Review: In search of Willie Patterson by Frank Reid

In search of Willie Patterson: A Scottish soldier in the age of imperialism by Frank Reid is a short and intense read.

Initially I wasn’t sure this book had anything to do with World War 1 in Africa, but it clearly does. Frank Reid goes on an exploration of his grandfather in an attempt to discover what he did that was so bad his, Frank’s, mother wanted nothing to do with her father. The result is a case study shedding light into growing up in Glasgow at the turn of the last century, why a young man enlisted in the same year, but at the end, of the Anglo-Boer War, and the consequences of actions.

For the student of the First World War in East Africa, this genealogical account opens up some fascinating doors to explore further. Of particular and current interest is a medical reference. Willie had contracted VD in his early army life which impacted on his military career. Despite having been cured of the ‘disease’ in 1911, he struggled to complete his army service with his home regiment, the Connought Rangers. Having been discharged, he refused to sign up again until he was conscripted – at this point he was felt to be medically unfit for the Western Front but suitable for service in East Africa! This raises some interesting questions regarding the War Office perception of the war in Africa.

Willie arrived at Dar-es-Salaam on 26 February 1917 (I write this 26 Feb 2018) – this is before the Pike Report into medical conditions is commissioned but after the official complaint into the treatment of soldiers by Colonel Kirkpatrick of 9 South African Infantry. The War Office clearly knew about the poor conditions in Africa, so why were they sending out men whose health was not the best? In addition to Willie’s VD complications, he had served in India before the war and had suffered from Malaria. The decision to send him to serve in East Africa as a Royal Engineer Signaller seems irresponsible to me.

On a related note, Frank points out that Willie was awarded the Military Medal for action at Medo and apart from a time soon after arrival in Dar when he went AWOL, he was a model soldier. How many others with a similar background to Willie were sent to East Africa and how does this link with the statement by Dr Pike that VD cases in the theatre were below average? Were the men so busy, as Frank implies, that there wasn’t time for socialising? Or were the men too remote to encounter women?

Apart from these fascinating questions about health and the attitude of the War Office, Frank’s little book provides a vivid account of his own experience in trying to locate the site of the battle of Medo in which Willie won his Military Medal. This sheds light on how ground mapping and air mapping differ as well as how subtle changes to the terrain can impact on perceptions. What is absolutely remarkable with this account, is that Frank is blind and totally reliant on the Zimbabwean Karl Wolf who is his guide into Mozambique.

And of final interest to the student of World War 1 in Africa, is the role and function of the signaller – Frank provides some insight into how this worked in practice – who would have thought that the Germans tracked the British allied forces by following copper telegraph wire? (p120).

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Trust

The topic at one Friday prayers I attended (there’s no better way to learn about another group than to join them), was trust. Over the Christmas period, the young preacher had supported five couples looking to get divorced. That is a huge number in any community, and for me is indicative of the pressures we find ourselves in. This was his introduction to the topic of trust – for various reasons the trust between couples had been broken, gossip had been allowed to fester (a topic covered some time earlier) and before anyone was aware – divorce was on the cards.

Trust is delicate. It needs to be nurtured, like a plant. Mixing with other faith groups has reinforced how precious this value/ethic is and how it crosses cultures, religions and communities. We need to be reminded of our responsibilities and how to keep true to each other.

What the young preacher was saying resonated with a dissertation I was reading at the time about the Cape Corps of South Africa in World War 1. Men of the South African Coloured community who volunteered to fight for Empire and serve under white commanders. What was clear from the dissertation was the emphasis the white officers put on developing relations with their men – they recognised the trust and would not let outside influences affect it.

This was most obviously seen in appointing NCOs based on skill, not age, after only a few weeks of forming the regiment. Whether there were any Muslims in the Cape Corps will be really difficult, if not impossible to determine, as according to the regulations, the men had to be Christian (for dietary purposes). How many surrendered the label Muslim in order to serve, yet retained their Islamic beliefs and habits as far as they could? We know that Muslims in other countries, such as Canada and the USA did this (Forgotten Heroes).

