Why remember?

I was asked this question at the 2018 Unisa conference on the legacy of World War 1 in Southern Africa. Specifically, the question had to do with why remember World War 1 and in particular those involved.

At heart, this is really asking ‘why remember the past?’ Simply put, our past made us who we are today, it’s part of our identity.

World War 1 was, for me, a pivotal point in our global past. It influenced, and still does, much of what we do today even if we aren’t aware of it. By remembering the individuals, their actions and the greater war we instil a better understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

I recall once (early 2000s) when I was teaching A Level History and Sociology, one of my white British students asked what British traditions there were. She was feeling rather left out with fellow students participating in Ramadan, Diwali, having foods or clothes they particularly associated with culturally, yet all seemed very comfortable socially in our diverse community. The other students had amalgamated British traditions into their own to the extent that what was traditionally British, was not seen as British. Once this was understood, my young thoughtful student felt able to engage with the others on a more level or equal footing.

More recently, the issue of British identity has come to the fore more overtly: Union Jacks flying where for years only the odd light had been placed at Christmas. I’m try hard not to read the alternative message being given to the ‘foreign’ shop owners in front of whose shops these flags had been placed. Whichever way one reads the placing of the Union Jack (which incidentally replaced the St George’s flag which appeared the Friday of St George’s Day), Britain is marking its identity and giving a message to Britons that they belong, they are important, they have a heritage. With this, I have no objection. As a foreigner-citizen in the UK, I have long felt that Britain hasn’t looked after itself. Its focus has been external to the detriment of itself. How often I hear ‘you can’t look after others unless you look after yourself’, ‘If you’re not well, how can you expect to look after xxx’. The same goes for a country. Britain’s external focus has resulted in more homeless children than for many a year, a drop in life expectancy and and and…

There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled as Britain redefines itself and creates a new identity. Remembering what was achieved socially and culturally during World War 1 with the support of Africans and other minorities, can only help create a Britain (or any other country identity) which feels inclusive and is tolerant of all.  As we bid farewell to 2018, my wish for 2019 is that through our shared humanity which crosses boundaries and divides of all kinds – we break down the growing silo identities and return to a state where all are welcomed, supported and united, simply, in being nice to each other. (And yes, I am an idealist at heart.)


A Dove to Remember

This year I discarded the remembrance poppy in favour of a dove – evidence of my journey over the past 4 years. In preparation for 2014 I had a special choker made with 4 poppies to reflect the four quarters of the globe. However, the start of the centenary commemorations showed just how exclusive this symbol was (and remains) especially when it comes to the conflict in Africa.

Poppies are not an African flower. The symbol, at least as it was linked with the Tower of London display, ignored the mass of Africans who for various (legitimately thought at the time) reasons are not recorded on the CWGC database. Then we have the Africans who served for more than one imperial power including Britain. The ‘other’ is not included. And what about all those who did their bit unofficially? The contributions of the home fronts, those who felt their calling was to keep the economy going or to safeguard some of the population for the future? All suffered through the terrible years of war and after.

Something inclusive was needed in the same way that the two-minute silence is. Something that transcended race, religion, gender, culture, age and … Posing this challenge to a reforming/liberal chaplain, his immediate reply was ‘the dove – it covers all religions.’ An internet search later, I was convinced. All continents except Antarctica have a dove species and all the major religions (at least 6) accept the dove. Most significant though, was what it represented: peace, hope and forgiveness.

The dove became my remembrance symbol. The next challenge was to find a representative dove (the 3 Abrahamic faiths each have a tailored dove). A trip to a local art shop supplied the item. All was set. Except… what to place at the cenotaph? Something natural, eco friendly and sustainable that anyone could easily access and which had symbolic meaning. Religious practice again supplied the answer: stones. They protected the dead from being dug up, were used for cairns to mark special places and were of the earth.

Broaching the issue with a friend, I discovered stones from the beach in Cape Town are used at the Castle Mendi memorial. There couldn’t be any objections to my inclusive suggestion. And at a small private-ish remembrance service at the site where the Germans were informed of the armistice (opposite bank of the Chambeshi River to where the factory was), a group of 22 set stones to remember all those involved in the wars in and from Africa.

It seems fitting that at this time of the year, I share with you my dove and all it symbolises: peace, hope and forgiveness.

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.


War Diaries of the Base Commandant DSM – a little gem

Finishing off a book on the end of the war in East Africa, I thought I’d check some War Diaries. Per chance I came across the Bast Commandant for Dar es Salaam and it is a little treasure trove.

