Year 8 Q&A on WW1 Africa

Following the talk I gave to the year 8s and some work they did with their teachers, here are some of the questions the young people came up with regarding the First World War in Africa. As with all such things, there are some I’m amazed have been asked – I know the point was addressed in the talk and in class. But I’m also aware there was so much new information that sometimes the message is lost. What is rewarding is that they’re asking the questions and some are absolutely brilliant. Thank you. So here are some brief answers for now, others I might come back to later on.

What did the Africans do in the war?
The short answer is the same as what people in Britain and Europe did.
Some men fought. In Africa the idea was that only white men would fight in what was hoped to be a ‘white man’s war’. France recruited black soldiers to fight in Europe – for example from Senegal. However, there were black soldiers such as the West African Frontier Force (today’s Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and The Gambia).
Others worked as porters or carriers and others as labourers. There was much work which had to be done such as clearing away bush for camps, roads, airfields. Cooking and cleaning of camps and hospitals, washing of clothes and so on. It is estimated that there were over 1 million porters alone in East Africa during the war – they were local but also from West Africa, Seychelles, China and Southern Africa.
The women carried on looking after the farms and houses, helped with carrying and doing other tasks where they could.

How much did the war cost in Africa?
We know the figure for Britain’s involvement – £72 million or the equivalent of four years war budget in 1914.

What was the population of Africa before and after the war?
This is a difficult question to answer and we will never know exactly because there was no accurate data kept and the systems were not developed enough to undertake a census. The size of the countries meant that those living in remote places might never see a government official.

Why is Africa not so well known for fighting in the war? Why don’t people remember them as much? How do Africans remember the Africans that have died in the war? Do they at all?
The African campaigns were seen as secondary. They had no direct impact on what was happening on the Western Front, which for Britain was the most important theatre. If Britain lost there, it would lose everything in the same way Germany did in 1918. The fighting in Africa was a distraction for those running the war except that the territories could be used as bargaining chips at the peace negotiations if needed. In addition, very few men from Britain fought in Africa compared to in the European theatres and the Dardanelles. Further, there were few reporters and people able to get messages to Europe for publication and when they were able the stories were often too depressing to publish when things were not going too well in Europe. It was therefore decided to keep the stories, unless they were about victories, out of the press to keep the Home Front morale up.
When the British men who had fought in Africa got back to Britain, they did not tend to talk about the war because family and friends assumed they had been on holiday and had it easy compared to those in Europe. This was because of the idea of Africa being a place of fun and adventure such as hunting. It was also not as exciting or heroic to tell people that you spent much of your time in hospital or sick because of malaria and other illnesses when they were talking of being shot or caught in a bombardment.
For all these reasons the war in Africa was not remembered.
For the people in Africa, the war was just another of many wars they were involved in and because life was already a struggle to survive, they carried on doing what they could. It wasn’t their war, they got involved because their masters asked/told them to. There is also a very different way of remembering in Africa to that in Britain. This is due to the mainly oral traditions which are found in Africa rather than a written one. People told stories and eventually the stories disappear because new ones take over.

Were there African generals? Why weren’t African soldiers treated the same as European soldiers? Who led the Africans? Who commanded the Africans?
There were white African generals such as Jan Smuts and Jaap van Deventer from South Africa who commanded the forces in East Africa after 1916. Although there black, Indian and Arab soldiers fighting in Africa, there were no generals from among them. This was because Britain controlled the Empire and preferred having its own people, who were white, manage things. This was part of the belief at the time that whites were more intelligent and able than people of other backgrounds. The war helped the white imperialists to see that people of colour were as able and intelligent so that in World War 2, there were officers of different races. Some of the leaders of African independence had served during the First World War and learnt from their roles about how to organise and manage people to bring about change.

Who looked after the injured Africans?
There were Field Ambulances which consisted of stretcher bearers and dressers who collected the injured soldiers from the field. An ambulance in World War 1 was not a vehicle but a group of people. From the front, the injured went to a Clearing Station where it was decided if they needed to go to hospital or be treated on the spot before returning to their regiment. From the Clearing Station they went to Stationary and General Hospitals for more specialised and long term treatment. There were hospitals for Europeans (whites), Black Soldiers (King’s African Rifles) and Carriers. The Pike Report into the medical conditions in East Africa in 1917 noted that the Carrier hospitals were some of the best they had seen which was a great improvement on how the situation was in the early years of the war. For those from other countries such as South Africa and Seychelles, they were sent home on Hospital Ships before going into a hospital at home to recuperate or be sent home.
Before a soldier or carrier was discharged for medical reasons they attended a medical board which decided what happened to them and if they received a pension pay out. According to the Medical Boards for the Cape Corps (Coloured or Mixed race force from South Africa) many of them were given three months R&R (rest and recuperation) before being discharged. This allowed them to get an additional three months’ pay without having to do any work. They also received free accommodation and food for those three months. This was one way the white doctors could help people who were discriminated against by law because of their colour and position.

