Review: The Road of Donkey Bones – Alison Cornell

The Road of Donkey Bones: Captain Llewellyn Wynne Jones MC, A diary from Britain’s WW1 East Africa Campaign was researched and compiled by his granddaughter Alison Cornell.

While the diary and the photographs are of great interest, I cannot say this was a book which grabbed me. Alison has entered into a conversation with her grandfather in relation to his diary entries. There is little context set for his time in East Africa which was focused on the Turkana expedition rather than the main military engagement against the Germans.

Wynne Jones provides an insight into the 5 and 6 KAR – he was to serve with 6 KAR and worked alongside 5 KAR. The diary covers from January 1918 when he left for East Africa and runs through to November 1918 when he was evacuated with an injury. The text is supplemented with early family history and some events leading to Wynne Jones’ death on 10 August 1922 following a riding accident with the Territorial Army in Wales. Between East Africa and death, he served with the British forces in Russia where he obtained a bar to his MC, the MC having been awarded for action in France before he left for East Africa.

What is striking about the diary is the almost haphazard approach to the campaign, the challenge of porters and moving herds of cattle, camels and mules across desert terrain. The issue of rations lasting is another theme.

On the issue of registering porters he wrote (p135): “I was busy today registering all the porters. I wish they would only get decent names instead of these awful substitutes they have. How they can ever say them beats me.” It took him all day to register 125 of 250 names. We don’t hear complaints about names on day 2 or for any other occasions when new porters are enlisted, although there are issues around using new porters as opposed to seasoned porters. This is an enlightening little statement. Porters recruited on route were generally recorded for administrative reasons. The challenge was spelling or recording the names in a manner they would be understood by others. The vowel sounds are different and the consonant combinations irregular when it comes to British English – one just needs to see the bilingual dictionaries of the day which missionaries and doctors were compiling. And even if Wynne Jones had passed his Kiswahili test (something he doesn’t record) not everyone would have spoken Kiswahili, making life a little challenging to say the least.

My other little spot of interest was his diary entry noting “dinner at Muhoroni” on 10 October 1918 on his way home. Muhoroni was the place where Lord Kitchener had bought his farm back in 1911 and had turned into a limited company the weekend before he lost his life on 5 June 1916. His brother, HEC Kitchener who was serving in East Africa at the time, responsible for railway aspects, had taken the title of Lord Kitchener (K2 as I refer to him). I wonder if he was at Muhoroni at the time and entertained Wynne Jones at dinner… we’ll probably never know.

For anyone interested in finding out more about the King’s African Rifles with whom Wynne Jones served:

  • Moyse-Bartlett in his mammoth The King’s African Rifles has a section (pp419-452) although there is no mention of Wynne Jones. 5 KAR was formed in early 1917 from units of 2 KAR and 3 KAR operating on the northern border of British East Africa. 1/6 KAR had been formed at the end of April 1917 from ex-German askaris and other recruits (p354). It therefore made sense to send them north where they would not have to fight against their former units.
  • Per Finsted has provided an overview of the Sudanese involved in the Turkana expedition and a history in an 18 page article.

More thoughts on KAR vs Schutztruppe Soldier – Gregg Adams

King’s African Rifles vs Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 by Gregg Adams is an 80 page overview of the two forces during the latter part of the East Africa campaign which I reviewed back in 2017. Recently I had reason to revisit the book and on this occasion there were a couple of things which caught my eye which I thought worth exploring/sharing.

Glossy images are used to explain the differences between the two sides and I have to say these jarred a bit, more so on this read than my first – perhaps because I’m working more with photos for various reasons.

For those in the know, a quick glance at the trousers men are wearing indicate who was German and who British. However, at this stage of the war we also know men were commandeering uniforms from those they captured or found dead, so beautifully painted images of men all wearing the same immaculate uniforms seems a little out of place. However, the images do allow comparisons to be made.

Another interesting feature is the image of the King’s African Rifles soldier wearing boots in the images used to explain the uniform. This raises some questions as at the start of the war the KAR went barefoot and not being supplied with shoes/boots was an issue for West Africans. Mel Page in his novel-biography of Chimwere Juma explains that when Juma became a sergeant and was entitled to wear shoes he declined as his feet were not used to them; they would cause him more problems than going without – although he did ask for an upgrade in shirt. A later photograph in the book, by J Granville Squires, of KAR marching suggests the men have some sort of foot covering but they don’t look like army boots. Was it a case of the new recruits being issued with footwear of some kind as part of their 6-9 month training prior to going into the field? Perhaps with a little more delving into primary sources and the General Routine Orders we’ll one day sort out when the KAR started to wear ‘traditional’ army boots.

