Cold War exhibition – subtly inclusive

I wasn’t going to see it, but being a member of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group, we had a special tour of the Cold War exhibition.

The exhibition focuses on the British home front – perfect for a nation’s archive, but how in this day and age of everything having to be diverse, did they manage it?

With subtlety and taste.

You enter into a mock government bunker giving an overview of the Cold war – it just can’t ignore the superpowers of the day. Spies and MI5/6 with Dame Stella Rimington dispelling the myths of James Bond and emphasising how ‘boring’ intelligence work really is in comparison.

Next, into a typical middle-class British home to see how the Cold War impacted daily life. Civil defence measures and protective spaces in the home in case of a nuclear attack give a good idea of how life changed as politicians grappled with how to deal with something out of their control – should an attack take place. TV, music, film and books make an appearance, the mock-up under the stair refuge speaking to many in the UK and others who have read about, or seen pictures of, a typical terrace house.

But the inclusive part comes at the end when visitors are invited to share their experiences, type them up on old ‘tick tick’ typewriters and post them on the info board. Stimulated by our whistelstop tour, we verbally shared our experiences: Some spoke of their parents having been involved as scientists, others their experience of being in another European country while some had no idea of preventative measures at the time. By all accounts, some schools made a point of not scaremongering. Our 1980s experiences in South Africa, although not directly nuclear attack oriented, were similar during the Cold War years. My last years of school were peppered with ‘bomb evacuations’ as students or their friends phoned in to have a test or exam deferred. Even if a crank call was suspected, we had to take it seriously and became adept at packing things up and filing out to the playing fields at least twice a week. Thank goodness it doesn’t rain as frequently in South Africa as Britain…

At primary school, in the early 1980s, we quickly learned to discern between the ‘fire alarm’ or ‘get out alarm’ and the ‘baracade alert’. The latter being where doors were closed to stop attackers getting in, but windows were opened to reduce the impact of shattering glass, desks were pushed together and chairs and schoolbags packed around to create the walls to our makeshift ‘caves’. On the occasions we had to evacuate, I could never understand why we had to line up beautifully in rows along the perimeter of the school grounds near open fields – and one specially trained Civil Defence teacher was allowed to carry a hand-gun: to protect 1000 of us! Thankfully, children were not the target in South Africa’s ‘Cold War’.

And our literature? I recall Neville Shute’s On the beach being the best read. We were split: move to Australia where you could possibly miss the fall out of a northern hemisphere attack or move to the north anticipating where the bomb would explode so you’d be killed and not have to suffer the consequences. Incredible how the power of suggestion worked/still works.

Intriguingly, it was only discussing the exhibition with someone who hadn’t been with us at the time that I realised how subtly inclusive the exhibition had been and how conditioned we’ve become to having inclusivity thrust in out faces and blatently obvious. True inclusivity is not always obvious at a glance.

For a topic as broad as the Cold War, a point of departure was needed. Something compact. And this was achieved though the home front approach – all based on documents in the archive, but there is so much more hidden in the files as I discovered some time ago [May 2009] before narrowing my focus to WW1 and Africa.

If you’re in the neighbourhood and the exhibition is still on, it’s definitely worth a visit – you can even see how nuclear weapons have grown in impact – and for those with children, there are appropriate activities for them to do.

And for anyone wondering, the song Duck and Cover which I remember watching when we did a module on Propaganda in my MA in History was 1950s USA. In the UK, there was Protect and Survive in the 1970s.

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Bravery recognised

Working through files I’ve copied, I came across a file entitled Act of Bravery by Constable Mwamba Wa Mboya. It warranted reading – and sharing…

A letter from LH Macnaghten, Executive Engineer, Public Works Department, Nyeri dated 24 July 1916 reads as follows:

I wish to draw your attention to an act of bravery performed by Police Constable Mwembe Mkamba who accompanied me on my last safari and hope that he may be suitably rewarded.
At the Mathioya River Police Constable Mwamba without a moment’s hesitation leaped into the river which was running very strongly to the assistance of my syce who had been washed off his legs and was being carried rapidly downstream with one of my ponies. By his plucky action Police Constable Mwamba succeeded in overhauling the syce and in pushing him and the pony into the bank thus avoiding in all probabiluty a tragedy.
I am of course willing to pay for the brass police badge beloning to the hat which was lost in the Mathioya River.

