Reviews: WW1 history through Art

I’m not a great one on works of art. I know what I like and what I don’t but ask me for more than that and I’m stuck. Words are my thing. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of photos to the historian – for what they tell you that words don’t or can’t. Photos concerning the Lake Tanganyika expedition are a case in point. More recently, though I’ve begun to realise that art produced after the time is a good indicator of how the memory of events has developed. This final year of the centenary of the Great War has provided an opportunity to see four (well three in their entirety)  artistic exhibitions on the war.

The first was William Kentridge’s Head and the load, previously reviewed. Next was Aftermath at Tate Britain which I saw with a friend, followed by a first-day viewing of the Singularity of Peace exhibition in partnership with Forgotten Heroes in Hammersmith and then a taster of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Of the three later exhibitions, that of Singularity of Peace was my favourite. Yes, perhaps my bias at having worked with the book The Unknown Fallen which gives rise to the exhibits is part of it, but it is also the most human and African. I’ve also discovere I’m not really a moving visual fan so solid art takes preference in my books.

Regarding Aftermath, what was significant was the absence of Africa in any of the pieces – both those created during the war and after. It shows how little attention was given to labour and behind the scenes (or is that indicative of the curators who selected the pieces for display?). The exhibition is explicit in stating that it is about French, British and German art and in this, it doesn’t fail. It was fascinating to see the different artistic styles around a similar theme. And of the pieces on display, those which most appealed to me were: Otto Griebel, Clive Branson, Curt Querner, Glynn Waren Philpott’s Entrance to the Tragada, and Edward Burra’s Les Folies de Belleville. The last two because they gave a hint of Africa and ‘other’ being involved, although both these are post war, 1931 and 1928 respectively. The first three for getting to the heart of man. Many of the war-time images showed little new (at least to those of us not familiar with the detail). In this category the remain of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling was probably the most moving.

The Unknown Fallen felt like a return home. All the familiar photos were there – large and small – now juxtaposed against windows showing buildings being constructed. In addition to the familiar, were pieces from the Never Such Innocence awards – wonderful to see them in original form compared to print. And then there were some new pieces which had been created specially for the exhibition – artwork from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the UK all depicting the aftermath of war and a move towards peace. This exhibition was also the most basic in that it was a form of ‘pop up’ art – an opportunity seized. Again, I discover I prefer the rough and ready to the perfectly choreographed.

Finally, Mimesis by John Akomfrah. Despite the publicity it hadn’t struck me that this was a 75 minute sit down and watch exhibition until the person I was lunching with mentioned it. I happened to be at the IWM to do some research and thought I’d whizz through – not expecting much given what I’d previously seen in the new WW1 display. I’m afraid I lasted about 10 minutes – it was definitely too innovative and obscure for me. And then an Australian or New Zealand flag appeared in the picture – I thought this was about Africans in World War 1… so on my way out made a particular point about reading the ‘blurb’ at the entrance: it mentions “African and colonial soldiers” so don’t be deceived by the title of the production. How much of the 75 minutes is about the colonial contribution I cannot say, I was lost with a person sitting on a chair under a solitary tree in a desert with the tree wrapped in red, who then fell over as though shot. Then a bed with a red matress in the desert with a solitary woman walking in the distance… and I’m not sure the men were dressed appropriately for WW1, so in effect I spent the 10 minutes I was there trying to work out how this all could potentially relate to the war I know with music so loud my ear drumbs reverberated and no words or language to guide me. I’m clearly a child of the past. One day I might find 75 minutes to explore the whole show and what is says about remembrance, but for now will rely on what others have to say.

I have a (new) dream

Martin Luther King dreamed of a world where there were no differences, yet it seems we constantly perpetuate these and those who try to break down barriers to bring about a better understanding of cultures and beliefs are shouted down for undermining the status quo. How illogical is that… we say we want change but we don’t really. I was therefore heartened to come across this article by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Nigerian novelist. She’s not the first to say what she does, there is a growing community of like-thinking people.

This is not to say don’t remember the past – it’s important to do so, as that provides our identity and gives us a sense of grounding. What we can’t allow to happen is to let it engulf us and dominate us.

1918 in Africa was a year where most of the fighting was done by black East African soldiers, alongside white and Indian – by then the majority of the Nigerian and Gold Coast soldiers as well as those from the West Indies had returned home and the Cape Corps had moved to Palestine and Mesopotamia. Yes, the officers were still white, but it is generally accepted that as many of them were new to Africa, they became reliant in ways earlier officers had done, on the support of their rank and file to understand and survive the terrain they were in. I don’t think this was much different to what was happening in other theatres when newcomers arrived. Their success and survival depended on those they were leading as much as those they were leading depended on their leadership.

