The importance of transport

One of the biggest complaints one hears in connection with the East Africa campaign of the First World War concerns logistics and the lack of food getting to the front line. The person who is most riled against in this regard is Jan Smuts when he was commander in chief between February 1916 and January 1917. His rapid moves meant that his lines of communication became overstretched with the result that on occasion men were on as low as 1/4 rations for a few days. This when rations were already at their minimum.

So, it was with interest that reading Conan Doyle’s Letters to the Press (pp60-), I discovered that he had something to say about the importance of transport during the Second Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902. Early in the war, Conan Doyle was a doctor in a private hospital in Bloemfontein, his offer of service to the War Office having been declined (see Something of themselves for more detail on Conan Doyle’s work in South Africa).

On 7 July 1900 in a letter to The British Medical Journal under the heading “The Epidemic of Enteric Fever at Bloemfontein”, he wrote:

When the nation sums up its debt of gratitude to the men who have spent themselves in this war I fear that they will almost certainly ignore those who have done the hardest and most essential work. There are three classes, as it seems to me, who have put in more solid and unremitting toil than any others. They are the commissariat, the railway men, and the medical orderlies. Of the three, the first two are the most essential, since the war cannot proceed without food and without railways. But the third is the most laborious, and infinitely the most dangerous.

He continues to expound the word of the orderlies who had to deal with the enteric outbreak where in one month there “were from 10,000 to 12,000 men down with this, the most debilitating and lingering of continued fevers. I know that in one month 600 men were laid inn the Bloemfontein Cemetery. A single day in this one town saw 40 deaths.”

The medical men and “the devotion of the orderlies” saw this through:

When a department is confronted by a task which demands four times more men than it has, the only way of meeting it for each man to work four times as hard. This is exactly what occurred, and the crisis was met. In some of the general hospitals orderlies were on duty for thirty-six hours in forty-eight…

The rest of the article is devoted to the medical conditions and how despite the lack of resources, the Medical Services achieved what they did.

An army marches on its stomach (Napoleon?) and ill men need decent food to heal properly, and for this transport would be required. When Millicent Fawcett met Kitchener to find ways to ease the issues in the concentration camps, he acknowledged that food was important but for him as commander of the army, the army was his priority. However, he had no issue adding an extra carriage with food (providing Fawcett’s group paid for it) to the trains delivering food along the railway lines. His soldiers had been suffering too from food shortages.

While South Africa had the railway line which ran the length of the country, as opposed to the three lines in East Africa which ran across, all three were single track meaning trains could move only in one direction or the other limiting the time they could run. More significantly, those needing to be fed were not always close to the railway line requiring other means to get them their rations. Porters in East Africa, ox-wagons in South Africa – each with their own limitations and challenges to overcome. As Army Surgeon General Dr Pike recorded in the report he wrote on the East Africa campaign, the transport drivers were the most hardworking, often up before most in camp and the last to go to bed, often without meals as they ensured their vehicles were fit to undertake the journey.

One could argue about whose role was most difficult and important in conducting the war, in both conflicts all were called on to exceed expectations and did. It’s where they worked together harmoniously and in sync that success was achieved. What Conan Doyle and Pike remind us of in their comments, is that those working “behind the scenes” are as significant as those on the front line.

Can we compare?

I’ve had a number of people suggest making links between the current virus situation and that of 1918. Some saying they’re similar, others disagreeing. Many say we’re in unprecedented times, I’m not so sure. I’ve commented before on how comments in one situation are almost identical to another (the 1899-1902 2nd Anglo Boer or South Africa War and the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 in particular). This one resonates with comments circulating during 2020 across numerous countries.

On 5 November 1918, six days before the armistice, South African Governor General Lord Buxton wrote to Jan Smuts in England with news from South Africa.* Prime Minister Louis Botha was on his way to England in preparation for the peace discussions (Smuts had earlier written to friends saying he knew the Sunday before the armistice was the last Sunday of the war).

There is going to be trouble over the Epidemic. The Health Department of ‘Interior’ was extraordinarily stupid and wanting in foresight, pedantically allowing the Influenza to come in from the Transport (Native) where it had been raging; and further throughout the epidemic, it has shewn want of energy, courage, and resource, in dealing with the position.

The ‘Health’ powers of the Government are of course lamentably limited, but Watt ought to have thrown himself with energy into the affair, and done all, and indeed more than he legally could, to cope with such a grave position as that which has arisen.

At that stage in South Africa, there had been 20,000 deaths. Buxton was also lamenting the fact that the opportunity had gone to pass a Public Health Bill and to sort out Housing.

This is one of a number of instances where the Spanish flu was mentioned, all resonating with comments I’ve heard and read in recent times. I’ve also seen similar comments expressed in relation to the Ebola outbreak, the 1980s HIV/AIDS and other significant crises during the past 100 years.

How do we, as historians, therefore determine how ‘unique’ a situation is? Should we be trying to decide whether our time is worse than that experienced with the 1918/9 pandemic or the Ebola outbreaks? Where does Foot and Mouth and BSE management regimes fit in all of this? The situations prevailing for each crisis has been different, although commonalities can be identified. Does this mean that we can draw conclusions that people in 1918 felt the range of emotions we encounter today? Were there the same concerns about people flouting what was seen to be essential practice to contain the spread? I haven’t read enough of the situation 100 years ago to be able to answer this confidently, but I don’t recall having seen much documented in the diaries and memoirs I have worked with where the flu is mentioned. For those writing diaries and commentaries on the current time – how do you plan to give future readers a clearer picture of what you’ve been through so they can distinguish between your feelings and those of other similar circumstances?