It pays to revisit books – you never know what you might spot having discovered so much more between reads.

REVIEW: Distinguished Conduct – Melvin E Page

Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi by Mel Page is not quite what one would expect from someone like Mel, but it works.

Thankfully Mel explains at the outset that this is not an historical narrative, so those who don’t appreciate the value of footnotes will be pleased. For those of us trying to get a better grip of the events in Africa at the time, this is frustrating, but then as Mel explained, he has not written a history book per se but a novel.

However, this is a novel with a difference. The lead character, Malawian Juma Chimwera was real and the information concerning his military service is based on fact, as are some of the other characters. Chimwera’s experiences, though, are conjectured, as is the role of a white officer who provides the linking thread through the book. So, where does this leave the history scholar?

Effectively, Mel has used his extensive research and knowledge of the King’s African Rifles and Malawi, for most of the novel Nyasaland, to provide a context for Chimwera’s life as a soldier, looking at why he enlisted and his experiences from before the First World War through to Malawian Independence. There are many white missionary and other settler accounts of this period, but few on local black experiences and this is what Mel has tried to encapsulate and in my opinion, succeeds.

Having the advantage of knowing Mel’s academic work, broadly knowing the wider history and at the time of reading Distinguished Conduct literally wading through the whole Colonial Office collection of KAR correspondence, War Diaries and other accounts, I could see how the book was grounded historically.  Yes, literary licence has been taken but one could argue that has been necessary to provide an overview and the feel for the Yao community which has not been known for its written literary record. Mel is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Giles Foden took a similar approach with Mimi and Toutou go forth, and I have recently become aware of a South African publication of the life of 688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse DCM of the Cape Corps – They said we could not do it – written by his great grandson M Adeel Carelse. As Adeel explained, there was insufficient information to write an historical book, but also that wouldn’t ‘bring the characters decorated for valour to life’. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Adeel’s book but I have read Mimi and Toutou by Foden which as an historical account is sadly lacking and which was one of the main reasons for the GWAA embarking on the mammoth project which culminated in The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology being published (vol 2 due out later in 2020). I do not foresee a similar project having to be undertaken to set the record straight concerning Distinguished Conduct. While recording the life of one man, Mel has remained an objective historian and it’s that which makes this very readable novel a valuable contribution to the novels and history of the First World War in Africa. My only concern is that it gets used as evidence/footnote material for the wrong reasons. So, I nearly end this review with a plea to anyone wanting to use it as reference material, by all means do, but let us know the reason you’re using it and if for historical accuracy, please find further supporting documentation.

Thank you Mel for sharing the life of this little-but-well-known Askari. If only your editors had shown as much care in proofreading the book – there was one too many typographical gremlins for my liking and the non-justification layout of the text took a little while to get used to.

They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.

Sandhurst

I was so taken with this blog that I had to share it – the connection with Africa being that Indians served in Africa during World War 1 and that Kitchener and Barrow (mentioned in the blog) were at loggerheads determining where the Indian troops in 1914 were to go: Europe or Africa…

My initial reactions were mixed: from ‘the poor chaps – having to have their holidays organised and overseen when they’re about to become officers in the British Army’ to ‘it makes sense – London can be a big and frightful city, a guide would be helpful.’ Another interpretation is paternalism – in those days, it was believed that men from the colonies, especially men who were not white, needed looking after, but contrast this with 1963, when African officer cadets were being looked after by the KAR Club during the holidays – little had changed from 1920, to more recent personal visitors one might have, irrespective of background, from places which were previously colonies: how different has been all the guidance and offers to accompany them to certain places? I recently overheard a tube station employee advise a couple of white elderly ladies about how to keep safe at the station they were getting directions to – in the East End of London.

Another thought which crossed my mind is how many, if any, Indians who served in Africa during the war, were sent to Sandhurst in 1920 to train as officers? I hadn’t realised Indians were admitted to Sandhurst so early on. When were black Africans first admitted? A video from 1962 shows some Rhodesians on a junior leadership course, as does TJ Lovering, while Timothy Parsons (p174) has a date of 1957. It looks like more digging will be needed to answer these questions – and that will have to wait for another day, including more on Edmund Barrow. It looks like Sarah Stockwell might have some of the answers in The British End of the British Empire.

Sandhurst today is home to a memorial for the King’s African Rifles.