On Call

With all the technology we have today, one feels ‘On Call’ 24/7 unless one purposefully switches off – pretty much as I did this past weekend. However, there are still professions where people are ‘On Call’ outside of ‘normal’ (what is ‘normal’ these days?) working hours. Plumbers, road side assistants and police are some of those who remain ‘On Call’ as do nurses, paramedics and doctors. All are unsung heroes. And it’s around a doctor ‘On Call’ that leads me to write today.

At the end of last week, a parcel arrived containing some copies of On Call in Africa in war and peace 1910-1932 by Dr Norman Parsons Jewell. This parcel marked the culmination of over a year’s work getting to know Norman Jewell; and what an honour.

Norman led an extraordinary life. He left for the Seychelles in 1910 serving in the Colonial Services as a doctor and where his soon to be wife, Sydney, joined him. With a young family, he asked to enlist in the armed forces and found himself in East Africa during December 1914. He remained in East Africa save for a few trips ‘home’ to Ireland (Bloody Sunday 1920) and the UK before being made redundant as a result of the 1932 austerity measures.

Norman was one of the few doctors to serve virtually all through the war in East Africa and more significantly, he served with the 3rd East Africa Field Ambulance (3EAFA) – responsible for black and Indian soldiers and carriers. As a result, his memoirs open up a whole new understanding of life during the war in East Africa. The memoirs were written a few years after the war, Norman’s original diaries having gone AWOL but the accuracy and sharpness of his recall was consistently reinforced as I looked up dates, names and events. I seem to recall only one instance where there was a minor misalignment of fact – the dates of death of Frederick Selous and his sons; easily done when news only arrives every six months…

But perhaps the highlight for me was the discovery at #UKNatArchives of the war diaries of 3EAFA written in Norman’s own hand. A study of the War Diaries involving Norman provide an interesting insight into diary and record keeping of the time. Norman did not keep (or the diaries were not retained) during the time that Norman reported into Temple-Harris of Seventeen Letters to Tatham fame (available), while there are two concurrent diaries maintained by Norman at the time he was in charge of 3EAFA and acting Senior Medical Officer in Lindi following South African Dr Laurie Girdwood’s capture by the Germans.

What this suggests, keeping in mind the AWOL personal diary is that Norman at one stage was keeping 3 diaries – all for different purposes about the same thing. The two in his official capacity are interesting to compare: little is duplicated showing how the gdound level 3EAFA fed into the Divisional level. Given the comments in Norman’s memoir, it would be fascinating to see what he had recorded in his personal diary at the time – did he contemplate then making aspects of it public? He clearly had a routine to his day, one which he maintained as well as circumstances would allow – virtually all diary entries are made at 6pm – half an hour before sun-down. This too, opens up questions and thoughts about life on campaign in East Africa…

Another outstanding feature of Norman’s memoir and war diaries is his recognition of others, especially Zorawar Singh, and the work they did, as well as the importance of friendship. He met many of the Legion of Frontiersmen and following his move back to London, remained in touch with many he had befriended in Africa. His memoir is more than ‘just’ a military account, it opens a window onto colonial life in the early part of the Twentieth Century, while his post-war work introduces us to the challenges the medical world faced in the tropics and busveld.

And, in keeping with his time, he protected his family – there is little mention of them in the memoir. BUT, they are not ignored in On Call – Part 3 of the book pays tribute to Norman’s wife Sydney – a remarkable woman in her own right: if only she had kept a diary!

I hope others who encounter On Call in Africa in War and Peace 1910-1932 find it as eye-opening, rewarding and enjoyable as I did working with the manuscript (and the family). The #WW1 #Africa jigsaw has had another piece fall into place…


“Never give up”

Never give up conclude Rwanda means the Universe: a native’s memoir of blood and bloodlines, a book by Louise Mushikiwabo combining the history of Rwanda through the exploration of family links.

