Medical discoveries

My most recent trip to South Africa was significantly focused on medical things. Having fallen ill on arrival followed by three days in bed, I eventually visited a doctor as I was due to record an interview on the Versailles talks and SA with Classic FM with no voice. The day of the doctor visit, a colleague had commented that I was no longer sounding like a frog but rather like a bullfrog. Miraculously, having seen the doctor at 4.35pm on Wednesday, I was able to speak, and feel human, by 12.30pm the following day when the recording was scheduled.

Getting into the SANDF archive in its new location in Irene and delving into things medical made me wonder how the chaps out in the bush during WW1 suffering from malaria and pneumonia managed to get themselves to medical support as they did. How medical treatments have developed in so many ways(!), yet remain the same in others. A trip through a game park in Limpopo Province highlighted the use of the Buffalo Thorn for medicinal purposes and cleaning teeth.

On the last day of my last trip to the ‘old’ SANDF Doc Centre, we (myself and an archive colleague) discovered some medical files which apeared untouched since being filed in the 1970s. This trip we worked out how they linked together. I was able to discover some useful material on General Sir Jaap van Deventer for my talk (more in due course) and a young academic can develop some case studies for his MA dissertation on the Cape Corps as a result. This will also help provide supporting evidence and documentation for the GWAA Medical project which is focusing on the Pike Reports (context and composition added since last related post).

For those interested, the type of information contained on the Medical Cards can be seen here. Two records have additional information from the medical reports as an initial example of how the medical boards related for one person. A sample of information contained on the Death Registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) recruited in South Africa promises further insights into those who supported the fighting forces. These records as well as the Catalogue listings will continue to be updated as time permits.

Oh for a doctor!

The topic of medicine in the First World War seems to be very popular in 2017, and it just happens to be a theme GWAA is focusing on too, although when a few of us started looking at it, there wasn’t so much happening generally – one of those interesting coincidences.

Something which struck me when reading Gregg Adams’ King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey 1916) was the role of fire and its impact on fighting. He quotes Mzee Ali (Bror McDonnel) in this regard which surprisingly passed me by when I read the book – I was focusing on other themes at the time. What is striking about the role of fire and the description given is that I don’t recall having read about doctors treating burns, or burns being listed on the catalogue of reasons men were evacuated by hospital ship to South Africa between 1916 and 1917 listed in the Appendices to the Pike Report (WO 141/31).

In On Call in Africa (NP Jewell), we read of an ammunition store catching fire but not the bush fires. There is also reference in some sources to Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck using scorched earth policy as a military tactic but this implies controlled fire and the devastating effect of this in terms of famine and starvation is recorded. But, the fires caused by weapons firing and sudden sparks turning into flames is not a feature in memoirs and diaries. Snakes get more of a mention, as do attacks by bees.

Were many lives lost to these fires? If so, ow were they recorded and where? How did doctors deal with them especially when water was scarce? (Jewell mentions sterilizing hands with iodine as there was no water available). What was the impact of the hot African sun on the untreated burn injuries? (Pike notes that sunstroke/burn was not a major issue for the medical services). Why is there little record of burns in the medical records? I’m not sure we’ll get answers to many of these questions, but as noted by Adams, this was a significant difference of fighting in certain parts of Africa compared with the Western Front.

You can see the transcription of the Pike Report and other relevant medical links on the GWAA Medical Archive.

Review: Gregg Adams: KAR Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18

My first thought on staring to read Gregg Adam’s King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey, 2016) was ‘Oh my! What am I going to be able to say about this military history?’ I felt out of my depth getting into this book which takes a very (in my opinion) military look at the differences between the KAR and Schutztruppe during the years 1916 to 1918. Gregg has done well. Although I found my eyes glazing over at numbers and calibres of weapons, etc, the value of this little book (less than 80 pages of text) became apparent to the student of war.

