Back to nature

There’s been quite a bit lately about wild animals roaming residential streets and business areas alongside many sharing photos of what’s happening in their gardens or what they discover on walks. Bottom line – nature is important to us, it provides an out from our hectic and chaotic environments, a place of solace and peace. And, it’s nothing new…

Reading John Master’s Loss of Eden trilogy, there is quite a bit about poaching and animal tracking. One young man, the son of the local squire, Lawrence Cate, should never have been sent to the front and in book 3 he is eventually shot for cowardice and deserting his post during an attack. However, all in his regiment, including his CO, saw his actions as shell shock – in the period before it was recognised. This provides food for thought in other directions, but young Lawrence faces his friends who volunteered to form the shooting party unblindfolded telling them about the song of the blackbird and how sweet it is compared to other birds. His retreat to mental bird watching was his escape from the horrors of what he was to face causing him to become paralysed at a time he most needed to be active. In contrast, the unit’s ace sniper was another young man, Fletcher Gorse, whose grandfather had taught him to poach, Fletcher in turn having taught Lawrence all he knew about the wilds of Kent.

Birds feature too in the famous Sebastian Faulks war novel – Birdsong – while a butterfly provides a poignant moment towards the end of Erich Maria Marque’s All quiet on the Western Front. But what about in Africa?

There are all the accounts of big game hunters turned soldier and intelligence agent such as Frederick Selous, Arnold Wienholt etc, while others such as Cherry Kearton were renowned wildlife photographers and authors. More telling though are the letters, memoirs and diaries men wrote – there are sometimes long descriptions of the fauna and flora passed, Bruce Cairnie’s diary in particular giving observations of the landscape. WW Campbell (East Africa by Motor Lorry) describes the various bugs he and other mechanical/motor transport drivers encountered. Richard Meinertzhagen whose diaries (and published versions) have raised many questions about their validity provide a rich insight into the wildlife of Africa through the drawings and sketches he populated the text with. No doubt these descriptions of nature when compared with descriptions of mud and other horrors from the Western Front gave the idea that the men serving in Africa were on safari, having an easy time. But for the men themselves it was an outlet, a way to deflect attention from the horrors they did not want to concern family with. For many, in Africa, nature was both a solace and the source of their greatest fear – it had more stealth and impact than the human enemy; it had no allegiance to any superpower other than itself and the laws of nature.


Experiential learning

I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.

So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.

Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.

While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.

In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?

And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.

Teaching the Great War in Africa

Ready packaged resources for those who want to explore the Great War in Africa are scarce. However, that shouldn’t put teachers and other educators off doing so as the amount of useful material on the web is increasing daily.
The biggest challenges a teacher will face is what to focus on and where to find enough background material which can be digested in a short space of time. The best place to start is with an overview and, for this, the most comprehensive coverage is Hew Strachan’s World War 1 in Africa. This is predominantly a military overview but does allow some social and cultural information to be gleaned, albeit from a mainly British perspective. Political aspects are a little more difficult but there are some texts available as will be noted below.

Campaigns were fought across Africa while troops and auxiliary forces from Africa were used in Europe and elsewhere. My interest is in the action which took place on the African continent, and a good place to start understanding the African campaigns is with the East African campaign which was fought from 8 August 1914 until 25 November 1918. Contrasting why fighting started here on the 8th whilst in Togoland it started on the same day as fingint in Europe will give some of the varied reasons for countries going to war.

The war in East Africa is often regarded as ‘the forgotten campaign’ and this statement provides a starting point for discussion – why was it forgotten? Is it still forgotten? What evidence is there? Are there other African conflicts (eg Togoland) which are even ‘more forgotten’? To assist with answers to these questions, a list of known published texts (books and articles) and websites on the Great War in Africa can be found on the Great War in Africa Association (GWAA) site. The lists cover all the African campaigns of World War 1 in all languages thereby allowing comparisons between different belligerent nations, and where freely obtainable texts are available the relevant link is provided.
Numerous autobiographies and regimental histories are mentioned on the lists and analysis of these in terms of who the authors are, when they published and what groups of people haven’t published provide some interesting points for debate. What does it mean for historians today as they try to write a history which is far more inclusive when significant accounts of the time remain unrecorded in written format?

For teachers of media, culture and literature, there are lists of novels and films of the campaigns in Africa. A quick perusal will indicate that these are almost exclusively on the East Africa campaign. These, in particular the fictional accounts, provide a good introduction and basis for exploring myths and perceptions of the Great War in Africa, especially when considered against some strategically selected documents. The BBC iWonder Guide on The African Queen is an excellent place to start as it touches on some of the issues in the film [image: For primary source material on the expedition there is The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology published by GWAA.

My continuing interest in the African theatres derives from the hidden stories. For me, it is important to look at what is missing or what different media of the same event tells us. Consider the photographs on the BBC iWonder Guide with Giles Foden’s Mimi and Toutou go forth: the bizarre tale of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition, and from the German side in Alex Capus’ translated A matter of Time, or even the first book on the expedition, Peter Shankland’s The Phantom Flotilla. Similarly, compare these four videos: ; ; and
The Great War in Africa provides something of interest for everyone: the development of weapons, how the war in Africa (all theatres) differed to that on the Western Front, the effectiveness of blockades, the use of aeroplanes, how attitudes changed with regards the arming of indigenous peoples, how nationality and identity differed in Africa to that in Europe as seen in the ease with which soldiers changed sides, the use of truces and parole by the military forces; the impact of the war on Africa politically and economically, the causes and effects of rebellions during war (, the rise of nationalism, the impact of settler initiatives and the role of women.

