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.

Comparatively speaking: 1899 vs 1914

The 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902 saw the following numbers involved on the British side:

  • 365,693 British Imperial troops
  • 82,742 Colonial troops (white)
    • 448,435 total

of these 22,000 died:

  • 5,774 killed in action;
  • 16,168 from disease and wounds
    • 21,942 (4.9%)

In comparison, the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918 saw the following total numbers in the British forces:

of the armed force

  • 3,443 killed in action
  • 6,558 disease and wounds
    • 10,001 (11%)

Carriers and labourers during the 1899-1902 war have not been recorded as readily as for the East Africa campaign:

  • 90,440 (14.6%) in East Africa

In places where large numbers had died – Bloemfontein, for instance – the government took responsibility for the graves. To tend – even to find – where those killed in battle had been buried was more difficult, for ‘the number of small skirmishes … made the task of keeping each grave in order very hard, while the [frequent] necessity … of marching a few hours after men had been killed made even the marking of graves difficult’ (Lord Methuen, The Times, 14 October 1904)

I couldn’t help compare the two campaigns – descriptions in Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War being reminsicent of so many diary entries for East Africa. Methuen’s quote struck a cord too, leading to the conclusion that, if it was this difficult to keep track of so few dead in a relatively compact campaign such as that conducted in South Africa, the achievement in East Africa, where the fighting took place over a far greater area despite the territories being of similar size,* of those identifying and caring for the graves is quite remarkable. And it explains why we’re still finding names** of those who have not yet been officially recognised for their service on the African continent during 1914-1918.

* According to https://www.mylifeelsewhere.com Tanzania is approximately 947,300 sq km, while South Africa is approximately 1,219,090 sq km. Meanwhile, the population of Tanzania is ~54.0 million people (890,617 more people live in South Africa).

** the South African War Graves Project has identified numerous names as part of its project as have others researching specific areas. As these are verified they’re being added to the CWGC site. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the 1899-1902 graves in South Africa as well.

Reference for 1899-1902 info: Elizabeth Riedi, Imperialist women in Edwardian Britain: The Victoria League 1899-1914, PhD University of St Andrew’s, 1998, p.69
WW1 figures: GWAA, Huw Strachan WW1 in Africa

 

 

 

A little Chinese help

I’m not usually one for picking up on anniversaries/notable events in time, but thanks to the British Library’s Asia and Africa blog, I see it’s time for Chinese New Year – 5 February 2019. This provides an opportunity to remember the Chinese Labour Corps who served in East Africa during World War 1 and to say “Happy New Year” again…

There is still much work to be done on this group of men. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Register, six men of the Chinese Contingent died in East Africa and are named on the Screen Wall in Dar es Salaam CWGC (see also). What is fascinating about their entries are the dates of death – November 1917 through to November 1918. This was during the ‘mopping up’ operations phase when many of the other Labour contingents had been sent home and even the Cape Corps was being moved to Mesopotamia. A search on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue doesn’t give any obvious link to how many others served in East Africa. But there are some entries in War Diaries (available from The (UK) National Archives) which can shed some light:

WO 95/5302/5, 4 Aug 1918 (Dar es Salaam) – The AAG had been asked for ‘sanction of certain personnel for preliminary work in IWT [Inland Water Transport] Chinese Camp, pending approval of establishment’. On 5 August the erection of the camp commenced. On 5 August, the AAG was informed that ‘1,035 Chinese were awaiting transhipment to Rangoon.’ Simla required only 629 and ’15 interpreters essential.’ It appears that India was also sourcing Chinese manpower from elsewhere: on 24 August  ‘India had arranged diversion of 30 at Rangoon’ and on 16 August, ‘6 interpreters had been arranged.’

Also on 5 August, ‘A draft of Indians and Chinese Mechanics arrived at Daressalaam by SS “Magdalena” for the Construction and Maintenance Section.’ On the 6th, ‘9 Chinese, 12 Anglo-Indians and 35 Indians disembarked’ from the Magdalena, while ‘One Chinese Follower, One Ango-Indian, sailed for Dar-es-Salaam from India, on HT “Shuja”. On 7 August, those who had arrived on the 5th were assigned to MLO and Mechanical Section.

8 August saw a ‘telegram sent by 3rd Echelon to CHIEF SIMLA requesting 40 Chinese Stevedores to be diverted, owing to recent developments’ [what the ‘recent developments’ were needs further investigation].

