Back to School and the Western Front

A two-day trip to the Western Front to learn about the First World War in Africa. This was the idea, but would it work? And how? As I know little to nothing about what happened on the European battlefields. Thankfully Dickie Knight from Anglia Tours would be leading proceedings and he knew a thing or two about the Western Front. We would double act with me ‘butting’ in when appropriate. But would this work to keep 40 ten-year-olds engaged?

By all accounts it seemed to, especially as the teachers and Christine Locke of Diversity House had worked with the young people to give them a basic knowledge base of World War 1 and Africa.

Our first stop was the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette . This provided an opportunity to discuss the differences between French, British, Belgian and German colonial management. The French cemetery would further provide a visual comparison for when we got to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites.
In the same cemetery there were Muslim graves. Muslims had played an important part in both the European and African theatres. With information from The Unknown Fallen we were able to see the instructions French Minister for War had issued regarding burial practices. This helped explain why the graves faced a slightly different direction (east) to the others in their uniformity.
A visit to the Ring of Remembrance provided an opportunity for everyone to discover the reach of the war – by finding their name. For most tour groups, everyone would likely find at least one mention of a family name. However, this trip proved the claim false. One young lass couldn’t find mention of her name anywhere – she was Nigerian, and this opened a learning opportunity regarding which European powers used African troops in Europe and which did not. A subsequent search has identified a relative who participated in World War 1 (WO 372/2/182235) – I think there’s going to be one happy young person when she’s told, and I’m sure there’ll be another learning opportunity at school.
Lochnagar Crater provided further opportunity to see how engaged the young people were as they went round making links with things they spotted such as the board to Edith Cavelle – a school block has recently been named in her honour. In contrast, mention was made of Brett Killington’s project 64 stops where New Zealand miners burrowed to make accommodation undground.
Dickie’s interactive session on gas attacks brought much amusement when the gas masks were paraded. But this did not undermine the impact the horrors of gas has on the youngsters as shown by the insightful questions asked. Again links to the African campaign were made – no gas attacks but Lettow-Vorbeck notes in his memoirs that the Germans had to drink urine on occasion when water was scarce during their attacks on the Uganda Railway in 1914/5. While men in Europe feared gas, those in Africa feared wild animal attacks and jigger fleas.
Next day we were able to compare trench warfare practices between the different theatres. Newfoundland Memorial Park introduced us to trenches and how these where used in Africa were different. The experience of the Inuit sniper John Shiwak provided a link to how black Africans must have thought when faced with having to shoot white men especially having been taught that this was completely taboo and that for those with a missionary schooling, this was one of the biggest sins ever. I’m not sure exactly how the teachers felt when I asked the young people how they would feel being told to shoot their teachers but it seemed to get the shock, horror and extremeness of the instruction across. Further, less controversial diversity was explored with the Legion of Frontiersmen, Shiwak having been a Frontiersman himself and how fitting that the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are linked with the Legion of Frontiersmen still today, whilst the UK contingent is Countess Mountbatten’s Own. It’s incredible how linked the world is and was – even in the days before technology seemed to rule.
Delville Wood took me to home soil and gave an opportunity to welcome everyone to another country (the land is owned by South Africa unlike other properties which are French loaned). Here we explored VCs and how, although in print all are equal, it didn’t work in practice – Walter Tull (not African) was a case in point. I was able to share my new found discovery about Samson Jackson (I’d managed to keep it quiet for 2 days having just discovered the link on my way to join the trip). Samson was a black Zambian who had absonded from his employer, Stuart Gore Brown, when he was supposed to return to Zambia in 1915. He eventually joined the 19th London Regiment and saw service in Europe and Palestine. In 1925 he turned to the stage and became an actor. Watch this space as we try and piece together more about Samson who was originally known as Bulaya.
Remembrance was fitting theme for the remainder of the time at Delville Wood as a brief history of the Museum was given and the latest all-inclusive approach being that the statue at the top of the dome by Alfred Turner was specially designed in bronze which would go black to include all South Africans, not just the two white micro-nations working together to calm the horse. Finally a history of the two-minute silence as thought out by Percy Fitzpatrick saw us move to Thiepval where we put the silence to use to lay a wreath and remember those who had done their bit to make our world a slightly better place. It also turned into a pilgrimage as one young person knew there was a relative’s name on the wall. A short moving service was held and recorded for her to take back to her family who had not been before and were unlikely to do so.
I learnt as much, if not more in these two days – not least that the past resonates in so many ways. On the Eurostar back, a trio aged 10 were singing Madness’ Baggy Trousers from 1980 – harmonies and all (I asked no questions, I was in such shock), another (white British born) was experiencing his first train trip ever – something I’m used to hearing about in rural Africa where children haven’t seen a train or even a bus, but not in the UK. It just goes to show, don’t ever make assumptions.
Thank you to all for making this a most enjoyable learning experience for me and for holding your school name so high. The number of compliments you received along the way were well deserved and something to behold. It was a privilege.
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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.