Were there any sea battles in Africa?
There was only one real ‘sea’ battle in Africa which was on Lake Tanganyika. However, there were a number of naval engagements.
In the Indian Ocean, the German cruiser the Konigsberg had disrupted shipping from the start of the war, sinking the first British Merchant ship of the war (carrying tea). The Konigsberg eventually went into hiding in the Rufiji Delta where it took a hunter and aeroplanes to find the ship. Because the delta was so narrow, special monitors had to be sent out from Britain which could navigate the narrow streams to bomb the Konigsberg with help from spotter planes.
It is said that the Hedwig von Wissmann was the first German ship to be captured by the British in the war. The Hedwig von Wissmann was on Lake Nyasa at the southern end of Tanzania. It was captured by the Captain of the British boat Gwendolyn. The two captains used to meet every year for a drink when their boats passed each other, so when the Gwendolyn came alongside the Hedwig which was in dry dock being repaired, the German captain didn’t realise he was going to be arrested. The German captain hadn’t been told that war had broken out.
On Lake Victoria the British boats were bombarded by the Germans from the coast line as they were trying to transport troops across the lake to Bukoba to participate in a land battle in early 1915.
The most famous of the ship encounters were those on Lake Tanganyika where two boats, HMS Mimi and Toutou were transported overland from Cape Town to Lukuga in the Belgian Congo. On 26 December 1915, the boats captured the German boat the Kingani which was renamed HMS Fifi. Not long after the Hermann von Wissmann was sunk. The black stoker from the Kingani survived and continued to serve on Fifi once he had recovered from his injuries. The Germans then sank their newly built ship the Gotzen so that it did not fall into British hands. The Gotzen was later restored and still sails today on the Lake as MV Liemba (the local name for the lake).
In West Africa, ships were used to transport troops along the rivers in Cameroon and Togoland.
Ships were also used for blockading the coast to prevent German goods from getting to the armed forces. In East Africa, two blockade runners were able to get through and resupply the German forces.
Where possible, the British Navy bombed the German radio stations along the coastline. This happened in Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) and Luderitzbucht (Namibia).

What side was Africa on? Where did the troops come from in Africa?
Africans fought on both sides. This was determined by the country which controlled them. The African countries had been divided amongst the European Imperial powers in 1884. The Imperial powers were Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Portugal. Each had colonies in Africa:
Portugal: Mozambique and Angola
Belgium: Congo
Germany: Namibia, Togo, Cameroon and Tanzania
Britain and France had the rest between them, most of West Africa was controlled by France whilst East and Southern Africa was controlled by Britain.
Italy had a tiny piece called Jubaland.
Neutral Spain had Equatorial Guinea and Fernando Po which accepted German refugees from Cameroon and Togoland.
The French used soldiers from their colonies in Europe whilst Britain refused to do so.

Was Africa also controlled by European countries in WW2? Yes, most of the continent was controlled by European powers. France, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Italy and Spain had the main share. It was after World War 2 that African territories fought for their independence. Many of the leaders at independence had either been been alive during WW1 or were born soon after so experienced the devastation of the land and the struggles parents and others had to rebuild their lives. A list of African leaders who were influenced by World War 1 can be found here.

What guns did they have? What weapons did they use?
There was a mix of guns. The Germans used black smoke guns from 1871, there were machine guns, Mausers and Lee Enfields. Different size canons were used, some having had to be restored as they had been ornaments for many years. The 10 and 6 pound guns from the ships Konigsberg and the Pegasus were converted for land use.
Although the Germans started off with their own guns which differed to the
British ones as described by Peter Abbott, by the end of the war the Germans were using a mix of weapons having replaced their with British and Portuguese supplies. Gregg Adams provides a good comparison of the two sides –
Some potentially useful history of the different weapons used throughout WW1 – not just Africa.

Who made the materials? How did they get the weapons? Who supplied materials?
The materials were made in European factories or in America for the British territories. Most supplies for Africa came from India which was the traditional supplier of material for the armed forces in Africa. South Africa also supplied some material. Very little was made in Africa. The Germans in East Africa experimented with making what they could out of local material rather than relying on imports.
Some of the weapons were already in the different countries because of the slave trade and hunting expeditions. Weapons had also come in with the colonial wars and African communities had their own weapons too. During the war, weapons were sent from Europe, America and India. Portugal gave South Africa 10,000 mauser rifles at the start of the war and Malta sent them two canons because South Africa had said the British Imperial Garrison which was in South Africa could leave for the Western Front. They took all their weapons with them which meant the new country (only formed in 1910) and its army (formed 1912) had no weapons of its own.

Who had more weapons?
The allies (Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium) had more weapons because they could import them into the African territories. The Germans had to use what they already had in their colonies. In 1918 the Germans replaced their weapons with Portuguese guns they were able to obtain when they invaded Mozambique.

