Old Haunts

This week marks 20 years of my close relationship with the UK, and how things have changed in that time. Having left South Africa as part of a work transfer in 1996 we were unsure of when we would next see ‘home’, but lo and behold we were back in August for a wedding. It proved how small the world is and how travel had changed. Since then we have been privileged enough to return home every year and witness the changes South Africa has undergone since the end of Apartheid.

I’m not going to go into those now but I’ve always looked forward to going home and seeing what has changed (also challenging perceptions on both sides of the equator – it’s incredible how when you dig down, there are so many similarities irrespective of colour or gender but more of that another day). The one thing I have struggled with understanding is people’s reluctance to ‘go back’ and visit old haunts.

One striking feature for me concerning South Africa is how much safer the country has become – I enjoy walking through Cape Town’s old District Six area and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, walking areas of Pretoria from the Gautrain station is rather pleasant providing lots of time for reflection (time which will be lost when the SANDF archive moves to its new home in Irene this year). Similarly, we enjoy hiring a car and just driving through the country-side seeing how beautiful the land is, particularly areas whites were discouraged from travelling through during Apartheid (and sad to say, since too).

But this month, I got to experience why some people don’t want to go back somewhere – surprisingly, it was in London – more specifically Spitalfields Market. My early worklife in the UK was in the City of London and I used to visit the Spitalfields area when I could. The last time I visited the area was about 5 years ago to do a London walk and had heard that changes were underway. Taking the opportunity of a few hours to go AWOL, I wandered through street – Gun Street, Barrack Street, past Petticoat Lane and into the market area but all the old atmosphere had disappeared. New square glass buildings framed a roofed in area with similar styled restaurants in the middle. To its credit there were some stall holders selling their wares but what a disappointment. Spitalfields is no longer on my list for first-time visitors to London.

As a historian, it’s natural to visit ‘old haunts’, some of which we might only be visiting in person for the first time but know the place well (as well as one can) from reading about it and perhaps seeing photos. The challenge I have is showing appropriate reactions of remembrance and reflection when I’m feeling the exact opposite at having discovered that my perceptions and assumptions align with what I’m seeing. But I have witnessed the opposite too.

My recent trip to Senegal and Goree Island in particular reminded me of our first visit to West Africa, Ghana, in 2002. Going to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept before being transported across to the Americas we were reflecting on things when two young Black American women drew attention to themselves by arguing vehemently with the castle guide – they were just discovering that contrary to what they had been taught at school, namely that white people were all to blame for slavery and their being American, Blacks themselves had sold fellow country-men into slavery and had participated quite energetically in the trade. Our hearts went out to the girls – we knew what it was like to have your government lie and manipulate the story of the past. It would take some time and investigation but their visit to this ‘old haunt’ had set them on the path of myth-breaking. 14 years later and this incident is still vivid.

This coincided with some books I’ve recently read. One factual, Rwanda means universe, and four fictional – Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman (the sequal to To Kill a Mockingbird), Barbara Towell’s A little piece for mother which links London, Poland and Auschwitz, while the other two are due for publication later this year – Anna Ryland’s A second chance (also with a Polish and London link) and John Samson’s Powerless (post-Apartheid encounters).

Pay to play: sport during WW1

Reading the book Sporting Soldiers by Floris van der Merwe (2012), I was struck by a number of references to money. I assume, like me, you might not have spent much time thinking about the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of the war – although I must admit I am becoming more and more fascinated by these aspects – but they provide a fascinating insight into how people survived the 52 gruelling months of war.

Floris’ book is quite obviously about sport, and although its main focus is on South Africa, it does cover the war in Europe. The idea of gambling and betting on sporting events is nothing new and so references to such activity was not surprising – although what was, was the extent to which it took place despite being banned. But the comments that made me stop and think were complaints by French farmers that their fields were being used for parades and sports without the farmer’s permission or the farmer being paid for the use of his land. Another comment refers to the German government in South West Africa purchasing farms to set up prisoner of war camps.  And, if that wasn’t enough, prisoners of war had to pay their prison guards for the privilege of playing. They had to rent the sports fields and entertainment venues.

Equipment such as footballs, cricket bats and balls, even playing cards had to be purchased or sent to the men by family and friends. The YMCA played its part in helping the men access materials at a better price than the prison-camp or ‘corner’ shop. And in Africa where hunting took place either with the camera or gun, there are references hidden away in some diaries of men having to account for the number of bullets they went out with compared to what was returned. Where unsatisfactorily accounted for, the men had to pay for the missing ammunition.

What surprised me, was that I assumed these facilities would have been made available free of charge. Why demand payment from people who are giving up their lives to protect your livelihood and beliefs? Allowing the soldiers free use of the land seems a small price to pay when others had completely lost their livelihoods when their property was turned into trenches and no-man’s land.

But then, thinking about it, people still had to keep the country going, food prices soared as food became more scarce due to farm land falling to other uses, blockades and submarine attacks on merchant ships. It was a matter of economics.

Documents in the South African National Archives in Cape Town show how concerned local and national government was about the increasing costs and some unscrupulous business people taking advantage of the situation to increase their profits. After taking stock of prices on the outbreak of war, the South African government introduced price-caps on many goods. Other documents in the SANDF Archive and in the Colonial Office series in The National Archive  (@UkNatArchives) in London discuss the payment of soldiers and prisoners of war – both of their own men being prisoners and those of German and Austrian prisoners in Allied camps.

I was also reminded of the outcry a few years’ back (roughly 2004/5) when archive documents were released in London about the ‘little ships‘ which participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 needing to be paid before their owners risked their lives and livelihood. But can I find the press release or articles today? Unfortunately not, but they are there…

In the study of war-time, we tend to focus on the noisy aspects, taking the rest for granted or not even giving it a passing glance. Yet, life went on in both World Wars on both sides and we can get an insight into it from the little, almost throwaway, comments that diarists and others made at the time. We just need to look out for them.


