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.

 

 

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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.

Black Days…

Black Friday kept popping up all over the place this past week causing me some confusion – it’s not too difficult at the best of times to confuse me, but I was trying to work out how Black Friday could be anticipated. That is until I finally gave up and ‘Googled’ it. As most of you probably know it’s a shopping day which happens in the USA after Thanksgiving (Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it).

I purposefully don’t follow the news these days as I find it too depressing, but have proven time and time again that if something is that newsworthy I will hear about it soon enough. But I couldn’t place Black Friday at all – my frame of reference being Black Week, 10-17 December 1899, during the Anglo-Boer War when the British suffered three major defeats in six weeks. Although I did try Black History Month, but that is October and is quite different to the majority of my associations with Black days as Black History Month commemorates and celebrates diversity of culture.

Returning to my main frame of reference, there are the numerous letters one comes across in the archives with black borders signifying that someone near has died. This got me doing a bit of digging – the origin of black-border letters seem to be a Victorian phenomenon. During World War 1, letters regularly passed between friends and government officials edged in black. Most notable I’ve come across is the correspondence between Lord Buxton (Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa) and his good friend Lord Grey (Foreign Secretary) to be found at the British Library.

During the inter-war years, Black Thursday and Black Tuesday became attached to 24 & 29 October 1929 respectively when the Wall Street Stock Exchange crashed. This was to impact on many economies around the world, not least South Africa which only started to recover once it left the Gold Standard in 1932. This event was also to lead to the National Party (JBM Hertzog) and South African Party (Jan Smuts) joining to become the United Party which led the Union until the outbreak of World War 2.

One of the earliest Black days was Black Monday – 8 February 1886 – when London unemployed took to the streets and rioted whilst one of the most recent was Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when Australian bush fires claimed the lives of 173 people. Between these dates, there’s Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when Britain suspended its membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

All in all, a Black day generally refers to a tragedy or significant negative event which had a national or wider impact. To call a shopping day Black therefore just doesn’t fit – no matter how much “I hate shopping, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it” as South Africa’s foremost acapella group, Not the Midnight Mass parodied Marie Penz back in the 1990s.

And for those of you who were wondering about other Black days, Black Sunday refers to a film, whilst Black Days is a song and Black Day is a Korean day, 14 April, for singles – an event similar to Valentine’s Day.

 

 

A Polish cemetery in Tanzania – Really! and the outbreak of World War 1

Whilst most people were commemorating the outbreak of World War 1 on Monday 4 August, I took a bit of a break as events in Africa kicked off on 6 August in Togoland and on 8 August in Dar es Salaam. All going well, I should be in Kenya for a special commemoration there on 15 August, the day the first soldier of the war was killed in East Africa. Ed Paice, though, fittingly published a piece on the Great War in East Africa in remembrance of the conflict which began 100 years ago yesterday.

I turnedto World War 2 and a Polish cemetery a friend told me about on my last visit to Tanzania. Your reaction might well be the same as mine was, especially when you realise, if you know Tanzania at all, where the cemetery is – in a little village just outside Arusha called Tengeru. Had the cemetery been on the coast, or possibly even in Moshi or Arusha, it would still have been surprising but made more sense.

Nevertheless, it is this village of Tengeru, about 24km outside of Arusha, where the Polish cemetery dating back to World War 2 can be found. The camp was formed by Polish refugees who were fleeing from Russian occupation of Poland on the one side and Hitler on the other. About 24,000 (18,000 according to Kresy-Siberia Foundation) found themselves in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania with the biggest settlement being at Tengeru. They were en route to the UK, US and other destinations. This spot at Tengeru was apparently chosen because of its climate – this may well be, but it is not the easiest place to get to and there were other white settlements around the slopes of Mount Meru [this is going to require some further investigation in the British archives in due course]. Despite the challenge of getting to the cemetery, it must be acknowledged that it is a beautiful setting.

After the war, about 1,000 refugees remained in East Africa with a number remaining in the Arusha area. They contributed to the local community building schools, an argicultural college, clinic and other facilities – all of which are still used in some form today with the agricultural college being their main legacy. There is one remaining refugee, aged 97, still living in Arusha and when it comes time for him to leave this earth, he will be laid to rest amongst his fellow Poles in a little corner of Africa.

The cemetery is striking in its similarity to the Commonwealth War Graves. Most of the head stones look the same and are lined in the same way. Frangipani trees, a common feature of the German African graves, provide shade. The garden is tended by Simon Joseph who has taken over the work from his father who tended the graves for 32 years. He is supported financially by the Polish Embassy and donations from the many visitors who come to see this little bit of Eastern Europe in the heart of Africa.

No matter what war one talks about, there are always those who are displaced, and it seems fitting, that on the day when most people are remembering the horrors the declaration of war started 100 years ago, we remember all those who were and have been displaced from their homes due to the national and other localised conflicts.