On 10 August, 8 Chinese personnel who had arrived from India were sent to Construction Section.

We get some clarification of the diversion on 21 August: 360 Chinese Stevedores, diverted at Rangoon. Remainder of about 690 saild for DaresSalaam about 22nd August.’

An entry on 28 August might not be very politically correct today, but it shows the challenges of trying to work with diverse cultures in a specific place and time and attempts to keep relations harmonious: ‘In view of the peculiarities of the Chinese [not specified], it is considered advisable that not more than two should occupy one 80lb Tent.’

Somewhere there had been a Mutiny, as the entry on 28 August refers to one, noting that concerning the Ivy, ‘crew undesirable, 34 under arrest charged with Mutiny’. The crew was being returned to Bombay India with a new ‘crew consisting of Nigerians Swahilis.’ Whether this was purely a mutiny on the Ivy or had any connection with the Chinese is not clear.

That something was amiss is revealed in the entry for 2 September noting that ‘Wire fence for IWT Chinese Camp approved by DA and QMG. Necessary instructions issued’ and on 3 September it’s recorded that ‘Q gave authority for wiring in Chinese Camp, owing peculiarities Chinese.’

At last on 5 September there is mention of a name in relation to the Chinese: ‘Lieut JH Goby IARO and 669 IWT Chinese disembarked from HT “Trent”. No contract papers arrived with Draft.’ Goby was Serjeant James Henry of the Indian Army Reserve of Officers – medal cards ref: WO 372/8/40154; WO 372/26/1473.

On 7 September, ‘Q authorises issue of opium to Chinese personnel, ie 20 grains per day’.

On 10 September, 15 Chinese Interpreters were requisitioned from India. Whether these are the same or new interpreters from those referred to earlier, is again not clear without further research.

Five gangs Chinese, consisting of 328 men reported for duty on the wharf on 13 September in Dar es Salaam.

A return of employment on 14 September for the Mechanical Section, showed no Chinese being employed there:

  • Europeans       18
  • Anglo-Indians   6
  • Indians            17
  • Goanese            7
  • Swahilis           22
  • total               70

On the 16th, ‘Communications sent to COO recommending an issue of Thin Suits, Felt Shoes and Tarbosh for Chinese Stevedores’. This was followed with ‘Six specially selected Chinese sent to APM for training as Police. Remainder of Chinese reported at Wharf.’

At 5pm on 27 September, van Deventer inspected the Chinese camp in Dar es Salaam.

Another War Diary file WO 95/5359/4, provides a little more tantalising information for anyone wanting to research the topic further:

2 November 1918, Hospital Ship “Dongola” had 75 Chinese Contingent and 4 Chinese Labour Contingent on board.

9 December 1918, HT Karagola had 8 Chinese Interpreters IWT

18 December saw 12 Chinese of IWT and 35 Chinese from Base MT scheduled to embark on MT “Iran” on 20 December.

On 11 December, No 1205, Chang King Yine, Stev, Chinese Labour Contg died of VDH, as reported in Base Orders by Major HGF Christie, Officiating Base Commandant, East Africa Force, 13 December 1918, Dar es Salaam.  For some reason his name missed being added to the CWGC wall.

On 16 December, No 396, Yoh Zoa Kin, a driver for the Chinese Contingent died of Influenza, while No 1540 Stevedore, Chen Yung Foh, Chinese Labour Corps died of Dysentery on 20 December 1918. Neither are listed on the CWGC list.

This is what I’ve found fortuitously whilst looking for other information. It’s limited in scope but provides a flavour of what Chinese Labour did in East Africa and the  challenges faced by all. It allows another three men to be remembered by name and hopefully together with an officer’s name, will enable others to dig a bit deeper and open up more on the contribution of the Chinese to the British war effort.

As someone recently said, many still need to discover the true meaning of ‘World’ in World War 1 – and 2.

Faith in Action

The basis of what follows is the introduction I gave at the MFest event for The Unknown Fallen on Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1.

I was told to ‘speak from the heart’, so I did, feeling a need to clear the air on a few matters.

Firstly, I recently watched an interview conducted by Yusuf Chambers and have to correct one point. He said it was the work of Allah who had brought us all together on this project. I disagree, it was God who guided me, but thankfully, God, Allah, Jehovah, Nkosi, Mungu are all names for the same being. Behind the differences, are many similarities – we need to scratch for them.

