Delville Wood and Square Hill

Recent enquiries concerning South Africa’s involvement at Delville Wood during the Battle for the Somme in July 1916 has brought to light that there is very little written about it. And although it’s the Western Front, the men I’m focusing on were African (South African to be specific).

Delville Wood is often regarded as the white English South African population’s equivalent of Gallipoli, Verdun or Britain’s first day of the Somme. For those wondering why I’ve specified white English South African, there are four special World War 1 commemorative events in South Africa reminiscent of the cultural diversity in the country then and now. In addition to Delville Wood which is generally commemorated every 11 November along with the rest of the world, there is Mendi Day on 21 February remembering all those who drowned when the SS Mendi went down. For me, it’s a fitting day to remember the over 19,400 black labourers who didn’t drown and who served on the Western Front and in Africa suffering the same privations and consequences of war others did. Then we have the white Afrikaans 1914 Rebellion more specifically the execution of Jopie Fourie who was found guilty of treason – he hadn’t resigned his commission before joining the rebels and finally, 20 September is Square Hill Day which is when the Cape (Coloured) Corps held their ground in Palestine. For readers aware of South Africa’s involvement in World War 1, these four remembrance events together demonstrate the richness of the country. However, missing from the ‘official’ events is that of East Africa and South West Africa. I don’t know of anything to commemorate South Africa’s invasion of South West in 1914/5, but the East Africa campaign is commemorated (knowingly or otherwise) by the Comrades Marathon which is run every year.

Back to Delville Wood. As far as I can tell, the best overarching account of South Africa’s involvement at the Somme remains Ian Uys’ work. I haven’t read any yet so cannot comment further. Peter Digby has written unit histories, a few others have compiled family history accounts, and then there is the website of Delville Wood itself. It is high time some brave historian (enthusiast or academic took on the challenge of writing a comprehensive account of South Africa’s involvement on the Western Front).

For those living in the Durham area, a novel approach to theatre-going featured the Battle of the Somme in a production 1916: No turning back (Thursday 21 July to Sunday 28 August 2016). The production takes an unusual approach to engaging the audience in experiencing the war and gives a flavour of what the South African troops might have experienced.

For those unable to get to Durham to see 1916: No tunrning back, Peter Dicken’s speech at Delville Wood 2016 gives some idea and an overview of what happened.

We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heardFrightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.

Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.

This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!

This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.

To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.

On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.

I’ve recently spent time at the SANDF Document Centre (South African Military Archives) in Pretoria and have as usual been astounded at the amount of material held. Yet, most researchers only access the military service cards. With this in mind and the snippets I accessed, I wonder what what treasures are still to be uncovered about South African involvement at Delville Wood and on the Western Front generally for men (and women) of all South Africa’s ethnic groups.

It’s become clear to me that World War in Africa cannot exclude what happened at Delville Wood and Square Hill – these experiences helped mould the country into what it is and should be given the same historical treatment that the East Africa campaign currently receives. A hundred years later is not too late to remember!


An all-inclusive Rainbow Poppy?

This Remembrance Day season got me thinking of introducing a Rainbow Poppy for next year. I’m not sure if I’m serious about it or not. What I am serious about though is the divisive tendency I see developing in the world around us – No longer do we have the red poppy, but we have the black poppy (or more specifically the BlackPoppyRose), the purple poppy and on 11 November I spotted a white poppy. They’re all good causes in their own right, but exclusive too.

The red poppy in 2015 has been a bone of particular contention. I didn’t wear a red poppy this year, not because I did’t remember or object to what the British Legion are doing but because the wearing of the poppy and the attitudes around it have become commercialised and dogmatic. Someone was telling me on Remembrance Sunday about instructions on how poppies are to be worn!

I’ve been aware of BlackPoppyRose from about 2013 and am still a little unclear regarding the definition of the term All Africans. It implies black, white, Indian and Arab but the site challenges this implication.

The purple poppy is for all the animals who suffered during war, while the white poppy is a plea for peace.

