South African WW1 remembrance days

While some African countries seem to be moving away from 11 November as the day to remember those who died making the(ir) world a better place such as Nigeria and Egypt, South Africa seems to be adding days.

That we have a one-two minute silence on 11 November was thanks to South Africa’s own Percy Fitzpatrick. In the past, the day tended to focus mostly on the Western Front of World War 1 and South Africa’s involvement in World War 2, in particular North Africa and Italy. Today, the East Africa campaign of 1939-1942 is getting greater recognition while South Africa’s involvement in the campaign of the same name of 1914-1918 remains relatively glossed over in the public domain. Today, 11 November, in line with the more integrated South Africa, is more inclusive in its remembrance across the armed forces of the republic.

In addition to 11 November, we have:

20 February – Mendi Day when the 600+ souls who perished when the SS Mendi was sunk, or as I prefer to think of it Labour Day, commemorating all South African labour who served, survived and died during the First World War.

20 September – Battle of Square Hill when the Cape Corps suffered huge losses in helping the Allies gain a victory in the Middle East in 1918.

And then we have not quite a day, but the figure of Jopie Fourie who symbolises the rebellion and opposition to the British Empire.

I’ve written about these in various articles, but more recently, in response to someone reading one of my articles, I have come to realise another date in the military calendar:

20 July – commemorating South Africa’s losses at Delville Wood in 1916. Whilst this has been the feature of 11 November public commemoration until recently, it has been a feature of military commemoration for some years. Now, 20 July is becoming more well known as this 2018 article shows, at least in Pretoria.

Other posts: Delville Wood and Square Hill ; SS Mendi Shroud ; Aragon vs Mendi ; Dove to remember ; Why remember ;

Publications: The end of the war in Africa

Remembering the war dead ; Some thoughts on African war burials

Preserving the past

Seeing the tweet below recently resonated with thoughts I’ve been having over Africa and its remembrance of World War 1.
Remembrance on the continent seems to be rather divided between peoples with European/Caucasian heritage and experience knowing about the conflict and feeling all should remember and those who don’t. This is a broad-brush divide as even within these two groups there will be people with differing opinions.

This division was further brought home by a ‘twitterstorian’ a few days later asking what three books historians would recommend to introduce students to the Great War. The few responses I saw were all British/Western Front related. Is there any one book which provides a truly global view of the war?  It’s also been rather interesting reading the comments on the film 1917 in terms of how people perceive the past and its study. As a student of WW1 in Africa, I see huge value for understanding many of the issues we face today in terms of historical context. It helps remind me that we’re only here temporarily as part of a continuum but one who can actively change things for better (or worse). But this is not the case for all. Others live in the now and see the past through a narrow window coloured by simplification and inuendo or even ignore it. So, is it right to insist that others remember past events we think are important? and if so, how much should they align? And, where does ‘progress’ and ‘development’ come into it?

I’m a keen one for preserving aspects of our past irrespective of how uncomfortable they make us feel. Removing statues because our values today differ to those of the time when the statue was commissioned doesn’t change the past. In fact removing these icons leads to forgetfulness and stops us reflecting on why change is important. On the other hand, if we were to keep everything from the past, there wouldn’t be space for the new and as our tweet below shows, nature plays its part too. Life is transient and ever changing, resulting in a diversity which is further enhanced through our mingling of different and individual experiences.

Is it therefore right that because I feel it’s important to remember WW1 in Africa that others should too? How do I reconcile my views on remembrance with peoples who have different traditions of remembering and who don’t see the same events in the way I do? (the Mendi is my favourite example) In Africa, as I’m sure there are examples elsewhere, the situation is complex. Generally, the people doing the remembering today of events 100 years ago are now the minority – in terms of local political power and policy determination. Those who don’t (yet) see or recognise the war as significant for their identity have other events they regard as important and see the events of 100 years before as a time of suppression and hardship, something they were part of but not involved or engaged in. Should they be forced or encouraged to adopt what is perceived in certain circles to be the dominant thinking or ideology? Should we be forcing/encouraging ways to remember on a peoples who haven’t engaged and won’t unless there’s political or economic mileage in doing so? It goes both ways . . . how accommodating would we be to others telling us we should remember/put up a reminder to them of a time gone by in our environment? How do we align our cultures which are distinct yet integrated?

These are questions which challenge me as an historian and as a citizen of this world.  It prompts a need to engage with diverse groups on an equal footing to gain insight and understanding. Yet, I’m not sure we’ll ever get to a satisfactory answer for all. Irrespective, I strongly feel that we should record and preserve our past – as truthfully and objectively as possible – in some form or other so that we and future generations can look back and understand how we got to where we have and hopefully learn from the mistakes of our forebears.

The aftermath of the 1st World War in Southern Africa: UNISA 12-13 November 2018

What better way to commemorate 100 years of the ending of the Great War than to have a conference – this one focusing on southern Africa in southern Africa. What made this conference ultra special was its diversity. As anticipated most of the speakers would be African and white – encouraging others to research into the war is an ongoing challenge – but the audience was one of, if not, the most diverse I’ve ever encountered concerning World War 1 – and the ensuing discussions around each paper showed an engagement and desire to understand this conflict and its impact on southern Africa for what it was. My thanks to all involved and to our Tanzanian and Zimbabwean colleagues who had to withdraw at the last moment, sorry you couldn’t be with us to share your discoveries on invisible histories in Tanzania and the Askari Beni dance in Malawi respectively.