Readers and those who know me, must be tired by now of my statement that Lettow-Vorbeck was not all he is made out to be – he was a commander with flaws, and these need to be fully reviewed amongst English-speaking historians – using more than just Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs to make an objective assessment. Gregg has just about got there. At the start of the book he comments on Lettow-Vorbeck’s status, but by the end of the book, the flaws and quirks of the man’s military strategies and tactics are apparent – if only Gregg had emphasised these more. Smuts is regularly criticised for his love of the encircling movement. Gregg’s commentary suggests that a similar criticism could be levelled against Lettow-Vorbeck for his selection of ‘battle’ grounds.

The main focus of the book though, is the difference between the fighting forces and here, Gregg achieves a good balance. Taking three major encounters between the two sides, he explains how the encounter started, developed and ended, compares the forces facing each other and gives a timeline of the encounter.

I struggle with book layouts of this kind – blocks of text interspersed in the narrative and long descriptions with photos. However, I can’t think of a better way of presenting such information and it’s great for dipping in to; just not for those of us who prefer reading narratives without interruption. In fact, one of the benefits of how this material is laid out and the repetition of certain points is that the military implications are made more accessible for those of us without that first hand experience.

For readers familiar with Harry Fecitt’s Kaisercross/Soldiers’ Burden articles, this publication is complimentary. Harry looks at specific encounters from the perspective of the British Army, explaining them in detail and acknowledging the contributions of individual soldiers within the group. There is nothing that I picked up contradictory and in fact, the snippets of military info Harry gave this student of war to help her along, was only reconfirmed in this book. Gregg brings in the German side and explains how/why the encounter progressed as it did – broadly speaking.

I was also interested to read about Gifford’s role in World War 2 – it fits perfectly with the War Office assessment of the contribution of black soldiers undertaken by the War Office in 1937. Thank you Gregg for filling in another piece of the jigsaw.

With more military studies such as this, including the Belgian and Portuguese contributions for East Africa and doing the same for West Africa, and even Egypt – the ground for social, cultural and other histories will be well and truly set, let alone a whole stack of myths being dispelled.

They don’t know…

How often do we hear these words? I heard them often as a teacher educator and admit that once upon a time, I used them myself about my students. That is until a colleague challenged me about ’empty vessels’ and discouting the life experiences students brought to the classroom. This was revolutionary and freeing.It’s also empowering – not least for a recent visit to a school in Kent to introduce them to the First World War in Africa. The group was Year 8 (12-13 year olds) who had not started learning about World War 1 at school. Teachers were understandably a bit concerned as the only time they had heard me speak was when I presented a more formal academic paper on the Feet of Endurance. After reminders about the students not knowing anything about the war and the introduction of Western Front memorials into the slides I’d sent across, I wasn’t sure what I’d be facing.

A few challenging questions such as ‘How many languages do people speak at the school?’ and ‘Am I African?’ soon broke the ice and when asked what came to mind when they heard the words ‘World War 1’, I got sufficient answers to lead into the story of Africa’s involvement. One young man ventured Adolf Hitler as a response. What an opportunity for lateral thinking. Thank goodness my school history teacher had taught us (she always gave us ‘3 useless facts per lesson) that Hitler had been a runner during WW1. On the spur of the moment, I decided to ask students to think about their weight – not to tell me, that’s far too personal, but to think of what they weighed. Then to imagine carrying 30 pounds or 20kgs (1/2 – 1/3) of themselves across the African field. Puts the carrier role into a slightly different light.
During the talk, another young chap (interestingly only the boys asked questions in the large setting) asked about the involvement of women. Being able to describe the size of a white settler farm in terms of football fields (38,000) really grabbed their attention. I’d only discovered that little snippet when preparing for the paper I presented at the National Army Museum on the role of women during WW1.