I come from the rainbow nation – although that is being called into dispute. However, I think the rainbow is a perfect fit. All the colours are clearly distinguishable with overlaps and mixing between some but all together creating something beautiful and full of promise – a pot of gold at the end if one is patient enough to follow the rainbow.

For this reason, I propose the rainbow poppy:-
the poppy to remember the fallen,
the rainbow for all, irrespective of faith and colour, of all sides caught up in war. I include the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – for those not always seen – those who survived and tried to make the(ir) world a little better.
The colours together produce white – peace can be achieved if all work together.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to the basics behind the silence of Remembrance (and for a slightly different account: The SA Legion): a time to remember those lost, rejoice in relief or to struggle with mixed emotions irrespective of belief and religious view.

This might appear an idealistic view, but as a famous man once said ‘I have a dream‘.

East meets West on the Great War …

… in Africa on Africa.

Attending a World War 1 conference in Senegal, I got the opportunity to meet with colleagues working on West and North Africa – all except one I hadn’t met before. The attendees were mainly historians, sociologists and anthropologists of African origin, who if not still resident on the continent received their basic education there. The result: a completely different focus to the African conferences held in Europe. This meant I was able to draw comparisons between the experiences of the some of the different countries involved in the Great War in Africa.

Now I know a fair bit about (but definitely not everything) East, Central and South Africa’s involvement but very little of West Africa (unless it’s their involvement in East Africa) and even less of North Africa. Despite the conference mainly being conducted in French, I was able with my smattering of the language and the assistance of a young student doing her degree in English translation to glean a fair bit of what happened in West Africa.

What struck me during day one, and which continued throughout the remainder of the papers, was the experiences of the indigenous or local peoples. The emphasis on the experiences of those who lived in forest, on mountain and near the sea and how they used this knowledge either in their fighting or to avoid being caught up in the conflagration was not much different to East and Central African experiences.

The other strong influence in the war on both sides of the continent (mentioned more in German East African accounts as opposed to the British) was the role of the slave trade. We know of Mzee Ali who had been a slaver but many of the routes used, the use of porters and management of the troops with camp followers and discipline was grounded in the earlier experiences.

Africa (the West in particular) has made the Great War in Africa its own in a way I hadn’t thought of having had a strong, dare I say it, European-influenced education albeit in Africa. The Great War was just one of the many wars Africa experienced. This single statement explains the almost nonchalant regard of the Great War centenary across the continent.

What sets the Great War aside from all the other wars is its consequences – how the interactivity of the war broke down beliefs and stereotypes which eventually led to independence. The white man was no longer infallible. They died the same way and lost their moral ground as Albert Grundlingh quotes ‘white men should have better ways of solving their differences.’ (War and Society). Black men, Indians and others tasted the lure of cities and other work seeing its attractions when compared to farming. The value of organising, discipline and working together to achieve a goal was recognised. All this and more eventually gave rise to the independence struggles.

From “there came a darkness” to “it saw the light”

I’ve been overdosing on WW1 related events and information recently – more than usual. Following on from a week of conferences in Stellenbosch, Friday 17 July saw a different group of people gather in London at the British Library for the SCOLMA conference entitled There came a darkness: Africa, Africans and World War 1. Sunday provided the light as I attended the unveiling of the Rhodesia Native Regiment/Rhodesia African Rifles memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA).

It was my first visit to the NMA and I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were other memorials to regiments which had seen service in East and Central Africa during World War 1. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place with so many Zimbabweans/Rhodesians (all races) congregated and being South African, felt a little out of place. But that didn’t stop the warm welcome and discussion flowing. The unveiling was a time for reflection – of days gone by, good times and other, and of what might have been… The flypast by two Alouette helicopters was a significant moment as noted by a couple of men standing alongside who commented that the last time they’d heard that sound was when they were in the field over 30 years ago. As the choppers passed, so another reflected – that was the worst sound, hearing them go while we stayed behind… It made me reflect on how many sounds we discount or take for granted that conjure up raw emotions for those involved in conflict situations. The closest I get is recalling the feeling of seeing a ratel on a public road from when they did ‘peace-keeping’ duties in Johannesburg.

