The Global First World War

The Global First World War: African, East Asian, Latin American and Iberian Mediators is a collection of essays edited by Ana Paula Pires, Jan Schmidt and María Inés Tato published in 2021.

A review of the book seems inappropriate given that there are only essays on Africa, one by myself – looking at how the press reported the news in Africa and from Africa in Britain. For the latter, two newspapers are compared – The Globe distributed in London and The Driffield Times, Yorkshire. Within Africa, a range of newspapers and territories is considered allowing for a comparison of reporting related to the different interests for each country or group concerned.

The other by Ana Paula Pires and Rita Nunes considering Portuguese humanitarian efforts during the war. In particular they consider the role of the Red Cross in mainland Portugal, the two African territories, Portuguese East Africa and Angola, and other territories. The range of function the Red Cross assumed ensured it was a mediator of information between various players.

And this is the theme of the book – how individuals and groups mediated the war for others who could not be present at a given space and time. Now at last my copy of the book has arrived, I can safely tell you about it – it’s been a while holding back the excitement as I had a preview, the result of proofing and editing the text with the editors.

What a refreshing range of topics and there are a few other similar collections recently released or due soon – and I say this not only because I have a chapter in them. These are all books where the editors have taken an innovative look at the First World War and addressed what could be called obscure aspects. What these show, however, is the wide-ranging impact and influence the war of 1914-1918 had on the world.

I’ll be looking at each of the publications in turn highlighting what appealed to me in terms of my narrower interest of Africa – it might inspire you to take a wider look at non-traditional aspects of the war too.

Chinese involvement in the war is a rarely mentioned topic, these two essays being welcome contributions to the slow growing literature on their involvement. Although Chinese labour was to serve in East Africa too, the two essays concern life in Europe and in China. Xu Guoqi considers the Chinese workers on the Western Front and the art works they produced. Poetry, trench art using old shell casings and how they welcomed the British king are all considered. The other essay by Kwong Chi Man looks at Chinese intellectuals understanding of war in the interwar period and how their interpretation of the war led to the China developing into the country it did. The realisation that mass mobilisation of a population was possible and what it could achieve. I could see parallels with the development of African nationalism post-war.

Near neighbour, Japan, is also the feature of two essays. Japan’s foreign book market by Maj Hartmann shows how even during war a country could maintain relationships with both sides on a scientific and intellectual level. It wasn’t easy due to regulations such as Britain’s Trading with the Enemy Act but it was possible – especially with the help of neutral countries and sufficient justification of purpose. In contrast, Jan Schmidt looked internally at Japanese mass media, bureaucracy, schools and department stores and how teachers interpreted the war for students, as well as a photographic display or exhibition of the war in a large department store. Creativity abounds.

On the other side of the globe, in South America, Stefan Rinke considers Propaganda in Latin America. This fascinating chapter shows how consulates, ambassadors and the press all worked to appeal to different communities. A challenge where countries were ostensibly neutral and had first and second generation expatriates resident from belligerent countries on both sides. How did they distribute their loyalties to their country of heritage and to their country of residence, especially when conflict of interest arose? This theme continues through Guillemette Martin’s essay on The Mexican Press, particularly El Informador in Guadalajara and in María Inés Tato and Luis Esteban Dallas Fontana piece on Lieut Col Emilio Kinkelin who was an Argentine reporter based in Europe during the war years. While we tend to hear more accounts of people escaping the war, a read of this chapter suggests Kinkelin was reluctant to leave the theatre of war despite having his family with him.

Finally, as a companion to Portugal on the Iberian Peninsular, there is a paper on Covert wars in Spain by Carolina Garcia Sanz which considers how foreigners used the territory as a base for spying – themes of James Bond, Le Queux and other such spy thrillers emerge.

As you can tell from this short summary, an eclectic collection of papers revealing for me new aspects of what was a global war.

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.

Diversity in the military

Working through WO 132/21 on military intelligence from Delagoa Bay during the Anglo-Boer War, I came across the following figures of foreigners fighting for the Boers. The information, 19 July 1900, ‘was obtained from a well-informed foreigner recently arrived from Machadodorp; but judging by former information, it seems an overestimate.’

Germans and Hollanders – 5000
French – 2000
Russians – 1000
Scandinavians – 500
Italians – 600
Austrians – 600
Total – 9700

Diversity in war is nothing new and World War 1 in Africa was no different. In addition to the 177 micro-nations which participated in the East Africa campaign specifically there are references to Americans, Australians, Canadians, Scandinavians, Italians and Greeks. The numbers involved were not as great as those participating in 1900 but it reminds us that what might appear as a homogenous group invariably wasn’t.

Were these men mercenaries or professional soldiers? The definition of a mercenary is a person who is primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics, while a professional solider is hired to serve in a foreign army. Those who served in the Boer War and EA campaigns were professional soldiers although might not have received the training they needed to have.

Significantly, the Americans who served in the East African Forces and Legion of Frontiersmen did so at a time that the United States of America was neutral. The implications of this and the consequences at an international level do not appear to have been investigated. The Scandinavians generally were to be found in the Belgian Force Publique, many have been involved from before the outbreak of war. Many, however, were in the area enlisting to protect their territory or for the adventure. The numbers and extent of foreigners serving in the war in Africa is still to be fully determined.