The questions that followed in the smaller class settings were just as insightful and thought-provoking. Two students wanted to know what kept me inspired to study the topic. Wow, what an opportunity to influence young people. Quite simply, my answer was, the humanity of man. Seeing how people worked together – people of all races, colours, creeds, beliefs and gender coming together to survive. There were a few gasps in one class where I told them I was a pacifist. Yes, I study war and had been answering questions about guns and ammunition and all sorts of military things that generally tend to interest boys. How can we work to avoid war, if we don’t know what causes it? War is a fact of life and it requires people to carry it out. It’s not my role to judge and many of my good friends and colleagues are in military fields, I respect that, knowing that the work they undertake is valuable and that unfortuantely somebody’s got to do it. They are striving to make the world a better place too, and sometimes someone has to stand up to that bully in the only way the bully knows.

Another wonderful question from these young people who ‘don’t know’ was whether Africa should have got caught up in the war. Another myth could be debunked. Telling students they would soon be learning about Kitchener not getting enough weapons to the front and that he would suffer a bad reputation because of this and other things, I had only good things to say about him when it came to the war in Africa. K wanted to keep Africa out of the war as he knew what it would entail. However, his colleagues in the War Office and the politicians led by Lloyd George counter-acted him, as did war plans and individual personal vendettas. This ‘easy’ question was then followed by ‘so, what do you think Africa would be like today if it hadn’t got involved?’ How does one answer that? I chickened out by saying it was a difficult question, the borders in Africa would be different, possibly wouldn’t have had Burundi and Rwanda and genocide in the latter but who knows. I left him with the thought that he could answer this question himself in future by studying history and exploring the field of Virtual/What if History.

I left feeling rather upbeat. There is hope for the generations coming through despite, in my opinion, the education systems which in numerous countries are working against educating the masses to be involved, critical players in determining their futures.

A little more disconcerting though, were the challenges posed by a colleague historian who had joined us for the day. She insisted on emphasising racism: all officers were white and the rank and file black. The first black officer trained in the British Army happening in 1942 (I haven’t confirmed). Colonialism was bad, Africa is poor and the slave trade was the cause of all ills. I purposefully mention she is white as I know a number of my readers would automatically assume she was black. She too, like me, is a foreigner in Britain. Her comments and challenges resonated with an email which another friend then forwarded to a number of us. This contained an article entitled The reality of the SA situation by Daniel Lotter. I’m not linking or copying the article here as I don’t believe in perpetuating myths of the nature Daniel is stating as historical fact.

The challenges in the classroom were relatively easy to deal with, pointing out that racism did exist and that hierarchies and bureaucracies meant that some people couldn’t achieve rank, it didn’t mean that there was racism all through. One of the things I love about the East African campaign is that there was no victor. Everyone lost out – mother nature remained dominant. What a levelling ground. All involved had much in common: the story of survival and the need for others to help them through. No-one could do it alone.White officers recognised they needed their black rank and file and co-depended on each other, individuals taking the lead when their skills would be best utilised. FC Selous the famous hunter and inspiration for the Selous Scouts wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to survive without his gunbearer who saved his life on many an occasion. Alas, Ramazani was no match for the sniper hiding in the Beho-Beho bush in January 1917. (Wits archive)
Another colleague, a black woman who had arranged for me to be at the school, challenged the idea of Africa being poor. If Africa was poor, why was there all the fighting and corruption today? People wanted what Africa has. She grew up in Lagos and had never seen a well until she moved to England.

Returning to the article by Daniel Lotter, it came with a sub-line, presumably written by the person who started its circulation ‘Presumably all facts are correct??’ As with my colleague historian, yes, the facts as stated were correct, but they were selected and not the full picture.

