Walther Dobbertin raises questions

Walther Dobbertin was a German photographer who spent time in East Africa before and during World War 1. Many of the photos we know of German askari were taken by Dobbertin.

Suprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Walther. He was born in 1882, emigrated to German East Africa in 1903, served with the German army in East Africa during World War One until his capture in 1916. After being released as a prisoner of war, he returned to Germany where he died in 1961. There is a lovely photo of him here.

What I find intriguing though, is that many of his war photos are dated 10/4/1918. I discovered this when completing the book Zambia: The end of the Great War in Africa 1918-2018. We were, and still are, trying to identify the British officer in a photo with von Lettow-Vorbeck and Georg Kraut. This particular photo is marked March 1918, although the commons licence notes March 1919, and to the credit of the Bundesarchiv, it does not identify the photographer.

The photo and date pose some challenges:

– in March 1918, von Lettow Vorbeck was in Portuguese East Africa, so highly unlikely he’d be posing in a relaxed photo with a British staff officer.
– it is most likely this photo was taken after the surrender/laying down of arms once the German officers had arrived in Dar es Salaam which places is between December 1918 and 5 February 1919. At this time, Dobbertin was in a prisoner of war camp somewhere having been taken prisoner in 1916.

The conclusion here is that someone other than Dobbertin must have taken this photo, a British soldier who gave a copy to von Lettow-Vorbeck? This seems the most likely explanation for how this got into the Bundesarchiv.

But what about the other photos Dobbertin took which are dated 4/1918? eg 1, 2, 3

  • Was Dobbertin part of a prisoner exchange which saw him return to Germany earlier than post-war?
  • Was he allowed to send his wife all these photos or negatives whilst a prisoner? Surely the British authorities would have wanted to see the photos themselves and possibly kept a copy – are these hidden away in an archive or private collection somwhere?
  • Did Dobbertin manage to give the negatives to one of the captains of a blockade runner who then was able to return to Germany via Portuguese East Africa?
  • Are these the dates the negatives were developed by Dobbertin in his prison camp, which were then later adopted by the Bundesarchiv when it catalogued the collection? eg 2 looks like it was taken at Tanga in 1914

Other questions which then come to mind:

  • Did Dobbertin only take photos for his own pursposes? or
  • were any of his photos used for intelligence purposes such as those taken by Cherry Kearton?

From the sample of photos available on the internet, it appears that none were taken for intelligence purposes, which begs the question, why?
And then, the German photos referred to in the Bohill collection at Hendon RAF Archive – who were they taken by? And what did they consist of? And where are they now?

A sample of Dobbertin’s photos was published in 1932, since reprinted, but with the advent of the internet, many can be found online thanks to the Bundesarchiv’s accessibility policy.

Perhaps one day someone will consider investigating this man who has provided us with a fascinating collection of photos from the German colonial period in East Africa.

 

 

You can’t win

This tweet caught my eye:

 

I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).

I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.

Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…

Malaria

A post on the topic of Malaria has been due for some time. It ravaged the forces and others who served during the First World War in Africa and is one of the highest killers in Africa today. The World Health Organisation Africa Region notes:

In 2015, 88% of global cases and 90% of global deaths occured in the African Region. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of malaria cases declined by 42% while the malaria death rate declined by 66% in the African Region.

How to prevent being bitten and whether or not to take anti-malarials is an on-going debate and one I keep an eye on as I’m allergic to some of the prescribed anti-malarials, don’t see why the price of the tablets should be so high if bought outside Africa, are insisted upon by travel clinics across a region even if it is known that mosquitoes are only to be found in specific locations and do not trust the long-term effects of putting such drugs into my body. However, I am aware enough to know that I do not want to contract Malaria as its consequences can be quite horrific. So what are the options?
Over the years I’ve gathered snippets of advice – alas my favourites are not socially accepted and so I can’t say I’ve tried them all, but it is worth pondering on. I wonder, too, if those serving during the First World War had been aware of some of these if the instances and severity of malaria would have been reduced…

The most recent research suggest chicken odour deters the anopheles mosquito. The photo in this article (sort of) proves another point I’d been meaning to check – anopheles mosquito has striped legs!! I have tried on recent visits to Africa to ask mosquitoes to just hang on for a bit before embarking on their vampire exercise so that I could look at their legs first. Alas, none of them has been that interested in my looking at their legs. (This handy site explains the different mosquitoes for anyone interested – although it doesn’t mention stripy legs for the anophales; also no mention of stripes in this article but a short history of research into Malaria in South Africa including findings from World War 1). And the last paragraph of this article, gives some other identifiers of anopheles mosquitoes – I might put these to the test on my next visit to a malaria area.