Khaki-elections: South Africa 1915

These days it seems that elections are never ending. With the speed that news travels in this ever shrinking world, we get to hear of elections in more countries than we probably would have at the turn of the previous century. If we are not voting in national elections or for international elections such as representatives in Europe, then there are local elections or elections for representatives in student and trade unions etc…

During World War 1, however, most countries deferred any elections to after the war and these became known as khaki-elections as many of  the voters were still in uniform. Invariably the party which was in power and which had seen the country through to a successful conclusion of the war was returned to power.

South Africa broke the trend (as did Canada in 1917). And, despite requests by Britain for the Union to delay the 1915 election to the end of the war, Prime Minister Louis Botha refused. Had the country not erupted in rebellion in 1914, he may have deferred the election, but with his country clearly divided over involvement in the war, he felt it imperative to obtain its approval before taking on any other commitments.

The election was held in October 1915 after the German South West Africa campaign had been completed. Technically, the election put on hold South Africans going to serve in other theatres, mainly East Africa. However, in reality, plans and arrangements were started in April 1915 with men being asked to sign up for possible future action and where a general or officer signed up for service in Europe who was wanted in East Africa, a quiet word was passed to them to hold back for a bit as something more appealing would be coming along.

The management of the country at this time is evidence of the incredible relationship between Louis Botha and his deputy, Jan Smuts. Whilst Botha kept his focus on the people and their wishes, Smuts  was working behind the scenes to prepare the country for its next challenges on the battle fronts (Europe and East Africa). One wonders what would have happened had Botha lost the election. This is not a far-fetched, what-if, type question. There was a clear chance that he may have lost the election and Governor General Buxton records that he did some careful calculations to try and predict an outcome which was too close for his comfort. Articles appeared in the press, calling for SA (Botha’s party) and Unionist (pro-Empire) Party members to remain in South Africa to vote and keep the Nationalists out rather than leave to enlist in British contingents. If they did so, although Britain might defeat Germany, they would lose the home front struggle.

The outcome was, that Botha was returned but with a smaller majority than he had before. He was quite concerned and wanted to resign believing he couldn’t really carry on. However, Buxton and others persuaded him otherwise and the following year, once Smuts was commanding over 10,000 South Africans in East Africa – all officially approved in November 1915 – Botha was able to take three months out to join his friend and visit the troops. In fact, Smuts’ being able to take command was also due to the way the country settled down after the election. When a commander was being sought for East Africa in August/September, Smuts felt he couldn’t go as Botha would need him to help manage the Union and General Horace Smith-Dorrien was appointed. However, Smith-Dorrien fell ill en route to South Africa and this provided an opportunity for Smuts to become commander. The other person who was keen to command the East African theatre was Winston Churchill – he clearly wasn’t considered a serious contender as I haven’t yet found documentation setting out why he wasn’t selected.

Clearly in this instance, a war-time election, although fraught with its own pressures, brought some political stability to the country and enabled it to continue supporting the Empire’s war effort.

Note: in this election as with all other elections in South Africa prior to 1994, only whites voted. Cape Coloureds were entitled to vote in the Cape if they met certain requirements prior to 1951.