The diligent Base Commandant(s) have dutifully recorded the names of all who died under the command irrespective of position – with the result that we have some records of Chinese Labour still being in EA at the end of the war and the names of some of the German prisoners of war (all ranks). In addition to listing the person, the date and cause of death are recorded as well as initials where available and force number. This should prove a very useful source for indentifying names not on the Imperial lists (and when I get a chance I’ll transfer them to the Great War In Memory lists).

In addition to the death records, there are the embarkation notfications for shipping. This includes the names of officers travelling and numbers of other ranks. What stands out here is the diversity of ‘other ranks’ – including the number of women and children attached to units who are being transported between bases 22 women and children of the KAR were going from Dar-es-Salaam to the Detail Camp at Kilindini (Mombasa) on 31 December 1918. Animals, vehicles and equipment are all listed – quantity and destination.

And then there are church services listed for the forthcoming week – a range of venues and denominations are covered. As are significant general orders and various Courts Martial and enquiries including the verdict in many cases,

For the patient researcher who is prepared to strain their eyes with the poor quality print (it is clearly copy x of xx rather than the original here), there should be more than a few gems which come to light.

Ref: The National Archives, Kew: WO 95/5359 parts 4 and 5
The book commemorating the end of the war is called Zambia: the end of the war, 25 November 1918 – 25 November 2018 (GWAA, 2018)


On the surrender of the German forces in East Africa

It seems fitting that while large numbers of people are remembering the end of the war in Europe, to stop and look at Africa where fighting continued to 13 November and arms finally laid down on 25 November. To mark the events in Mbala (Abercorn in Zambia) in November 1918, the GWAA has published a book containing German and English diary accounts of the last days from 11 November to 31 December 1918. What is does not contain are extracts from newspapers.  By all accounts, little was reported. Below are reports from two newspapers in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Noticeably lacking is detail on Africa but as one of the papers noted, there had been a block on reporting events in Africa. Unfortunately copies of the Nyasaland Times for November 1918 were not available in the same collection. It would have been interesting to see what they had to say.

On 29 November 1918, the Bulawayo Chronicle reported the following on page 3;

The von Lettow Surrender

Discussing the close of the German East Campaign, the Beira News says of Von Lettow:-

“His tactics were perfectly simple in their object, which was only to fight and run away, and all the fine plans of the Allied commanders failed to bring him to a stand or prevent him from scuppering a detachment here and an inferior force there. In the end, not because he was in any real danger of capture, but because it perhaps suited his mood, Von Lettow once more forded the Rovuma despite the elaborate steps taken to stay his flight and proceeded towards Tabora, but finaly, and probably because he was well-posted regarding the imminence of the debacle on the western front, broke back into Northern Rhodesia and have himself and his force into the hands, not of any of the men who had pursued him so long, but of a political officer of another regime!

A great deal was made about the mess in Mesopotamia, and three high officers under the Indian Government were given to the public as hostages for better things along the Tigris. In “German” East the same Indian Government was content to let things go on anyhow, and the Home Government and the War Office, oblivious of of (sic) the waste of life nad the loss of prestige, condoned the mess by making the chief command a matter of political selection instead of handing it over to a professional soldier of repute and seeing that everything necessary was provided to bring it to a speedy issue, either with cavalry or fully-trained troops. If the true story of “German” East is ever told – it is hardly likely that it will – it will be seen to rank as the one great failure of the war and all that is required to give to it the halo of a campaign in keepign with the measure of it record is a ten-column list of awards.”

If the secret agents of von Lettow in East Africa are ever discovered – which is very doubtful, having regard to the inability of the military authorities to run down the culprits while they were most active – there will be a fine story to tell of barefaced treachery and intrigue (says the Beira paper). The last story of the kind which reached Beira just before the surrender was that a native had been caught in the fighting area with a bundle of Reuter’s wires containing all the news from Europe up to the 9th November! It is well known, of course, that von Lettow carried a wireless set with him for receiving purposes, but on this occasion, and even if the latter was still in his possession, he was probably too far away from the coast to pick up the news, and the presumption is that the messages were taken off by an agent within the coastal area and therefore within receiving distance of any ship engaged in passing on the story of the war to another.

On page 7, the following was received on The Casualties:

IN the House of Commons today [Tuesday], Mr Mcpherson, Under Secretary for War, announced that the casualties in the East African campaign totalled approximately 900 officers and 17,000 men.