How much was a single rifle to make? How much did artillery cost?
This will need some research into the budget and treasury files. It doesn’t look as though an historian has written about the specific costs yet. Weapons were also bought in large quantities which would have affected the price. See here for an idea of the number of rifles ordered.

Is there an unknown soldier grave in Africa?
Some countries have tombs for the unknown soldier. Wikipedia has a list:
The South African one is not in South Africa but at the South African cemetery at Delville Wood in France.

Are there any statues to African soldiers in England?
Yes, there are. One was recently unveiled in Brixton, London.
There are memorials to Africans and Indians in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire
A memorial to the King’s African Rifles was unveiled at Sandhurst in 2015

Does Africa have a remembrance day?
Today, Africa is a continent made up of 54 different countries. Countries like Rwanda and Burundi only came into being after the First World War (as part of the Versailles peace discussions). Each country has its own remembrance day although most whites across Africa will recognise 11 November.
In South Africa, there are 4 Remembrance Days connected with World War 1:
21 February – Mendi Day
19 September – Square Hill, Palestine
11 November – Delville Wood and the war in general
16 December – Jopie Fourie (1914 Afrikaans rebels) as part of Day of the Vow/Dingaan’s Day. Today it’s the Day of Reconciliation
Remembrance Day is a particularly British commemoration. The two minute silence was suggested by a South African, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, as a way to remember everyone: different religions, those who survived and were damaged by the war, those who died and those who weren’t able to serve for various reasons.

What did African women do in the war?
See the attached: https://thesamsonsedhistorian.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/african-women-at-war-paper-may-2017.pdf

How many Africans died? here’s the best answer for the moment
How many African soldiers survived the war?
https://thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/carriers-labourers-and-others-in-ww1-ea/
https://thesamsonsedhistorian.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/gwea-numbers.pdf

What planes did they use?
See here https://thesamsonsedhistorian.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/flight-in-ww1-africa-paper.pdf

Why are there not many records of Africa during the war?
The main issue is that the records are in different places. Depending on who recruited the soldiers and others, determines where the records are kept. In addition to the records at the British National Archive, there are records in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa. The Indian records are at the British Library.
Some documents were destroyed during World War 2 when a German bomb fell on the archive. The bits that remain are called the ‘Burnt documents’. The records include men who served in Africa.
A lack of infrastructure at the start of the war in 1914 meant that there was poor record keeping. This improved in 1916 when the War Office sent out a staff to East Africa. They kept better records. In West Africa, the officers had better record keeping as they had been working with the system for many years. Some records which were sent back to Britain were destroyed when ships were torpedoed and if there was a supply issue, reports and records could not always be kept. We know there was a shortage because some British letters and records are written on German headed paper.

Where were the battles?
There were not many battles in Africa during World War 1. There were mainly skirmishes.
Some of the places which are best known for fighting include:
Sandfontein (southern Africa), Duala (West Africa), Tanga (East Africa), Kilimanjaro (East Africa), Mahiwa (East Africa), Kasama (Northern Rhodesia), Tabora (East Africa)

How many landmarks were destroyed in Africa?
The answer to this question depends on what you define as a landmark. There were no big buildings as there are in Britain. Houses, factories and radio stations were destroyed along the coast when the naval ships bombarded the areas. Sometimes hospitals were hit accidentally because they happened to be in the path. One soldier complained that ‘the most important building had been destroyed in Dar-es-Salaam’ before the British arrived and that was the brewery.
Of more consequence than landmarks, was the number of farms destroyed. This meant that the local people suffered from starvation because little was imported for them. Most imports were to help the war effort.

Who ended the war in Africa?
There were different endings to the war in Africa.
The first German colony to surrender was Togo on 24 August 1914. The German commander realised his men did not stand a chance and decided it was better to end the conflict early.
German South West Africa (Namibia) was the second to surrender. This happened on 9 July 1915 after the South African commander and Prime Minister General Louis Botha gave the Germans an ultimatum which the German Governor, Seitz accepted. Most of the German forces in South West Africa had been defeated or captured by this time.
Cameroon was the next to fall – in March 1916 after the German forces there had been defeated by a joint British and French attack.
In East Africa, the war came to an end because the war in Europe came to an end. When the armistice was agreed in Europe it gave a month’s notice for the instruction to stop fighting to get to the German Commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck. He eventually got the notice on 13 November (the day they fought a battle) but didn’t believe the Germans had surrendered in Europe. He was eventually convinced on 18 November that the Kaiser had abdicated and Germany had lost. The Germans in Africa, around 3,000 in total officially surrendered on 25 November 1918 in Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia (today Mbala in Zambia).

