Perceptions of Identity

Some time ago I posted about beards and moustache wearing in the British Army. How we present ourselves is part of our identity, and that is determined by the situations within which we find ourselves. In searching for information about beards etc, I came across this fascinating insight into the Moroccan veil as it is presented in the French media.

It brought to mind Michelle Moyd’s work on the Askari in the Schutztruppe (Violent Intermediaries) and the various photographs we have of different communities in WW1 Africa. Soldiers, at least in the early days of campaigning were identifiable by their uniforms and badges. I’m constantly amazed at medal collectors being able to identify the campaign etc from black and white photos based on the stripe width, shade and order it’s worn. Then we have the photos of labour supporting the Lake Tanganyika expedition – the variety of dress suggesting levels of European/mission education and encounter. The photographer Dobbertin who accompanied the German forces also shows the differences in dress and relationship.

How individuals were identified determined how they were treated and the extent to which they were accepted. Kitchener only became tolerably accepted by the British establishment when he adopted more British ways; otherwise he remained an enigma and outsider. Jan Smuts did not follow British military ways and his reputation has suffered accordingly, while Jaap van Deventer accepted the fact that British officers had to do staff work behind the lines and was regarded as a better soldier despite his reluctance to speak English.

Yet, taking on others’ identities has led to accusations where cultural nuances have not been understood. The most obvious WW1 example is of the white South African forces taking on the Zulu impi tradition on the Western Front. As Bill Nasson points out, this was reflective of South Africa’s admiration for Chaka, the Zulu warrior and how the military tradition he forged has been assimilated into South Africa per se – not unlike the Haka the New Zealand rugby team performs.

Identity is tricky – both for the individual at the time in terms of how they perceive themselves and are accepted, but also for the historian trying to make sense of a different time and place. Memoirs, diaries, letters, photographs and other primary source documents all help in constucting the context to better understand an individual or group’s place within the wider community. My research into Kitchener has been a salutary lesson in identify and how myth and dominant cultural ideas can distort the person in question.

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Beards, moustaches and the army

Did you know that from October 1916 it was no longer compulsory for men to have a moustache in the British army?

We all know the famous picture of Kitchener and his moustache and as this marketing website identified, he wasn’t the only one at the time to sport such a look. I’d recently discovered this myself going through photos in the Desborough collection in Hertford. So I thought it worth a little investigation and see others have done the same.

This obscure little forum gives some interesting developments regarding the moustache and beards, while Major Pillinger provides a more coherent history and some more general info at TodayIfoundout. The art of manliness shares shaving traditions from around the world, and Wikipedia gives an insight into the different country military requirements today. All rather fascinating.

Why the army changed the rule in 1916, the Wellcome Library provides an answer.

So this got me thinking … did Kitchener shave off his moustache when he disguised himself as an Arab in the early 1880s? A painting from 1922 by Sheridan Jones suggests not, but I’m not sure if he’s got K tanned enough. Although this image from V&A by Richard Caton Woodville is in black and white, it seems more realistic. Back in 1883, the Egyptian Army officers sported moustaches – not surprising given they were under British Army regulations, but if you scroll all the way down, you’ll see some drawings of local forces sporting moustaches not much different to their British counterparts. Again, not too surprising considering the British and in particular Kitchener was responsible for training the force. In 1899, Soudanese soldiers look clean shaven with moustached officers.

And in World War 1 Africa? A scroll through online images of the King’s African Rifles suggests the majority were clean shaven. The Zanzibar forces who served in WW1 are also clean shaven – I’m not sure about the tank being WW1 but nevermind, this is the first website/page I’ve come across focusing purely on the island’s war contribution. Similarly, Wavell’s Arabs. Local cultural and religious traditions would no doubt have taken precedence over military regulations with beards being a sign of maturity – I’m not sure British army regulations distinguished between colonial forces in 1914 (must check some time). Paging through The Unknown Fallen supports my assumption of beards being culturally and religiously determined. Today there is a guide on religion and belief in the army – 12 religious groups being recognised.

Reading today’s regulations, with exceptions for religious and health reasons or even at the officer’s discretion, one wonders why they are not generally allowed if the person wants to grow one?