Edward Paice in the keynote talk provided some insight from the Pike Report (see p17) and from the private diary of Captain Caulfeild who had commanded the naval vessels in the Battle against Tanga in November 1914.

This was followed by Holger Hansen providing an overview of the letters Karen Blixen sent home to Denmark during the war, David Stuart-Mogg on Frederick Njilima, a Malawian, who served as an armed soldier in the British forces on the Western Front. The significance of Njilima’s service is that this was at a time that Britain was not keen to have black colonials serve in an armed capacity in Europe whereas the French had no issue allowing this. John Pinfold and Alison Metcalfe provided some further insight into the East African theatre through their presentations on Geoffrey Hodges (how the transcripts of his interviews differ to what he published in his Carrier Corps book) and Archibald Clive Irvine (joined the RAMC in East Africa working with the Carrier Corps and after the war remained as a missionary).

Missionaries provided a theme for the day as Terry Barringer gave an overview of what appeared in the missionary periodicals about the war and Ben Knighton spoke of the missions as political grievance among Christian Agikuyu in Kenya.

Another theme was that of image. In addition to Irvine’s photo album, Daniel Steinbach linked verbal images with those of visual drawing attention to the role of the ‘other’ on the Allied side. This continued over refreshments with discussions on the violence those seen as superior (rank and race) meted out on those perceived to be inferior and also the use of images and quotes to illustrate a point when society has quite different views of what is acceptable. This resonated with the talk by Sandra Swart on the Dangers of History. Others who brought to light the different roles of Africans during the war were Martin Plaut who reminded the audience that African forces in East Africa included white South Africans.

Dan Gilfoyle provided some insight into what the War Diaries can tell us of experiences. His specific example was that of the King’s African Rifles War Diaries (80 of them held at The National Archives in WO 95), while Allyson Lewis of Essex County Record Office shed light on the service of an Essex man in East Africa – Harry Ripper, RFC. He was one of 24 men who served in East Africa and was the one who came home to marry the nurse who cared for him. He served with the King’s African Rifles but saw field service for only 2 weeks out of his 18 month enlistment.

As a change from the East African front, I looked at why and how South Africa invaded German South West Africa while Iris Wigger, a sociologist, looked at the Black Horror campaign which was started in response to black soldiers being used to guard prisoners in Germany during the occupation. And amongst all the war and battle that was discussed, Sarah Longair turned to the peace in looking at the struggle to get the Zanzibar <a href="http://” target=”_blank”>Peace Memorial Museum built.

All in all, both events were good with much discussion and further opportunity to touch base with colleagues of old and forge new relations in remembering the past.

Indulging in Stellenbosch

Some readers may have realised postings this last little while have been erratic. The reason is that I was engrossed in research in Pretoria followed by a week of wonderful discussion about the Great War in Africa whilst in Stellenbosch. Apologies to those of you who thought this would be a commentary on the wine farms of Stellenbosch. Our conferences and discussions were so good that despite the best intentions, some of us never actually made it to a wine farm!

Over two days we had 22 papers purely on the Great War at a conference hosted by Ian van der Waag of the Military School at Stellenbosch. Many then stayed on for the SA Historical Association where some select different papers were presented. The discussion interspersed between the papers and across the conferences was insightful and engaging.

As with previous conferences the Great War in Africa Association has been involved in, there was a mix of academic and enthusiast presenting. One difference, however, was the presence of a keynote speaker – Jeffrey Grey from Australia. His overview of the dominions and war skirting over SA on purpose set an appropriate theme and ideas for the remainder of the week.

