It is generally accepted that the German force which served in East Africa consisted of the small military force sent out to control the territory supplemented by reservists and colonial residents, totalling some 3,595 men according to Ludwig Boell. On occasion, men from the odd blockade runner or neutral ship would stop by too, so it was with some interest I came across this statement in a Colonial Office file (CO 533/147 47197) ostensibly from General Aitken who was the commanding officer through the Battle for Tanga:
It is certain that German details from China were landed in German East Africa, mostly petty officers, probably from steamer Ziethen, strength believed to be 400. Also believed that German reservists from Australia, strength unknown, are in German East Africa.
On 28 November 1914, the Army Council was requesting the Colonial Office to have its representatives in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Australia confirm the information.
A month later, a note implies no reply had been received from Australia although there is nothing to indicate anything had been received from the other territories either.
Was this rumour that Aitken was reporting, or had a significant number of German reinforcements managed to enter the German African colony? A closer analysis of the numbers at the start of the war will need to be undertaken.
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.
Watching the Battle of the Somme brought the above line to mind. Men jauntily off to war – rifle and spade (and handgrenade?) over their shoulder in Part 1. In Part 3, the Manchester Pioneers are waiting to move to the front whilst German prisoners of war and British wounded are leaving the front.
Men and women of all races joined the war effort: some willingly, others not.
Why did those who did so willingly join?
Here are some ideas:
New beginnings or hiding away – European example; the Legion of Frontiersmen had a few over time
Conscription – in September 1915 the East African colonists voted in favour of conscription for the white settlers (TNA: CO 542/9). Amos van der Merwe shares Vetfaan’s experience of being called up in a later war in his novel Rolbos During World War 1, South Africa and Australia were the only two British Empire countries not to introduce conscription.
I return to Jan Smuts commenting on a piece written by Olive Schreiner in answer to the above question. Well, rather, it was reading the following which gave rise to the question. The reference for the quotes below is Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers vol 1, pp117-9.
She points out very truly that while the English Colonist, even he who settled in this country as far back as 1820, still continues to think fondly of, and feel sympathetically of his parents, and the great race to which he belongs, the Boer has become of the soil, soily; he has cut himself completely adrift from Europe and his progenitors, and their traditions and ideals over there; he has come to look upon South Africa, not merely as the land of his birth, but also as the source of all that is most dear and hallowed in his memory, as the object of his tenderest sympathies and aspirations. Why is the Boer in this respect so different, not only from his English fellow colonist, but also all the previous recorded types of colonist? The writer [Schreiner] points to the following facts as furning some explanation of this obscure and difficult subject. In the first place, the original population of the Colony consisted almost solely of males of very mixed nationalities; and the wives which the Company sent out for them were orphans from the philanthropic institutions of the mother country. They had no hallowed and enduring memories to cherish of the land of their birth, no parents’ homes to think of, with their thousand little trifling details which yet influence the hearts and thoughts of generations; this country was the first glimpse of ‘Good Hope’ which they ever had. No wonder, therefore, that they and their offspring cherished no sentimental regard for the mother country…’
Schreiner explains that the French refugees ‘did not bring any pleasant memories from their mother country’ as they were
‘separated from the bulk of the French population by great differences of religious belief and social aims, persecuted by their Government, and goaded by a nameless tyranny to rebellion and exile, they taught their children to love the land of refuge which providence had marked out for them, and themselves tried to forget the harsh stepmother of France.’
To this, Smuts counteracts using the letters by Bernardin de St Pierre who visited the Cape in 1771, in which he noted that ‘the one thing which struck him’ about the Dutch and the French colonists ‘was their strong sentimental attachment to the mother countries. He says the French always cried when the name of France was mentioned.’
Finally, a common language – Afrikaans – was a binding factor for the Boers.
One’s experiences clearly influences the way one sees and reacts to places. I couldn’t help but think of the views of the children/young people in Purple Hibiscus which I finished not long after reading Smuts’s commentary on Schreiner. The different responses to the worlds the children found themselves in can only be reminsicent of what the Boers and, I assume Australians as well as others, must have and continue to experience. The refugees of yesteryear are no different to those of today.
Standing in a coffee queue recently a discussion regarding work practices led to cross-culture discussion. He was German, me a South African living in London. He a lawyer, me an historian. He an employee at the university, me attending a conference at the same venue. Despite, or because of, these differences the fifteen or so minutes it took for the queue to subside passed rather pleasantly and quickly. It was one of those chance encounters where common ground was found and new insights gained – Africa and World War 1 being the common denominator.
With this uplifting start to the day, the conference too proved a setting for rich encounters. Elizabeth Edwards set the scene. Presenting a photograph of a gathering on a beach she set out to explain the relationships between the British sailors and local men posing in the photo. Significantly, the encounter was not just between the people (‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’; ‘West’ and ‘East’ ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, ‘clothed’ and ‘naked’) in the photo but between individuals – us (viewers) – and the photo. We all brought our own experiences and interpretations to what we encountered in this and the other presentations during the day. Jay Winter brought proceedings to a close with a paper on ‘Photographing War’ exploring how photographers engaged with what they encountered.
Another moving encounter I had was reading A fortunate life by AB Facey. In this autobiography, Facey tells of his growing up in Australia with no education. The experiences he had, the challenges, betrayed trust, the separation and loss of family resonate with experiences refugees (most notably from the Middle East and parts of Africa today) and exiled must experience. Yet, despite all hurdles Facey had to face, he succeeded and learnt to write. What an accomplishment and what a life! A testimony to him and others who’ve overcome similar hardships. And here, I think of friends now back in Rwanda as well as all those injured and damaged by war who are fulfilling, and have fulfilled, their dreams.
And in all this, one should not forget the encounters we have online – I’ve met so many amazing people through the internet who have in turn led me to other incredible encounters both in researching the past and in moving forward into the future – some of which I share through these ramblings and writings. And the common denominator? Africa!
That ‘little’ place so many refer to as a country has a magnetism hard to avoid. This morning, in London, buying a suitcase suitable for a plane cabin led to a discussion about travel. I was about to head to Senegal for another conference, the cashier had been born in Kenya, her husband in Tanzania. As we walked off my husband casually said ‘Asante sana’ (Thank you)… well, what can I say but that our leaving the shop was delayed for another few minutes …