I came upon the book whilst researching for the commissioned article on Ruanda-Urundi during World War 1. Knowing I would be visiting Rwanda, I decided to leave reading the whole book until I was there. I’m not sure if it’s better to read a book about a place when you are there or before you arrive, but on this occasion I’m pleased I took it with me. As I met with friends and travelled around Kigali and down to Butare/Huye (where the first school and university in Rwanda was built), so the names and places mentioned in the book became real. But what I hadn’t realised until I dared to show my Rwandan friend the book, that the author, Louise, is today Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Her story reflects that of many who experienced the genocide – the differences will are in the detail of events and the horrors – and survived. They haven’t given up! Despite all that fellow country men and women did to each other, it is evident that there is a significant section of the population which hasn’t given up on trying to make their country a better place for all. I’m not naive enough to think that it has been and will be smooth sailing, but there is definitely something about Rwanda which I haven’t experienced in any other African country – part of me found it too ordered, clean and new (most of Kigali is only ten years old), whilst another part of me found the interaction with and between people who had been educated in different parts of the world refreshingly open, honest and tolerant of ‘otherness’. I felt a true equal.

The resilience of Africans was brought home when we met with a young Burundi woman wo was taking refuge with her grandmother in Kigali. Talking to her, you would have no idea of all the horrors that country is currently experiencing. Concerns and worry are kept private and life as it happens is taken for what it is and enjoyed when it can be.

I imagine that after World War 1, many Africans who had experienced the horrors of that conflict reacted in much the same way and got on with life – reconciling with those who had been ‘on the other side’  in so many ways (if only a few other African countries would take a leaf out of these reconciling books!). The difference however, is that while WW1 has disappeared from local memory, I don’t think the genocide will. My reason? There are too many memorials to those affected by the genocide whilst only a few photos, part of a building (the Kigali prison) and a few descendants remain to remind those who search of the presence and impact of WW1. Records (memorials and monuments)  of the past play an important role in reminding us of where we have come from; the good and bad. They reflect who we are today and can serve to remind us of attitudes and times we don’t want to return to.


 #WW1 #Africa #Rwanda #Burundi #memory

Review: Kariakor by Geoffrey Hodges

Kariakor: The Carrier Corps by Geoffrey Hodges is probably the best known and regarded book on the Carriers or Porters of World War 1 in East Africa. This is not surprising as he spent 15 years researching the topic, starting in 1968. The current publication (1999) is an abridged version of that initially published in 1986 in the US as Carrier Corps.

THR Cashmore’s review of the book is in keeping with how many perceive the plight of the carrier. However, the story is far more complex than that set out by Hodges in his publication. At the 2015 SCOLMA conference, John Pinfold gave some insight into what was not published in Kariakor. He is working through the research Hodges collected which is kept in the Bodleian Library Archive (Charles Wendell David Reading Room / microfilm copy at IWM) and what appears to be evident is that Kariakor was a victim of the political era in which it was written (1970s – cf decolonisation, Idi Amin in Uganda…)

That the account is somewhat biased (and this is not to detract from the horrors and stresses the men (and women) suffered) is supported by veteran interviews Gerald Rilling did in the 1980s which are stored at the Imperial War Museum. Myles Osborne in Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya (2014, pp75-6) notes:

In the early months of the war, volunteers were common. At one point, for instance – in just one week – Kiteta and Mbooni locations provided 600 men for the Carrier Corps. Officials found men in both Machakos and Kitui willing to join us, and recruiters encountered little opposition as they went about their work. Relatively few deserted, and recruiting officers rejected only 6 percent of men from Machakos for service.

Other texts to consider when researching the Carrier Corps include are Oscar from Africa (1995), the biography of Oscar Watkins who was commandant of the Carrier Corps during the war. Frank – Bishop of Zanzibar by H Maynard Smith (1926). Frank accompanied his carriers on their journey, giving us first-hand insights.

Frank was most careful about getting the names of his men properly enrolled, and seeing that maintenance was provided for their wives while away. He saw that each had his correct equipment, blankets, water-bottles and haversack. He even had postcards served out to those who could write, and they were used. Here is a letter written by one African to another. It was shown to a lady on the staff, who has kindly sent me a translation:

Truly is our Lord Bishop a great man! Did he not call us and gather us all together? Did he not drill us and go for marches with us every day?

