Remembering the war dead

As some readers might be aware, I maintain a few spreadsheets on the Great War in Africa Association listing names of those caught up in the First World War in Africa irrespective of gender, age, culture etc. The focus is predominantly sub-Saharan Africa with Egypt as a tag-on, the info gleaned as my research takes me, so unfortunately French records have little influence. Whilst many sites focus on those who died, the GWAA does not – it aims to record the names of all those involved – whilst those who died are said to have ‘made the final sacrifice’, a large part of me wonders whether those who survived and had to live with the horrors of all they’d seen and experienced didn’t ‘pay the higher price’. Today we know far more about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than they did then and I’ve been astounded at the number of war-time suicides (not recognised as such) for the African theatres suggesting there were far vaster pressures than memoirs and accounts suggest. These men and women deserve to be recognised as much as those who died in serving their country. And then what about those children born in captivity or discovering themselves in camps because their parents were suddenly regarded as a threat to communities they’d been part of for years? What impact did the war have on them? Child evacuees have recalled their experiences, but I can’t recall seeing any of internee children – either in Europe or Africa (but then I haven’t gone out of my way to look for them).

With the lists centering around areas of my own research interests and those of GWAA members (some of whom have kindly supplied lists), it’s not surprising that most records are British and South African. The National Archives allows for lists of medal cards to be downloaded saving many hours of tedious transcribing although most of the smaller forces and African recruited are on lists which are in process of being transcribed. Regimental Nominal Rolls are another great source also requiring transcription as do the records from South Africa as they have not been digitised, the exception being those who have British medal cards which survived the World War Two bombing and fire and those who died, being listed on the CWGC database. The War Graves Project has identified others who potentially should be on the list and once further information has been found, this will be considered.

Astute visitors to the GWAA listings might well have noted the inclusion of Belgian and German dead – thanks to these countries having over the past while made these lists publicly available. During the centenary years the Belgian lists have been tidied up which means the GWAA lists need to be checked and corrected. But what has prompted this post is the discovery of the Portuguese list – still to be incorporated into the GWAA lists.

Comparing the lists, it is intriguing to note that it’s the British and Belgian lists that include their African dead – these lists might well be incomplete, but they at least give a flavour of the range of culture and nationality involved in the war. The German and Portuguese lists only include white or European names. Another striking discovery is the large number of Portuguese dead – for Angola as well as Mozambique. The numbers for Mozambique although high as a proportion of the expeditionary forces who served there, it was the number of Angolan deaths which caused surprise – the only encounter one generally knows about in that theatre is the attack at Naulila where some lives were lost (16 dead on the German side). The 486 names suggest something more was happening, the death spanning the war years 1914 to 1919. The German lists cover the whole of the German colonial period with 232 names recorded and 6 unknown for the East Africa campaign of World War One. Namibia and Cameroons are also included. Interestingly, while German South West Africa was under mandate to the Union of South Africa, approximately 49 names are recorded for World War Two service with the German forces. The number of deaths for 1904 seems to far outweigh any other year in GSWA. At the other extreme only 4 names are listed of German dead in Cameroon/Kamerun (1914-1915).

Anyone visiting the GWAA lists should be aware that these are works in progress and are regularly added to. Gremlins sometimes creep in and can take a while to resolve, however, all is referenced so can be checked and followed up. If you have names or sources of names to be included, please get in touch.

Why remember?

I was asked this question at the 2018 Unisa conference on the legacy of World War 1 in Southern Africa. Specifically, the question had to do with why remember World War 1 and in particular those involved.

At heart, this is really asking ‘why remember the past?’ Simply put, our past made us who we are today, it’s part of our identity.

World War 1 was, for me, a pivotal point in our global past. It influenced, and still does, much of what we do today even if we aren’t aware of it. By remembering the individuals, their actions and the greater war we instil a better understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

I recall once (early 2000s) when I was teaching A Level History and Sociology, one of my white British students asked what British traditions there were. She was feeling rather left out with fellow students participating in Ramadan, Diwali, having foods or clothes they particularly associated with culturally, yet all seemed very comfortable socially in our diverse community. The other students had amalgamated British traditions into their own to the extent that what was traditionally British, was not seen as British. Once this was understood, my young thoughtful student felt able to engage with the others on a more level or equal footing.