The following are the detailed figures of Allied casualties: Killed, 280 officers, and 8724 men; wounded, 470 officers and 7876 men; missing and prisoners, 38 officers and 929 men.(*)

A bit further on page 9, we read that von Lettow’s record should: should he be punished

The Guardian vigorously protests against the suggestion in a Rhodesian paper that Von Lettow is entitled to the full honours of war. It quotes from a Parliamentary White Paper on the atrocities in German East, and points out that Von Lettow was in command at the time and knew what was going on, and did nothing. The Guardian says he only merits the honours of war if a fleeing criminal putting up a good fight is excused his crime on that account. The paper hopes that Von Lettow will receive punishment for his loathsome regime.

It is officially stated that the force surrendered by Von Lettow included thirty officers, 125 other Europeans, 1,165 Askaris, and a hundred carriers.The Askaris are being detained at Tabora for repatriation and the Germans for transference to Europe.

What is rather surprising about these entries, and those of 15 and 22 November, is that there is no report on the actual handing over of the notification to von Lettow that the war in Europe had come to an end or of the actual events at Mbala.

It also seems rather odd that the great news about the war having ended is recorded on page 4 rather than emblazoned on the front page as we are used to seeing today. The front page consists of classifieds for those who have not seen a paper from the time.

(*) on 22 November (page 5), the following figures were given to the House of Commons concerning all British casualties:

… British military casualties in all theatres of war to November 10, excluding the Air Force, but including Domonion and Indian troops, totalled 3,050,000, whereof 142,634 were officers and 2,900,000 men.

The number killed totalled 27,875 officers, 620,628 other ranks.
The total of casualties for France was 125,700 officers, 2,539,999 men, of whom 32,800 officers and 527,000 men were killed.
In the Dardanelles 5,000 officers, 115,000 men, of whom 1,800 officers and 32,000 men were killed.
On the Salonika front casualties numbered 1,200 officers, 25,000 men.
In Mesopotamia 4,300 officers, 93,000 men.
Egypt 3,600 officers, 54,000 men.
East Africa 900 officers, 17,000 men.

In contrast, the Rhodesia Herald ran the following Editorial on page 10.

There was the usual crop of rumours in town yesterday concerning Von Lettow and his attitude towards the armistice signed by his country on Monday. Most of them were absurd and are not worth repeating, although the idea held by some people that he would continue guerilla warfare as an outlaw is mentioned to show how little the situation of the distinguished General was appreciated. From such meagre accounts of the progress of affairs in East Africa that the Press of this country has been privileged to publish, there seems to be little doubt that von Lettow has conducted the campaign in a soldierly fashion, has taken “sporting chances”, has proved himself to be a tough fighter, and – to use the words of another distinguished soldier, General Northey – “he had played the game all through”. In fact, von Lettow appears to be one of the few German commanders who did not countenance the practice of Hunnish methods, although, of course, cases of cruel treatment have been reproted even from East Africa, but he is not held to be responsible for them. In these circumstances it was supposed that when Germany signed the armistice General Von Lettow, like the good soldier he is, would naturally continue to play the soldier’s part and accept the inevitable. That, ideed, we are advised, is what occurred. Von Lettow has accepted the armistice and is now engaged in fulfilling the terms of the conditions that apply to East Africa. We are not in a position to interpret the somehwat vague reference to East Africa, contained in clause 17 of the armistice; but we imagine we are right in drawing the conclusion that hostilities have now ceasedin that country and that steps will at once be taken to restore ordered government pending the ultimate decision to be arrived at by the Peace Conference. Whilst we do not desire to detract from the great performances of General Von Lettow, but pay him the British tribute of having fought like a man, we are not prepared to fall upon his neck and kiss him. He has done his duty in a praiseworthy manner in the same way that every British soldier has performed his duty, and we hope there will be no maudlin sentiment indulged in at this time. Let our first regard, be for our own noble men. There is always a tendency to allow sporting instincts to predominate as against common sense; but we trust on this occasion that if any one is tempted to allow his feelings to run away with him, he will cast his mind back to the atrocities committed by the Germans in France and Belgium and to the long record of odeous crime which is laid at their doors. Before we are generous we are bound to be just over this war. Moreover, we have to remember that for the hell let loose in the world the Prussian has to pay and to pay to the uttermost mark. At the same time, we rejoice in the cessation of hostilities in East Africa and offer our grateful thanks to those brave Rhodesians, including that gallant soldier, Colonel Murray, of the British South Africa Police, and those of our allies who have assisted to bring the war to a close. We believe that with the acceptance of the armistice a new era in East Africa has dawned, and the future is bright with the promise of peace and prosperity.

Copies of the original newspaper articles can be accessed free with a British Library login.

Notably lacking from the above reports are mention of the King’s African Rifles and the porters who played such a vital role in the last years of the campaign.

We remember them all – known and unknown.

