Review – Chiwaya War Voices: Melvin E Page

One of the benefits of being a publisher and coordinating the Great War in Africa Association is early access to some material. One of these has been Chiwaya War Voices by Melvin E Page published in March 2020 by the Great War in Africa Association.

In discussion with Mel about what best to do with the hundreds of interviews he’d conducted back in the 1970s and some later in the 1990s, we decided it would be helpful to future researchers for these to be printed and made generally available. I hadn’t seen the full scope of the interviews at this stage but was fully aware of the quality and range of interviews through my thesis work on the Great War in Africa.

Rather than use Mel’s Chiwaya War book or KAR: A history of the King’s African Rifles , I had chanced upon his thesis and what a treasure trove as it contained transcriptions of the interviews as opposed to their essence being integrated into a monograph. Now, we have access to over 140 interview transcripts in a two-volume book with no commentary other than Mel setting out in how he conducted his research and the structure of the material. The Index at the back of the book is a table rather than the traditional-style index. This was done purposefully to assist researchers in identifying the the broad type of material they are after – KAR, askari, carrier, male/female, WW1 or WW2. Mentioning WW2, there is some reference to that in Chiwaya War Voices as comparative to WW1 experiences with some fascinating insights although the main World War Two interviews will be made available in a future publication which Mel is currently working on: Chiwaya War Echoes.

Chiwaya War Voices is a valuable addition to the published primary source material on the war in East Africa. To date, most researchers have quoted Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews for black African experiences. Having looked at the Hodges collection at the Bodleian Library, there is no comparison between the two collections. Chiwaya War Voices is wider reaching in terms of people interviewed, quantity and topic covered. For anyone interested in war burials you will find numerous mentions in Chiwaya War Voices, but not one in any of Hodge’s interviews, However, this is not to discount Hodges’ work but rather to encourage researchers to consider their material carefully within the regional context. Hodges’ interviews were Kenya based whilst Mel’s are Malawi based. Hodges had an interest in the political repercussions whilst Mel’s is more social, The differences continue to echo – relationships appear far more egalitarian between different cultural groups based on the interviews Mel conducted than those by Hodges.

And for anyone questioning some of the experiences in Distinguished Conduct, Mel’s constructed history of Juma Chimwere, Chiwaya War Voices is a good place to look (and then the KAR records at TNA).

More thoughts on KAR vs Schutztruppe Soldier – Gregg Adams

King’s African Rifles vs Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 by Gregg Adams is an 80 page overview of the two forces during the latter part of the East Africa campaign which I reviewed back in 2017. Recently I had reason to revisit the book and on this occasion there were a couple of things which caught my eye which I thought worth exploring/sharing.

Glossy images are used to explain the differences between the two sides and I have to say these jarred a bit, more so on this read than my first – perhaps because I’m working more with photos for various reasons.

For those in the know, a quick glance at the trousers men are wearing indicate who was German and who British. However, at this stage of the war we also know men were commandeering uniforms from those they captured or found dead, so beautifully painted images of men all wearing the same immaculate uniforms seems a little out of place. However, the images do allow comparisons to be made.

Another interesting feature is the image of the King’s African Rifles soldier wearing boots in the images used to explain the uniform. This raises some questions as at the start of the war the KAR went barefoot and not being supplied with shoes/boots was an issue for West Africans. Mel Page in his novel-biography of Chimwere Juma explains that when Juma became a sergeant and was entitled to wear shoes he declined as his feet were not used to them; they would cause him more problems than going without – although he did ask for an upgrade in shirt. A later photograph in the book, by J Granville Squires, of KAR marching suggests the men have some sort of foot covering but they don’t look like army boots. Was it a case of the new recruits being issued with footwear of some kind as part of their 6-9 month training prior to going into the field? Perhaps with a little more delving into primary sources and the General Routine Orders we’ll one day sort out when the KAR started to wear ‘traditional’ army boots.

It pays to revisit books – you never know what you might spot having discovered so much more between reads.

Policy change implications: mind over matter

It’s fascinating how things seem to come in spurts. Recently, it’s been around taboos in particular, black soldiers in World War 1 being told they have to shoot white soldiers belonging to the enemy.