As seen above, for those looking for an ‘easy’ entry into the First World War in Africa, the East Africa campaign is a good place to start. At least 177 different ethnic groupings and 23 countries were involved in the campaign, fighting occurred in seven different territories, on the seas, lakes, in the air and on the ground. Around a million carriers were used to transport food and equipment as oxen and horses suffered from tsetse fly. After subjugating the German territories in West and South Africa, troops from there were sent to East Africa and many, having been sent home to recuperate where then sent to Egypt, to Mesopotamia and Palestine to continue the struggle. Information and links to these aspects can be found on

It’s worth keeping an eye on the GWAA for updates and material to support the teaching of the Great War in Africa.

This was something I wrote back in 2015 which didn’t get used. It’s been updated slightly…


What might Khandahar have to do with Africa you might well ask… it’s one of those one-thing-leads-to-another type relationships.

The link is Lord Kitchener who spent a fair bit of his life on the continent – of his 64 years, 12 were spent in the UK, 2.5 in South Africa, 7 in India, approximately 8 in the Middle East, Cyprus and Turkey, about 2 travelling the world and the remainder in Egypt/Sudan.

During his time in India as Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, Kitchener brought about some changes to the military structure and the way the regiments operated. Not all were successful, and as I explain in Kitchener: The man not the Myth, not all was a failure. One of the things that struck me whilst researching the man was his open-minded approach to fighting – he was open to trying new things, had been up in a hot-air baloon, was supposedly the first British general to fly in a plane, involved the navy with his campaigns in Egypt and thought the bombardment of the Western Front was not the most effective way of dealing with the Germans – he was certain there was another way to break through.

In line with this, to defend the Indian frontier, was Khandahar. Kitchener explored the use of skis for the Indian Army. However, he gave up on this idea as impractical. Alas, I couldn’t find anything more on Kitchener, skiing and Khandahar other than what is recorded in Arnie Wilson’s Snow Crazy: 115 years of British Ski History which I happened to be proofreading whilst researching Kitchener. How fortuitous is that?! especially as I don’t ski or do much snow-related, other than try and avoid it.

And then, proofing Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose, again Khandahar appeared. Here, Marthe talks of ‘bellowing skirts’ on skis – which if you’ve seen the cover of Snow Crazy, you’ll understand. Both books are fascinating reads – I had no idea any of ‘my’ history characters, ie have a connection with the First World War in Africa, were prominent in the ski-world. There’s more than just Kitchener… This opens up new connections to explore in due course. Marthe’s book, however, is more directly Africa related. She grew up in Kenya, spent time in Congo and South Africa researching animals, dodging the outbreak of wars and experiencing Apartheid as a visiting lecturer. Apart from her fascinating insights into animal behaviour and how it compares/relates to us as humans, she explores what a world of vegans would look like and suggests ways we can improve the quality of life for all. What an incredible 115 and 80 years of experience respectively, all wrapped into a few pages. Now, I just need to visit Kandahar.


One thing, 1903, leads to another…

or not… other than to be recorded in this post.

Looking up something completely unrelated other than having the year 1903 in common, I discovered this was the year South Africa adopted South African Standard Time which is 30 degrees east or two hours ahead of Greenwich. This was no doubt an outcome of the British having won the 1899-1902 war – 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African war, whichever you prefer. This led me to wonder what had been in place before 1903? Did each constituent territory have its own time which was different to its neighbour? If so, what determined this? If they were operating on different time zones, it raises interesting questions about railway schedules and even the expiration of ultimatums resulting in war… Today SA’s time varies to that of the UK by 1 hour in summer and 2 in winter as the UK changes its clocks but South Africa doesn’t. That one hour difference doesn’t seem to big a deal in the great scheme of things – until you want to phone someone.


From the same source, I also found these population figures rather interesting. ‘Coloured’ obviously being the inclusive term then for everyone who was not white. Does this mean there was a post-war census undertaken to obtain such specific (I hesitate to say accurate) figures for British South Africa? The size of the Cape vs Bechuanaland and GSWA is rather intriguing as are the population figures for Basutholand and Swaziland in particular. I wonder how these compare with the 1911 census figures? And how did Portugal manage to get figures? I’ve been struggling to find reliable data for how many locals from PEA served in the First World War, how many German businessmen were in the colony and and and… there must be official info lurking somewhere…

Population (1904).

Area in
sq. m.
White. Coloured. Total.
British South Africa:
Union of South Africa Cape of Good Hope 276,995 579,741 1,830,063 2,409,804
Natal (with Zululand) 35,371 97,109 1,011,645 1,108,754
Orange Free State 50,392 142,679 244,636 387,315
Transvaal 111,196 297,277 972,674 1,269,951
Southern Rhodesia 148,575 12,623 600,000¹ 612,623
Basutoland 10,293 895 347,953 348,848
Bechuanaland Protectorate 225,000¹ 1,004 119,772 120,776
Swaziland 6,536 898 84,586 85,484
Total British 864,358 1,132,226 5,211,329 6,343,555
German S.W. Africa 322,450 7,110² 200,000¹ 207,110
Portuguese East Africa (southern part of) 145,000¹ 10,000¹ 1,700,000¹ 1,710,000
Total South Africa 1,331,808 1,149,336 7,111,329 8,260,665

¹ Estimates.    ² 1907.

I decided to stop there as many researchers know, you can so easily get side-tracked. The relationship between territories and the peoples who constitute those territories form the basis of my research interest – trying to understand how they influence and impact on each other. Although this source isn’t the most reliable, it’s been tantalising enough to raise some questions which no doubt will be addressed more formally and with more credible sources at a later date.