More recently, the issue of British identity has come to the fore more overtly: Union Jacks flying where for years only the odd light had been placed at Christmas. I’m try hard not to read the alternative message being given to the ‘foreign’ shop owners in front of whose shops these flags had been placed. Whichever way one reads the placing of the Union Jack (which incidentally replaced the St George’s flag which appeared the Friday of St George’s Day), Britain is marking its identity and giving a message to Britons that they belong, they are important, they have a heritage. With this, I have no objection. As a foreigner-citizen in the UK, I have long felt that Britain hasn’t looked after itself. Its focus has been external to the detriment of itself. How often I hear ‘you can’t look after others unless you look after yourself’, ‘If you’re not well, how can you expect to look after xxx’. The same goes for a country. Britain’s external focus has resulted in more homeless children than for many a year, a drop in life expectancy and and and…

There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled as Britain redefines itself and creates a new identity. Remembering what was achieved socially and culturally during World War 1 with the support of Africans and other minorities, can only help create a Britain (or any other country identity) which feels inclusive and is tolerant of all.  As we bid farewell to 2018, my wish for 2019 is that through our shared humanity which crosses boundaries and divides of all kinds – we break down the growing silo identities and return to a state where all are welcomed, supported and united, simply, in being nice to each other. (And yes, I am an idealist at heart.)

Buildings – a sign of community

WW1EAfricaCampaign regularly tweets items from the East African Standard telling us about auction sales and other daily events which continued despite the war being fought a bit further south in German East Africa. It’s also been rather insightful looking into the lives of Indian (that is the sub-continent – today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) settlers in East Africa and their war-time involvement. It appears to be very little. The Indians who served in East Africa were contingents which had been raised on the sub-continent specifically for service in East Africa once it had been determined they were not needed in Europe. The Indians in East Africa were building businesses and running the railways, although there is an indication in Pandit Shanti’s (1963) The Asians of East and Central Africa that a handful did get involved in wartime service.

Further south, in South Africa I’ve been working on various histories of Presbyterianism. One concerns the denomination as a whole and its position in South Africa, but another is more local – to the town I grew up in. There the Presbyterian Church building turned 100 years old on 25 November 1916 – well, that’s the date the foundation stones were laid. In the more general history, comment is made about a church in Meikle Street Johannesburg having its foundation stone laid on 20 May 1917.

I’ve often wondered about church buildings. I love the one in Boksburg. It’s an old friend – one I was baptised, confirmed and married in (and the image I use for Minority Historian). The names on the walls are family and friends. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral in the week before Easter to listen to a friend play in Bach’s St John’s Passion. A beautiful building but with awful acoustics and a little ostentatious for my Calvinist background. Then there’s Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The former is my preferred building – the inside, at the time I last visited, still needing to be completed because they’d run out of money so the ceilings were painted black rather than be covered with colourful mosaics. Yet, the two places of worship that top my list are a tiny wooden church in a village in Senegal and one of the oldest mosques in Kenya. I happened to visit the church in Senegal one Christmas Day. The rough branches that had been used to create the structure were lopsided and the gaps between enough to allow enough light (and rain) through whilst keeping the heat of the day away. A hewn piece of wood resting on two stumps formed the communion table decorated with a jam jar filled with a few cut wild flowers. The pews were rough wooden boards resting on stumps and a goat stood on the dusty sand floor looking round the door.

The mosque was just as simple. A small white-washed rectangular building split in two – one side for men and the other for women. The building not big enough to cater for all its adherents.

Another church building I have close connections with is one in Northwood, UK. This church building was completed in 1915, the foundation stone being laid in March 1914. On the outbreak of war, the community offered the building, then a tin tabernacle as a VAD Hospital. This was accepted in November 1914 and by the time of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the newly constructed sanctuary was also turned over to the War Office becoming a hospital. The mother of artist Roger Hilton, Louisa Simpson, captured the interior in a watercolour she painted whilst working at the hospital where her husband was the senior doctor.

Why was there this need to continue building religious buildings during war? As indicated by WW1EAfricanCampaign’s tweets, life goes on and people in uncertain times look for sanctuary.  But is a building necessary? On a previous visit to SA, I was told by a young Malawian that his community back home was desperate for a church building. They were currently meeting under the trees. Given the poverty of the area, I wondered, what will a building help? Yes, it will provide shade, but the trees already do that… It will keep people dry if it rains, but that happens so seldom, I wonder if it’s worth the community investing the amount of money required.