Isandlwana – new discoveries

The battle for Isandlwana is a little before the period I usually focus on, but it has featured indirectly through my research into Lord Kitchener as Lord Wolseley left Egypt to take over command in South Africa. The accounts we have are usually from the British perspective and in passing, I had wondered if there was a Zulu account but thought nothing more of it until I met the grandson of one of the Zulu commanders on my last visit to South Africa. It’s amazing how a personal connection makes an event more real and can tweak research interest. It’s part of joining the dots – all those individual accounts make up the narrative, and then when revisited, help dispel the myths created by the narrative.

At the time of Isandlwana, Kitchener was moving between Cyprus and Egypt, trying to get a taste of some military action (he saw very little comparatively speaking), and clashed with Wolseley. Kitchener’s break came when Wolseley was sent south. This led to another name popping up in connection with Egypt which I only knew in connection with South Africa, namely Redvers Buller. Buller had been in the First Anglo-Boer War of 1881, then in Egypt with Evelyn Wood – who had fought under Chelmsford in the struggle against the Zulu – before returning to South Africa to participate in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. For the newcomer to these conflicts, it can all be rather confusing as the battles and wars seem to overlap. Oh, and don’t forget, between these all there is the war against the Ashanti in West Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Names of leading British officers feature in numerous of them challenging concepts of time and travel 150 years ago.

What has been brought home to me, apart from the connectedness of all these African conflicts with other parts of the world, are the other side’s accounts which can be found if one searches for them. These have started to make an appearance on the battle of Isandlwana and I’ve discovered one or two on Kitchener’s time in the Sudan. Africa is slowly realising it has an interpretation of past events which is as valuable as the, till now, dominating narrative. As these accounts are increased, developed and become more well known, a clearer and more rounded understanding of the past will be achieved. With people actively looking for Africa’s experiences during World War 1, and a growing interest in African involvement in World War 2 with a few veterans still alive, we might well start seeing more rounded and balanced interpretations of Europe and Asia’s involvement in Africa.

And for those who hanker after the past, don’t forget Johnny Clegg’s wonderful coverage of the battle of Isandlwana in his song Impi– and that has a history of its own.

Faith and service: is there a connection?

The general perception of WW1 military Generals is that they saw their men as cannon fodder. I’m not sure that’s true.

  • A veteran my age who survived a recent war in Afghanistan said, ‘the Army trains its soldiers not to become dead’. A dead soldier is a lost asset which has been hugely invested in. The same was generally true in WW1. One of the things Lord Kitchener was berrated for was not getting men and munitions to the front fast enough. He insisted on the New Armies receiving at least 6 months’ training before being sent to the Western Front and that weapons be made to a high standard as he had lost too many men due to defective weapons in his early Sudan campaigns.
  • A senior military official commented that as he had got older and higher up the ranks so he had become a pacifist. Again this resonated. I’d been reading Kitchener’s farewell speech in India where he commented that a General’s role was to prepare for war and ensure his country was prepared, but to do all he could to stop war from breaking out.
  • Reading John Lee’s chapter in Facing Armageddon (edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddell), I was surprised to read of Hamilton’s objections to the Treaty of Versailles and that he referred to the Treaty of Vereeniging being ‘a generous, soldierly peace’ made by Kitchener himself. Kitchener did not believe in the complete destruction of an enemy. Comments he made before his death in 1916 suggested that he was all in favour of Germany retaining colonies at the end of the war in order to maintain the balance of power.
  • Louis Botha was prepared to forego the annexation of South West Africa in favour of the mandate system in order to bring the war to an end.

I can’t say whether the two non-WW1 soldiers referred to above are men of faith or not, because I didn’t ask them. However, I’d be surprised if not, as there is a strong religious focus in remembrance services across the Commonwealth, chaplains quietly get on with their task across the faith groups and I get the impression that the majority of military people I have contact with are people of faith. Reading about some of the Generals who served in World War 1, I was struck by the role of faith in their lives.