Which country was the strongest in Africa?
A tough question to answer. There were different aspects at play in the different theatres which determined how well they coped with the war. For example, in Togoland, the German commander did not see the point in wasting lives to prolong what would be an obvious eventual defeat because he was outnumbered. One could say he was strong in character making this decision so early in the war.
In German South West Africa, the German army officers did not want to prolong the war because they too knew it would end in defeat but the Governor, Seitz, insisted they do so to help the German fatherland. In East Africa, it was the other way round where the Governor, Schnee, wanted to protect his people and their economy but the commander, Paul von Lettow Vorbeck refused to listen to him and pushed for the army to override the Governor (who was technically in charge of the army).
The stamina of the soldiers could be another way of looking at who was strongest. Nigerian and Ghanaian troops served throughout the war first in West and then East Africa, some white soldiers, and especially doctors from Britain served throughout the war with very little break as did Indian soldiers. The German soldiers (askari) in all the colonies showed lots of stamina too. Ten percent of the force which served with von Lettow Vorbeck surrendered with him at the end.
Another factor to consider is the number of local rebellions which broke out during the war in the different colonies. Some of the more well-known rebellions included the Makonde in southern East Africa 1917 (Mozambique and Tanzania), Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland 1915 (Malawi), and in Nigeria after 1915 there were various rebellions against taxes and other legislation. In 1914 some white South African Afrikaners objected to going to war with Germany in support of Britain. The Senusi in Eritrea and in Egypt also took the opportunity of Britain’s attention being occupied elsewhere to continue their struggle for independence.

When did they go in to the war?
Officially the different territories went to war when their controlling Imperial power did. This was because of the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. In reality, each territory entered the war as a result of local conditions. The first shot of the war in Africa was fired on 7 August 1914 in Togoland, the second against Dar-es-Salaam on 8 August. Between 15 and 22 August, German forces in East Africa raided into British East Africa where they occupied British territory (Taveta), Belgian Congo at Kivu, Nyasaland (Malawi) and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). In South West Africa the campaign officially stared on 14 September when South Africa sent troops across the German border in response to Germans having been spotted in South African territory in August (there is some dispute over whether this really happened).

Is the mud that Dr Samson was talking about still there?
The mud comes and goes depending on the rain. It’s the same as in Europe. The challenge with the mud in Africa is the soil. In the clay areas, the rain runs over the soil making it very slippery to walk on. In other areas where there is black cotton soil, the mud becomes very sticky stopping all movement. Vehicles have to be dug and pulled out of it.

How did Africa deal with their problems during the war when it was really muddy and they couldn’t move.
Life slowed down. This was the time to regroup, try and fix supply lines and move food as best one could. All sides were affected by the rains, but they persisted in carrying on as best they could. An hour’s journey sometimes took eight hours or more to do in the rain.

Where did they sleep in the war and how did they stay awake?
It depends on where they were and what was available. In the worst cases, the men slept under the stars and if they were lucky had a blanket. Others slept in tents either with or without mosquito nets. Where there were camps, bandas or more permanent wooden and mud houses were built for the men to share. Some soldiers wrote about spending nights in trees to keep away from wild animals.
Staying awake was probably easier than falling asleep as the noise of the wild animals kept people awake especially when they weren’t used to the noises. However, lack of food, malaria and walking the long distances meant people were exhausted so slept through everything. One soldier got into trouble because he had rigged tin cans to a wire so that if anybody crossed into the area whilst he was on guard duty (picquet) he would be woken up if he had accidentally fallen asleep. The problem for him was that it was his commanding officer who walked into the cans.
When the men were on piquet this was usually for about two hours at a time and in pairs which helped keep them awake. They would also walk around. Talking was difficult/banned because sound carried very easily and they would miss hearing the enemy creep up.

What flowers grew in the battlefields of Africa?
Local plants grew which varied depending on where you were. In South West Africa it was mainly desert. In northern German East Africa there were lots of thorn trees, in West Africa, there were forests and all through what is known as savanna – large open spaces where grass grows to 6 feet tall.

Do poppies grow on African battlefields?
Poppies do not grow in Africa. This flower is particular to Europe.

What flower symbolises war in Africa?
There isn’t one. Although wearing the poppy and laying poppy wreaths has become the norm for remembrance services in the old British colonies

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They don’t know…

How often do we hear these words? I heard them often as a teacher educator and admit that once upon a time, I used them myself about my students. That is until a colleague challenged me about ’empty vessels’ and discouting the life experiences students brought to the classroom. This was revolutionary and freeing.It’s also empowering – not least for a recent visit to a school in Kent to introduce them to the First World War in Africa. The group was Year 8 (12-13 year olds) who had not started learning about World War 1 at school. Teachers were understandably a bit concerned as the only time they had heard me speak was when I presented a more formal academic paper on the Feet of Endurance. After reminders about the students not knowing anything about the war and the introduction of Western Front memorials into the slides I’d sent across, I wasn’t sure what I’d be facing.