Secondly, this seems the perfect opportunity to say thank you to my students who helped me see the world differently. Time has erased many of their names from memory and due to data protection, I can’t refer back to notes I would have kept to remind me – I don’t envy the historians of the future. Significantly, back in November 2000, I was asked by two relocated Muslim brothers from the old City of Jerusalem what all the fighting was about. ‘We are all brothers and sisters’, they said, ‘all children of Abraham’. My world opened and I was to learn that Apartheid which I’d lived through and seen the end of was not just about colour. It extended to religion too and was really about economics and self preservation of specific groups. People who were not white or black, were likely to be Muslim or Hindu and they lived, as blacks and whites did, in separate spaces so we couldn’t mix although in my home town there was a Muslim Indian family who owned prime property in the city centre and who by decree of Boer Paul Kruger could not be moved even at the height of Apartheid – and they’re still there today. Lesson: don’t take things at face value.

Thirdly, I need to confess that had I come to The Unknown Fallen cold post-publication, it’s unlikely I would have bought the book. Why? It’s only on allied involvement, therefore biased. Islam is contentious within its own communities and more widely. Why, for example, am I told that the Aga Khan whom I understand, from the documents I’ve used, to be the Islamic leader in East Africa isn’t Muslim? And given the divide between north and sub-Sahara Africa, the latter would be ignored and left out, as it often has been in general overviews of the war published before 2014.

At a conference in June 2017, Luc, Vera and I met. The conference organised by Diversity House aimed to Break the Myths around World War 1 in Africa and as a result of my challenging a statement made about Britain being racist by not giving black porters shoes at the start of the war, I was invited to speak at an earlier event and invited back to this one. About three months later, Luc got in touch – I hadn’t put him off by my ranting about Africa being ignored in remembrance events in Britain and how Africa will remember its involvement if Britain gives due regard to the sacrifices its Empire made. For Africa, World War 1 was just another war in a string of many, this one differed in length and that now black men were instructed to shoot and kill white men.

Luc wanted information on Muslim involvement in sub-Sahara Africa during World War 1. Thankfully I’d been working on the topic for a journal article. The challenge was I couldn’t use the same material for copyright reasons and as I didn’t know when the article was being published, couldn’t cross-reference it. As it turned out, the article wasn’t published as I refused to discuss how the campaign in East Africa had influenced the development of Islam and I had stated that the German Governor had declared a jihad. This was not possible, I was told, as he had no authority. I couldn’t argue – Islam is not my specialism; World War 1 Africa based on documentary evidence is.

But isn’t life amazing? The day I met with Luc and Vera to discuss my contribution, researching at the British Library I came upon a telegram from the Muslim League of Southern Africa to the Governor General Lord Buxton. It expressed sympathy on the loss of his only son and gave reassurance that the Muslim community was fully behind the British war effort. There was the new information I required which could be built on.  But that was not enough.

Over the years, I have learnt to check assumptions and to do so carefully. For this I have my phd supervisors to thank. I challenged the view of Lord Kitchener which they would only accept with documentary evidence, which I found. What a pity he hadn’t been allowed to return to Egypt at the start of the war, although I also believe he was the best man to head Britain’s war effort but that’s all for another day. Lesson: Dig down, till you find the truth.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the Cape Corps, comprising Cape Coloureds, were not Muslim. How did I get to that assumption? Dr Abdurahman of the African People’s Organisation had written something like 32 letters offering to raise a contingent of 500 Cape Corps for service in the war, and he was Muslim. Documentary evidence though pointed out that the Cape Corps was Christian – important for dietary provisioning. So, I learned only last year (2017) of the difference between the Cape Coloured and the Cape Malay – people of my own country. I now wonder how many Muslims renounced their faith in name to serve in the two Cape Corps. There’s no mention in the white officers’ memoirs of the two corps of any religious differences, or of religion being mentioned at all that I’m aware of.

In fact, the absence of any mention of religion in most memoirs suggests it was not an issue – remarkable when you know that the majority of Indian, Arab and black troops were likely to be Muslim based on where they were recruited from – tribes or micronations along the African coast and slave routes. We know there were Christians, Hindus,  Sikhs, men of Jewish faith and ‘pagan’ as they were referred to then, all serving together with Muslims – all suffering together from ration shortages and surviving on what got through and was scavenged. Yet, no one mentions religious requirements, and neither do they feature in the ration allocations recorded in the Pike report into medical conditions. In fact ration quotas are based on function and ethnicity, not religious.

