Some thoughts on African burials in World War 1

There’s been some discussion on and off over the past few years about African Indians, Black and Arabs not having individual headstones. For those of us visiting the cemeteries in Africa, it raises questions, some of which I’ve been investigating and still have some way to go. Researching Africa in World War 1 is complicated for various reasons not least because of so many different cultures being involved each with their own traditions. In essence, there are two main strands: logistics/practical issues and beliefs.

All men who enlisted were generally recorded. There are a few problems with the records though:

  • not all administrators were fluent in the language of the people they were communicating with which has led to multiple spellings of the same person’s name. On the Great War in Africa Memory lists (scroll down), which I’ve been working through, I’ve noticed someone recorded as Private John No 2 on the Zomba memorial, force number 5429. He was with 2/4 KAR. There are also 7 scouts named as s/o … , that is son of… all were enlisted in Nairobi given their service numbers and served in the Military Labour Corps attached to the 25th Royal Fusiliers. These names were extracted from the 1914-18 Forum. And we know from Martin Willis’ work on West Africa that many men enlisted there were listed by their tribe or region as surname. Some South Africans recorded their names as they were commonly known rather than give their family names, so we have men registered as ‘Left Foot’ with no further information available at this stage as to where they came from etc.
  • In the OC files at the SANDF Document Centre, South Africa, there are complaints from officials that in the field military officers enlisted labour without going through official channels and that the necessary paperwork was not kept. Where they were, the nature of the war in East Africa meant that some records were destroyed before they could be delivered to an administrative centre.
  • It still needs to be confirmed but it appears records were kept with varying accuracy and detail depending on where men enlisted. In territories where there was a longer history of British military operation, systems and processes were more developed. This meant better records were kept and accounts for more memorials in Zambia and Malawi and West Africa being maintained.

The outcome of all this, is that verifying bodies was not always that easy, not all had identification documents or discs, known in Kenya as the kipande.

Where reports were sent to the CWGC as in CO 534/37, the names are on the CWGC list, on occasion with a different spelling eg
624 Private Yafesi Kironde of the East Africa Medical Corps who died on 6 August 1917 was notified via the Colonial Office on 27 May 1919 with the spelling Jasesi Kironde. Others such as 419 Eria Kagwa who died on 23 November 1917 has the same spelling in the CO record and on the CWGC site. Both men were East Africa Medical Corps where enlistees had to be literate according to JG Keane.
Another 733 Lorenti Bin Jiridanu, died 23 August 1917 does not at first search appear on the CWGC list, however a cross reference with Keane’s list of the African Native Medical Corps in the East African Campaign shows the name as Lorenti Ziridanu and a search on CWGC for Ziridanu brings up 733 Rolenti Ziridanu, who along with his colleagues is remembered on the Dar es Salaam Memorial Wall. This demonstrates one of the record keeping issues mentioned above, quite often in East Africa, the ‘r’ and ‘l’ is transposed. It took me some years to work out that East Africans in the Tsavo area talking of Bula were actually referring to Bura.

Keane claims 113 men of the medical service died, yet the CWGC list for the unit only shows 31. This huge omission suggests documents went missing along the way or information was insufficient to verify.  However, as names mentioned in Keane’s  record do not appear on the CWGC list so there are names within these 31 CWGC East African Army Medical Corps who do not appear on Keane’s list – at least 3 identified: 1227 Yusufu Karuna, died 16 July 1918 remembered on the Lumbo British Memorial, 1441 Abraham (no surname), died 13 December 1918 and 1293 Aloni Kawesa died 22 November 1918, the last two both remembered on the Pemba Memorial. The conclusion that it was location relevant was dispelled by the mention of 387 Anolido Basajabalaba, died 29 October who is listed on the Pemba Memorial also being in Keane’s list.

Many of the names of men of colour which are recorded on memorials suggest the men were of one of the recognised religions: Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. These men are likely to have been more educated, those being identified as Christian being more literate in English and western ways. It is likely that units they enlisted in would have been more organised, such as the Bishop of Zanzibar’s carrier corps and other missionary led groups.