My response to the email chain was:

I haven’t got time to write a full response to what he’s said but people are very selective when they put an argument together to suit their case. There is evidence of black development and intelligence from before whites arrived in SA. Much was hidden away by the Apartheid government to ‘prove’ the superiority of the white man over the black etc.
Whatever happened in the past is the past. It’s time for attitudes like Daniel’s to be put far away and for people of all colours to recognise that by working together and respecting each other we can move forward and build a better world than the one we leave behind.
Constantly blaming people for things that happened in the past is not helpful at all.
It’s important to understand the past and it is incredibly complex – far more than set out below. For every statement Daniel makes I can add at least another 2 or 3 perspectives. But more important is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and build something beautiful. This might be idealistic but I do believe it can be done and am seeing attitudes change amongst people of all colours when I emphasise this and break the myths of World War 1 in Africa.

I fell into studying history, it was a dream and I’ve been lucky enough to follow my dream as it’s taken me. Not being in an academic institution and funding my own research means I retain freedom of research interest. I’ve only ever made three specific decisions about history. One was to become an historian rather than follow my career path back in 1994 and become an Organisation Development Consultant. The second was not to get funding for my research (sociology does have its benefits) and the third was back in November 2011 when I decided to take on the co-ordination of the Great War in Africa Association. It meant that would become my focus rather than British and South African relations post 1910.

So, why study history? Although aspects had become apparent in the years before, my purpose has only become clear in the past year or so. Being an historian carries a great responsiblity: to tell the story as fully as one can without judgement, recognising that there’s truth in everyone’s version of the same event and experience. Reconciling these versions is the task of the historian, probing and challenging where needed. We’re all ignorant of the other’s view – until we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we won’t know why they acted the way they did which led to our reacting the way we did.

My role as an historian, therefore,

is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and

as a citizen of the world, work to

build something beautiful

And in response to Daniel Lotter (and those against others settling in ‘foreign’ lands), I can’t help but think of a story I read recently attributed to Jesus by a Mohammedan scholar: Passing through a field, Jesus was asked to reprimand his disciples from eating the owner’s wheat. Rather than do so, Jesus responded by calling to life all the previous owners of the field. Who, he asked, is the real owner? We all are custodians of the land we are placed in.

 

Scottish links

There are strong links between South Africa and the Scottish. The town I grew up, Boksburg, in had one of the first Presbyterian churches in the then Transvaal. The Presbyterian church started in Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1800s following a request by the Black Watch who were on a tour of duty in South Africa for religious services of their own.

However, more well-known are the Transvaal Scottish, the military regiment which came into being after the Anglo-Boer War. Many Scots served in the war, mostly on the side of the British Empire. (The Irish were better known for serving on both sides – the leader of the Boksburg Boer Tarantale or ‘Guineafowl’ Commando  was allegdly an Irishman – Gravatt, a man commemorated in the local Klip Kerk or ‘Stone Church’ as the Dutch Reformed Church is affectionately called.) During World War 1, the Transvaal Scottish served on the Western Front participating in the battles of Delville Wood. A local family, the McKinlays, lost three of their four sons in Europe and Mom McKinlay was one of the two Transvaal civilian representatives at the opening of the Delville Wood memorial in 1926. Having worked on the family’s history for the grandson of the only surviving brother who had not been allowed by the army to enlist, the grandson, Scotty, died in March 2017. At least he’d discovered what his uncles had done and there’s more of a story behind the stained glass rose-window in St John’s Presbyterian Church, Boksburg – a building which itself is 100 years old in 2017.

In addition to the many Scottish miners who settled in South Africa, another notable group was the missionary contingent. Missionaries from both the Church of Scotland Missionary Society (CMS) and Presbyterians travelled to South Africa to do their bit. The most famous missionary to Africa is probably David Livingstone. Livingstone’s wife was of missionary extraction – Robert Moffat who settled in Kuruman. My husband’s family owes its origins to William Samson who took up a posting initially in Ghana in 1916 and then a few years later in Southern Rhodesia with the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. The family originated from Ayreshire and according to folklore had a connetion with the famous Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, who wrote an ode to a Samson – Tam O’Samson (rather uncomplimentary – suggesting good friendship perhaps?)