A few challenging questions such as ‘How many languages do people speak at the school?’ and ‘Am I African?’ soon broke the ice and when asked what came to mind when they heard the words ‘World War 1’, I got sufficient answers to lead into the story of Africa’s involvement. One young man ventured Adolf Hitler as a response. What an opportunity for lateral thinking. Thank goodness my school history teacher had taught us (she always gave us ‘3 useless facts per lesson) that Hitler had been a runner during WW1. On the spur of the moment, I decided to ask students to think about their weight – not to tell me, that’s far too personal, but to think of what they weighed. Then to imagine carrying 30 pounds or 20kgs (1/2 – 1/3) of themselves across the African field. Puts the carrier role into a slightly different light.
During the talk, another young chap (interestingly only the boys asked questions in the large setting) asked about the involvement of women. Being able to describe the size of a white settler farm in terms of football fields (38,000) really grabbed their attention. I’d only discovered that little snippet when preparing for the paper I presented at the National Army Museum on the role of women during WW1.

The questions that followed in the smaller class settings were just as insightful and thought-provoking. Two students wanted to know what kept me inspired to study the topic. Wow, what an opportunity to influence young people. Quite simply, my answer was, the humanity of man. Seeing how people worked together – people of all races, colours, creeds, beliefs and gender coming together to survive. There were a few gasps in one class where I told them I was a pacifist. Yes, I study war and had been answering questions about guns and ammunition and all sorts of military things that generally tend to interest boys. How can we work to avoid war, if we don’t know what causes it? War is a fact of life and it requires people to carry it out. It’s not my role to judge and many of my good friends and colleagues are in military fields, I respect that, knowing that the work they undertake is valuable and that unfortuantely somebody’s got to do it. They are striving to make the world a better place too, and sometimes someone has to stand up to that bully in the only way the bully knows.

Another wonderful question from these young people who ‘don’t know’ was whether Africa should have got caught up in the war. Another myth could be debunked. Telling students they would soon be learning about Kitchener not getting enough weapons to the front and that he would suffer a bad reputation because of this and other things, I had only good things to say about him when it came to the war in Africa. K wanted to keep Africa out of the war as he knew what it would entail. However, his colleagues in the War Office and the politicians led by Lloyd George counter-acted him, as did war plans and individual personal vendettas. This ‘easy’ question was then followed by ‘so, what do you think Africa would be like today if it hadn’t got involved?’ How does one answer that? I chickened out by saying it was a difficult question, the borders in Africa would be different, possibly wouldn’t have had Burundi and Rwanda and genocide in the latter but who knows. I left him with the thought that he could answer this question himself in future by studying history and exploring the field of Virtual/What if History.

I left feeling rather upbeat. There is hope for the generations coming through despite, in my opinion, the education systems which in numerous countries are working against educating the masses to be involved, critical players in determining their futures.

A little more disconcerting though, were the challenges posed by a colleague historian who had joined us for the day. She insisted on emphasising racism: all officers were white and the rank and file black. The first black officer trained in the British Army happening in 1942 (I haven’t confirmed). Colonialism was bad, Africa is poor and the slave trade was the cause of all ills. I purposefully mention she is white as I know a number of my readers would automatically assume she was black. She too, like me, is a foreigner in Britain. Her comments and challenges resonated with an email which another friend then forwarded to a number of us. This contained an article entitled The reality of the SA situation by Daniel Lotter. I’m not linking or copying the article here as I don’t believe in perpetuating myths of the nature Daniel is stating as historical fact.

The challenges in the classroom were relatively easy to deal with, pointing out that racism did exist and that hierarchies and bureaucracies meant that some people couldn’t achieve rank, it didn’t mean that there was racism all through. One of the things I love about the East African campaign is that there was no victor. Everyone lost out – mother nature remained dominant. What a levelling ground. All involved had much in common: the story of survival and the need for others to help them through. No-one could do it alone.White officers recognised they needed their black rank and file and co-depended on each other, individuals taking the lead when their skills would be best utilised. FC Selous the famous hunter and inspiration for the Selous Scouts wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to survive without his gunbearer who saved his life on many an occasion. Alas, Ramazani was no match for the sniper hiding in the Beho-Beho bush in January 1917. (Wits archive)
Another colleague, a black woman who had arranged for me to be at the school, challenged the idea of Africa being poor. If Africa was poor, why was there all the fighting and corruption today? People wanted what Africa has. She grew up in Lagos and had never seen a well until she moved to England.

Returning to the article by Daniel Lotter, it came with a sub-line, presumably written by the person who started its circulation ‘Presumably all facts are correct??’ As with my colleague historian, yes, the facts as stated were correct, but they were selected and not the full picture.