The trust between commanding officers and their men irrespective of background, race or religion is prevalent in many of the battlefield encounters we read abut. However, at officer level, it seemed to be more fluid. Smuts appointed South Africans to his General Staff – he had more trust in them than the British oficers Smith-Dorrien had appointed, and he was known for clearing out – Malleson, Stewart, and Tighe more gently. All returned to India because he had no faith in their abilities. Sheppard was allowed to stay and later became van Deventer’s number 2.

The loyalty of the Askari is a tribute to the trust the men had in their commanders – on both sides. They stayed with their leaders so long as they believed they would see them through and safeguard their interests.  Those who changed sides must have had an incredible trust in those they moved to especially if they did so of their own accord and not as an alternative to being a carrier once captured. Similarly, there must have been a special trust between those who formed 6 KAR and their commanders.

Trust comes from taking risks – the risk to get to know someone and then the risk of continuing to believe in them and understand them. The risk von Lettow-Vorbeck took at Tanga in overriding Governor Schnee was great, but it paid off in terms of cementing the trust between the military commander and (most of) his men for the duration of the war.

Back to School and the Western Front

A two-day trip to the Western Front to learn about the First World War in Africa. This was the idea, but would it work? And how? As I know little to nothing about what happened on the European battlefields. Thankfully Dickie Knight from Anglia Tours would be leading proceedings and he knew a thing or two about the Western Front. We would double act with me ‘butting’ in when appropriate. But would this work to keep 40 ten-year-olds engaged?

By all accounts it seemed to, especially as the teachers and Christine Locke of Diversity House had worked with the young people to give them a basic knowledge base of World War 1 and Africa.

Our first stop was the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette . This provided an opportunity to discuss the differences between French, British, Belgian and German colonial management. The French cemetery would further provide a visual comparison for when we got to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites.
In the same cemetery there were Muslim graves. Muslims had played an important part in both the European and African theatres. With information from The Unknown Fallen we were able to see the instructions French Minister for War had issued regarding burial practices. This helped explain why the graves faced a slightly different direction (east) to the others in their uniformity.
A visit to the Ring of Remembrance provided an opportunity for everyone to discover the reach of the war – by finding their name. For most tour groups, everyone would likely find at least one mention of a family name. However, this trip proved the claim false. One young lass couldn’t find mention of her name anywhere – she was Nigerian, and this opened a learning opportunity regarding which European powers used African troops in Europe and which did not. A subsequent search has identified a relative who participated in World War 1 (WO 372/2/182235) – I think there’s going to be one happy young person when she’s told, and I’m sure there’ll be another learning opportunity at school.
Lochnagar Crater provided further opportunity to see how engaged the young people were as they went round making links with things they spotted such as the board to Edith Cavelle – a school block has recently been named in her honour. In contrast, mention was made of Brett Killington’s project 64 stops where New Zealand miners burrowed to make accommodation undground.
Dickie’s interactive session on gas attacks brought much amusement when the gas masks were paraded. But this did not undermine the impact the horrors of gas has on the youngsters as shown by the insightful questions asked. Again links to the African campaign were made – no gas attacks but Lettow-Vorbeck notes in his memoirs that the Germans had to drink urine on occasion when water was scarce during their attacks on the Uganda Railway in 1914/5. While men in Europe feared gas, those in Africa feared wild animal attacks and jigger fleas.
Next day we were able to compare trench warfare practices between the different theatres. Newfoundland Memorial Park introduced us to trenches and how these where used in Africa were different. The experience of the Inuit sniper John Shiwak provided a link to how black Africans must have thought when faced with having to shoot white men especially having been taught that this was completely taboo and that for those with a missionary schooling, this was one of the biggest sins ever. I’m not sure exactly how the teachers felt when I asked the young people how they would feel being told to shoot their teachers but it seemed to get the shock, horror and extremeness of the instruction across. Further, less controversial diversity was explored with the Legion of Frontiersmen, Shiwak having been a Frontiersman himself and how fitting that the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are linked with the Legion of Frontiersmen still today, whilst the UK contingent is Countess Mountbatten’s Own. It’s incredible how linked the world is and was – even in the days before technology seemed to rule.
Delville Wood took me to home soil and gave an opportunity to welcome everyone to another country (the land is owned by South Africa unlike other properties which are French loaned). Here we explored VCs and how, although in print all are equal, it didn’t work in practice – Walter Tull (not African) was a case in point. I was able to share my new found discovery about Samson Jackson (I’d managed to keep it quiet for 2 days having just discovered the link on my way to join the trip). Samson was a black Zambian who had absonded from his employer, Stuart Gore Brown, when he was supposed to return to Zambia in 1915. He eventually joined the 19th London Regiment and saw service in Europe and Palestine. In 1925 he turned to the stage and became an actor. Watch this space as we try and piece together more about Samson who was originally known as Bulaya.
Remembrance was fitting theme for the remainder of the time at Delville Wood as a brief history of the Museum was given and the latest all-inclusive approach being that the statue at the top of the dome by Alfred Turner was specially designed in bronze which would go black to include all South Africans, not just the two white micro-nations working together to calm the horse. Finally a history of the two-minute silence as thought out by Percy Fitzpatrick saw us move to Thiepval where we put the silence to use to lay a wreath and remember those who had done their bit to make our world a slightly better place. It also turned into a pilgrimage as one young person knew there was a relative’s name on the wall. A short moving service was held and recorded for her to take back to her family who had not been before and were unlikely to do so.
I learnt as much, if not more in these two days – not least that the past resonates in so many ways. On the Eurostar back, a trio aged 10 were singing Madness’ Baggy Trousers from 1980 – harmonies and all (I asked no questions, I was in such shock), another (white British born) was experiencing his first train trip ever – something I’m used to hearing about in rural Africa where children haven’t seen a train or even a bus, but not in the UK. It just goes to show, don’t ever make assumptions.
Thank you to all for making this a most enjoyable learning experience for me and for holding your school name so high. The number of compliments you received along the way were well deserved and something to behold. It was a privilege.