Another deterent, one I’ve been aware of for some years now, is elephant dung. The challenge here is collecting it and then transporting it cross border… This seems to be a popular repellent in India though.

One of the things we were brought up to use was citronella oils etc, however the effectiveness of this has been called into question and research suggests citronella is not as effective as other preventatives. The UC IPM supports this suggesting citronella works best outdoors with little wind movement. I had heard from a scientist but haven’t been able to find documentary evidence that citronella actually attracts mosquitoes. This makes sense if citronella is being burnt as it is generally away from the body.

Vitamin B1 and garlic have also been recommended as a repellent because they change your blood scent to something offputting to mosquitoes. They don’t work for all but then there’s also the challenge of having to remember to take tablets religiously for x amount of days before encountering mosquitoes – requirements just open to failure…

Covering up – a challenge getting the balance right between keeping cool and wearing enough clothing to cover the body which is thick enough to stop mosquitos penetrating.

Despite all these precautions some of us are just prone to getting bitten so it’s rather reassuring to know that there are now test kits (SA version) which can be administered personally. I’ve come close to using one but thankfully one or two crucial symptoms were missing which delayed the need.

Research into malaria has developed over the years. During the First World War, quinine was the main preventative as was covering up – the German officers kept a close eye on their men taking precautions whereas the British appeared more lax. However, quinine had its own issues which may have exaccerbated the signs and symptoms of malaria and the liquid form known as Lettow Schnapps wasn’t all that tasty.

It’s incredible how something so small can be such a significan killer and that we’re still struggling to find a way to deal with it.

No time for peace

Going through some medical war diaries at The National Archives, London (WO 95/5324& WO 95/5325) a little while ago, I was shocked to see there was no indication that the war in Europe had come to an end. I didn’t really expect to see anything for 11 November but I did expect some sort of mention between 11 and 25 November 1918 – the latter date being when German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck officially surrendered at Abercorn (in today’s Zambia).

What this does tell us, is that for the medical services, it was business as usual. Reading through the entries, there was no remarkable difference between the diary entries before or after these dates, other than that the diaries seemed to end at the end of November 1918.

We know the Great War in Africa was quite different to the war in Europe. Trenches were scarce, so were rations and news. Where the men on the Western Front received news regularly, there are accounts of 2-4 months between letters being received. In fact, looking through a diary at RAC Hendon soon after the War Diaries, I was surprised to read that young Brown (the diary author) recorded in his flight log that he ‘dropped letters’ on 27 July 1916 at Lolkisale. This was the only time he dropped something other than bombs during his year in East Africa.

Although there were regular communications (telegrams) between London and GHQ East Africa, when the Armistice was agreed in Europe, a two-week window was included for getting the message through to the forces in East Africa. News of the Armistice arrived on 11 November and was delivered to the Germans on 13 November the day a battle (in East African terms) was fought at Kasama.

As I recounted in WW1 in Africa: the forgotten conflict of the European powers:

Major Hawkins recalled the story of the last days in The Times:
On the morning of November 11th (Armistice Day) the column was still forty-one miles from the road junction at Malima River, where we hoped to cut off at least the German rear-guard. Twenty-one miles were covered on the 11th, and touch with the enemy obtained one mile from the cross roads after marching eighteen miles on the 12th.

The position of the force on this day was a peculiar one. The column, consisting of 750 rifles, was probably considerably inferior to the total number of the enemy should he stand at bay. Further, our column had far outstripped all communications, and it would be impossible to pursue beyond Kasama without waiting for food. It was therefore determined to deal as heavy a blow as possible at the enemy before he got out of reach.

There turned out to be six enemy companies on the Malima, who, being attacked unexpectedly in the rear, hastily retired with loss to the north side of the open valley of the Malima, across which a hot fight raged till dark … 9.30pm … when fighting ceased.

Nearby, on 13 November, a German advance party arrived south of Kasama and fired at British defenders occupying a rubber factory. A British farmer also joined the defence firing an elephant gun from inside the roof of the factory, leading the Germans to believe that they faced an artillery piece.