This raises another point, about those men who were not of one of the recognised religions. Local traditional beliefs meant there was a different approach to death from what many of us today recognise. According to Derek Raymond Peterson, p125, it was Christian Missionaries who introduced the idea of burying the dead to the Gikuyu – around the time of the Great War. Before that the community had left the body for the wild animals and nature to deal with. This is supported by MM Karangi, p131. This suggests that if a carrier fell along the wayside there would be great reluctance by others to touch the body, let alone bury it. Reporting deaths also becomes an issue as the headman or chief who invariably accompanied a carrier corps would be reluctant to report the death, and if as is suggested there were occasions where large numbers died remembering all would be quite a challenge if one did not have the literacy skills or means to record details – remember carrier lines often stretched for kilometres, all exaccerbated if one was not going to touch the body for fear of contamination and the unknown. The number of literate officers accompanying a carrier corps would be too few to keep track of all deaths without relying on the headmen or other leaders, and then there was the issue of reporting someone dead who had actually gone AWOL or deserted. Rather than give someone away, it was easiest to keep quiet. Other burial traditions existed for the WaTaveta who buried their dead standing up, and the Zulu, although not completely happy would accept multiple burials in one space providing the individuals knew each other. For them, moving bodies was taboo (HSRC, South Africa, 1978). Were officers not burying the dead then being disrespectful or were they being sensitive to the beliefs of the men they were commanding? This is a difficult question to answer without more research being done but it suggests that the decisions made 100 years ago in burying the dead were far more complex than we can imagine today with Africa having become ‘Christianised’ in many ways. That there remain different approaches to death and remembering was brought home to me in 2011 by a group of Masai women who couldn’t understand our visiting the dusty Salaita Hill and not long after a body in a neighbouring area which needed to be moved by court order, having been buried in an inappropriate place by the local priest, having a goat and other items placed with it to appease the ancestors despite the burial party being Christian. Some other thoughts are contained in this piece on bereavement and mourning in Africa.

Together with poor reporting of deaths and inaccurate recording of details, the CWGC decision back in the 1920s to remember through a visual representation in the major centres such as the Askari monuments in Mombasa, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, seems rather a good idea and where details can be verified the names are added to a wall of remembrance – irrespective of ethnic background. The War Graves Project in South Africa regularly submits names of men, and women, who are not on the CWGC list and who died in service for adding and I have it anecdotally from South African researchers that the person recording names of war dead for CWGC back in the 1920s died on the job with a batch never making it to London – place this at the time of political change to a Nationalist Government in 1924 who had never wanted to go to war in 1914 against Germany and who were fighting for independence from Britain (culminating in the 1926 Statute of Westminster), and it’s not surprising that a whole stack of names were not recorded on the CWGC lists.

Knowing the challenges I have verifying details on the Great War in Africa lists (scroll down) from the available and accessible records and how long it’s taken to get online what is there, doing anything at a more official level to ensure accuracy of information, is going to take a long time… all not helped by there being no agreed number for the African theatres of those who died in service or complete record list of contingents who served. However, in due course as complete a listing as possible should be achievable… a quick check shows there are names on the GWAA list which do not appear on the CWGC list yet, but the individual details are still insufficient to verify correct spellings, units and cause/place of death.

The above are rough jottings of where my investigation on the topic of death and burial in Africa during WW1 has got to date, all spurred by visits to the African war cemeteries. More detailed research is required on a number of fronts before conclusions can be drawn. And a recent perusal of the Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews and research he conducted for his books on the Carrier Corps found absolutely no mention of burials at all, but a fair bit about pay and pensions – not all in his books but more of that another day. This suggests that burials in the 1970s were not a big issue for the indigenous peoples and neither was it at the end of the war; not even the Christian missionaries refer to burials.

And I can’t help but end with mention of having seen my first WW1 death plaque the day I wrote the above. It was to none other than Rhodesian Native Regiment private M/1099, Mbaluka Mdala, who died on 15 December 1918 from pneumonia/influenza away from the military authorities. No knowledge of where he is buried either. Nevertheless, he is still remembered, as are all the others, named and unnamed.

Quiet recognition

Recently, I’ve been discovering acknowledgements to various forces which have tended to be kept out of the media spotlight.

The first was an article on Johannesburg’s oldest war memorial – one to Indian troops. It dates back to 31 October 1902.

And by the time I got to visit Delville Wood on Friday 16 March 2018, I had discovered that when the memorial was opened in 1926, there were three acknowledgements which didn’t make it into the white press. Thanks to Bill Nasson who discovered a newspaper record of it and referenced it in an article entitled Delville Wood and South African Great War Commemoration (English Historical Review, 2004).