One of my earliest social memories growing up is of my parents going off to Burns’ Night suppers and dances with the local Masonic Lodge. Auld Lang Syne was (and remains) another regular Scottish link, sung every New Year’s Eve and unlike other British accents, I was most accustomed to the various Scottish dialects thanks to those who attended the local Presbyterian church.

An affinity for things Scottish remains due to these early childhood experiences, so it’s no surprise that things Scottish have a magnetic attraction today. On my way to the British Library in April 2017, taking a slightly different route to my norm, I stumbled across an exhibition in The Crypt Gallery of St Pancras Church. The church has been undergoing refurbishment for as long as I can remember so seeing an opportunit to explore below ground, I jumped at the opportunity. A Sense of Scotland, oil paintings by Davy Macdonald took me back to South Africa – Houtbay in particular – with scenes of fishermen and women fixing nets and preparing fish caught for sale. What was striking about this exhibition was the prominent role women seemed to play, unlike in Africa where this is most definitely a man’s job – one I’m happy to leave to them given the stench of the open fish-drying places we encountered in Ghana.

And an exhibition I didn’t get to see in person because time didn’t allow, but which, thankfully, is online too, is The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry. An amazing compilation of needlework from around the globe showing just how widely the Scots travelled (and settled). One day I might get to see it in all its glory.

My Scottish links continue – apart from working on the history of the Presbyterian church in South Africa from inception through to the late 1990s, I am regularly asked which clan’s tartan I’m wearing – my answer: Masaai

Transvaalitis – how do we overcome?

You’d be forgiven thinking this was a new disease – medical disease that is. Trying to find some clear background to the term has proven quite a challenge – Yahoo doesn’t want to know it (really) and Google gives a few book references. As soon as you add ‘origin’ or ‘meaning’ to your search you get results such as ‘Transvaal. It is…’ – not very helpful for someone like me trying to find an author who has tried to engage with the term and not just repeat what everyone else has said before.

I came across the term reading Richard Holmes’ chapter ‘The last hurrah: cavalry on the Western Front, August-September 1914’ in Facing Armageddon The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddel (1996, 2003) p281 – this book had been recommended by Jennie Upton some time back and it’s taken me about three years to get to where I have: it’s not a book to take on the tube or in handluggage due to its length (900 pages) so has to wait for opportune moments to be read at home. Having said that, it’s a worthwhile read (most of it so far) as it opens up insights into aspects of the war few have considered before. For a non-Western Front student like myself, this is rather refreshing. There’s not a great amount on the African campaigns, but it’s definitely worth seeing how other small groups and minorities compare. It’s a great attempt at breaking the myths.

Back to Transvaalitis. It’s best to quote from p281 after some context. Holmes is talking about infantry assaults on ‘others in a position which favoured defence’ looking back to what was learned from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870s.

‘From the 1880s till the outbreak of war infantry theorists grappled with this problem. Many concluded that the answer was to weld men together just as tightly as in the past, throwing them into battle shoulder to shoulder to the sound of drum and bugle. This would result in appaling losses in the short term – but it would at least produce a decision, not sterile butchery. And it would avoid what one caustic French officer described a ‘acute Transvaalitis‘ – paralysis by fire.

Even the British army, which had, after all, studied the epidemology of Transvaalitis at some collective cost, concluded in Infantry Training 1914 that ‘The object of infantry in the attack is … to get to close quarters as quickly as possible.’ Once there, the commander on the spot was to judge when superiority of fire had been achieved and then order the assault. And now, believe it or not, I quote.

‘The commander who decides to order the assault will order the charge to be sounded, the cal will at once be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the assault the men will cheer, bugles will be sounded, and pipes played.’

This looks to me no different in principle to the infantry tactics in vogue when the line was red rather than khaki.

