Another special remembrance

I attended a remembrance service with a difference on Monday 10 February 2020. It was to mark the 75th anniversary of the day a V2 bomb hit the central office of the then Presbyterian Church of England killing 10 people. Today it is the central office of the United Reformed Church (and between 1868 and 1970 the lodging of cross-dressers according to the blue plaque outside). I can just see those of you who know my blogs going – no Africa, no WW1… and yes, to a large extent you’re right. However, one of the men who died in the blast had served as a Church of England chaplain during the First World War. Africa featured through some of those attending.

What made this remembrance service special was its inclusiveness in a way others I had attended had not been. Others had been nationally, give or take, inclusive but this one was religiously inclusive, for all its being overtly a Christian service. Accompanying the service was an exhibition which had been put together of the area and the aftermath of the bomb’s visitation alongside short biographies on each of the people who lost their lives – men and women, clergy and other, from the receptionist, to the bookseller, the visitor and general secretary. All were regarded as equal, during the service their contribution to the work of supporting others read out in alphabetical order by those who fill similar roles today – crossing ethnic and gender lines. And all of this had been lovingly and carefully put together by the archivist – a sister of the Muslim faith. The main challenge in putting the exhibition together was that the building then belonged to the Presbyterian Church so no material was available in the current archive, and being sensitive to conditions of GDPR in a way those of us dealing with World War 1 don’t. Material had to be sourced elsewhere, including from Cambridge.

Together archivist and historian stood while the past was remembered – poignant for those who work in the building realising that one minute you’re all getting on with the day’s business and busyness, the next, ten of your friends and colleagues are no more, you’re a survivor along with 100 others in the area who were injured. Not content with only remembering the past, thoughts turned to those who suffer similar experiences today across the world.

I was the outsider in so many ways, but what a feeling of togetherness…and to think, I nearly didn’t attend.

 

REVIEW: Distinguished Conduct – Melvin E Page

Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi by Mel Page is not quite what one would expect from someone like Mel, but it works.

Thankfully Mel explains at the outset that this is not an historical narrative, so those who don’t appreciate the value of footnotes will be pleased. For those of us trying to get a better grip of the events in Africa at the time, this is frustrating, but then as Mel explained, he has not written a history book per se but a novel.

However, this is a novel with a difference. The lead character, Malawian Juma Chimwera was real and the information concerning his military service is based on fact, as are some of the other characters. Chimwera’s experiences, though, are conjectured, as is the role of a white officer who provides the linking thread through the book. So, where does this leave the history scholar?

Effectively, Mel has used his extensive research and knowledge of the King’s African Rifles and Malawi, for most of the novel Nyasaland, to provide a context for Chimwera’s life as a soldier, looking at why he enlisted and his experiences from before the First World War through to Malawian Independence. There are many white missionary and other settler accounts of this period, but few on local black experiences and this is what Mel has tried to encapsulate and in my opinion, succeeds.

Having the advantage of knowing Mel’s academic work, broadly knowing the wider history and at the time of reading Distinguished Conduct literally wading through the whole Colonial Office collection of KAR correspondence, War Diaries and other accounts, I could see how the book was grounded historically.  Yes, literary licence has been taken but one could argue that has been necessary to provide an overview and the feel for the Yao community which has not been known for its written literary record. Mel is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Giles Foden took a similar approach with Mimi and Toutou go forth, and I have recently become aware of a South African publication of the life of 688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse DCM of the Cape Corps – They said we could not do it – written by his great grandson M Adeel Carelse. As Adeel explained, there was insufficient information to write an historical book, but also that wouldn’t ‘bring the characters decorated for valour to life’. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Adeel’s book but I have read Mimi and Toutou by Foden which as an historical account is sadly lacking and which was one of the main reasons for the GWAA embarking on the mammoth project which culminated in The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology being published (vol 2 due out later in 2020). I do not foresee a similar project having to be undertaken to set the record straight concerning Distinguished Conduct. While recording the life of one man, Mel has remained an objective historian and it’s that which makes this very readable novel a valuable contribution to the novels and history of the First World War in Africa. My only concern is that it gets used as evidence/footnote material for the wrong reasons. So, I nearly end this review with a plea to anyone wanting to use it as reference material, by all means do, but let us know the reason you’re using it and if for historical accuracy, please find further supporting documentation.

Thank you Mel for sharing the life of this little-but-well-known Askari. If only your editors had shown as much care in proofreading the book – there was one too many typographical gremlins for my liking and the non-justification layout of the text took a little while to get used to.

Lasts matter too

I was asked about this a little while ago in the context of Africa and WW1 and wrote about it in October 2018. In short, firsts allow the context of a situation to be set, they provide a point on the timeline that other events can be related to, but there is also the chance that the first is not the real first and in confirming what happened and when it did, other potentially valuable insights can come to light.

Similarly, lasts do the same. Specialists on the Western Front will be able, no doubt, to give the time of the last shot fired whether it was by rifle, machine gun, heavier artillery, unit and the last soldier killed will be known (Private George Ellison of the 5th Irish Lancers and George Price of the 28th Battalion Canadian Infantry). Answers will be dependent on the searcher’s context, eg American. And if you’re looking at Africa, each of the lasts meant something different depending on the area under discusion, with the final shots of the war fired on 13 November 1918 and the laying down of arms/surrender on 25 November 1918 in Abercorn.

