German reinforcements to East Africa – really?

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.

Culture clash: Rules of war

One of the things that struck me when researching Kitchener: the man not the myth was Kitchener’s idea on what constituted a fair war. He was said to have exclaimed ‘It’s not war’ when he heard about the first use of gas on the Western Front, and felt at a distinct advantage when facing the Dervishes with his guns against their spears. It was also apparent that there were differences concerning women – Kitchener offered the Dervishes an opportunity to surrender to safeguard the women and children whilst the Dervishes did not see this as an option. The role of women as camp followers was a further difference between the British and Dervish forces although Kitchener allowed the Egyptian Army to have female camp followers, as did the German Army.

These cultural differences were brought home quite recently again reading Robin Smith’s history of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 Practically Over. During the 1899-1902 war in South Africa there were numerous instances where the Boers misused the white flag of surrender by firing on the British forces when they were in close proximity having been lured over by the white flag. Reading these accounts, I often have the question ‘how would the rural Boer have known what the rules of war were?’ and ‘how likely were they to know the decisions agreed at Geneva and the Hague about the conduct of war?’ Few of the Boers had any formal military training.

What prompted me to write this up was reading of an instance where the Boers in June/July 1900 asked Archibald Hunter for an armistice whilst they sorted out who was to be their new commandant following the departure of Christian de Wet. Hunter obviously refused the request and the Boers quickly resolved their differences by electing a leader who promptly surrendered (p52). This incident was either a cheeky ploy on the part of the Boers or more likely due to their take on what constituted a fair war. Reading the encounters Robin has included in his book bring home how little the Boers fired at men, rather killing the horses to reduce the British soldier’s mobility. A similar attitude was evident in the derailing of trains – enough explosive to derail the engine and cause delays rather than death.

In the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 we read of captured soldiers being given parole and the exchange of letters complaining about inappropriate action in contrast to medical supplies being left for prisoners of war, local truces or understandings to bury the dead etc.

We tend to object to the other side ‘playing unfair’ – but that’s according to our rules. What about their rules? We assume all countries and cultures follow the same basic principles – think of the outcry at the Japanese Kamikaze or suicide unit of World War Two. Their view of prisoners being similar to that of askari in the East Africa campaign. And the more recent terror attacks where attacking civilians is seen as fair game in their struggle. How we engage in war was brought to the fore again when reading about China sending observers to the Western Front to learn what they could to develop their military forces.

Retaliation seems to be the standard response as seen in the dropping of the atomic bombs and targeted air strikes etc. However, I can’t help but wonder whether our stepping back to consider and understand the ‘other’ culture would lead to a different outcome than we have seen in the past.

Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment

Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment: Promoting military service in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries edited by Brendan Maartens and Thomas Bivins (Routledge, 2021) is another book which is difficult to review as such as I have a chapter in it looking at how recruitment varied across Africa over the span of the First World War. However, the book is more than just one chapter and although there was only the one chapter on Africa, there were resonances in the other contributions and simply some fascinating reads.

Elli Lemonidou’s contribution on Greece in World War One reminded me of the fear Britain had about the National Party in South Africa after the 1914 rebellion. I hadn’t realised Greece had experienced a coup during the war – Portugal had seen its move from monarchy to republic in 1910 while the Union of South Africa had come into being within the British Empire in 1910 and the 1914 attempt to leave failed. The chaos in Greece reflected that of Portugal and in all the challenge of recruiting in volatile climates with the resultant impact on the home fronts.

Emily Robertson considered the Australian recruitment effort of 1916 where the Australians objected to conscription. This differed to Kenya where the settlers were one of the first in the British Empire to propose and accept conscription as a war time measure. That the war brought a form of central control to the federal system again took me back to Kenya with people like Jomo Kenyatta and Harry Thuku realising the value of cooperation and working across cultural boundaries to achieve a common goal.

Thomas Bivins’ chapter on the use of women in USA First World War recruitment posters was a fascinating read and I couldn’t help but think of Ian Hamilton’s quote about ‘women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal’ (ref Kitchener: the man not the myth).

Jessica Hammett and Henry Irving’s chapter on civil defence in Britain during World War Two again brought home the importance of co-ordinated and centralised approaches. The importance of getting individual buy-in – ‘it all depends on me’, the value of word of mouth transference of information and ideas all seem to resonate with messages and calls for action since March 2020.

Roger Reece looked at Eastern Europe and the Soviet attempts to win hearts to help conscription made me wonder what overlaps there were with the South African Apartheid government’s attempts at winning conscript hearts during the ‘war against Angola’. This was also the thought reading Jessica Ghilani’s piece on USA army recruitment in the 1970s.

How Canada has embraced social media was explored by Tanner Mirrlees whilst Orna Naftali considered how China’s approach to building a positive perception of its army has occurred and Halim Rane and Audrey Courty look at how ISIS has conflated religion and military ideologies to achieve a goal. Unlike the other chapters, this last focused on an international war fought by individuals.

Brendan Maartens tops and tails the publication, and has a chapter on Britain under Attlee between 1946 and 1950, the latter causing me to wonder how it compared with Apartheid South Africa’s management of both a Permanent Force alongside National Service. These contributions put the role of media in context over time and space as well as drawing attention to the gaps still to be filled and significantly how such studies can be used positively to work for peace – well, that’s my take on learning from the mistakes of the past.

As with other compilations, its value is the wider picture and how there are similarities and differences across time and space. And with this collection in particular, another alternative take on an aspect of war, editor Troy Paddock’s World War 1 and Propaganda (Brill, 2014) being a complementary study across space but within a specified time.

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.