Africans in Europe during the 14-18 war

That colonial forces of all colours served, to various degrees, in Europe during World War 1 is fairly well known. The French Tirailleurs, the white South Africans and SANLC on the Western Front. What is less well-known are accounts of black and Arab Africans who found themselves in Europe and Britain on the outbreak of war.

Four from British territories served in the armed forces – two from West Africa, one Zambian (Samson Jackson) and one Malawian (Frederick Njilima). There may well be others who still need to be identified. And also in the other European territories.

So it was with some intrigue that I approached Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari: Swahili Lecturer and Author in Germany by Ludger Wimmelbücker published in 2008. Ludger gives an overview of Mtora’s time in Germany, also mentioning two other East Africans: Mdachi bin Sharifu and Halidi bin Kirama. While Mtora refrained from political involvement, the other two did not. It also appears that the latter two were employed by the German colonial office during the war while Mtora had to fend for himself, especially after being returned from East Africa after eight days in 1914.

We discover more Africans in Europe in the prisoner of war records as Annette Hoffman explained in 2017. They came to be there for a variety of reasons. Some were serving in merchant ships which were captured, such as Ntwanambi who was taken prisoner in October 1915 when the ship he was serving on as a boilermaker was captured. Others were taken prisoner whilst working on the war front as hinted at in the article. Sadly, these records were destroyed years ago, and as one commentator points out, we are reliant on the information coming to light in other recorded forms such as diaries, and non-military records.

The records from the Half Moon Camp in Wunsdorf, where many recordings were done are proving a valuable source on this front, but only where the information has been accessed, translated, interpreted and presented in (academic) publications by researchers with specific music or other specialised interests.

Social hierarchy – prison guards WW1 Africa

Attending the book launch of Mahon Murphy’s Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919, I ended up asking a nasty question. This wasn’t to catch Mahon out, as I didn’t think he would have the answer – rather it was a thought and realisation stimulated by the fascinating information he presented.

The question posed: ‘Was there a social hierarchy in the guards designated to look after the white prisoners and internees, particularly in East Africa?’

There are accounts of white prisoners and internees complaining about being guarded by ‘African’ soldiers. Generally this has been taken to mean ‘black’. However, we know that there were Indian guards – one was dealt with for cruelty – and based on Michelle Moyd’s work published in Violent Intermediaries, we know Arabs were preferred to black Africans for certain roles.  In addition, there was a social hierarchy which still persists today in some sectors and was evident during the years of Apartheid in particular.

With all of this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a social hierarchy of who guarded whom and where. Did officers determine who was to accompany prisoners to a camp based on the ethnicity of the prisoner and the guard? Was there a concerted effort to use Indian guards to look over white women in particular as this would be ‘more acceptable’ than a black African or did an officer determine that it would be more of an insult to a white prisoner/internee to have a black guard? Were Arab Africans used as guards?

A telling factor in all this, is that von Lettow-Vorbeck was concerned about the impact it would have if his Askari saw the white officers surrender their weapons when they came to Abercorn and then to leave East Africa in February 1919. Despite all his claims of equality, there was a social difference.

Reflecting on the above, it was mostly the Germans who used guards of different ethnicities – not surprising due to the manpower shortage they had in East Africa. This leads to the question, did the South African, British and Indian Commanders of the Allied side use guards of different ethnicities? And what about the Belgian and Portuguese? Given Spicer Simson’s comments about the prisoners he took on Lake Tanganyika not wanting to go to the Belgians suggests that local black Force Publique soldiers were used.

Colour or ethnicity and social class were intertwined in Africa during 1914-18, still is today to a large extent. Posing the question about who comprised the guards and over whom they were prisoner is for me, more a question of social status and how that impacted on relations during the war.

Comments and thoughts are welcomed as I’m not sure we have, in the Imperial archives, enough information to answer the question. Memoirs, diaries and the African National and provincial archives might well hold a clue.

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!