Truly, he is a great man! For when after many days a ship came to take us to the mainland, he came down to the shore to take leave of us. Then we said to him, ‘Bwana, we go not without you, for are you not our father?’ And he said unto us, ‘Good, I will go with you.’

Truly, he is a great man, for he came over the sea with us, and when we reached the mainland, he marched with us, he slept with us, he ate with us, and when we laid down at night, did he not pray with us? And when we arose in the morning, did he not pray with us again? At the end did he not take us into camp.

Truly, he is a great man.

The horror of the road was increased by the lack of water. Frank had indeed received an official list of watering places, but the man who had surveyed the route had done so during the rains. At the first halting place there was no water at all, and the weary men had to go on until night. On the second day, after a fifteen mile walk, the well was found, ‘but an inquiring spirit was rewarded with a museum of dead frogs.’ Another six miles had to be walked, and Frank writes:

The man who has not had to do extra miles beyond his promised halting place, under a tropical sun, has yet much to learn of what a broken spirit really means.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, Frank could write:

Our men did very well in this particular work. We made a record for the journey both in time and accuracy, that is, we got our loads there quicker than other porters and we got them all there. I gather this was not common.

Hodges looks at the role of the Carriers from Kenya from a specific time. As seen from the quotes above, his work needs to be taken into consideration with other texts looking at different times and places of the same campaign.

Experiences in the south, although similar, were also different. In particular, Ed Yorke considers the role of Zambians as does Jan-Bart Gewalt. Mel Page in the Chiwaya War which considers Malawi’s contribution, while Michelle Moyd in Violent Intermediaries (2015) considers the German perspective. The forthcoming book On call in Africa 1910-1932 provides some insight into the medical assistance available to, at least some, carriers whilst on the march.

The numbers quoted differ depending on what source you are using. It is not clear how much double counting has taken place and to what extent casual labour is/is not included. This is a project which is currently being undertaken by GWAA – capturing the names and details of all those involved in the campaigns in Africa, and particularly in East Africa, will hopefully help clear up some of the uncertainties surrounding the roles and numbers of those caught up in the horrors of war. The blog I did on the Numbers game (13 June 2014) needs updating in light of new information which has come to light. It’s going to take some time, but watch this space…

Hodges deserves to be recognised for opening up the world of the carrier and porter, however, his findings should be treated cautiously as the reality is far more complex than he portrays.

And for anyone interested in a slightly different history, there is MG Vassanji‘s And Home was Kariakoo, a memoir which reflects back on the history of the place he grew up in. It mentions 17 Letters to Tatham.


Review: World War 1 Reads and finds of 2015

This year has been a bumper year for books related to World War 1 in Africa. This is not too surprising given the centenary commemorations which has brought the little known campaigns in Africa to a wider audience.

Highlights of texts I became aware of this year include fiction and non-fiction and not all produced during this year. I’ve taken the opportunity of reflecting on the year’s finds to comment on those books I’ve not reviewed on the site.

On the non-fiction side, Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis broke away from the traditional military related accounts of the campaign in East Africa. Ed’s book sheds light on the relationships between the British metropole, the British South Africa Company, missionaries, settlers and local communities in a way reminiscent of Mel Page’s 1977 ground breaking work on Malawi and the First World War. I’m not going to say much more about Ed’s book here as I’m reviewing the book for an academic journal (details to follow in due course).

In a related vein, we have Albert Grundlingh’s War and Society: Participation and Remembrance. This is an updated and expanded account of Albert’s account of black South African involvement during World War 1. Many will be familiar with his Fighting their own war; however War and Society takes the story a bit further to include coloured involvement and the development of memory amongst black and coloured South Africans over the past 100 years. He pays special attention to the SS Mendi and the part it has played in South Africa’s remembrance of the war. Although I’m really pleased Albert released this publication, it’s a pity he left out the Indian involvement. As with Mel’s thesis being ground breaking, so was Albert’s – upon which both these books are based (and a recommended read if you can track down a copy and read Afrikaans).

