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.