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.

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.

Delville Wood and Square Hill

Recent enquiries concerning South Africa’s involvement at Delville Wood during the Battle for the Somme in July 1916 has brought to light that there is very little written about it. And although it’s the Western Front, the men I’m focusing on were African (South African to be specific).

Delville Wood is often regarded as the white English South African population’s equivalent of Gallipoli, Verdun or Britain’s first day of the Somme. For those wondering why I’ve specified white English South African, there are four special World War 1 commemorative events in South Africa reminiscent of the cultural diversity in the country then and now. In addition to Delville Wood which is generally commemorated every 11 November along with the rest of the world, there is Mendi Day on 21 February remembering all those who drowned when the SS Mendi went down. For me, it’s a fitting day to remember the over 19,400 black labourers who didn’t drown and who served on the Western Front and in Africa suffering the same privations and consequences of war others did. Then we have the white Afrikaans 1914 Rebellion more specifically the execution of Jopie Fourie who was found guilty of treason – he hadn’t resigned his commission before joining the rebels and finally, 20 September is Square Hill Day which is when the Cape (Coloured) Corps held their ground in Palestine. For readers aware of South Africa’s involvement in World War 1, these four remembrance events together demonstrate the richness of the country. However, missing from the ‘official’ events is that of East Africa and South West Africa. I don’t know of anything to commemorate South Africa’s invasion of South West in 1914/5, but the East Africa campaign is commemorated (knowingly or otherwise) by the Comrades Marathon which is run every year.

Back to Delville Wood. As far as I can tell, the best overarching account of South Africa’s involvement at the Somme remains Ian Uys’ work. I haven’t read any yet so cannot comment further. Peter Digby has written unit histories, a few others have compiled family history accounts, and then there is the website of Delville Wood itself. It is high time some brave historian (enthusiast or academic took on the challenge of writing a comprehensive account of South Africa’s involvement on the Western Front).

For those living in the Durham area, a novel approach to theatre-going featured the Battle of the Somme in a production 1916: No turning back (Thursday 21 July to Sunday 28 August 2016). The production takes an unusual approach to engaging the audience in experiencing the war and gives a flavour of what the South African troops might have experienced.

For those unable to get to Durham to see 1916: No tunrning back, Peter Dicken’s speech at Delville Wood 2016 gives some idea and an overview of what happened.

We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heardFrightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.

Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.

This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!

This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.

To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.

On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.

I’ve recently spent time at the SANDF Document Centre (South African Military Archives) in Pretoria and have as usual been astounded at the amount of material held. Yet, most researchers only access the military service cards. With this in mind and the snippets I accessed, I wonder what what treasures are still to be uncovered about South African involvement at Delville Wood and on the Western Front generally for men (and women) of all South Africa’s ethnic groups.

It’s become clear to me that World War in Africa cannot exclude what happened at Delville Wood and Square Hill – these experiences helped mould the country into what it is and should be given the same historical treatment that the East Africa campaign currently receives. A hundred years later is not too late to remember!

 

Review: Information History of the First World War

I recently received a copy of Information History of the First World War edited by Z Karvalics, Lazlo (L’Harmattan, 2015) from Marika Sherwood who contributed a chapter – An information ‘black hole’: World War 1 in Africa.

This is an interesting (genuinely) collection of articles around the theme of information: How information was transmitted in the field, between the war front and home front, propaganda through the use of photos and posters.

Unfortunately the book has been poorly edited – most chapters have been written by non-English writers and most are well-written. However, the introduction and a few others apear to have been translated using something like Google Translate. This makes for difficult reading and reduced clarity of expression especially around abstract topics such as knowledge and information transfer.

For someone interested in the areas described above, I encourage you to persevere as the content is stimulating and, was for me, eye-opening. I can only identify the areas I found fascinating from the other chapters as my knowldege of the theatres covered is limited: how the term ‘hate’ differed depending on whether you were a soldier or at home, the origin and impact of the term ‘Hun’, how the same photo was used in different contexts with different titles and the development of technology are the aspects which stand out.

As I have a fair knowledge of Marika’s topic, I can say a lot more. As someone who has worked on the African theatres of World War 1 for 18 years now, Marika’s article was both a pleasure and a frustration to read. On the positive side, Marika has tried to reconcile the various numbers given by different researchers of black soldiers and carriers involved in the East and West African campaigns as well as give reason for the lack of information in the press at the time and why it is that we historians cannot agree on the numbers. She also touches on the Boer rebellion of 1914.

The areas I found frustrating and which I’ll detail below, might appear ‘picky’ but I think it’s important to raise these in relation to the historiography (history of history) of the theatre and my own learning curve in the hope that it will help other scholars ‘new’ to the World War 1 African fronts consider their approach and assumptions. Marika’s chapter is the case study bringing together concerns from a number of articles, conference papers and reflecting back on my early years of engaging with the war.

My biggest concern, brought about by the centenary and increased interest, is the reliance on secondary material, and particularly the internet for compiling accounts of the campaigns. This information, that is secondary source (not internet) was credible and compiled by recognised experts in the field but, as I noted in an article for the 1914-1918 Enclyclopedia, there has been a revolution in information available on the theatres which challenges the previously accepted accounts. It is imperative that historians of all kinds consult primary material as much as possible as so much more has been opened to the public since the 1970s and 1980s.

Another frustration is the assumption that the war in Africa was fought along the same lines as that in Europe. It was not – whereas the Western Front was overseen by the War Office, in Africa, the War Office, Colonial Office, India Office and local administrators all had their own agendas concerning the war. The fact that so many departments were involved – based on pre-war responsibilities – has resulted in information being scattered between archives and across different series within archives. To compile accurate numbers is a challenge – who recruited the individual? who paid the individual? in what capacity were they employed? The answers to these questions will determine who created and maintained the records, so military service records in London can be found in WO, CO and ADM files, but one also needs to consult the CWGC for deaths as those who died during the war were not necessarily issued with a medal. For all the African campaigns, the records in London are not enough. Local records need to be consulted especially for the recruitment of labour – there might be mention of labourers in the War Diaries but this is not consistent.

Application of World War 2 practices to World War 1 is another common practice. Things had moved on. World War 1 saw a major change from early colonial military practices which evolved further after the war and then changed again as World War 2 approached. The organisation structures imposed during the First World War allowed for closer management of the colonial territories and there was increased mixing between the settled and the settlers. This lead to opportunities being seen and taken by all concerned with the result that local inhabitants were more confident, more Western literate and more politically involved than during World War 1.

My final major point concerns using how we see the world today to judge how things were in the past. This is a natural human tendancy but it does an injustice to all those who served (willingly or otherwise). Times were different, so were beliefs and these impacted on actions and decisions of the day. What happened then should be looked at in the context of the day – without judgement.

Baring the above in mind, and the limited sources Marika used, it is good to see others grappling with some of the issues of the campaigns in Africa and bringing the little remembered theatre to light. It helps those of us immersed in the theatres to take stock of how the world still sees the campaigns and to realise how much work with primary source material still needs to be done (and published).

“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.

LMushikiwabo

 #WW1 #Africa #Rwanda #Burundi #memory