Another two similarly ground breaking publications this year include Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries and Myles Osborne’s Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c.1800 to the present. This book, as I note in a forthcoming review soon to be published by New Contree, compliments that of Michelle’s.

Moving away from the ‘big’ picture, I was given a copy of Your Loving Son, Yum (available through GWAA for people outside South Africa), the story of Grahame Munro of Grahamstown who saw service in East Africa. His World War 1 letters, edited by Kathleen Satchwell, open up the war on a personal level with discussions about farming back home.

Another which gives more personal accounts of Belgians, Germans and British, and which has been available for a year now, is The Fate of the Prisoners during the East Africa Campaign. This translation of the 1919 Belgian report on prisoners contains amongst other accounts that of Ada Schnee, the German Governor’s wife. The accounts are of prisoners and guards who were captured and released when the Belgians occupied Tabora in 1917.

2015 saw the centenary of the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland, now Malawi and in commemoration of the uprising, the Society of Malawi dedicated an edition (vol 68, no 1) of its journal, The Society of Malawi Journal, to the event. Contributors included George Shepperson, David Bone, David Stuart-Mogg and Brian Morris. The publication provides a useful summary of the events which took place in 1915, adding some additional context to the general accounts and some reflections on the impact of the uprising on later generations.

An autobiographical account linking non-fiction and fiction was MJ Vassanji’s And Home was Kariakoo: A memoir of East Africa. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel The Book of Secrets.

It also proved a year of discovery on the fiction side with a number of novels coming to light. As I wrote last week, there is Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband drawing on the experiences of Karen Blixen and other settlers in the early years of the war. Margeurite Poland’s 2009 Iron Love starting in South Africa in 1913 and covering the campaign in East Africa, Escott Lynne’s 1921 Comrades Ever based on diary jottings of an unnamed person who served in the East Africa and finally regarding the war in East Africa, Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan alive: A definitive biography of Lord Greystoke which contains a couple of chapters (18-19) on the war.

My best novel discovery, which took place this week, must be my first novel mentioning a theatre other than East Africa and that is Roelof Steenbeek’s The Black Knight: The loss of innocence which mentions the West African campaign. It appears that this is a translation from Norwegian and a paper copy will set you back £30 but there is a e-version available through Amazon or Google Books.

I am yet to read all of these, other than Maya’s, so keep an eye on this site for updates on what I discover.

Looking ahead, 2016 promises to be another bumper year of publications making their way into my library (oh for more time to indulge in reading!). I’m waiting with eager anticipation for Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa which will contain some information on the First World War, and Ross Anderson’s soon to be released book on the King’s African Rifles. Norman Jewell’s On Call in Africa 1910-1932 which I was involved in editing should also be out in the new year bringing to light the life of a doctor who served with the East Africa Field Ambulance. Norman served for a time with Edward Temple Harris whose 17 Letters to his brother Temple have been around for a few years already (copies are available here). If all goes to plan, we should be seeing a range of memoirs and other official accounts of men who served in the King’s African Rifles, German forces, transport corps and so forth coming into the public domain – all on the East African theatre.

Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War as there are constantly new articles being added. They provide a broad introduction to aspects of World War 1. A lot of effort by the expert editors (those on the African front include Bill Nasson, Richard Foggarty, Mel Page, Michelle Moyd and Tim Stapleton) has gone into sourcing the contributors and to ensure they meet a minimum academic standard yet are accessible to a general audience.

Thank you to all who brought publications to my attention and for helping to keep the memory of all those involved in the Great War in Africa alive. May their experiences, positive and negative, help us to make the world a better place for all to live. We will remember them!

Potholes, Pigs and Paradise

Potholes, Pigs and Paradise is the title of A Chiddingstone Memoir by Edwina Hall, a book I read recently thanks to Penny, Edwina’s daughter, whom I met on a visit to Tanzania and who sent me a copy. The book is self-published and has the flaws of a self-published book but that aside, it was a fascinating read providing an insight into life as a farmer in post-World War 2 Britain. But what does the book have to do with Africa, other than that I met the author’s daughter in Africa?