Zam-Buk in the GSWA campaign

Researching some background to the Legion of Frontiersmen, I discovered an article in The Mafeking Mail and Protectorate Guardian, Tuesday, March 30, 1915 (available BL eresources), entitled:

Censored Letter from German West
Severe Sunburn Cured
More Zam-Buk wanted

I’m a great believer in Zam-Buk – it’s my first port of call for virtually any ailment but the last thing I thought I’d come across was an article – not an advert – extolling the virtues of it. And surprisingly, it’s not a South African product.

Sergeant EA Andrews, Legion of Frontiersmen, Pretoria Regiment, GSWA, writing from Ischankaib, says: “During the time we were dodging around after the rebels in Pretoria District the order came that we could cut down our trousers. I cut mine down with the result that the sun burnt my knees simply awful. Fortunately I had a tin of Zam-buk in my kit, so applied it, and in a day or two my knees were quite better again. We have now all been served out with short trousers, and consequently all the boys have sunburnt knees, adn had it not been that I brought a few tins of Zam-Buk to German West with me my brother soldiers would be caused much pain and inconvenience. I supplied Zam-Buk with surprising good results. All the boys are high in their praise of Zam-Buk, and swear by it.”

Zam-Buk is unequalled for Sore Feet, Poisoned Wounds, Insect Bites, Chafing, Strains and Stiffness as well as for Sunburn.
Post one, two or even three 1 6d or 3s 9d tins today to your soldier friends, or on receipt of price the Zam-Buk Manufacturing Co, 9 Long Street, Cape Town, will send post free. Write plainly name, number, rank, Regiment, and where stationed.

An article turned into an advert supporting the troops. That though, was not all.