Having asked the question on numerous occasions before and since my Malawian encounter, what is the purpose of a church (or equivalent), I came across an answer in Calvin Cook’s history of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. He says, ‘Buildings are a sign of community.’ It’s a thought provoking statement. They’re a place communities can come together, passers-by recognise and assume they know what goes on in buildings of a certain look – there’s a logic behind a church building’s construction as noted in How to read a church (wikipedia; video). The same with a mosque and synagogue. The latter I was told in South Africa only being allowed if there were ten or more Jewish families in the area.

The interior often tells you much about that community – the people who contributed much to its development or who are significant to its identity. I can’t help but think of the Rand Club, set up by Cecil Rhodes and others, which has recently gone through some financial struggles and uncertainty regarding its future as a result of the mining houses undergoing various changes since the end of Apartheid. Parliamentary buildings too, tell a story about the communities they represent (or try to control). Many of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose, yet many are reluctant to see any changes – the historian in me rails against removing bits of our past – I’m often caught by visitors who say things like ‘it’s good to see there are still pews’, ‘oh, and that’s a real organ, wonderful!’ Churchill too, was reluctant to change the set-up of the British Parliament in 1945. Nostaligia reigns.

I wonder what an all-inclusive, genuinely equal, building would really look like? I already see a difference in approach: Africa vs Europe vs Asian …

The Titanic and South Africa

The Titanic is probably one of the most famous ships of all time. The story of the sinking of the ship has been one of speculation and hypothesis. Novels and films as well as non-fiction accounts abound. Trying to decide what I could write about that didn’t have a current political slant, the Titanic came to mind prompted by a review of The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming which landed in my in-box.

I had to put the word ‘current’ into the statement as the link between the Titanic and South Africa is, or was, very political. The story spans the years 1912 and 1914 – for the astute (read World War 1 Southern African specialists) amongst my readers, you’ll no doubt have made the link between the Union Defence Act of 1912 and the outbreak of war in 1914. These two events were to play a significant role but only after Sydney Buxton had been appointed Governor General of South Africa.

At the time the Titanic was sailing, Sydney Buxton was President of the Board of Trade and it was because the ship sank that he lost his job and became Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa. To be specific, the issue that caused Buxton’s removal was that of lifeboats. He had failed to insist on an increase in the number of lifeboats with the result that there were only enough for half the number of passengers. Somehow he survived the initial outlashing of anger and questioning. Buxton was one of the up and coming politicians/administrators of the day. He was good friends with Sir Edward Grey – the two men regularly corresponding on fly-fishing and huntin and Prime Minister Asquith held him in high regard.

It was the resignation of Herbert Gladstone as Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa in January 1914 that provided a face-saving out for the British government. Buxton would be made a Lord and take over from Gladstone. The appointment was from February 1914 but he would only leave Britain as war was being declared and arrive in South Africa on 7 September 1914 before opening the Parliamentary session on 8 September. It was at this session that the South African government had to approve, in line with the conditions of the Union Defence Act of 1912, the South African forces going across the border onto foreign soil: a decision which sparked the 1914 Afrikaner rebellion.

In some ways Buxton went from the fat into the fire. Having had to fend off questions and attacks about lifeboats, he then had to mediate between Boer and Brit (rather anti- and pro-Empire) supporters.

For South Africa as a whole, it was probably fortuitous that Buxton ended up in South Africa. He seemed more personable than Gladstone, which was an important factor in dealing with the Afrikaans community. He was an avid listener and persuader. The Swazi king and others trusted him, he convinced the Botha and Smuts cabinet of the need to use the Coloured Corps and he ensured that no further rebellion or civil war broke out during the Great War. To do so, he persuaded Britain to pick up the costs for troops and equipment Britain had hoped the dominions would supply. If Britain didn’t, he argued, there would have to be a debate in parliament which the Nationalists would use to good advantage to promote the rights of poor whites and South African nationalism.

Buxton’s success as Governor General and High Commissioner is reflected in his tenure in South Africa – he left on his retirement in 1920. His son, Denis was killed at Passchendaele on 9 October 1917.

Buxton’s papers are kept at the British Library and provide a wonderful insight into South African politics of the day: he sent detailed unofficial accounts of meetings and encounters to the incumbent Colonial Secretary. What more could an historian ask for?

Marconi

A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.