Perhaps as part of the Great War in Africa Association medical project some more might come to light as doctors explain and set out what was groundbreaking for them 100 years ago. Looking back, medical knowledge had made huge leaps and bounds – Norman Jewell talks of his first x-ray machine in Africa, plastic surgery and the manufacture of artificial limbs occurred and there were discoveries around tropical diseases. When compared with complaints around medical issues in the 1899-1902 war and Kitchener’s engagements in Sudan and other conflicts dating to the Crimean war, I’m astounded as to how medical knowledge developed, yet today we find similar questions being asked and concerns raised. How is it that we find ourselves in a similar situation today?

Can we compare? or do we simply acknowledge – it was different and when explaining the past make reference to ‘in memory’ events to help our readers understand.

* From Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts Papers, vol 3, p684,

Sleepy vs Sleeping Sickness

Working through WW Campbell’s East Africa by Motor Lorry (reprinted with additions by GWAA), I was intrigued to read about ‘sleeping sickness … (which, by the way, is not to be confused with sleepy sickness)’. I just had to look up sleepy sickness.

This sleepy sickness is not caused by the tsetse fly which causes sleeping sickness, otherwise known as trypanosomiasis. Its cause is not known and it apparently presents with typical flu symptoms by which time it’s too late to prevent the virus from attacking the brain. Its official name is Encephalitis lethargica and it was identified about 1915/6. An Austrian neurologist Constantin von Economo and the pathologist Jean-René Cruchet brought it to world wide attention. Over its run between 1915 and early 1920 approximately 1 million people died from it but its impact was swamped by the Spanish Influenza pandemic which caused the death of over 5 million people world wide (January 1918 to December 1920). At the time of writing, Corona had resulted in fewer than 150,000 cases world wide, with 4,300 deaths (www.worldometers.info – 11 March 2020), a month later these figures had risen to 1,872,014 cases with 116,071 (13 April 2020) . Howard Phillips provides some interesting insights regarding the 1918 flu.

Thoughts of Sleepy Sickness having disappeared were dispelled in 1993 when Professor John Oxford diagnosed it in a young girl which led to further investigations. A linked disease/variation is Parkinsonism popularly brought to public attention in the Oliver Sacks 1973 book and film, Awakenings.

Sleeping Sickness or trypanosomiasis gained notoriety during the First World War for the number of animals who died as a result of it. Misinformation given to (through ignorance, as we know the British held maps of German East Africa were poor) the South African investigators in late 1915 as to the feasibility of horse-power in the East African theatre resulted in the mounted forces suffering extraordinary losses when they hit tsetse fly areas, by which time it was too late to save the animals. The demands of the theatre and drive to push the Germans into a corner, led to all, including animals, being asked to give their all. Today, trypanosomiasis is still prevalent in 36 African countries affecting both humans and animals. Concerted efforts have been implemented following an outbreak in the 1970s with the result that by 2030 it is hoped the disease will be completely eradicated.

War-time sanitation

At the start of the First World War, a review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (27 August 1914) on two books dealing with sanitation in war.

The review provides some interesting figures on how since the Crimean War instances of dysentery had been reduced. The reviewer notes that while the idea of missiles and other weapons carry the imagination of the civilian as the main cause of death, the figures show it’s disease.

Going further back to Napoleon, in 1809 he apparently had 241,000 men in Spain and 58,000 in hospital.
A month before the battle of Corunna, Sir John Moore had 25,858 men available and 4,035 in hospital. He lost 800 in the battle.

Of the 52,584 men admitted to hospital in Crimea between 1 October 1854 and 31 March 1885 of which 3,806 were wounds, the remainder being due to illness.

The greater understanding of how disease spread and simple methods to hinder their extension went a long way to reduce the number of lives lost through disease. Preservation of health moved up the priority lists for the military authorities.

This was evident during the 1899-1902 war in Southern Africa where the deaths among NCOs and rank and file was 12,669 from disease against 7,010 from military action. Amongst officer ranks there were 716 deaths from military causes compared with 404 from disease.

The point of the article was to remind readers and in turn ‘young soldiers’ to not forget what they’d learned in training and that just one small drink from contaminated water could have dire results. Similarly, camps were to be kept as clean as possible and ‘filth’ as far away as possible. The review ends:

The recruit who masters the information which [the books] contain will not be likely, by a carelessness which would amount to criminality, to jeopardize either his own life or the lives of his comrades.

Although great strides were made to reduce the impact of disease in the war, it being the first where battlefield deaths exceeded disease deaths, in Africa it still accounted for all but 10% of deaths. Malaria, Blackwater Fever, Dysentery being the worst. Accounts by Norman Parsons Jewell, letters by Edward Harris and Francis Brett Young at the Cadbury Library, give insight into what doctors had to deal with while Gerald Keane explains how the African Native Medical Corps came into being and the work they did. The Pike report gives an overview of what conditions in Africa were like when an official investigation into the medical provision in East Africa was undertaken. None of this however, prepared the continent for what was to come in 1918.

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.