As with the discussion on firsts, exploring lasts opens up the conflict in its diversity. It also necessitates clarification of terminology as fighting or rather civil war continued in Russia which withdrew from the Great War in 1917. Similarly, territories in Eastern Europe continued to experience conflict as different groups fought for their rights and independence. The lasts merge into something else.

Lasts, as with firsts, can give rise to myths, and ‘lessons’ – what is the significance between the first and last British soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict being buried 3 miles apart? In Africa, 1/4 King’s African Rifles from Uganda and the Northern Rhodesian Police, both involved from the outbreak of war, accepted the German arms in Zambia in November 1918 – what is not known (yet) is how many who started in 1914 were still there in 1918.

And then we have the veterans – as far as is known, there are no more veterans alive from the 1914-1918 war. There might still be a few alive who were born around the time but none who served. As the list grew smaller, historians and others became more aware of lost opportunities to find out first hand. (Last widow, Scottish) By all accounts this realisation has spurred families and researchers to capture accounts of minority groups who participated in World War 2 before they are lost forever. We might yet get a more comprehensive account of Africa’s involvement in WW2 Burma and other theatres than we so far have with WW1, as a result – I certainly hope so.

We’re yet to identify the last names in Africa – and probably never will. However, consideration of the task to do so allows other questions to be asked:

  • where is the line drawn? Where do those who died from influenza fit into the equation?
  • did the person still need to be enlisted to be counted as a war statistic?
  • where are the records? In the home country languishing in some basement? hidden amongst other papers in the old imperial archives?
  • how are those whose home front became a battle front fit accounted for?
  • was there a major sense of relief, sense of celebration linked with any of the cease fires in Africa or did life ‘go on’?

What is significant looking at diaries of the last days of those who served in East Africa, whether personal or official, is the lack of mention of the end of the war either on 11 November or the weeks after. Those who have tended to mention the date were directly impacted by the news such as officials managing the armistice and peace discussions, involved in the final fighting or some administrative/logistic role. This lack of mention prompts questions over how men got to learn of the end of the war and what it meant for them stuck out in the bush. The Commander in Chief, van Deventer was keen to get men home as quickly as possible, and later Jan Smuts and Louis Botha were putting pressure on Britain to get South Africans home fast – why?

And as a final consideration, lasts give an end, in the same way firsts give a start, in other words: periodisation…which in itself is useful and constraining, but that’s for another day.

 

 

Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.

 

Remembrance and Commemoration: a never-ending cycle

I’ve missed a few commemoration and remembrance occasions recently for various reasons and as usual, it’s provided an opportunity for reflection.

Recent commemorations as I write have included Gallipoli, Tanzania’s national day and South Africa’s Freedom Day. (April). Somewhere along the line, in May, VE Day and Dunkirk featured and whilst I was in Africa at the start of the year there was Mendi Day. The SA Military History Journal for Dec 2014 (read in late April) was full of commemorations linked to WW1: Sandfontein, Square Hill, the 1914 Rebellion at Zandfontein, and the annual 11 November parade. They also had an article on a series of films being shown at Ditsong Military Museum as part of an ongoing commemoration programme. A War and Peace Concert took place in August.

A military journal in itself suggests commemoration although I’ve focused mainly on WW1. In addition there was an article on the Anglo-Boer (AB) War, specifically looking at the work of the SA CWGC. No mention of the WW1 cemeteries at Maitland and elsewhere. This is not surprising as the AB War probably resonates more strongly amongst South Africans than World War 1. Again, not surprising as the AB War was fought on SA territory and impacted on more of the population than did WW1.

This general lack of knowledge or awareness of WW1 and SA’s involvement was brought home on 21 February when I heard a newsreader announce that in future 21 February was to be National Troops’ Day. I stopped. How did they get to that? 21 February is Mendi Day, the day the SANLC lost over 600 labourers: not troops! Before sharing my horror with the world about myth generation, I thought it best to investigate a bit. Low and behold, officially the day is National Forces Day (whew! all inclusive and appropriate) and 2015 wasn’t the inaugral day but 2012. The challenge now will be to ensure that all the forces (WW1 and other) are recognised – from labourer to soldier to medical and support services. They all played a significant role in furthering the aims they believed they were fighting for and should be remembered for their contribution to creating the country we know today. For reasons of unification and reconciliation, Mendi Day is well-chosen but it will depend on the dominant voices and how they ‘use’ the day that will determine whether it perpetuates the myths or encourages honest investigation and recognition of how all the sectors of the armed forces worked together to succeed as they did.

And the reference to VE Day, I discovered is the release of a film showing HM The Queen celebrating the news in Piccadilly Circus as one of the people. Soon after and long past by the time you get to read this, was the commemoration of VE Day by the South African Legion, whose newsletter also contained coverage of the WW1 battle of Trekkopje amongst other bits of interest.