My response to the email chain was:

I haven’t got time to write a full response to what he’s said but people are very selective when they put an argument together to suit their case. There is evidence of black development and intelligence from before whites arrived in SA. Much was hidden away by the Apartheid government to ‘prove’ the superiority of the white man over the black etc.
Whatever happened in the past is the past. It’s time for attitudes like Daniel’s to be put far away and for people of all colours to recognise that by working together and respecting each other we can move forward and build a better world than the one we leave behind.
Constantly blaming people for things that happened in the past is not helpful at all.
It’s important to understand the past and it is incredibly complex – far more than set out below. For every statement Daniel makes I can add at least another 2 or 3 perspectives. But more important is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and build something beautiful. This might be idealistic but I do believe it can be done and am seeing attitudes change amongst people of all colours when I emphasise this and break the myths of World War 1 in Africa.

I fell into studying history, it was a dream and I’ve been lucky enough to follow my dream as it’s taken me. Not being in an academic institution and funding my own research means I retain freedom of research interest. I’ve only ever made three specific decisions about history. One was to become an historian rather than follow my career path back in 1994 and become an Organisation Development Consultant. The second was not to get funding for my research (sociology does have its benefits) and the third was back in November 2011 when I decided to take on the co-ordination of the Great War in Africa Association. It meant that would become my focus rather than British and South African relations post 1910.

So, why study history? Although aspects had become apparent in the years before, my purpose has only become clear in the past year or so. Being an historian carries a great responsiblity: to tell the story as fully as one can without judgement, recognising that there’s truth in everyone’s version of the same event and experience. Reconciling these versions is the task of the historian, probing and challenging where needed. We’re all ignorant of the other’s view – until we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we won’t know why they acted the way they did which led to our reacting the way we did.

My role as an historian, therefore,

is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and

as a citizen of the world, work to

build something beautiful

And in response to Daniel Lotter (and those against others settling in ‘foreign’ lands), I can’t help but think of a story I read recently attributed to Jesus by a Mohammedan scholar: Passing through a field, Jesus was asked to reprimand his disciples from eating the owner’s wheat. Rather than do so, Jesus responded by calling to life all the previous owners of the field. Who, he asked, is the real owner? We all are custodians of the land we are placed in.

 

Technology meltdown

Don’t you sometimes wish technology would just disappear for a bit? But then, as soon as you can’t access your emails or the internet there’s major panic and you can do nothing else until it is sorted.

One of the things I love about travelling is that you can’t have 24/7 access to the world. Well, I suppose it depends on where you go, but generally it can take a little while to get linked up to the new networks and finding that free wireless spot.

I remember being in the somewhere in the Namib desert a few years’ back and purposefully pulling out my phone to check the signal – NONE. Wonderful, peaceful. Since then, I’ve done the same on various other travels and relished the fact that there is no signal. But always, the thought is squashed by ‘what if you need to get assistance?’

What did we do in the ‘good old days’? I recall having to phone my dad from the office before I left of an evening (if I was going to be late) to let him know I was on my way and oh boy! would I hear it if I hadn’t phoned or was later than the time he estimated it would take me to get home. Bearing in mind that this was in the early 1990s in South Africa and the potential for hi-jackings much higher than now (although stories coming out in 2016/7 are suggesting a return to a more lawless society as the wealth gap increases. I sincerely hope not!).

About 6 years ago, I was talking to some teachers in rural Tanzania about computers. They were desperate for at least one in the office as it would be a time-saver! I was told that pressing a button would allow so much to be done. Yes, it would but getting to press that one button would require hours of training and distraction from other work which also needed to be done. Having the internet added would make their lives more fraught. A simple example to test the theory: Before mobile/cell phones, I asked, how many letters or instructions did they get from the District Education Officer demanding their presence in his office? Bearing in mind that today if you own your own transport you could get there in 45 minutes otherwise by public transport it could take 2-3 hours. Compare that to the demands received since mobile phones came in to operation.

Similarly, how long did it take for letters to be typed up, posted and replied to? With the internet, people expect instant response and the time spent drafting, writing, typing, checking and then in the post system is all done away with. My correspondence went up hundred-fold (at least) with electronic connection.

I never heard another request for computers to solve their workload problem. The fact that there was limited electricity, irregular supply where it was available and the need for technicians and wind-free storage space weren’t even touched on.

Why have we become slaves to technology rather than let the technology be our slave? The number of telephone conversations I have to listen to on public transport is annoyingly high. Why do I want to know about your troubles at work or relationship issues etc. People tend to forget they’re in a public space – I’ve even heard someone discussing  an illegal immigrant (before all the current media hype) being at their house: this openly in a tube filled with people they didn’t know. I’ve learnt as an Afrikaans speaking South African – the last language you want to use to say something personal in whilst in a public space is Afrikaans – you’re bound to be understood and I can tell a number of stories where this has happened to the embarrassment of the other person. Similarly, many other languages are spoken and although I might not understand what you’re saying someone else is bound to especially if you’re speaking louder than a whisper. I’ve eavesdropped in French, Swahili, Dutch and German. Oh, for phones not to work on public transport – but then how would I know when to get to the station to pick someone up?  How did we do it in days gone by?

