Enemy aliens

The term ‘enemy aliens’ conjures all sorts of images… however, in time of war, they are people linked with an enemy country, foreigners. At least that’s the idea. However, many who were born in one country and living in another were quite loyal to the ‘new’ country, yet in times of trouble, good friends became distrusted, the worst being expected. During the two World Wars, many of these individuals found themselves imprisoned in camps such as Stobs and on the Isle of Mann.

Even in places geographically far removed from the war, enemy aliens were to be feared. In South Africa, a camp was set up at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal for German nationals, both internees and prisoners of war.

A few South Africans found themselves stranded in other countries on the outbreak of war, or their nationality called into question because they hadn’t become naturalised or, if they had, not changed their surname to something more Anglicised.

One of those who found himself stranded in Britain, was Hermann Kallenbach, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi who travelled with him to Britain shortly before war broke out. Two daughters of the mining magnate, JB Robinson found themselves in Germany on the outbreak of war, but managed to smuggle themselves out – how many were not so fortunate? In South Africa, L Baumann was forced to changed his name after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. As a result, his firm also changed its name – to Bakers. Baumann had been in business from 1881. It does not appear he was interned.

For more on internment of enemy aliens in war, visit the Internment Research Centre.

While researchers have looked at the internment of those seen as a threat to society, I wonder if anyone has studied the re-integration of those interned into the society which ostracised them. How long did it take for friendships and trust to be reinstated? Was it the same for those who found themselves under the authority of a new country such as the Boers under Britain in 1902 and the Germans in East Africa and South West Africa in 1918?

Experiential learning

I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.

So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.

Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.

While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.

In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?

And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.

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.

Internment – Behind the Wire

Behind the Wire first came to my attention when Stefan Manz displayed the boards at the Novmeber 2018 UNISA Conference on the legacy of the First World War. The main focus of the portable/mobile exhibit is the Stobs Camp in Hawick in Scotland, but that is only used as a platform to discuss the issue of internment for people across the globe. In September 2019, the education pack was adapted for use in South Africa, a project I was directly involved with.

During September, Stefan visited Pietermaritzburg Museum which has Behind the Wire as a temporary exhibition. I was unable to see the exhibition in situ, but had a behind the scenes tour by Assistant Director Wesley Flanagan. According to the website, the exhibition will be open for a year – and is definitely recommended.

One of the highlights for me was access to material I had been ‘keeping an eye open for’ over some years, it had been in a private collection lovingly compiled by an enthusiast. Without his dedication and tenacity, ‘professional’ historians would often not have access to rich material as this proved. These are often the personal stories which add colour and flavour to the official documents many of us use. For a World War 1 exhibition, there should be material and exhibits not seen in public before which is always a good thing.

A rewarding challenge was linking the past with similar incidents over subsequent years allowing for comparisons, and providing a vehicle for developing understanding of how terminology has changed and how similar people are irrespective of their backgrounds. While finding information on the South African xenophobic attacks as well as a current internment camp for people awaiting deportation was enlightening, it was rather disappointing that one of the milder documents had to be left out as despite being of the time, the language used was still felt to be too sensitive for school children, or more significantly that teachers would not be able to mediate its use in an historical context.

There is much to explore in this exhibition and the education packs. To find out more or to see how your country can be included, see here.

Another group looking to work internationally, and with young people, developing on their First World War work is Never Such Innocence. Both projects are highly recommended.

They are all remembered, living and dead.