On 5 September 1916, he expanded:

No 2900 3rd Constable Mwamba Mboya – Bravery of

In confirmation of my former letter dated 24 July 1916, I beg to state that on 26 June 1916, I was proceeding from Fort Hall to Embu and on arriving at the Mathioya River I gave instructions to my syce to lead one of my ponies across the river – at this point 100 feet wide – as the bridge, being under construction, was not passable for animals. Where the syce entered the river on the right bank, the water was approximately 2’6″ to 2’9″ deep and all went well until he and the pony were about 30 feet from the left bank, where the current was considerably stronger than on the right bank, strong enough to lift both syce and pony off their legs and the depth of the water increased to about 4’6″ to 5′. Police Constable Mwamba Mboya, who was standing on the left bank realising what had happened, immediately leaped into the river to their assistance – in my opinion at the risk of his own life – and managed as already stated to overhaul the syce and the pony and push them into the bank about 70 yards downstream.

This correspondence was sent to the District Commissioner who forwarded it onto the Governor who in turn sent it to the Colonial Office. They in turn sent it to the Royal Humane Society for consideration of an award. Unfortunately it is not recorded in these documents whether Mwamba wa Mboya received any official recognition for his bravery and I’ve not been able to source a copy of the East African Standard to see if he was mentioned in that (the online copies at the British Library only go to 1915).

Exploring where the Mathioya River is, I came across this article recording the death of Chief Karuri Gakure in 1916, a year after inviting Italian missionaries into his area and the first female chief (another view) in Colonial Kenya.

Intriguingly, and refreshingly, none of these stories concern the Great War despite all three taking place in 1916. Life went on…

Ref: The National Archives, Kew – CO 533/170 file 61878

TNA – One of my favourite places

The National Archives at Kew, London is one of my favourite places. I’ve been going there on and off since 1997 and have seen many changes over the years. More recently with a change in focus from education to publishing and doing more historical research, I am there almost weekly when not in Africa.

This is a national treasure and for me as an historian of African relations with the imperial power, an international treasure.

One of the things I love about the archive is its setting. Although in greater London, it’s close to the Thames (the reason why being something I’ve never really understood) and under a flight path (the same wondering persists). However, a concerted effort has been made to provide a serene environment for researchers, staff and residents. There is nothing like sitting outside having lunch or a chat on a sunny day – something I don’t do nearly enough of when there are sunny days. The pond/lake is a wonderful home for wildlife and guaranteed you can have a discussion with virtually anyone about the status of the swans (I hear rumour there is a swancam somewhere nearby). But beware of the geese when it’s gosling time…I give them as much berth (relatively speaking) as I do an elephant. And then there’s the resident heron. He’s often to be found standing regally watching the world go by – I have a really soft spot for him as he’s often in trouble for eating too many fish from the pond. It’s not Africa, but it’s as close to a feeling of home as I get in London.

The approach to and from the archive is often breathtaking and no more than recently as some photos on Twitter demonstrated. This also goes for the train/tube trip across the river on approaching/leaving Kew Gardens underground station. For various reasons I wasn’t able to capture similar moments that day, but am really pleased fellow researchers and staff at TNA did so.

 

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

Marconi

A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.

Pecking order

Looking out my window, I’m fascinated at the order in which birds come to the feeder and how they arrange themselves to access food on the ground. There is a definite pecking order and from what I can see, it’s not always the big birds who get preference.

I’m currently helping a heritage group with some research into the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) during World War 1* and was struck by correspondence highlighting the differences between the various contingents making up the WAFF – the pecking order persists.  The issue of martial race has been discussed by many authors and until recently has been taken as read when selecting micro-nations for military service. The correspondence in @UKNationalarchives CO 445 shows how wide-ranging the pecking order was and the reasons for it.

