Back to nature

There’s been quite a bit lately about wild animals roaming residential streets and business areas alongside many sharing photos of what’s happening in their gardens or what they discover on walks. Bottom line – nature is important to us, it provides an out from our hectic and chaotic environments, a place of solace and peace. And, it’s nothing new…

Reading John Master’s Loss of Eden trilogy, there is quite a bit about poaching and animal tracking. One young man, the son of the local squire, Lawrence Cate, should never have been sent to the front and in book 3 he is eventually shot for cowardice and deserting his post during an attack. However, all in his regiment, including his CO, saw his actions as shell shock – in the period before it was recognised. This provides food for thought in other directions, but young Lawrence faces his friends who volunteered to form the shooting party unblindfolded telling them about the song of the blackbird and how sweet it is compared to other birds. His retreat to mental bird watching was his escape from the horrors of what he was to face causing him to become paralysed at a time he most needed to be active. In contrast, the unit’s ace sniper was another young man, Fletcher Gorse, whose grandfather had taught him to poach, Fletcher in turn having taught Lawrence all he knew about the wilds of Kent.

Birds feature too in the famous Sebastian Faulks war novel – Birdsong – while a butterfly provides a poignant moment towards the end of Erich Maria Marque’s All quiet on the Western Front. But what about in Africa?

There are all the accounts of big game hunters turned soldier and intelligence agent such as Frederick Selous, Arnold Wienholt etc, while others such as Cherry Kearton were renowned wildlife photographers and authors. More telling though are the letters, memoirs and diaries men wrote – there are sometimes long descriptions of the fauna and flora passed, Bruce Cairnie’s diary in particular giving observations of the landscape. WW Campbell (East Africa by Motor Lorry) describes the various bugs he and other mechanical/motor transport drivers encountered. Richard Meinertzhagen whose diaries (and published versions) have raised many questions about their validity provide a rich insight into the wildlife of Africa through the drawings and sketches he populated the text with. No doubt these descriptions of nature when compared with descriptions of mud and other horrors from the Western Front gave the idea that the men serving in Africa were on safari, having an easy time. But for the men themselves it was an outlet, a way to deflect attention from the horrors they did not want to concern family with. For many, in Africa, nature was both a solace and the source of their greatest fear – it had more stealth and impact than the human enemy; it had no allegiance to any superpower other than itself and the laws of nature.

 

Confirming the past

Richard Meinertzhagen‘s reputation has suffered since the publication of Brian Garfield’s book, and for historians trying to work out what is fact and what enhanced, is quite a challenge, particuarly with the existing conditions for accessing his papers which are archived at the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s a case of working through other primary source material to verify dates and actions – a slow and tedious process, but really what any historian worth their salt should be doing. The value of double checking sources and returning to primary material has been brought home to me most recently with my current research project – despite numerous biographies written on Kitchener, accessing primary source material is revealing how interpretations have led to various aspects of the man being ignored, downplayed or misinterpreted. And I’m conscious that others might say the same about my discoveries as new insights and materials come to light in future years.

But returning to Meinertzhagen, looking for something else, I was interested to discover how the Natural History Museum is managing to find a way to unravel the confusion of the birds in its collection gifted to them by Meinertzhagen: using lice. This is a great step forward as a few years before on a visit to the Museum to see the Cherry Kearton (Legion of Frontiersmen) WW1 photo collection, the person I spoke to wasn’t sure when, if ever, they would be able to sort out the Meinertzhagen collection conundrum.

Another overlap between the two men, Kitchener and Meinertzhagen concerns Israel/Palestine. It doesn’t appear the two men met, but Meinertzhagen had close encounters with another Kitchener did: Churchill, and the latter’s correspondence too provides some interesting insights into Meinertzhagen.

A man whose past I find helpful in understanding Meinertzhagen is Lourens van der Post: obituary vs JDF Jones biography. I’m not sure either man really set out to be deceptive. Can anyone live a multiple life like theirs for as long without anyone realising? It’s more likely they were sufferers of Mutiple/Dissociative Personality Disorder. That’s for psychologists to determine, for the historian, they provide a reminder of the value of returning to primary source material and a prompt to look outside the world of traditional history to other disciplines and obscure links.

 

 

A Kodak Moment…

I recently wrote about things over 100 years old. Well, one I left off the list was the Kodak camera – of particular interest because it was the make used by wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton whilst on service in East Africa with the Legion of Frontiersmen during World War 1.
The inventor of Kodak was George Eastman (1854- 1932) who explains:

Kodak – This is not a foreign name or word; it was constructed by me to serve a definite purpose. It has the following merits as a trademark word. First, It is short. Second: It is not capable of mispronuncuation. Third: It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated wiht anything in the art except the Kodak.

(PBB: p24)

In 1891 the first Kodak factory was set up in the UK, on the outskirts of London.
At the time the US entered the war in 1917, Eastman was releasing what he called ‘The Soldier’s Kodak Camera’ which was small enough for men to take across to the front.
Before this, however, the company had laid off ‘about 2/3 of [its] Harrow staff’ and was preparing to ‘put the remainder on short time’. All continental branches except one in Paris had been closed. (CA: p238)

When Eastman heard at Christmas 1916 that four of his German staff had been killed, he wrote to the manager:

You may continue paying their wives what is necessary up to one half of their salaries… I shall be glad to know how you are fixed and whether you need additional money…

(CA: p.295)

The generosity of such wealthy men is often overlooked. Another was Ernest Oppenheimer who helped survivors of the torpedoed Galway Castle get back on their feet. He was on the ship himself, returning to South Africa, when it was hit on 12 September 1918.

Reading:
Carl William Ackerman: George Eastman, 1930
Peter Brooke-Ball: George Eastman and Kodak, 1994
Harry Oppenheimer: Sir Ernest Oppenheimer