Well, to be honest, not much. But, whilst reading it, I did find my mind wondering back to the Post-World War 1 Soldier Settler Scheme which turned out to be less successful than expected. Reading about the difficulties the Hall’s faced, especially with John having lost a leg, gave some insight into why the scheme in Africa would have failed. And in particular, the Disabled Soldier Settler Scheme. It was challenging enough for people on home territory to farm, let alone in a foreign country which was harsh and unforgiving and where people lived further away from each other than in England. Settler farming was a regular attempt by Britain to deal with unemployment on the island and was still an issue in Kenya in 1967 according to Hansard.

As with the Hall’s, over the years there were some new to farming who were successful in their adventures in Africa. Others invested huge amounts of money, whilst others had to turn to alternative initiatives as they could not afford to return home. Again, in common with the Hall’s, the open spaces, the sense of achievement and relationship developed with the land seemed to characterise the settlers in Africa too – whether or not they stayed farming.

Having covered a self-made (and real for some) paradise, what about the potholes and pigs? South Africans will regularly complain about the potholes in their roads and it’s not unusual today to see bits of tree, tyre with emergency tape (or not) and other items propped up in strange places along the road to indicate where perilous holes might exist. Sand or dirt roads by nature have potholes helping to slow drivers down naturally or provide the basis for a harrowing ride at speed! More positively, there are the beautiful Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a natural phenomenon

And pigs, well one of my favourite Kiswahili words is kitimoto. This is for three reasons, one is that it refers to pork, my favourite meat, two, its secret market, and thirdly, it’s the nickname for the warthog, one of my favourite animals. Finally, the name just conjurs up the imagine of little kittens running around as though they have boundless energy…

Thanks to Penny for the opportunity to discover a different side of British life and I hope some blog readers might be tempted to obtain a copy of the book for a trip down memory-lane.

Two sides of a coin

How do we approach the writing and understanding of another culture’s history? I was talking to a senior diplomat a little while ago about how so many texts on the First World War in Africa although trying to include the African (or more specifically, Black) perspective remain Eurocentric. This is something that I’ve been quite conscious of for many years, coming from a background which is mixed in so many ways. For various reasons, since about 2009, how we see the same thing so differently has started to be revealed thereby opening up alternative options to understanding the past (and the current memory).

1. Death

A few years ago now, we were in Tanzania when news of my brother-in-law’s sudden and unexpected death came through. We’d just survived a most incredible and terrifying bus journey (see religion below) when the call from South Africa came through. A close Black Tanzanian friend who we were with, very quickly followed up her ‘Pole Sana’ (I’m sorry for your loss) with ‘But now you have a little bit of them with you all the time.’ A discussion naturally ensued and it was revealed that the person was not actually dead until the very last person who remembered/knew them was dead too. What a very different way of looking at the next stage of life – compared to the person has gone to heaven (or elsewhere) or the open-ended wonder of what happens if a person doesn’t believe in an after-life… Related to this too are the accounts I’ve told of the Massai women we met at the bottom of Salaita Hill wanting to know what interest these White people had in a dusty hill that they thought was only good for goats to scavenge on.

Another difference which is linked, is the naming of things. It’s a very Euro-centric thing to do to name animals and babies (almost as soon as they are born). I fell into this trap whilst visiting Tunisia many years ago and wanted to know the name of the camel I had become attached to in the Sahara Desert. The owner looked at me condescendingly and said ‘Monica’. However, a little later on the same trip, I discovered that they have a standard name for people like me who ask the question. For the owner of ‘Monica’, she was a beast of burden, an asset who helped him earn a living which was challenging enough without an emotional attachment to the tool of his trade. The same explanation was given to me when a friend in Tanzania was showing me her cows (of which she was very proud). The issue was that if she named them, she would find it more difficult to sell them later on and their purpose was to earn her a return on her investment in them. And in some cultures still today, the late naming of children can be linked to the age after which a child is more likely to survive – forming a personal attachment too soon can be too distressing but what a fine balance to manage…

2. “Laziness

Some memoirs I’m currently working on mention an area in southern Tanzania as having ‘the biggest concentration of serpentine life’ known. This made me recall Cherry Kearton’s comment in Adventures with animals and men about the ‘laziness’ of his porters. He’d instructed some porters to clear away debris from a camp and was shocked to see the porters slowly moving the debris using sticks. He quickly realised the reason why, when he set out to demonstrate how to clear the area quickly, as a puffadder emerged from the pile of debris in his arms. Kearton left the porters to carry on using their sticks.