Kitchener is a good place to start. He wasn’t brought up strongly religious by all accounts but whilst at Staff College, he joined the English Church Union and enrolled in the Army Guild of the Holy Standard. His first official military posting was with the Palestine Exploration Fund where he mapped Palestine identifying over 400 new places and creating the basis of the maps of the area we still use today. Many of the places he came across are mentioned in the Bible and Torah and gave him a sense of connection with the past and by all accounts had a profound effect on him. At this time he also became fluent in Arabic and was able to pass quite convincingly as an Arab even whilst imprisoned. This suggests that he knew more than the language and got to know and understand the religious culture too. By the time he became Agent General in Egypt in 1911, he had a clear understanding of Turkish Law as he worked to improve the rights of the Egyptian peasants. His religion seems to have become all inclusive but it was not something he spoke about. This was evident in his becoming a Free Mason and an active one at that. Numerous Lodges in Africa and India bear his name. Kitchener was completely against the war being fought in East Africa as he knew it would be a long, drawn-out affair for no particular gain but was over-ridden by the politicians back in London.

The next General is Douglas Haig who was part of Alan Clark’s Donkey brigade. There are reasons for Generals having their bases behind the lines – security being one. Haig’s religious background was Church of Scotland. During and after the war he was very involved in the Church of Scotland, St Columba’s Pont Street in London where he served as an Elder. The church also had a close affinity with the British Legion due to Haig’s involvement in both. He had a personal chaplain whilst on the Front and would regularly take communion and attend Sunday Services. Haig’s connection with Africa goes back to the Anglo-Boer War where he made his name leading one of the forces and during World War 1 he sent Smuts a telegram of congratulations after the Central Railway line and the coastal towns had been taken over from the Germans. The two men were to see each other when Smuts moved to London in 1917 and consulted him over the 3rd battle of Passchendale.

Related to St Columba’s is the fact that it offered it’s crypt as a place for rifle training during the Great War. Although this might seem strange, it’s not that odd when one considers that the Church of Scotland did not dissociate itself from politics, and that the Pont Street church was a home away from home for Scots living in London. The lunches and soup kitchens provided by the church are well-known in Scottish circles. It also helps to know that the rifles used for training purposes did not fire real ammunition which is what I’d struggled with for years when I first discovered this little-known crypt-fact.

This brings us to Jan Smuts, the South African who served in East Africa and who later sat on the British War Cabinet and wrote the Charter for the League of Nations amogst other things. He was brought up Dutch Reformed and was technically meant to go into the Ministry when his brother died at a young-ish age. He did not seem to be a strong adherent to the Dutch Reformed Church. During the Boer War he was known to ride with a copy of the Old Testament in his saddle – in the original Greek and Hebrew. During WW1, whilst in England, he would often be found in the company of Quakers, of whom the Gilletts became long and lasting friends and he supported them in their conscientious objector campaign.

And more recently, the other South African who shares a place on Parliament Square with Smuts, is Nelson Mandela who was only born during the Great War years. He was brought up in a strong Methodist faith and attended the Lovedale University run by Methodist Missionaries. His faith remained quietly strong throughout his years in prison. But what is often overlooked is that he was one of the young lions who was instrumental in the formation of the ANC armed wing Umkonto Isiswe and the decision to launch attacks against Government buildings in the struggle against Apartheid.

Other religions feature too: Wavell of Wavell’s Arabs was known to have undertaken the Pilgrimage to Mecca. And my references have let me down – there was a commander of one of the Indian units in Nyasaland or Northern Rhodesia who also had made the hajj or pilgrimage. (I’ll add his name when I find it). And strong Christians such as Kitchener and General Gordon (of Khartoum fame) were involved in ensuring Muslims under their supervision were allowed access to their places of worship – Gordon being noted for building a mosque in the Sudan.

This leaves some questions:

  • what role does faith play in a soldiers’ life?
  • how does a fighting man reconcile the peaceful instruction of the major faiths with their occupation? (note, this question is different to how religion has been used to further cultural values, economic benefits etc)
  • how many officers of the Sikhs, Hindu and other Muslim forces shared the same faith as their men? and do we know who they are? The significance of this question being that during World War 1, officers in the British imperial forces were white which then implied Christian.