The conference, opened by Russel Viljoen provided a fitting historical context for southern Africa’s involvement followed by an almost double act by the German Ambassador, Dr Martin Schaefer (he has some interesting posts on Huffington Post), and the British High Commissioner, Nigel Casey. The day before they’d stood together at the Pretoria war memorial paying their respects as did a couple of us (German & South African/British) at the Johannesburg cenotaph.

Topics ranged from how World War 1 was a catastrophe (Herbert Behrendt, German Cultural Attache) to local reminscences by the women of Kroondal (Lize Kriel) and white childhood and racial degeneracy in Southern Rhodesia post war (Ivo Mhike). Jacques de Vries explained how the Cape Corps continued to be side-lined and how it was used in World War 2 despite the Corps valuable armed contribution in World War 1. Alex Mouton provided a fascinating insight into the Union Party and how it influenced Louis Botha’s actions, while Evert Kleynhans looked at how South Africa prepared for war in the interwar years and Tilman Dedering considered South Africa’s secret chemical weapons project from 1933 to 1945.  My own contribution considered the impact of the war on various African leaders who took (or tried to take) their countries to independence.

Balancing the social, military and cultural aspects were some intellectual challenges posed by Gerhard Genis who analysed Mqhayi’s Mendi using epi-poetics (The conceptualisation of epi-poetics is based on the field of epigenetics that indicates that humans are psycho-biologically and inter-generationally linked through their historical environments and experiences.’ – Genis) and Ian van der Waag who looked at the writings of South Africa’s First World War involvement – suggesting there’s an prescribed cycle of publications by poets, memoirists, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and official histories. Johan Wassermann‘s overview of the South African school curriculum concerning World War 1 provided some insight into how flexible teaching could be if teachers were open to using the curriculum as intended.

For something a little different, Neil Parsons took us on a whirlwind tour through films of South Africa between 1910 and 1920 n terms of racial representation, and Stefan Manz kept us occupied during breaks with his poster exhibition ‘Behind the Wire: The internment of “enemy aliens” in the British Empire’ and its relevance to all peoples who find themselves interned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wide ranging in its focus, the conference provided insight into the interest and reach of the war. With more opportunities to share these ‘minor’ interests, we can only enrich our knowledge of the war and its lasting impact. Hopefully, with publication in due course, others will be encouraged to engage with the war and provide an even greater breadth of understanding. And, give a platform for objective discourse which can only bring people together in countries still divided by their past. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the German Embassy Pretoria, these initial steps were possible.

My thanks to fellow organisers, Surya Chetty, Tilman Dedering and Stefan Manz, additional session chair Nick Southey, all the speakers and attendees for making the event what it was.

A Dove to Remember

This year I discarded the remembrance poppy in favour of a dove – evidence of my journey over the past 4 years. In preparation for 2014 I had a special choker made with 4 poppies to reflect the four quarters of the globe. However, the start of the centenary commemorations showed just how exclusive this symbol was (and remains) especially when it comes to the conflict in Africa.

Poppies are not an African flower. The symbol, at least as it was linked with the Tower of London display, ignored the mass of Africans who for various (legitimately thought at the time) reasons are not recorded on the CWGC database. Then we have the Africans who served for more than one imperial power including Britain. The ‘other’ is not included. And what about all those who did their bit unofficially? The contributions of the home fronts, those who felt their calling was to keep the economy going or to safeguard some of the population for the future? All suffered through the terrible years of war and after.

Something inclusive was needed in the same way that the two-minute silence is. Something that transcended race, religion, gender, culture, age and … Posing this challenge to a reforming/liberal chaplain, his immediate reply was ‘the dove – it covers all religions.’ An internet search later, I was convinced. All continents except Antarctica have a dove species and all the major religions (at least 6) accept the dove. Most significant though, was what it represented: peace, hope and forgiveness.

The dove became my remembrance symbol. The next challenge was to find a representative dove (the 3 Abrahamic faiths each have a tailored dove). A trip to a local art shop supplied the item. All was set. Except… what to place at the cenotaph? Something natural, eco friendly and sustainable that anyone could easily access and which had symbolic meaning. Religious practice again supplied the answer: stones. They protected the dead from being dug up, were used for cairns to mark special places and were of the earth.

Broaching the issue with a friend, I discovered stones from the beach in Cape Town are used at the Castle Mendi memorial. There couldn’t be any objections to my inclusive suggestion. And at a small private-ish remembrance service at the site where the Germans were informed of the armistice (opposite bank of the Chambeshi River to where the factory was), a group of 22 set stones to remember all those involved in the wars in and from Africa.

It seems fitting that at this time of the year, I share with you my dove and all it symbolises: peace, hope and forgiveness.

Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.