A theme running through most of the discussions was Jan Smuts. This was launched by Tilman Dedering‘s assessment of Smuts as the ‘Prophet of Air Power’. David Katz followed with a military assessment of Smuts’s management of the Battle of Kilimanjaro in March 1916. A related military paper was by Kobus van Aarde on South Africa’s first battle experience in East Africa (aka Salaita). James Willson provided some insight to the area through his reminiscing of the discovery and preservation of the battlefield sites along the Voi-Taveta line (13 have been declared national monuments). Anri Delport opened up the health aspect of the East Africa campaign from 1916 onwards whilst Tait Keller looked at the wider ecological implications of the war in Africa, including a hypothesis on the origin of HIV/AIDS. Another fascinating paper regarding well being was that by Kenneth Steuer on the role of the YMCA in East Africa.

Kathleen Satchwell brought the individual at war to the fore through some of the stories she’s constructed around names on memorials. A published example is her book ‘Your loving son, Yum‘. German South West Africa and the rebellion received much attention too.  The personalities of the generals was explored by Jaques de Vries. Tony Garcia presented on the military tactics of quelling the rebellion and on South African airpower in German South West Africa, whilst Evert Kleynhans (his paper read by Will Gordon) set out the complexities of getting water to South West Africa and how this affected the military movements. Kent Fedorowicht explored the issue of reconciling the rebels as David Katz and Ian van der Waag shared some fascinating insights to the rebels who had been captured. David and Ian’s analysis of data collected at the time presented some contradictions with previous work done by Sandra Swart and Albert Grundlingh. This presentation together with Jaques de Vries’s one on the SS Mendi, of which his grandfather was a survivor, shows how difficult it can be to ascertain full details and numbers of people involved in upheavals. Fankie Monama put it all in context in his analysis of South African propaganda attempts during the Great War, whilst my paper looked at the chaos of South Africa going to war.

Michelle Moyd introduced the German perspective, in particular that of camp followers including women in East Africa. My related second paper on ‘The Boy’ aka personal servant or batman opened up more questions than providing answers and will provide a research student with a fascinating area to study. Ross Anderson and Ed Yorke opened up the East Africa campaign to the King’s African Rifles and Northern Rhodesia. Ana Paula Pires added to the wider East African outlook by examining Mozambique’s role in the war and Enika Ngongo highlighted the Congo’s role. The final paper was by Ian van der Waag appropriately looking at an ‘invisible conflict’ of the war in Africa, namely the Senussi.

For the remainder, the sessions I attended on World War 2 and Border Wars had numerous links to experiences and conditions to aspects of World War 1 in Africa. The final comments on the Border War in response to a question of who won resonates with that of the East Africa campaign: all won but don’t forget that when two elephants clash, the grass suffers.

What was clearly apparent throughout the discussions we had on World War 1 was the need for further historical research into various aspects of the African theatres to ensure the myths are dispelled. The need for rigorous historical research and the need for historians to speak out to protect the truth was brought home in Sandra Swart’s presidential talk on the danger of historians. For the African campaigns, the threat to truth is the number of journalists who are producing material without checking their facts before publication (there are some exceptions). This is not surprising as journalists respond to the moment whilst historical research can be painstakingly slow. And perhaps that’s part of the cycle of remembering the past… what we historians need to remember is not to overindulge in what we find and keep it to ourselves but to ensure we get the stories out before the myths become too entrenched.

This need has been brought to light by numerous correspondents of mine who have shared stories published on the BBC whilst I was indulging in conference:
Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten: Only now are the sacrifices made by thousands of Indians who lost their lives in WW1 beginning to be remembered, writes Shashi Tharoor
The African soldiers dragged into Europe’s war – more than one million people died in East Africa during World War One – some soldiers were forced to fight members of their own families, writes Oswald Masebo
In response to the latter, a colleague noted: “He’s half-way to the realities of 1914-18 in East Africa, which is far further than most commentators get. I will stick to doing what hardly any of the other commentators do – researching and writing about the gallantry and fortitude (leavened with the necessary violence and brutality of close-quarter bush fighting) of the Askari of both sides.”

I look forward to seeing some of the conference papers in print in due course. They promise to offer new insights to the Great War in Africa and dispel some of the ever increasing myths. For further information on the publication and books on the Great War in Africa, see the Great War in Africa Association website.