The pros and cons of alcohol

Going through some old emails, I discovered a link to the London Beer Flood of 1814. Why this was in my email collection, I’m not sure, but it’s provided a good reason to blog on alcohol and World War 1, not least in Africa.

Many a soldier has used alcohol to build stamina before ‘going over the top’ and into battle – rum rations being a feature of diary accounts especially when they’re in short supply. Other evidence (German) (French) of the importance of alcohol, rum in particular, can be found at British Pathe. The tradition of rum rations was finally ended in 1970 – initially it had been beer which was used, but rum took over because it took up less space, was cheaper and didn’t go off as quickly (economics always seems to play a role, although health and safety seems to be the justifiable reason given – at least for its ending).

In contrast, the Americans were not permitted alcohol and one of the inspirations behind Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was to control alcohol intake which it was believed was negatively impacting on productivity. To make the point, the King declared the palace alcohol-free (teetotal) and Kitchener supported it.

In East Africa, rum was rationed according to rank and role (search rum). Driscoll who led the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) was teetotal, however, it was reported that his troops at Bukoba went on the rampage getting drunk in the process. Dolbey talks of the whole campaign being virtually teetotal for transport reasons.

It wasn’t just alcohol which played a part in the war: tobacco too was important. It even featured in ration quotas, although female nurses received cigarettes instead as noted in the Pike report into medical conditions in German East Africa, which also reported the following:

LINDI
2 November to 6 November 1917
Inspected No 1 African Stationary Hospital, Officer Commanding – Lieut-Col McGillivray, Indian Medical Service. Not on the whole a good unit. The Admission and Discharge Books are badly kept, Pack Store dirty (especially rifles). African and Indian troops receiving no Red Cross comforts, cigarettes, etc, as Matron (Miss Belcher, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service) states she has not enough to go round more (p44) than the Europeans. We think this a wrong attitude on her part. We wired for cigarettes to Red Cross to be sent direct to Officer Commanding for the African section.

Finally, I don’t know of a monument to alcohol during the First World War, but there is one for the 1899-1902 war in South Africa: specifically to the Whisky Train.

Fait accompli – battlefield decisions

One of my interests is the influence of the individual on the course of events, so rather than accepting a statement such as ‘the War Office decided…’, I will try and find out who exactly at the War Office made the suggestion which was eventually accepted. The same goes for ‘x won the battle’ – x being the commander, but there were many little actions taking place during that battle which could have gone either way. X, too, quite often wasn’t even at the site of the battle, having issued instructions via telegraph or command order. The classic case here is that of Horace Smith-Dorrien in England drawing up the battle plan for the battle of Salaita, which was approved by the War Office, Wully Robertson, on 26 December 1915, having to be carried out by General Tighe in British East Africa, now responsible to Jan Smuts who was still on his way to the theatre.

So, I was rather intrigued to come across this article on the Victoria Cross and how decisions made on the battlefield changed the way it was managed. This article raises some other fascinating little snippets to consider:

  • It draws attention to Lord Roberts making poor decisions during the Second Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1920. All to often it’s Lord Kitchener and the battle of Paardeberg which is used as the classic example of poor battlefield management.
  • The impact of family connections – Roberts lost his last son, Freddy, at the battle of Colenso shortly before he arrived to take over command from Buller. Both Lord Kitchener’s brothers joined the military – one, Walter, serving under him in South Africa and the other, Henry, being sent to East Africa during 1914/5 to assist with recruitment amongst other things. How did having family connections in high places in the army affect decisions regarding promotions, awards etc?
  • The fair play and detailed considerations of the War Office when it comes to changing precident. This connects with the previous point – Lord Roberts on arrival back in England sought to ensure that Schofield, who had also been killed at Colenso, was awarded the VC rather than the DSO which Buller had recommended him for.
  • The objectivity involved in making award decisions – Ian Hamilton who was quite involved in the decision-making about the changes to the VC awards, had twice been nominated for one and on both occasions Buller had denied them.

So much, from one little article, although it didn’t hold the info I was hoping to be able to use… the search continues.

