East meets West on the Great War …

… in Africa on Africa.

Attending a World War 1 conference in Senegal, I got the opportunity to meet with colleagues working on West and North Africa – all except one I hadn’t met before. The attendees were mainly historians, sociologists and anthropologists of African origin, who if not still resident on the continent received their basic education there. The result: a completely different focus to the African conferences held in Europe. This meant I was able to draw comparisons between the experiences of the some of the different countries involved in the Great War in Africa.

Now I know a fair bit about (but definitely not everything) East, Central and South Africa’s involvement but very little of West Africa (unless it’s their involvement in East Africa) and even less of North Africa. Despite the conference mainly being conducted in French, I was able with my smattering of the language and the assistance of a young student doing her degree in English translation to glean a fair bit of what happened in West Africa.

What struck me during day one, and which continued throughout the remainder of the papers, was the experiences of the indigenous or local peoples. The emphasis on the experiences of those who lived in forest, on mountain and near the sea and how they used this knowledge either in their fighting or to avoid being caught up in the conflagration was not much different to East and Central African experiences.

The other strong influence in the war on both sides of the continent (mentioned more in German East African accounts as opposed to the British) was the role of the slave trade. We know of Mzee Ali who had been a slaver but many of the routes used, the use of porters and management of the troops with camp followers and discipline was grounded in the earlier experiences.

Africa (the West in particular) has made the Great War in Africa its own in a way I hadn’t thought of having had a strong, dare I say it, European-influenced education albeit in Africa. The Great War was just one of the many wars Africa experienced. This single statement explains the almost nonchalant regard of the Great War centenary across the continent.

What sets the Great War aside from all the other wars is its consequences – how the interactivity of the war broke down beliefs and stereotypes which eventually led to independence. The white man was no longer infallible. They died the same way and lost their moral ground as Albert Grundlingh quotes ‘white men should have better ways of solving their differences.’ (War and Society). Black men, Indians and others tasted the lure of cities and other work seeing its attractions when compared to farming. The value of organising, discipline and working together to achieve a goal was recognised. All this and more eventually gave rise to the independence struggles.

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Review: World War 1 Reads and finds of 2015

This year has been a bumper year for books related to World War 1 in Africa. This is not too surprising given the centenary commemorations which has brought the little known campaigns in Africa to a wider audience.

Highlights of texts I became aware of this year include fiction and non-fiction and not all produced during this year. I’ve taken the opportunity of reflecting on the year’s finds to comment on those books I’ve not reviewed on the site.

On the non-fiction side, Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis broke away from the traditional military related accounts of the campaign in East Africa. Ed’s book sheds light on the relationships between the British metropole, the British South Africa Company, missionaries, settlers and local communities in a way reminiscent of Mel Page’s 1977 ground breaking work on Malawi and the First World War. I’m not going to say much more about Ed’s book here as I’m reviewing the book for an academic journal (details to follow in due course).

In a related vein, we have Albert Grundlingh’s War and Society: Participation and Remembrance. This is an updated and expanded account of Albert’s account of black South African involvement during World War 1. Many will be familiar with his Fighting their own war; however War and Society takes the story a bit further to include coloured involvement and the development of memory amongst black and coloured South Africans over the past 100 years. He pays special attention to the SS Mendi and the part it has played in South Africa’s remembrance of the war. Although I’m really pleased Albert released this publication, it’s a pity he left out the Indian involvement. As with Mel’s thesis being ground breaking, so was Albert’s – upon which both these books are based (and a recommended read if you can track down a copy and read Afrikaans).

Another two similarly ground breaking publications this year include Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries and Myles Osborne’s Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c.1800 to the present. This book, as I note in a forthcoming review soon to be published by New Contree, compliments that of Michelle’s.

Moving away from the ‘big’ picture, I was given a copy of Your Loving Son, Yum (available through GWAA for people outside South Africa), the story of Grahame Munro of Grahamstown who saw service in East Africa. His World War 1 letters, edited by Kathleen Satchwell, open up the war on a personal level with discussions about farming back home.

Another which gives more personal accounts of Belgians, Germans and British, and which has been available for a year now, is The Fate of the Prisoners during the East Africa Campaign. This translation of the 1919 Belgian report on prisoners contains amongst other accounts that of Ada Schnee, the German Governor’s wife. The accounts are of prisoners and guards who were captured and released when the Belgians occupied Tabora in 1917.

2015 saw the centenary of the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland, now Malawi and in commemoration of the uprising, the Society of Malawi dedicated an edition (vol 68, no 1) of its journal, The Society of Malawi Journal, to the event. Contributors included George Shepperson, David Bone, David Stuart-Mogg and Brian Morris. The publication provides a useful summary of the events which took place in 1915, adding some additional context to the general accounts and some reflections on the impact of the uprising on later generations.

An autobiographical account linking non-fiction and fiction was MJ Vassanji’s And Home was Kariakoo: A memoir of East Africa. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel The Book of Secrets.

It also proved a year of discovery on the fiction side with a number of novels coming to light. As I wrote last week, there is Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband drawing on the experiences of Karen Blixen and other settlers in the early years of the war. Margeurite Poland’s 2009 Iron Love starting in South Africa in 1913 and covering the campaign in East Africa, Escott Lynne’s 1921 Comrades Ever based on diary jottings of an unnamed person who served in the East Africa and finally regarding the war in East Africa, Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan alive: A definitive biography of Lord Greystoke which contains a couple of chapters (18-19) on the war.

My best novel discovery, which took place this week, must be my first novel mentioning a theatre other than East Africa and that is Roelof Steenbeek’s The Black Knight: The loss of innocence which mentions the West African campaign. It appears that this is a translation from Norwegian and a paper copy will set you back £30 but there is a e-version available through Amazon or Google Books.

I am yet to read all of these, other than Maya’s, so keep an eye on this site for updates on what I discover.

Looking ahead, 2016 promises to be another bumper year of publications making their way into my library (oh for more time to indulge in reading!). I’m waiting with eager anticipation for Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa which will contain some information on the First World War, and Ross Anderson’s soon to be released book on the King’s African Rifles. Norman Jewell’s On Call in Africa 1910-1932 which I was involved in editing should also be out in the new year bringing to light the life of a doctor who served with the East Africa Field Ambulance. Norman served for a time with Edward Temple Harris whose 17 Letters to his brother Temple have been around for a few years already (copies are available here). If all goes to plan, we should be seeing a range of memoirs and other official accounts of men who served in the King’s African Rifles, German forces, transport corps and so forth coming into the public domain – all on the East African theatre.

Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War as there are constantly new articles being added. They provide a broad introduction to aspects of World War 1. A lot of effort by the expert editors (those on the African front include Bill Nasson, Richard Foggarty, Mel Page, Michelle Moyd and Tim Stapleton) has gone into sourcing the contributors and to ensure they meet a minimum academic standard yet are accessible to a general audience.

Thank you to all who brought publications to my attention and for helping to keep the memory of all those involved in the Great War in Africa alive. May their experiences, positive and negative, help us to make the world a better place for all to live. We will remember them!