On a more personal note, the simple past-time of walking seems to be differently regarded. As an African I don’t tend to ‘go for a walk’ unless I’m with a British friend. Any other walking I do, and I do like to walk, has got to have a fixed purpose or goal at the end of it. Watch most Africans, who often walk for miles and ages, and you’ll note that they’re doing so to get somewhere or for some tangible output. Africans do not tend to go for a walk to look at the scenery or for exercise. This sense of purpose to walking has clearly had an impact on those, including myself, I know who grew up in Africa.

3. Religion, Nationality, Loyalty

This is an incredibly complex area and to make assumptions about a person’s loyalty or stance on war because of their religious background is asking for trouble. We know that on both sides in the East African campaign there were Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Animalists and a range of other religious affiliations. The Governor of German East Africa even tried declaring a jihad against the British but it failed. All these groups fought alongside and against each other for reasons which only the individual may know (cf David Mannall in Battle of the Lomba). The chaplains in the armed forces recognised this and I was astounded to see in the WW1 War Diaries for the East African Chaplaincy how diverse a service these men offered. It reminded me of the episode in M.A.S.H where Catholic Father Mulcahy presides over a Jewish circumcision (Life with Father).

Similarly, making assumptions around nationality is bound to lead to sticky situations. In the East Africa Campaign, nationality is a thorny issue. Black askari quite happily (?) changed sides depending on which leader they felt would be strongest and who paid, fed and clothed them. The disbanded KAR unit from before WW1 joined the German forces as they were recruiting and later, during the war when the Germans were losing ground and moving into Portuguese East Africa, some of these same men returned to the British force. Reading through memoirs and diaries, individuals classed themselves as South African, British, Canadian, American etc despite being born in another country. Technically, all those born in the Dominions and Colonies etc were ‘British’ until after 1926 yet there are clear distinctions in unit names. An attempt is being made on the Great War in Africa site to see how many national groupings can be identified, see for example East Africa.

So, where does this leave us?

For myself, the above is a synopsis of my discoveries concerning the ‘two sides of the coin’ – there are many more to be considered and to take into account, and no doubt I’ll be writing more about this in future too –  and is a reminder not to assume that someone else is behaving the way they do just because it’s how I would do naturally. It sets the challenge to continue exploring and uncovering why and how other forces, units and individuals participated in the Great War in Africa. Thanks to all who have helped, and continue to help, me on this voyage of discovery – our frank and open discussions have been most revealing and is testimony to the values of open-mindedness and mutual respect.

Confessions of a WW1 historian: Remembrance Tourist

A week before Remembrance Day 2014, I took a trip to the Tower of London to see the moat of poppies. There had been no rush to do so as in my mind they would be there for the four years of the war. Thankfully, someone put me right but by that time, there were signs in underground stations telling one to avoid the crowds at Tower Hill Station. I planned my visit at the start of the day and was astounded at the numbers who clearly had had the same idea.

The route I chose to the Tower took me through the nearby memorials to those who lost their lives at sea. Surprisingly, as I stopped to take some photos, I was pleasantly surprised to see a few (literally one or two) others taking a look.

The Tower surrounds were abuzz. Before getting to the viewing spots, poppy sellers lurked flogging their wears. Cameras abounded from ipads to sophisticated things on tripods. A couple even took a selfie. On exiting the area, a poppy seller was heard to say enthusiastically that he’d already made about £20 (at 8.30am).

This added to my reflections on Remembrance Day per se and being an historian of one of the most significant wars of all time, that which started 100 years ago this year, I’ve had much to ponder upon.