The reference given for Transvaalitis is ‘General Langlois, founder of the Revue militaire generale, quoted in Joseph C Arnold ‘French tactical Doctrine 1870-1914’, Military Affairs vol 42 no 2 (April 1978).

I assume one will have to get into Langlois’ writings in French to see what and why he came up with the term as Holmes and a few other authors who have used the term don’t go much further than noting ‘paralysis’ or an ‘abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield‘.

The Australian Light Horse Study Centre website has the following:

Theorists and practitioners were unsure whether firepower favoured attack or defence. The Polish banker, Jan Bloch, author of the perceptive Future War, declared that it simply ruled out frontal attack, and British experience in South Africa seemed to prove that Bloch was right: both British and French infantry regulations were modified to reflect the reality of the fire-swept battlefield. But it was not that simple. The weight of military opinion believed that wars were won by offensive action, and it followed that an army which allowed itself to be paralysed by firepower –‘acute transvaalitis‘ – could not expect to win. Moreover, as Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq had acutely observed even before the Franco-Prussian War, on the new battlefield `cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation’. What would happen if these loose, flexible formations met the enemy’s fire? Officers would be unable to lead effectively, and soldiers’ courage would not be buttressed by the close physical proximity of comrades. Men – short-term conscripts, most of them – would go to ground and not get up again; impulsion would be gone and stalemate would result.

Simon Anglim in his KCL Dept of War Studies seminar notes, has

Howard: Commanders were unquestionably obtuse about the lessons of the wars of 1861-1905. The French had abandoned mass assaults in the 1870s, but then, under what he sees as the malign influence of du Picq, in 1894 returned to “elbow to elbow” assaults accompanied by bugles and drums. Foch, in a lecture of 1900, advocated the use of the bayonet to achieve victory, rooted in a faith in aggression, elan vital, Furia Frachese, etc. Yet, in 1904, they returned to the use of loose skirmish lines, against the wishes of certain generals, who spoke of Transvaalitis. The Russo-Japanese War was misread universally – true, the Japanese had carried Russian positions with the bayonet, but only through suffering horrendous casualties. Yet, the bayonet, and morale, were the lessons drawn; the German du Picq was Bernhardi, who saw the new tactics as a sign of national spiritual weakness. Joffre, the French chief of staff from 1911, oversaw the publication of a new set of regulations for handling large formations in1911, which emphasised the offensive. In England, Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of war as a clash of wills in which attack was the best form of defence, while FN Maude claimed that casualty conservation might weaken an army’s resolve. By comparison, Haig emerges as not so much “stupid” as a coldly ruthless pragmatist, occasionally prone to over confidence (qv. his views onthe Royal Artillery)

I assume (not a wise thing to do, but needs must) therefore that Tranvaalitis was a term derived from the British response to the Boer defence (a rather strong term some might think) of the Zuid Afrikanse Republiek (ZAR) or Paul Kruger’s Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War on 1899-1902. Did this arise from Tommy’s reluctance to move forward unsure of where Boer snipers were hiding? The Boers had a reputation for being crack shots – whether this reputation was well-grounded in fact or not, the point is their reputation was enough to stop a larger force in its tracks. Overcoming the fear instilled by this reputation would have been challenging for any commander until there was a complete rethink and break in traditional approaches to the fight: the blockade and concentration camp system that was then introduced by Lords Roberts and Kitchener.

Interestingly, these lessons do not appear to have been learnt by the high commands in exploring options for future wars. Men fell back on what they were comfortable with and what they’d been taught. Those who tried to break the mould were sidelined and ostracised. As in many cases, the victor wrote the history and men like Haig and Kitchener who did try to do things differently whilst keeping their men alive, were maligned and labelled along wiht the majority. Perhaps Smuts’ encircling movements in East Africa was part of his attempt to avoid Transvaalitis…

Today, we still struggle to think outside the box and find innovative, non-violent solutions (where possible) to many problems. We all suffer from Trasvaalitis – paralysis of fire – in some way.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if Langlois came up with the term after seeing this little fellow: the Transvaal fat-tailed scorpion aka parabuthus transvaalicus. It would definitely stop me in my tracks, and that’s without knowing about its firepower.