A translation of the article appeared in Xhosa in Ilange Lase Natal on 30 July 1915 – Ukuba pambili kuka Zam-Buk; Into Enkulu Efanele Abase Mpini.

I wonder what the take-up was.

For more on Zam-Buk, see the references at the end of the Wikipedia article. And apparently Houdini used the ointment as well.

Untold Friendships: A journey with The Unknown Fallen

Every now and then a challenge comes along – well, working on World War 1 in Africa, it’s more often than not as so little has actually made it into the public domain and some archives remain a challenge to access. Having managed to contribute a piece on Sikh involvement in the East Africa campaign, I started gathering information on Muslim involvement. Did you know that the Governor of East Africa called a jihad? This is a passing comment in some literature but had little, if no impact, on what happened. I was intrigued. Using primary source material I was able to write an article charting Muslim involvement in World War 1 only to have it declined as I refused to go into detail on how the different Islams were affected or developed (a minefield I am still trying to navigate and understand). I also didn’t challenge how the Governor, being a German, could declare a jihad – that wasn’t my purpose. I was more interested in why the Governor had made such a statement; it suggested that there were far more Muslims involved on both sides than existing literature had us believe. Here was another group of people whose contribution had been glossed over and who needed a voice.

Not long after submitting the above article for review, I was approached by Luc Ferrier to contribute something on Muslim involvement to The Unknown Fallen. Keep it simple – this is an introduction to the topic, were the instructions. It soon became apparent that thoughts of focusing on East Africa, the central theatre where most of the troops served from 1917, would not work and that separate pieces would need to be written on East, West and South Africa. Others were looking at the north and French involvement. Back to my task, the first two were ‘easy’ enough, as ground work had been done, but with the article in the publishing pipeline, I had to beware of potential copyright infringements so a different angle to the war in East Africa was taken in particular. South Africa proved the challenge – but through fortuitous discoveries, assumptions were shown up for what they were and a new little window has opened on another micro-nation or two. Job done!

Not so. Meeting with Luc and Vera to discuss feedback on my contributions, more was to come – editing, proofreading through my role as a publisher and supporting students with academic writing. And finally to assist with translations from French to English. Thankfully, technical translation had been done. My role, if I could do it, was to capture the feel of the original author. And by all accounts, we achieved this. I use ‘we’ on purpose. I have never known a book to be so thoroughly checked and reviewed by so many people to ensure that what has appeared in print does not offend but educates and respects – as well it should.

Initially, I had issues with the fact that this book only focuses on Allied Muslim involvement (and I know a few people I spoke to felt the same), but I soon came to see why it should. To do anything else, as my article experience proved, would require more complex explanations and enter into a world of politics which would distract from the aim – to show the diversity of men and women who worked together for a common goal.

One of the things that struck me, and still does, is that religion didn’t matter. If it did, the officers and those who wrote diaries and memoirs would have made an issue of it, but they didn’t. Few mention religious aspects. It was traditional for the British army to keep religious and ethnic groups separate for dietary purposes, but in East Africa, the nature of the campaign meant this didn’t happen and the delivery, or rather non-delivery of rations, meant that men had to eat what got through or what they could find. If anthing would cause religious unrest and ill-feeling, this would have been it. To date, I’ve not found mention of issues around having to eat foods not in keeping with religious practice or that men could not do their work becuase of the need to fulfil religious duties – be they Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other locally practised belief. There were differences, I don’t deny – and after the war in particular, politics reared its ugly head, but that’s all for another discussion.

There are so many gems in this ‘little’ book. [‘Little’ refers to the amount of text given the size of the book. It’s light reading but intense – so much packed into so few words.] I cannot say what my favourite part of the book is – there are too many different ‘pulls’.