News of the armistice was received in Livingstone on the 11th, but owing to a fault in the telegraph did not reach the Chambeshi (Chambezi) till two days later. Croad heard of the armistice at ‘about 1 o’clock’ when a Mr F Rumsey brought him a wire from the administrator in Livingstone ‘[…] saying that we were to carry on till General van Deventer wired me instructions.’

At 11.30am on November 13th one of our KAR native patrol posted on the main road reported that two motor cyclists carrying white flags and with white bands at their helmets passed from the direction of Abercorn going towards the enemy at Kasama. The native patrol shouted to them and tried to stop them, but they took no notice and passed on towards Kasama and the enemy.

This news caused great excitement in the column as no home news had been received for over a week. It was decided to advance slowly and await events.

At 2.45pm, when four miles from Kasama, the advance point reported two German askaris coming in under a large white flag, with a letter for the column commander. This proved to be a telegram received by von Lettow from our motor cyclists announcing the Armistice.

Lettow-Vorbeck formally handed in his agreement to surrender on 16 November 1918 and the formal surrender took place at Abercorn on 25 November 1918.

Of the 863 deaths recorded for 11 November 1918, 12 took place in East Africa
7 in Tanzania/German East Africa,
3 in Kenya/British East Africa,
1 in Malawi/Nyasaland,
1 in Zimbabwe/Southern Rhodesia
2 in Mozambique/Portuguese East Africa

Other war related deaths in Africa included:
2 in Nambibia/South West Africa
3 in Ghana/Gold Coast
5 in South Africa
18 in Egypt
(Unfortunately I cannot find a reference for these figures – I came across them in Tanzania or Kenya in 2011 in a travel magazine and accidently deleted the photo containing the publication details – if anyone can help confirm the breakdown, it would be greatly appreciated).

@UKNatArchives @RAFMUSEUM #WW1

Lettow Schnapps

I’ve recently taken to drinking tonic water, or soda water; initially with lime juice but more recently on its own. And what a refreshing drink it is although I recall turning my nose up at it when I was much younger.

I don’t know if you are like me, but I’ve always got to read the label on what I’m eating or drinking – provided of course that there is a label. One of the early tonic water labels I read specified that it ‘contains quinine’ Perhaps it was this which helped me overcome my initial distaste for the drink. Mosquitoes love me, although I can’t say the same about them – their existence is one of the big questions I have for when I meet my maker. Quinine was initially used for the treatment of Malaria, and still is on occasion. My logic therefore was that if I drink tonic water (containing quinine) then perhaps my blood flavour would revert to what it was in my youth when mosquitoes avoided me.

Tonic water is, I think, an acquired taste and I can’t help thinking of Lettow Schnapps each time I have some, especially the brand that says ‘contains quinine’. During the East Africa campaign of World War 1, the German General Paul von Lettow Vorbeck insisted that his men have quinine every day to help prevent malaria or at least reduce its effect. When the medical stores began to run short of the processed commodity, he had the bark of the fever tree boiled and mixed with water. This apparently awful tasting concoction became known as Lettow Schnapps. Refusing to take one’s daily allowance was a punishable offence, so I can imagine the varied facial expressions every morning. (The soldiers must have been quite  relieved that the expression about one’s face freezing in its position if wind blows, doesn’t hold true.)

Lettow’s insistence on the consumption of Lettow Schnapps and that his men wear long trousers and shirts paid off as the German forces tended to suffer far less from malaria than the composite British forces whose officers did not enforce the quinine rule (when it was available) and allowed their men to wear short trousers and sleeves. One black German East African was recorded advising his son about the differences between the forces: You can see the knees of the British, but not of the German.

One day, when I have time, I’ll try and get my head around the varieties of tonic water – ‘contains quinine‘, ‘Indian’ – and how they differ to soda water. At least I’ve got it that sparkling water is natural water which has been infused with carbonate soda creating the bubbles. For now, I’ll continue to drink my tonic water – preference ‘contains quinine’ in the hope that it will repel those pesky mosquitoes and be thankful that I can drink it at leisure and not as instructed every morning.

And for those who were wondering, the British forces in East Africa tended to drink a lot of Rose’s Lime Juice as a preventative against scurvy or vitamin C deficiency.