A friend of mine in the US has experienced just the same sort of frustrations with technology in public places and has started tweeting out reminding people of phone etiquette in particular.

In the UK, we’ve managed (just about) for phones to be switched off in meetings and theatres (not on public transport though) but in Africa generally and other developing areas where having a phone is still seen as a status symbol (rather than where not having one is viewed as being in poverty), phones ring loudly, are answered and conversations held in front of everyone else despite all around the table being there for another purpose. How do we break these cycles?

One thing I’ve learnt from my travels in Africa and elsewhere is that it’s alright not to respond to a text, email or other instant messaging system immediately – sometimes you just cannot and, surprisingly, the world hasn’t collapsed. I’ve learnt not to expect an instant response and won’t chase too quickly. I understand you might not be able to.

There is a lot we can learn from each other … if we’re only willing to listen and observe what is really happening around us.

A royal encounter (or three)

I missed the Queen’s Christmas broadcast at 3pm on Christmas Day, but managed to catch it on YouTube later that day. Isn’t technology wonderful? Then a few days later, looking for something else, I came across this documentary Cue the Queen: Celebrating the Christmas Speech  covering nearly 100 years of royal broadcasts. Sitting and watching the Queen’s speech is a very British thing to do but an important part of the speech is the Queen’s link with the Commonwealth, an institution she is fond of and which is important to its members. And in case you question the significance of the Commonwealth, I recall South Africa being really chuffed at joining the Commonwealth again after the 1994 elections brought about the end of Apartheid. Also, more recently Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Mozambique joined the Commonwealth making a break with the tradition that it only include what were British imperial territories.

The Commonwealth evolved out of what was the British Empire. Given how African countries regard the Commonwealth, I wonder how the current de-colonising movement reconciles itself with the idea of Commonwealth or does it reject the institution too?

The term Empire conjures up bad and good images depending on your experience and reading, the same with the term Commonwealth and even Monarchy.

In the same way the Queen and her institutions such as the OBE are criticised or welcomed, there are royal practices elsewhere which evoke similar responses.

A recent trip to Rwanda happened to co-incide with one by the King of Morocco. This would have gone by unnoticed except for the fact that the conference centre, opened earlier this year, was decked out in green and red (not ideal for colour-blind sufferers) and that significant roads were closed – one for a whole day and another, the next day for about an hour. The first menat we had to detour in a city not too well known, whilst the second saw us caught in a shopping centre parking lot for the entire time the road was closed. Someone came past to tell us the King of Morocco was visiting the bank he was buying (I haven’t tried to verify this purchase).

I have no issue with such visits, and royalty and other significant people have a right to travel and do business, but do they have a right, without warning to the locals to disrupt business in this way? I later heard the disruptions had been notified through the press – but not all of us read Kinyarwandan…Someone else mentioned that this hadn’t been too bad. The King of Jordan’s visit saw the whole city centre shut off for a week!

And it’s not just Rwanda. We’ve had to wait for two hours on a Ghanaian motorway for the President’s cavalcade to pass by and similarly in Tanzania, we’ve been virtually pushed off the road pending a diplomatic fly-by on tar… eventually. Closer to home, in London, I recall getting very frustrated when teaching as I had to wait at the traffic lights on the A4 for some diplomat or other ‘important’ person to pass by… eventually… before I could get into the college to educate the next generation. And I have to remind myself that the police cordon I had to cross in November 2004 to do my viva was not because George Bush was passing through but rather to keep the protesters from blocking the roads in protest at his visit.

You’d be forgiven if you thought by now that I am anti-monarchy. I’m not, I’m afraid. One of my fondest memories is the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip to the Bank of England when I worked there – the Duke did his walk-about on our side of the welcome gathering and enquired why we’d left our desks to come and see him and the Queen. He was sure we had more important things to do. This was followed by a ‘Thank you for coming to see us though.’ A gentle acknowledgement that there was more to life… Admission time: I’m  a sucker for pomp and ceremony (a form of escapism?) but in its place and time and that doesn’t extend to interfering with the economy or education. In this day and age when equality is being promoted and the safety of leaders is potentially under greater threat than in previous years (a statement open for debate), surely keeping a low profile and blending in is called for?

One of the striking comments in the documentary on the Queen’s Christmas Speech was towards the end when after hosting a huge banquet, she quietly made her way to a train to arrive the next morning in time for her next engagement. No fuss or bother. Given her time on the throne and extent of her reign across countries, I for one hope the Queen has secretly written an autobiography or reflection on her years in office which will eventually be published – it would be another facet in the incredible diamond we call history. It would also, by default, explore how the monarchy has changed and possibly include reasons for the change.