Men served together, loyal to their commanding officer, the one who would ensure their safety and security, not ideals of right and wrong and this is why the jihad declared by the German Governor failed. Neither did his instructions to fly the crescent moon above the German bomas or forts attract British soldiers away from their fight. They had all confidence in their leaders. As a result, I had no issue writing about Muslim involvement on both sides of the war and had to have Luc explain the impact of doing so on the overall project. Entering the realms of politics would be messy – this together with the comments received on my article reconciled me to The Unknown Fallen being about the Allied involvement. We cannot run before we can walk and within one camp, that of the Allies, there is much to discover about the diversity of contribution and the humanity of man – that is mankind.

The book appears unbalanced. In all, there are at least 4 sections on Africa, three contributed by myself and I’m conscious I’ve not said anything today about West Africa – it’s in the book. Luc was addressing knowledge gaps, looking at what would entice people to become engaged. And it’s worked as I’ve subsequently been hearing from non-Muslim people I’ve introduced to the book.

We argued over the images which are meant to be ‘unique’ – I instantly recognised Juma, but none of Luc’s invisible (to me) experts had – everything was double and triple checked to ensure appropriateness of language and content. I’ve said on numerous occasions, this is the most thoroughly reviewed and rigorously checked book I know.

Now, looking at the book, it’s good to see Juma’s familiar face, those of the South African Native Labour Corps and the West African Frontier Force. It feels like home in some ways. But I’m constantly awed by the image of the Christian service taking place at the same time as Muslim prayers, the vast sky over Verdun and the regalness of some of the portraits.

Isn’t it sad though, that I felt I had to ask Luc to include a disclaimer that the original author was describing people as he saw them – with an artist’s eye – in admiration. I think he,  the artist, would be horrified to learn that what he’d written was seen as hurtful and derogatory by some today. We can’t apply today’s criteria to assessing the past. We need to understand the past as those who were there lived it and interpreted it – warts and all. Only in this way will we truly understand the sacrifices all made in their attempt to make our world slightly better.

It’s time to get rid of all this ‘colonial’ and ‘decolonising’ speak, recognising that the world view of Africans is different to that of Europeans and that within each group there are other differences. It undermines honest discussion of the war and its legacy. And I believe we have a lot to learn from Africa in this regard. There were no nationalist agendas impacting on the war in East Africa. Nationalist ideas came later evident in the Rwanda genocide,  Nigeria’s Biafran war, Idi Amin’s policies in Uganda and the current strife in Sudan amongst others. We can’t recreate the World War 1 context and in many ways I don’t think we want to, but I do believe we can learn a lot from how people worked together because of a common understanding and faith which was not nationalist or religious based, a situation where mankind realised the value of others because of who they were as individuals.*

I’m constantly reminded of this in my research and it’s what makes The Unknown Fallen a special book. It’s been, and remains, an honour. And I’m the proud owner of a copy of The Unknown Fallen – ask anyone who’s had to be subjected to me showing the book off.

Baraka Allahu fika (May God’s blessings be upon you). Shukran.

Reflecting on the talk, slightly changed above, and the huge interest the French instruction on Muslim burial received, I started thinking about the burials in Africa – I don’t know how many CWGC headstones there are representing the different religions, although we know there are cenotaphs for the Indian soldiers and Askari Monuments for the Carriers, Porters and local soldiers some of whom might have a headstone (if they were known to be of one of the major religions). So I did a simple search on the CWGC website and discovered the following ‘war dead records’ in WW1:

Christian  – 407 (19 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Muslim – 7 (15 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Jewish – 0 (90 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Sikh – 2 (1 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Further investigation proves that all relate to first or family names… It’s obviously going to take some more digging to identify the religious breakdowns as depicted on the headstones than a simple search. If anyone gets there before me, please share your findings.

* I don’t usually listen to recordings but this one by Ben Okri caught my eye and supports exactly what I feel about ‘colonising’ and ‘decolonising’. A legace of the British Empire is the British Commonwealth of Nations – something else Okri addresses and appropriate to be included here.

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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.