This is something those of us working on WW1 in Africa ‘know’ but it really struck home regarding the impact this change in policy had on individuals. Melvin Page’s thesis on the impact of the war in Malawi probably has the most explicit comments around this topic through the interviews he conducted with KAR veterans and German Askari. Men comment about having to get their heads around having been told if they do anything ‘bad’ to a white man they will go to hell – particularly those educated in missionary schools. Whites had been built up as bastions of society, something to aspire too. Now all of a sudden, everything which had been taught and drilled into people was undone in one swoop.

I can just imagine the anxieties the men must have felt facing the enemy knowing there was a white man in the group and in line with the rules of war, he should be taken out first as he was probably in command. I equate this at a more basic level to being told after years of calling a relative ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ to now call them by their first name. It feels odd, out of place. I recall a student telling me when I reprimanded him for calling me ‘Miss’ – ‘but Miss, you now want me to call you Anne when I’ve been getting into trouble for 16 years calling teachers everything but Miss.’ He brought it home – you can’t change a habit overnight.

But how did these men cope with an instruction which would have far greater consequences than me calling an aunt or uncle by their first name or a student calling me Miss?

My trip to the Western Front with the school group helped in that regard. Dickie Knight was telling us about the Inuit hunter, John Sewak, who was recruited as a sniper. When asked how he felt about shooting men, he apparently replied that it was no different to shooting a seal. For many of the black KAR and Askari, the equivalent would have been to shoot a buck or other wild animal. Once he’d survived his first shooting of a white man and with untoward consequences occuring, it would have become easier. Although as with all/most soldiers, killing of any kind was not something they relised but rather what you had to do in order not to be killed yourself.

Another case was brought to my attention by Mahon Murphy in his presentation on his book – Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919 where Melanesians were told they would be forming part of the police force – the implication being that they would have command or control over the German prisoners and other inhabitants. A definite change in power relations.

A ‘simple’ policy decision can have a life-changing impact. How did these men deal with their experiences – physical, emotional and most significantly, spiritual? How did their families cope with men who had clearly come back different to when they first left? We can only really conjecture as most refused to speak about it.

I was quite intrigued recently to see a significant steep jump in divorce cases listed on the South African National Archives catalogue in the immediate post-war years. These no doubt for white families – what happened amongst the black and other African communities? Others I’ve been told were concerned with the increase in alcohol consumption.

I don’t think we’ll ever be able to think of all the possible implications of a policy change but it seems to me that those responsible for policy making should take a little more time and due diligence when considering changing the status quo and consider the support networks that need to be put in place to support the change and its consequences – long term.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Violent Intermediaries by Michelle Moyd

Michelle Moyd‘s book on the Askari in East Africa has been a long time coming, but at last it is here. I first met Michelle in 2000 when she was starting out on her study, not long after I’d started on mine. Over the years, she’s produced various articles and chapters on her research and, now, we have the definitive output. It’s definitely been worth the wait!

Violent Intermediaries: African soldiers, conquest and everyday colonialism in German East Africa, 2014, is an informative and accessible journey through the history of the askari from their formation in the 1890s through to their experiences during World War 1. Michelle explores the askari relationship with their kinfolk and the role of the camp follower as well as dispelling some of the myths about the loyalty of the askari to German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

This book has a wide ranging interest for scholars and enthusiasts from across the spectrum as noted by the reviews by Joanna Lewis for Africa at LSE and H-Net. In addition you can hear an interview with Michelle (1 hour) about the book.

As an historian of WW1 in East, Centrals and Southern Africa, I found the book particulary informative on the issues of recruitment, camp followers and relationship with their officers. It helps contribute towards a more balanced assessment of the war and the experience of the German side. Michelle’s discoveries concerning the askari accord with experiences documented in various English texts/interviews in respect of recruitment and loyalty which confirms that Africa had a different concept of loyalty during the war and it was not to do with nation or state.

A companion study is that by Myles Osborne, which also took a while to reach us, on the Kikamba. Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba c1800 to the present covers similar ground to Michelle and together these books provide the most holistic account we have to date on the development of the modern black soldier in East Africa in the early twentieth century.

Michelle’s next study as alluded to at the Great War in Africa conference in Stellenbosch promises to be just as illuminating and even more challenging – that of the role of women in the East African military. I wait in anticipation…