The SS Mendi shroud – 21 Feb 2017

Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 2017 is an opportunity to remember all those who served in a non-combatant role, especially men of colour from Southern Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

As awful as what the loss of lives on the Mendi was, for the families of the 135 of 700 men who died on the Aragon returning to South Africa from East Africa (also in 1917), the sense of loss was no less. A reviewer of an article I’d written once asked how could I equate the loss of lives on the Aragon with those lost on the Mendi. The loss of any life is significant and devastating for the family and the impact at home on recruitment was noticeable.

What does the Mendi signify?

Today, a political statement. But I want to move away from that. I want to think about the few men – black, white and coloured – who survived the Mendi’s sinking. What did they go back to? Much is made of the medals the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) never received. The story behind that decision is comples and still needs to be fully told.

A medal means nothing if you’re forgotten and ignored. A medal doesn’t put food on the table or et you a job if you’re too depressed and guilt-ridden for surviving. Similarly, those who were physically maimed, suffering from fever, malaria and other debilitating illnesses as well as having lost a limb – of all backgrounds – were unable to get work unless someone took pity on them. These men and their families paid a different price to those who lost their lives – their suffering lasted a lifetime.

How must the men of the Mendi felt every time the songs of protest evoking the words of Wauchope were sung? Bringing back memories of those awful moments of freezing cold and wet, not knowing which breath was going to be your last.

And then, there were those 19,500 men of the SANLC who did see service in Europe, some of whom chose to serve in East Africa too after having been in South West Africa at the start of the war. Their contributions lost and disregarded except as a by-line or example of racial discort in South Africa at the time. Yes, some were commandeered or forced to serve, but many went willingly for adventure and to earn money.

The men made their mark – their quality of work, their upbeat spirit despite the hardships. Life was not easy for many reasons, not least the political and social positions they found themselves in. Pawns on a chessboard as many soldiers of all races and nationalities would testify.

Back home, life went on as usual – work was difficult to obtain, perhaps many were ostracised depending on the areas they lived and worked for having supported the King of England. We know there was little allegiance to the Union then.

The names of the men are known and recorded, despite popular belief. They have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten. As the white government of 1917 rose 100 years ago to honour the black men who lost their lives when the Mendi went down, let us today use the opportunity to also honour those 200 who survived and all of the SANLC and other support workers such as the Indian Bearer Corps, the Cape Boys, Chinese, West Indian, Seychelloise and Kroo Boys from Sierra Leone who all crossed the sea to help make the world a slightly nicer place for us to live.

Let us follow their example today and work together irrespective of race or creed to make our world a better one.

We will not forget. I will not forget – those who lost their lives but more so, those who survived and who lived out the rest of their days in obscurity; no doubt wondering if it had all been worth it.

We will remember!

This is the transcript of a video I did for Diversity House, Breaking the Myths.

Understandably the Mendi and any remembrance of World War 1 in South Africa evokes strong emotions, often underpinned by political views. This is not surprising given the history of the country – surely now is the time to put aside all these differences and acknowledge the humanity of man(kind) in all our conflicts. Perhaps if we did that, we’d go some way to building the better world our ancestors thought they were fighting for.

Tito Mboweni is the descendant of Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni who died on the Mendi. Our starting points differ, but we ask the same questions.

Jacques de Vries is the descendant of Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick who survived the sinking of the Mendi. One of my most moving moments was finding records in Kew relating to Fitzpatrick helping Jacques fill in the gaps.

BBC summary of the story of the SS Mendi.

There are still documents to be studied both in London and in South Africa which will no doubt change the context in which we understand the SANLC to have served, only time will tell how we react to these findings. Every memory matters.