People in leadership positions are doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t. I can’t help but think of how Jan Smuts was viewed during his command of the forces in East Africa in 1916 – some loved him and felt he did the right thing being in the frontlines with the men, whilst others felt he should have stayed at headquarters and commanded from there. There are possibly more similarities between the Queen’s behaviour today and that of Smuts in East Africa than what we see with most African leaders (President Magafule appears to be an exception).

On the pragmatic side, while we are forced to have these ‘time outs’, it’s worth considering why we insist on rushing around, filling every minute with doing something. My world didn’t end and students were still ready for their exams despite all the time I’ve given to waiting for royalty (formal and informal) to pass to who knows where. And it gives us something to talk (or complain) about.

 

A value-able year

2016 has been an incredible year, and it’s not quite over yet. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve listening to the recording of the Christmas Eve service from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. A time of reflection pending new beginnings on Christmas Day for those of the Christian faith. On Thursday afternoon I was with a group of Muslim women celebrating the story of Jesus – The Prophet. And on Tuesday at a concert of carols was reminded by one of the singers how pleased she was that although performing in a church, she wasn’t forced to listen to what it was to be a believer.

This has been a particularly poignant Christmas season in many ways which I think reflects the past year. It, the Christmas season, started with a friend asking how Christ featured in Christmas. The ensuing discussion round the traditional Christmas dinner prompted some serious thinking. Going to church was my standard answer, however my paternal grandmother was known for not going to church on Christmas day – she was quite open about giving her seat up ‘for the heathens’ who don’t venture into church the rest of the year. The commercialisation of Christmas seems to have taken over, yet underneath there’s a move to get back to the heart of things. This isn’t just a Christian thing – it was strongly apparent in my discussions with Muslim women and many others this year.

We haven’t put up Christmas decorations this year – we seldom do. We have a baobab tree (a model of one) which is smothered with Christmas decorations all made in Africa out of seeds and other local materials. This remains out all year round fitting in with our general take on anniversaries and other events – why should Valentine’s Day only be once a year? And if one of us forgets our wedding anniversary, it’s something to laugh about – it was my turn this year! (and that’s after 20 years of marriage).

I extend this to Remembrance Day as well – every day in my role as an historian I remember the sacrifice men and women have made to keep us safe and to create what they believed was a better world. Usually, however, I do participate in a service on Remembrance Sunday but this year refused to do so. Thankfully, I was in South Africa which made it slightly easier – it was my protest at how I’ve seen Remembrance Day morph into a Remembrance season: are you wearing a poppy? How big or unique is your poppy? how dare you not wear a poppy! and then there was the Poppy Lottery – I could probably live with the idea except for having seen the adverts: all about what I can win with a passing mention at the end of what it was for.

The British referendum on relations with Europe, the US national election, the South African local elections all played their part in challenging the status quo. After 20 years in the UK I felt an outsider, yet in South Africa for the first time I felt as though there was a genuine sense of equality at grassroots’ level despite what was happening in political circles. I also found myself on uncertain ground as the education project I’ve been involved in for nearly ten years moved from Tanzania (village life) to Rwanda (city life). It was quite fitting that earlier in the year we had visited Iceland and I’d stood with one foot on each of the tectonic plates (thankfully they didn’t move). The outcome of all these experiences was a consolidation of my identity and my values – what I stand for and being true to myself. And if this requires speaking out, so be it. Hence the opening accounts to this post. It’s time we get back to basics and remember that all come into the world in the same way and we all have the same end, it’s what we do in between that matters.  If I don’t stand up for what I believe, no-one will. My alter-ego on Facebook – Minority Historian – was chosen for a reason: to bring the minority stories of the Great War in Africa to the fore irrespective of what others believe to be true (I let the documents do the talking).

I’ve met some incredible people this year – all going through similar journeys – a lady (yes, she is one because she carries herself with pride and humility) with alopecia; her husband who came out in public as a transdresser (I can’t see the point why we don’t object to women wearing trousers but we do object to men wearing dresses unless they – the dresses – are of a religious nature), and three authors with learning differences and challenges who have written/created wonderful stories despite all the hurdles placed in their way. Interestingly, where doors have closed in the UK, they have opened in South Africa – completely unexpectedly. Similarly, in my history life, so many people around the world are willing to share information and help get to the truth – their tenacity in doing so continues to astound and inspire me.

And I can’t but be encouraged by three special people – a Jewish friend who fastidiously maintains the Sabbath even when planning a holiday, another who gives up a chunk of her time at this time of the year to work for Crisis helping the homeless of London feel included and valued. The third is a more recent contact/friend whose work I’m waiting to publish – who at the time of writing has been held captive somewhere in Africa for over 4 months with no charges laid against him – from the little I know, a true humanitarian who was using his skills to help make the world a little more bearable for others. He stood his ground despite knowing what c/would happen. May he soon be released and be re-united with his family.

Who knows what next year will bring – but with faith (of whatever kind) and humanity (treat others as you want to be treated) we can face it wherever we are in the world.

May 2017 be all you wish it to be.

 

 

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.