  • Leo Walmseley laid a wreath to the carriers and labourers who served in Europe and Africa. Leo himself had been a pilot in the East Africa campaign.
  • Petals were thrown to remember the 250 Indian Stretcher Bearers from South Africa who served and
  • Major William Cunningham remembered the Cape Corps who had served in East Africa and Palestine.

The newspaper which carried the info was African World Supplement, xi Abantu-Batho, 1 October 1926.

It’s a pity such remembrance was done on the quiet but it shows that there are always some who stand out from the crowd.

Correcting misconceptions: CWGC

Many who know me are probably tired of hearing me go on about the need to get into the primary source documents and see things for yourself rather than rely on secondary source material.

Secondary source material has an important role to play in synthesising and analysing information, for filling in peripheral gaps and for stimulating further research.

The value of visiting, or revisiting, primary source material was reinforced when I visited the CWGC archive. I’d made links with the Technical Adviser for Africa who had invited me to come and see what CWGC does and to see what kind of information is held in the archive. I selected a few files which looked interesting from a selection of the catalogue I was sent (the full list was in process of being put onto a searchable database of which I was also given a preview. This should really help open up the archive for social and cultural historians especially). And boy, were they interesting!

One file contained information on how they differentiated between religions, important for the forces in Africa where a large number were Muslim but also significant numbers of Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. A series of letters explained how unidentified remains could be linked to medical reports of graves – head slope and teeth structure being used to differentiate Caucasian (white), Black African and Indian remains. This was important when mass graves were exhumed for relocation purposes. Yes, there were mass graves in East Africa – and not only as previously assumed for the carriers. (Mass burial appears to have been the norm for the German forces with memorial plaques listing all). The necessity of war and conditions of battle meant bodies were disposed of as best one could. At Salaita Hill, a trench dug for the Allies was filled with 11 bodies – 7 white and 4 Indian – reminiscent of Spionkop during the Anglo-Boer War. Although the individuals could not be named as all identifying marks, including uniforms, were not available – four years after war ended and seven after the battle – the numbers tallied with the war reports and the bodied could be moved to a more permanent resting place at Taveta – following strict protocols to ensure respect.

Where the graves of known individuals were to be moved to a place easier to care for, relatives’ permission was sought. Often this work was undertaken by fellow soldiers or men who had served in the theatre. The local women made wreaths to place in the cemeteries – white flowers dominated. It is worth noting in this regard that this was the process for white British graves, including British citizens in other countries (only in 1926 were the dominions recognised as separate identities).
Another surprising find was a hand-written report which specified ‘Native Officers’. The general belief is that only whites were appointed officers. Here we have evidence that 47(?) people of colour, presumably black, as Indians were classified as such, were made officers – and died, suggesting there were more. The challenge now is to find out who they were.

Returning to the issue of graves and the recording – or lack therefore – of carrier names etc, it was clear from the correspondence that this had been carefully thought through and was not for reasons of race but rather that colour (race) became an identifier because the majority were black. The other main divide was literacy – being able to communicate in English and the written form. Where people were not able to do this, they were not consulted or considered in the same way as those who could communicate in written English. These reasons were not articulated in the files, but consideration of the decisions made and how they were made highlight these issues as delineators.

The decisions made were pragmatic, based on the knowledge of the day. In essence if a person was literate, where their identity was known they were given an independent grave with headstone – this accounts for the carriers and labourers who were known to be Christian being given a grave. The Christian carrier had spent some time in a mission school and had therefore moved some way to being regarded as ‘civilised’ under the definition of the time. The French had a similar practice for according someone from Africa a French citizen.

More reading of the files needs to be undertaken but it appears that the reason for the separate cemeteries (superficially along colour/race lines) were along religious or cultural lines. The Hindi or Indian cemeteries generally containing a plinth and sometimes the graves of individuals.

Although not all were given a headstone, where their names were known these were kept in a register. The challenge was recording the names. This was not always done in the heat of battle as survival was a far greater priority and often it was left to the enemy to bury the dead. In other cases, it depended on the literacy and regard of the person as to whether the name was recorded. This particularly affected labour and carrier records. Some tribes (micro-nations) did not believe in burying their dead so left them along the way for wild animals to dispose of. The exhausting nature of the march and sometimes the large numbers of deaths meant chiefs were too tired to record names, or didn’t tell the white officers, and then of course some officers were better at keeping records than others. (One sees this in the War Diaries where some daily reports include the names of all those sent to hospital, died or arrived, irrespective of contingent).