Reviews: WW1 history through Art

I’m not a great one on works of art. I know what I like and what I don’t but ask me for more than that and I’m stuck. Words are my thing. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of photos to the historian – for what they tell you that words don’t or can’t. Photos concerning the Lake Tanganyika expedition are a case in point. More recently, though I’ve begun to realise that art produced after the time is a good indicator of how the memory of events has developed. This final year of the centenary of the Great War has provided an opportunity to see four (well three in their entirety)  artistic exhibitions on the war.

The first was William Kentridge’s Head and the load, previously reviewed. Next was Aftermath at Tate Britain which I saw with a friend, followed by a first-day viewing of the Singularity of Peace exhibition in partnership with Forgotten Heroes in Hammersmith and then a taster of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Of the three later exhibitions, that of Singularity of Peace was my favourite. Yes, perhaps my bias at having worked with the book The Unknown Fallen which gives rise to the exhibits is part of it, but it is also the most human and African. I’ve also discovere I’m not really a moving visual fan so solid art takes preference in my books.

Regarding Aftermath, what was significant was the absence of Africa in any of the pieces – both those created during the war and after. It shows how little attention was given to labour and behind the scenes (or is that indicative of the curators who selected the pieces for display?). The exhibition is explicit in stating that it is about French, British and German art and in this, it doesn’t fail. It was fascinating to see the different artistic styles around a similar theme. And of the pieces on display, those which most appealed to me were: Otto Griebel, Clive Branson, Curt Querner, Glynn Waren Philpott’s Entrance to the Tragada, and Edward Burra’s Les Folies de Belleville. The last two because they gave a hint of Africa and ‘other’ being involved, although both these are post war, 1931 and 1928 respectively. The first three for getting to the heart of man. Many of the war-time images showed little new (at least to those of us not familiar with the detail). In this category the remain of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling was probably the most moving.

The Unknown Fallen felt like a return home. All the familiar photos were there – large and small – now juxtaposed against windows showing buildings being constructed. In addition to the familiar, were pieces from the Never Such Innocence awards – wonderful to see them in original form compared to print. And then there were some new pieces which had been created specially for the exhibition – artwork from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the UK all depicting the aftermath of war and a move towards peace. This exhibition was also the most basic in that it was a form of ‘pop up’ art – an opportunity seized. Again, I discover I prefer the rough and ready to the perfectly choreographed.

Finally, Mimesis by John Akomfrah. Despite the publicity it hadn’t struck me that this was a 75 minute sit down and watch exhibition until the person I was lunching with mentioned it. I happened to be at the IWM to do some research and thought I’d whizz through – not expecting much given what I’d previously seen in the new WW1 display. I’m afraid I lasted about 10 minutes – it was definitely too innovative and obscure for me. And then an Australian or New Zealand flag appeared in the picture – I thought this was about Africans in World War 1… so on my way out made a particular point about reading the ‘blurb’ at the entrance: it mentions “African and colonial soldiers” so don’t be deceived by the title of the production. How much of the 75 minutes is about the colonial contribution I cannot say, I was lost with a person sitting on a chair under a solitary tree in a desert with the tree wrapped in red, who then fell over as though shot. Then a bed with a red matress in the desert with a solitary woman walking in the distance… and I’m not sure the men were dressed appropriately for WW1, so in effect I spent the 10 minutes I was there trying to work out how this all could potentially relate to the war I know with music so loud my ear drumbs reverberated and no words or language to guide me. I’m clearly a child of the past. One day I might find 75 minutes to explore the whole show and what is says about remembrance, but for now will rely on what others have to say.

Destroyed/Missing Archives

Proofreading a reprint edition of Cinderella’s Soldiers by Peter Charlton, it hit me that a number of archives concerning World War 1 in Africa have been damaged by fire or some other act of violence.

I thought is might therefore be helpful to collate what is known to date [August 2018]. Please let me know if you have other information to add.

  • Malawi (Nyasaland) – Zomba Secretariat suffered fire damage in 1919
  • Kenya (British East Africa) – the Nairobi archive burnt down in 1925
  • Britain – soldier records, mostly African, were destroyed in September 1940. What survives are known as ‘burnt documents
  • Nigeria – no national archive pre 1950 seems to exist. Current links

Belgian and German documents were removed to Russia at the end of the Second World War. The Belgian documents have since been returned and are in the Royal Military Archive, Brussels.
Do we know where the German documents are? Are they still in Russia or were they burnt/destroyed? I’ve heard both as explanations for why we cannot access German material on WW1 in Africa.

The GWAA has a list of archives together with access information as supplied by members.