Understandably to some extent, the needs of the Western Front dominated what was happening in the peripheral theatres of war. So, when on 3 December 1914, Lord Lugard (Gov Gen Nigeria) let the Colonial Office know that 6 maxim guns and two 2.75 / 2.95in guns had been lost in the Cameroons campaign and needed replacing, he didn’t stand much chance. The discussion in the CO papers (CO 445/34 48111) notes:

It is quite impossible to replace them at once. I understand that it has not yet been found possible to arm the Canadian Contingent with machine guns. We can of course send a copy of this to WO and ask them what they can do… say [to Gen Dobell­­­] that there is much difficulty and delay in procuring war like stores for Colonies and ask whether he considers the matter urgent.

The Canadian Contingent was headed to the Western Front. There was also some question regarding the request for replacement guns as it had been noted that on the outbreak of war there were 51 maxim guns in Nigeria (1 with each of the 34 Companies and 17 in reserve), 14 2.95inch guns (6 with No 1 battery and 4 with No 2 battery and 2 with each reserve battery). (CO 445/34 48111) What had happened to these?

The issue of weapons to the Western Front was not a ‘white’ versus ‘black’ issue which could be inferred by Canada getting preference over the WAFF, South Africa sufferened similar shortages of weapons and had to scrounge  from Malta, Australia and Portugal (forthcoming publications).

However, race did play its part in who fought where. As noted in October 1916, the War Office wanted white men in subsidiary theatres moved to Western Front asap and to be replaced by locally raised black troops including from South Africa. (CO 445/37 55218)

Closer to home, in Africa that is, the pecking order persisted as seen in the discussions over which troops were to serve in East Africa from 1916 onwards. In CO 445/37 48999 men from Sierra Leone were preferred over the West African Regiment, whilst the recruitment drive undertaken by Colonel Haywood clearly showd the military prefernce for troops from Gold Coast and then Nigeria. (CO 445/37 56748)

More specifically, in December 1916, following the WO request for 4,000 carriers to be recruited in West Africa for service with the Nigerian battalion in East Africa, the CO dsiscussion contained the following statements: The WO see Hausas being needed in Nigeria and that ‘the Sierra Leone Carrier is greatly to be preferred and is the only stamp fit for service with combatant troops.’ If carriers could not be obtained from Sierra Leone, then they should be raised from Nigeria but not from areas used for recruiting ‘combatant material’. ‘The Ibos should also be able to furnish large numbers of men of excellent physique who should make good labourers in Base Ports, and Lines of Communication releasing others who may be more suitable for employment with troops.’ (CO 445/37 62587)

What has also been striking about this correspondence is the clear understanding that the CO officials had of the different territories under their control and how this compared with the WO officials who saw no difference between the micro-nationalities comprising East and West Africa. It was nothing to the WO to suggest that King’s African Rifles (KAR) recruits be used to bring the Nigerian and Gold Coast Regiments up to establishment if men could not be found and trained quickly enough in West Africa. (CO 455/37 42406).

Another area where differences were seen was in the application of the King’s Regulations for the British Army to the African forces. Officers seconded from the British Army to the WAFF recommended that conditions for serving African rank and file be the same as for those serving in the British Army. Whilst this principle of equality was generally accepted for the WAFF, there were local conditions which had to be taken into account which mitigated against the King’s Regulations – notably the payment of separation allowances to families who had no knowledge of, or need for, money.

The above are snippets I extracted from my rapid trawl through the series, anyone wanting to delve more deeply into aspects can see the full catalogue listing for the WAFF during  WW1 CO 445 on the GWAA site.

* The African Heritage and Education Centre (AHEC) is looking for records and accounts of West Africans who were involved in the war during World War 1 – soldiers, carriers, garrison forces, home front etc. If you are able to help, please get in touch either with Christine or myself.

 

 

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).