of The Unknown Fallen – ask anyone who’s had to be subjected to me showing the book off.

Baraka Allahu fika (May God’s blessings be upon you). Shukran.

Reflecting on the talk, slightly changed above, and the huge interest the French instruction on Muslim burial received, I started thinking about the burials in Africa – I don’t know how many CWGC headstones there are representing the different religions, although we know there are cenotaphs for the Indian soldiers and Askari Monuments for the Carriers, Porters and local soldiers some of whom might have a headstone (if they were known to be of one of the major religions). So I did a simple search on the CWGC website and discovered the following ‘war dead records’ in WW1:

Christian  – 407 (19 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Muslim – 7 (15 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Jewish – 0 (90 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Sikh – 2 (1 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Further investigation proves that all relate to first or family names… It’s obviously going to take some more digging to identify the religious breakdowns as depicted on the headstones than a simple search. If anyone gets there before me, please share your findings.

* I don’t usually listen to recordings but this one by Ben Okri caught my eye and supports exactly what I feel about ‘colonising’ and ‘decolonising’. A legace of the British Empire is the British Commonwealth of Nations – something else Okri addresses and appropriate to be included here.

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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.

 

 

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.

Social hierarchy – prison guards WW1 Africa

Attending the book launch of Mahon Murphy’s Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919, I ended up asking a nasty question. This wasn’t to catch Mahon out, as I didn’t think he would have the answer – rather it was a thought and realisation stimulated by the fascinating information he presented.

The question posed: ‘Was there a social hierarchy in the guards designated to look after the white prisoners and internees, particularly in East Africa?’

There are accounts of white prisoners and internees complaining about being guarded by ‘African’ soldiers. Generally this has been taken to mean ‘black’. However, we know that there were Indian guards – one was dealt with for cruelty – and based on Michelle Moyd’s work published in Violent Intermediaries, we know Arabs were preferred to black Africans for certain roles.  In addition, there was a social hierarchy which still persists today in some sectors and was evident during the years of Apartheid in particular.

With all of this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a social hierarchy of who guarded whom and where. Did officers determine who was to accompany prisoners to a camp based on the ethnicity of the prisoner and the guard? Was there a concerted effort to use Indian guards to look over white women in particular as this would be ‘more acceptable’ than a black African or did an officer determine that it would be more of an insult to a white prisoner/internee to have a black guard? Were Arab Africans used as guards?

A telling factor in all this, is that von Lettow-Vorbeck was concerned about the impact it would have if his Askari saw the white officers surrender their weapons when they came to Abercorn and then to leave East Africa in February 1919. Despite all his claims of equality, there was a social difference.

Reflecting on the above, it was mostly the Germans who used guards of different ethnicities – not surprising due to the manpower shortage they had in East Africa. This leads to the question, did the South African, British and Indian Commanders of the Allied side use guards of different ethnicities? And what about the Belgian and Portuguese? Given Spicer Simson’s comments about the prisoners he took on Lake Tanganyika not wanting to go to the Belgians suggests that local black Force Publique soldiers were used.

Colour or ethnicity and social class were intertwined in Africa during 1914-18, still is today to a large extent. Posing the question about who comprised the guards and over whom they were prisoner is for me, more a question of social status and how that impacted on relations during the war.

Comments and thoughts are welcomed as I’m not sure we have, in the Imperial archives, enough information to answer the question. Memoirs, diaries and the African National and provincial archives might well hold a clue.