  • Working with it, I became quite attached to some of the characters depicted by the artist Eugene Burnand – the diversity of soldier is incredible, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
  • What has been revealing working on The Unknown Fallen was the care and interest taken by the French government, in particular, the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand, in ensuring that Muslim soldiers were buried correctly. I’ve subsequently found a British reference which needs further investigation (thanks to Nick Ward, The Black Titanic).
  • Another highlight is the night sky of Verdun on 4 September 1914 – a double page spread of peace and tranquility, ignorant of the carnage going on below.
  • 28 statements of what Islam is – an eye-opener and in many ways a reiteration of the Christian and Jewish Ten Commandments.
  • Images to challenge stereotypes: Muslims praying in a forest or wood juxtaposed with an image of a Christian chaplain conducting mass. Brothers in Arms, Standing Together.
  • The walls of remembrance.
  • Stories of those who sacrificed their religion in name to fight for what they believed was right.

This is a book which goes beyond war to look at the human-ness of mankind. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it certainly achieves what it set out to, and far more. Something is bound to grab at your heartstrings.

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and honour to be a small part of The Unknown Fallen journey; a project which lays the foundation for more to come.

And for anyone wondering about the title of the blog – Untold Friendships – this caught my eye only days before I sat down to write this piece. It’s the ‘title’ of the back cover and an unexpected reward for having embarked on a journey to stand shoulder to shoulder with men of women of all faiths and backgrounds then and now in an attempt to make the world a slightly nicer place for all.

Holding Thumbs

Recently I sent two people messages saying I would ‘hold thumbs’ for them. Both people came back asking if the phrase was South African and if it meant the same as ‘crossing fingers’. The short answer is yes, the two phrases mean the same – good luck.

This got me wondering how the term came into being. It’s also used in Dutch – Duim vashou and German ich druecke dir die Daumen and even Czech držet palce. According to Marty 89 the origin of the term is pagan: apparently demons dwelt in thumbs, so holding them in your hand meant they couldn’t do any wrong.  It also seems to be a Polish phrase

I wonder if this has something to do with the phrase my grandmother often used: ‘idle hands are devil’s hands.’

In some traditions, passing a cemetery requires one to hold their thumbs inside their fist to safeguard parents. And there are a whole lot of other things to do if you’re superstitious.

Thumbs feature quite a bit in phrases used by South African English:

  • Twiddle your thumbs – when bored
  • Thumb a lift – put your thumb up when hitch-hiking to ask a car to stop and pick you up. This was used often during the Apatheid years when conscription was in place. Our troepies would often hitch a lift to get home on leave or back to camp (safe ride campaign).
  • Thumbs up – for thanks, well done, good, approval
  • Thumbs down – the opposite of thumbs up.
  • Two thumbs side-ways – a family derivative of thumbs up – but even more so, ie Excellent!
  • All fingers and thumbs – clumsy
  • Under the thumb – be controlled by someone
  • Stick out like a sore thumb – obvious
  • Rule of thumb – accepted practice/way of doing something

The African proverb of you can’t tie a knot without a thumb led to a list of how valuable the thumb is.

 

Pegasus wrecks

This post was inspired, not by the ship which was sunk in Zanzibar Harbour in 1914, but by an aeroplane in Antartica. The latter occurred in 1970, 56 years and nearly 1 month after the former. The former resulted in casualties and deaths, surprisingly the 80 crew on board the plane survived.

The former was HMS Pegasus, one of three cruisers responsible for the security of the African coast from Zanzibar to St Helena via Cape Town at the outbreak of World War 1. Having had to go into harbour for repairs during September 1914, the German Konigsberg took the opportunity to sneak out of its hide-away in the Rufigi Delta to sink the boat. It was the Konigsberg‘s last raid before eventually being put out of action following attacks by the monitors Severn and Mersey. For the full story on PegasusKevin Patience has the lowdown.

Both the guns of the Pegasus (6) and the Konigsberg (10) went on to do battle on land during the remainder of the war.

In addition to the wrecks of vessels called Pegasus, it appears there are various items which cause wrecks also called Pegasus:

A Singapore Lightweight Howitzer
William Powell Pegasus Shot Gun

And there was one Pegasus ship which didn’t end up a wreck having served through the French Revolutionary Wars – she was sold in 1816.