Oh for a doctor!

The topic of medicine in the First World War seems to be very popular in 2017, and it just happens to be a theme GWAA is focusing on too, although when a few of us started looking at it, there wasn’t so much happening generally – one of those interesting coincidences.

Something which struck me when reading Gregg Adams’ King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey 1916) was the role of fire and its impact on fighting. He quotes Mzee Ali (Bror McDonnel) in this regard which surprisingly passed me by when I read the book – I was focusing on other themes at the time. What is striking about the role of fire and the description given is that I don’t recall having read about doctors treating burns, or burns being listed on the catalogue of reasons men were evacuated by hospital ship to South Africa between 1916 and 1917 listed in the Appendices to the Pike Report (WO 141/31).

In On Call in Africa (NP Jewell), we read of an ammunition store catching fire but not the bush fires. There is also reference in some sources to Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck using scorched earth policy as a military tactic but this implies controlled fire and the devastating effect of this in terms of famine and starvation is recorded. But, the fires caused by weapons firing and sudden sparks turning into flames is not a feature in memoirs and diaries. Snakes get more of a mention, as do attacks by bees.

Were many lives lost to these fires? If so, ow were they recorded and where? How did doctors deal with them especially when water was scarce? (Jewell mentions sterilizing hands with iodine as there was no water available). What was the impact of the hot African sun on the untreated burn injuries? (Pike notes that sunstroke/burn was not a major issue for the medical services). Why is there little record of burns in the medical records? I’m not sure we’ll get answers to many of these questions, but as noted by Adams, this was a significant difference of fighting in certain parts of Africa compared with the Western Front.

You can see the transcription of the Pike Report and other relevant medical links on the GWAA Medical Archive.


Slave Trade – then and now

Africa is well known for its involvement in the slave trade with much focus given to that which occurred on the western side of the continent. East Africa was also to experience a slave trade – but rather than with the Americas, the eastern slave trade was with Arabia. Names associated with the two slave trades include John Newton of Amazing Grace (to the tune of House of the Rising Sun) fame and David Livingstone the missionary who died in Africa having raised the profile of slavery. For those of working on the East Africa campaign of World War 1, the account of Mzee Ali as recorded by Bror McDonell (scroll down for info on the author) gives an insight into the last days of slave trading as the Germans extended their control over the territory. Having seen the building conditions on both the east and west African coasts, personally, I think the east African slaves had the nastier facilities, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that these people were being forcibly removed from their homelands to travel in appaling conditions to an unknown future.

The ending of the slave trade in Africa brought friction in its wake, not least in southern Africa where the Boers decided to remove themselves from British control in the then Cape Colony and trek northwards leading to what we know as The Great Trek. And some might say that the recruitment and conditions of the carriers who served during the First World War was no different to that of slavery. For many the memory of slaving days was not too far distant and it would have been easy to draw parallels.

The slave trade continues today, although in different forms. This was brought home on a visit to Romania where there were posters in the airport warning young girls about human traffiking. What we also discovered on our trip was that the Romani Gypsies were originally slaves taken from India to Romania. This reminded me of the Cape Malay community of South Africa, and the Cape Coloured, some of whom can trace their origins back to the Malay States. And how fitting that Jennie Upton should share a traditonal South African recipe for Malva pudding which clearly has its origins in Malaysian tradition. Others who were technically slaves although not in name were the indentured Indians who were taken to southern Africa to work on the sugar plantations in the 19th century and later the Chinese who, in 1904, were employed to work on the South African goldmines.

Returning to Romania, specifically Transylvania, it was incredible how similar it was to aspects of Africa – I thought the souvenir sellers had invested in Zulu beadwork until I was informed by our guide that it was traditional Romanian beadwork. Fertility dolls/models were common as was subsistence farming. Unfortunately also in common was poverty and human exploitation, yet despite this, the people seemed cheerful and took everything in their stride.

And for those of ou wondering where the link with Dracula is, well there are two: one Dracula means the ‘Son of the Devil’, the devil being the name given to Dracula’s father as he wore a symbol of a dragon, the order he belonged to which was fighting the crusades. The other link is with the real persona of Dracular, namely Vlad the Impaler – the African equivalent? Chaka Zulu.