I had already decided not to do a special Remembrance Day blog but to rather reflect on what took place (and my review of David’s book felt an appropriate act for the week). I certainly didn’t expect to start it earlier!

I had forgotten the morning of my Tower visit to wear my “100” year badge from The National Archives (@UKNationalArchives). This badge would be especially fitting given the year, instead of a poppy. However, I felt distinctly underdressed with no outward symbol of remembrance, and so succumbed when I spotted two veterans manning a table which included poppy badges. I’d really had my eye on one for a few years but never seemed to be in an area where they were sold. We engaged in some chatter following my comment that the only reason I’d stopped was for that specific poppy. In answer to their confused looks – I remember every day of the year. More confusion until told I was an historian of WW1. Well, not surprising they didn’t know the last surrender took place at Abercorn on 25 November 1918 and I didn’t know where the last British soldier had fallen on the Western Front – close to where the first had fallen. In some ways, this little exchange felt like a competition; who knew more? Was it important?

The pressure of wearing a poppy was increased by a headline I’d spotted in the Metro newspaper on 5 November: “1 in 6 refuse to wear poppy” and the variations of poppies being worn was quite something. I can’t complain about this as I had a special choker of poppies crocheted for this anniversary period.

Everywhere one looked, there was some reminder of World War 1: London Transport embraced the centenary with a sponsored board in every station and a painted model bus outside the old War Office which I spotted when I went to see the wonderful photographic exhibition – at that time in St James’ Park.

It seems I’m not alone in my thinking – thanks to a friend for sending me this link after we’d been talking about the issue.

Remembrance Sunday was quite different. It was spent with friends at a church which became a VAD Hospital 100 years ago, on 19 November 1914 when the first patients arrived at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Northwood (@NorthwoodArts). It was a time for reflection and afterwards, once those who remembered at the cenotaph had finished, a local school had a series of workshops and talks for those who were interested.

The question then: Who is remembrance for?

Some see it as an opportunity to fundraise for veterans of war and those who have suffered through violence. The British Legion made  the poppy an integral part of its image in 1995. Since then the poppy has evolved and you can now purchase wall plates, bags, badges, brooches and a myriad of other items all featuring the poppy.  It’s a tough line to walk – where is the line between informing to fundraise or turning the day into a commercial moneymaker no different to Valentine’s Day, Halloween or even Christmas?

Others have taken the opportunity to use this centenary year as a platform to speak out against war equating remembrance and the study of conflict as condoning and approving of violence to resolve differences. Personally, I think this is missing the point and undermines the sacrifice so many made for something they felt worth fighting for (voluntarily or otherwise). I believe there are other ways to resolve conflict, however, I am realist enough to know that war/violence happens and is sometimes necessary, so rather than try and understand why it happened, I look to the why and how it came to be what it was and continued for as long as it did. What is constantly striking is that through all the horrors of war, there are so many positives – not least the humanity of man. It is by building on these positives that reconciliation can (slowly but surely) take place if people work at it.

And then there’s the group for whom the day is something special. A time to remember those who have passed onto another world, family and friends, known and unknown, those who survived – maimed physically and/or mentally, and those who who stayed at home doing what they could to support those on active service. For them, the two minutes’ silence is all encompassing – as it was meant to be when visualised by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

Having spent all this time reflecting, the irony of 11 November 2014, is that I missed the official 2 minutes’ silence! I was working at home in silence on the memoirs of a doctor who served in World War 1 East Africa (forthcoming) and adding names to the Great War in Africa ‘In Memory’ lists (under each theatre).

So, what have I learned from this year’s Remembrance activities?

It’s the personal that matters – There is nothing more moving than spending time with like-minded others reflecting between the Last Post and the Reveille. And so, I’ll live with the tourism aspect of Remembrance – it sows the seed for deeper remembering and reflection – and participate in it to the extent I feel appropriate.

Thank you to all my living soldier/veteran friends and to ‘my boys’ (and ‘girls’) of days gone by who help me remember every day of the year. Your sacrifices were not in vain.