Crimson Fields – an intro to the medical services of WW1

The Crimson Fields, for readers who don’t know, is a BBC docu-drama on nurses during the First World War. From what I have read and heard about it, the setting is a British front-line hospital on the Western Front. This is not surprising though, given that that’s where most British blood was spilt during the war. What attracted me to it as a concept, is that it provides an insight into a previously hidden aspect of World War 1 and an opportunity to introduce some other related hidden aspects of the war.

From the Front, wounded and ill soldiers would be transported to hospitals and recovery stations away from the fighting to destinations in Europe for those who would not take long to recover or back to the UK for those needing more specialist or long-term treatment. This required a transport system including hospital trains and ships.

Once back in England, soldiers would pass through port hospitals such as those at Dover and Southampton. The book Spike Island by Philip Hoare gives a wonderful insight into the military hospital at Netley and the early days of military nursing as it evolved after the Crimea. From the ports, the men would be transported to receiving hospitals generally in the main cities such as London and Manchester. They would be allocated to hospitals, where possible, best suited for their ailment. Initial thoughts of sending men closer to home disappeared due to the huge numbers requiring to be transported. On 7 July 1917 (1916?) there was a special rush on trains as 6,174 sick and wounded were transported in 24 hours.

From the receiving hospitals, men were then sent to convalescent hospitals, often country houses which had been converted, and in one case, the local church. St John’s Presbyterian Church in Northwood, Middlesex gave up their sanctuary a year after it had been built thereby enabling a total of 100 soldiers to be nursed on the premises. Researching this Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital has brought to light many other facets of war-time life: not all those who were called nurses were necessarily nurses – there were amongst others cooks and cleaners, messengers, drivers, entertainers, therapists, equipment packers working in the supply depots and many others. Often people did more than one thing such as the male VAD units which transported patients and then carried out bed baths in the evening and helped with the night-time nursing. The issue of logistics and keeping Britain moving was a mammoth task and one which still needs to be explored. (@NorthwoodArts)

Moving further afield to Africa, the hospitals and medical services there had quite a different challenge.

Comparatively speaking, battles were few and far between when compared with the Western Front. The challenge was being able to service a mobile front where there was little or no existing infrastructure, no defined battle field and an environment as tough, if not worse, than the opposing forces. There are records of men having to walk for 9 hours or so to access medical treatment or lying for days unattended. Comparisons have been drawn with the German forces which seemed to have a doctor in each contingent, or at least they did until the last months of the war.

Nature proved the biggest enemy to all the forces. The admission records to the Wynberg Military Hospital in Cape Town kept at the SANDF archive in Pretoria, highlights that the major ailments requiring treatment were Malaria and Blackwater fever. These are also regular features in the Medical War Diaries @UKNatArchives.

A perusal of the Medical War Diaries at The National Archives in London for East Africa again, sheds light on the extent of medical support available to the men. The information in the diaries is variable, depending on the person recording, but as a collection they provide a fascinating insight to another side of war. In addition to the men, there were women serving in both the British and German hospitals. And when transporting men back to Europe became difficult and leave was cancelled, special arrangements were made for convalescent homes to be set up in the Kenyan highlands. The Bundesarchiv gives some insight into what a field hospital looked like.

As with the Western Front, there is a great need for more work to be done on the medical aspects of all the African campaigns of the First World War, and for those interested in what is available, there is the Official History of the medical services, Francis Brett Young’s memoir Marching on Tanga and William Boyd’s fictional An ice-cream war to start. One wonders if Boyd based his story on the account of a British soldier nursed in a German hospital for 9 months as recorded in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My reminiscences of East Africa (pp45-6).







Sourcing SAffer involvement in World War 1

SAffers (my pet name for my kinsfolk of all colours and creeds) served in various capacities and theatres during World War 1.

However, the only time they served as South Africans under the auspices of the Union Defence Force was in the 1914-1915 attack on German South West Africa (GSWA). In all other theatres – German East Africa (EA), Central Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Europe – they were Imperial Service troops who were allowed where possible to remain in South African contingents, battalions or regiments. (Why this was the case will be the feature of my next blog.)

This creates a challenge in locating service records for the SA forces. There are registers in SANDF Document Supply for those who served in GSWA but for those who served in Europe, the case is mixed. SANDF Doc Supply has some – for those technically born in SA, whilst those of men born in Britain should technically be in Britain (according to The National Archives, London). However, most of the SA records happen to be in the group now known as the ‘Burnt documents‘ which were those destroyed during WW2 when a bomb fell on the archive depot in London.

The records mentioned above refer mainly to white soldiers and auxiliary forces which served during World War 1. However, there are lists of black labourers, the Cape Corps and Indian Stretcher bearers from the Union and British Protectorates of Bechuanaland (Botswana), Basutholand (Lesotho) and Swaziland hidden amongst other records in the various British and South African archives.

As I come across these names (of SAffers and others who served in Africa), I am recording these on the GWAA site, so it is a good place to start your search.  The list includes:

  • All the names from James Ambrose Brown’s They fought for King and Country
  • References to where the name was found. This includes primary and secondary source material
  • At the time of writing, over 18,000 names have been recorded for East and Central Africa, 600 for South West Africa and under 100 for West and North Africa. These names are of all forces irrespective of rank, race, gender or position. Prisoners of war are also included.

If the name you’re looking for is not on the list please get in touch. In addition to the names listed, elsewhere on the site is a list of known books and articles on the African campaigns of World War 1 (regularly updated) as well as time lines and other useful sources of information – all updated as time permits.