The reasons stated for not giving everyone a headstone was mainly financial – a stone cost between £12 and £60 depending on where it needed to be transported to. For families who were not likely to visit the grave or to ask questions about the resting place of a loved one (ie those less literate, not of one of the recognised major religions), they were not accorded a tombstone or even a listing on a wall. Their names however are on registers in each of the relevant cemeteries.

Trying to reconcile data in remote Africa four years after the war ended could not have been easy. The challenge for us today, with our evolved values, is to find a way to accord those without a tombstone the same recognition as those with one. It’s worth knowing that the idea behind the askari monuments in Nairobi and Mombasa including carriers and other labourers, was an attempt by those in the 1920s to collectively remember the men who had no headstone.

Getting into the primary source material is imperative if we want to avoid ‘broken telephone’ and mis-understandings or perpetuation of myth. Reading the material for ourselves with all our past individual experiences brings new interpretations and understanding which adds to the jigsaw of history.

What is Corned Beef?

Doing a workshop with year 6 pupils on life in World War 1 provided some interesting points of discussion and as usual led to more questions and revelations.

Fortuitously, in the days before the workshop, transcribing the Pike Report into medical conditions in East Africa, I came across the minimum rations prescribed for the different groups of people campaigning in the theatre (Section 9).
– European and Cape Coloured Corps
– Indian Troops and Followers and local Indians
– African Troops, Arab Company and Gun Porters and Stretcher Bearers
– Carriers
– Cape Boys
– Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops
– West India Regiment
– East Africa Forces:
o Europeans, West Indians, British West India Regiment, Cape Corps, Indian Christians, Goanese Clerks
o Indian Troops, Followers and Local Indians
o Cape Boys, Somalis
o Chinese
o East African Troops, Followers, Porters
o Arabs
o Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops (European rations to Native Dressers, Telegraph Operators, Linesmen)
o Prisoners of War (manual labour, children)
o Animals
Despite the contents and amounts having been scientifically worked out, the men were lucky if they got the full quantity on a daily basis, and if they did, able to cook it. Most frustratingly, when India improved the dietetics for those in Mesopotamia, the Indian Government neglected to pass the information onto East Africa which resulted in unnecessary illness due to poor food intake.

Back to Year 6. They were going to get a taste of African food as prepared during World War 1 – without palm oil or ghee. This meant boiling yams, sweet potatoes and beans. The women preparing the food started cooking at 7 am the morning of the workshop, to be ready to serve at 1.30/2pm. They just managed it including about 30 minutes to travel to the venue and 30 minutes to set up. Their cooking had been done on modern appliances. How much longer would they have needed on an open fire? They were catering for about 40 people and only a taster as these young British people had not likely tasted food like this before.

The reactions ranged from ‘this is disgusting’ to ‘is there more?’ The flavour was rather bland – boiled food without spice. Personally, these were the best yams I’ve ever eaten so not sure what it says about me. But it also became apparent while thinking about it that boiling yams and potatoes would help purify water for drinking – not all that tasty at the best of times but it would have retained some of the nutrients usually cooked out of vegetables. Although cooking maize meal to a runny porridge state would have been quicker than to stodge form for fufu or ugali, spoons would have been required – finding spoons would be another challenge as the war progressed. Having the maize meal stiff meant it could be eaten more easily with fingers. If the men were lucky enough to have leftovers, some forms of maize meal would safely last a few days.

One of the featured meat items was corned beef (preserved). This led to the questions: What is it? What corn is mixed with it? We’ve had it for years but not thought until now what it is.

Surprisingly, the corn is salt – large grained rock salt, known as ‘corns’ of salt. It’s the introduction of nitrates which results in the meat turning pink, reducing the risk of botulism. Potassium nitrate – also referred to as salt peter (Source: Amazing Ribs, wikipedia)

Bully/corned beef could be eaten cold if you could get the tin open, it could be cooked, mashed and added to yams, rice etc to make a more filling meal and to provide variation – that is, providing supplies got through.