Captain Henry Peel Ritchie was the first member of the Royal Navy to receive a VC, for action in East Africa on 28 November 1914 at Dar es Salaam.

John Fitzhardinge Paul Butler (date of action 17 November and 27 December 1914) in West Africa. He later accompanied West African Frontier Force troops to East Africa.

The first military VC awarded in East Africa was a post-humous one – to Wilbur Dartnell who was killed (3 September 1915) having stayed behind despite being wounded to protect some of his men who had fallen. Background can be found here.

William Anderson Bloomfield (date of action 24 August 1916)

Frederick Charles Booth (date of action 12 February 1917)

Andrew Frederick Beaucamp-Proctor, RFC (date of action 8 October 1918)

According to a list of VC winners on Wikipedia (not complete as only one WW1 East African listed), 8 VCs were awarded for actions in South Africa pre-1885, 3 in Rhodesia pre-1896, 6 Anglo-Boer War 1899-1901 – one of these is John David Francis Shaul who is buried in Boksburg, my hometown and who also served in Africa during World War 1; another is Alexander Young who, after serving in South West Africa, died on the Somme (the article incorrectly claims East Africa).

Letter to a soldier’s daughter

I write this (22/2/18) to a soldier’s daughter, 12 years old. Her dad is facing a death penalty verdict on 23 February 2018. I write because I know her, but this could be for so many others, sons as well.

No matter what, remember your dad loves you and always will. Make no mistake about it. He was so proud of you the day you and I met – 2014 – the first time I met him too. I only saw him once after that – a month or so before he was taken in 2016. We met by chance in Addis airport, he on his way to Juba to participate in peace talks, I on my way home from Rwanda. He was looking forward to a time he could get home to see you again. But as we know, to date that hasn’t happened yet and might not.

Mom and Gran have probably not told you much but you know something is going on – the tension is palpable. Anger, fear, frustration, worry, interspersed with moments of hope and determination dominate. You don’t know where you stand or what you’ve done. You’ve done nothing. The adults around you are all trying to protect you – because you are you!

Their emotions are directed at the situation they face, one created by your dad and his belief in doing what he believes is right. He is a professional soldier and from where I sit, they are a special breed of person. No matter how much they feel for an individual, there seems to be a higher calling – to make the world they know a slightly better place and to do so they fight those trying to suppress others.

A good soldier is trained not to get killed but he knows there is always the risk. Officers who care are often found in the front lines seeing and encouraging rather than staying in safety behind the lines. Often they survive. But when politics gets involved, the game changes and the rules of warfare are ignored. I am reminded of Lord Kitchener who did all he could to prevent Africa being caught up in World War 1 – only to be overridden by the politicians. The same with American Vinegar Joe Stilwell in Burma in World War 2. It happens to the best. Little short of miracles can stop the wheels of politics.

From my studies of war – soldiers and statesmen – the best transcend nationalist ideals. They cross cultures, religions and most stereotypes. Invariably they are men of great faith – not necessarily a traditional one, but a faith formed through their encounters with so many others. They are humanitarians. They don’t set out to kill but will if they have to. They are by no means saints – they are human and have failings, particularly when judged by the acceptable norms of society.

Don’t be angry for too long. Remember the good times and later try to understand why your dad did what he did and does.

In life, one comes across people who make an impact. Your dad is one of those. He transcended the world he grew up in – the comments by men who served under him in so many places is testimony to this. Through his latest work as a soldier, he has been more of a humanitarian than what one would have anticipated.

The work he has put into his book on the South African forces in World War 1 – to be published in 2018, demonstrates his attention to detail and thoroughness. It kept him going in the tough times, no doubt because it gave him a link with home. In achieving this task, he has not been alone. Your mum has been a solid rock supporting both of you and herself as well as taking all the photos required. No soldier can achieve what they do without a solid support network behind the scenes – one they often take for granted.

As we wait tomorrow’s verdict and pray for a miracle, remember dad loves you, and his actions, although not obvious, have been to make your world a little better in the one way he knows.

To you and all the victims of conflict – keep strong. Focus on moving forward in faith and with a positive energy. But never forget.