I can’t help but think that of those many soldiers who fought in the war, whether by choice or coercion, all had a dream of a better world and that something beneficial had to come from the conflict. If they didn’t, they would have given up (and some did – I think of the men on the Aragon who ‘died of a broken heart’) and the many porters and carriers who couldn’t continue. But for those who lay down their arms with von Lettow-Vorbeck in November 1918, what kept them going? The African People’s Organisation saw the opportunity of being involved as a means to (hopefully) getting increased political recognition for their Cape Coloured and the South African Native National Congress kept discipline to show they could be trusted whilst the rebellious Boers could not.

From the war came leaders who led their countries to independence – Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyrere, Mandela and others. Recognising what the past had been, they saw the opportunities afforded by dreams and through hard work and encouragement led their people to fulfil those dreams. We know they weren’t perfect, no person is, but I wonder what they would think today when they see their people caught in a rut of blame and not having the courage to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and make their dreams come true.

Many look on the First World War in Africa as a colonial or imperial war, which it was to a large extent. However, alongside the major conflicts there were numerous rebellions and uprisings throughout Africa during those same years (I gave up trying to make a list of them) as people tried to realise their desires for a better world. This might seem to contradict the point about those who served dreaming of a better world. It doesn’t – the point is, they didn’t sit back, moan and wait for someone else to improve their world, they all did something to try and create the world they dreamed of.

This is not to say that rebellions and armed conflict are the way to improve conditions, we all know the consequences of violence. But we can take a leaf from those of different cultures and beliefs who served alongside each other and learnt to know and trust each other. (On Call in Africa, The Unknown Fallen)

Mankind – the common denominator

You may have picked up that I was involved in the production of The Unknown Fallen, a book about Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1. It’s been a fascinating journey, almost 17 years in the making so far with the book being one of the more recent markers along the way. I should clarify, my involvement with the book has only been a year or so, my journey getting to know other faith groups started about 17 years ago when I was teaching recently arrived young Muslim Palestinian men in an inner-London college trying to make sense of what had happened to their family existence in Jerusalem. Their questions only fuelled a curious mind already questioning how religion, in particular, Christianity, had been used to uphold the idea of Apartheid.

Listening to the recording of Yusuf Chambers and Dr Bilal Philips discussing The Unknown Fallen I had to smile towards the end when the two discussants commented that the conceptualiser of The Unknown Fallen had been guided by Allah to undertake the task. You call him Allah, I call him God, others call him Jehovah, HaShem, the God of Thunder, Creator – they’re all a cultural title for a force we cannot explain. And those of us with a deep-rooted faith know how things fell into place to ensure our involvement to produce this incredible book and to learn from each other.

Whilst the interview on The Unknown Fallen is naturally Muslim-oriented – talking about a book which concerns a part of Muslim history, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with other religious and cultural groups whose involvement in the conflict is also struggling to be heard.

Many of these cultural groups feature in The Unknown Fallen. Broadly speaking, the African, Chinese and Russian spring to mind. As Dr Bilal Philips tells us today we tend to hear more about British/French or German Muslims, not Muslim Germans/French or British. This goes for so many other groups too – where the man-made community or nation the person is residing in expects preference in the identity stakes. As all the major religions teach us, respect and love for fellow mankind will ensure a more harmoneous co-existence. These divisions have become more apparent over the centenary years of the war – memorials are being put up for individual groups which have been forgotten or ignored to date. On one level, I fully understand this – it’s a visual representation and a way to ensure longer remembrance, however, it’s also divisive – where do we stop? At company or platoon level?

What struck me from the interview is how many different ways people are continuing to discover how their families and communities were involved or impacted by the war. Today the media has a big role to play, particularly in raising African awareness as noticed over the four years of the centenary of the conflict. And with this will come more desire for memorials and outward manifestations to show remembrance – a situation that could lead to further conflict as one group determines to be bigger and better (whatever that might be) than the next.

My journey continues, and as part of this, it strikes me that it’s time we start to recognise the one common denominator in all this remembrance and study of war. Humankind. With this in mind, shouldn’t we have an all-inclusive reminder? Not the poppy which is exclusive, but something as simple and all-encompassing as the minute or two’s silence we spare at times of remembrance whether on 11 November, 4 August, 19 September, 21 February, at a funeral or memorial service. So far, in my quest – a Dove: accepted by all religions and present in all countries except for the driest parts of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the Arctic.

In line with the message of The Unknown Fallen: Brothers/Sisters in Arms, Together we Stand – all faiths, all cultures, one people.

Back to School and the Western Front

A two-day trip to the Western Front to learn about the First World War in Africa. This was the idea, but would it work? And how? As I know little to nothing about what happened on the European battlefields. Thankfully Dickie Knight from Anglia Tours would be leading proceedings and he knew a thing or two about the Western Front. We would double act with me ‘butting’ in when appropriate. But would this work to keep 40 ten-year-olds engaged?

By all accounts it seemed to, especially as the teachers and Christine Locke of Diversity House had worked with the young people to give them a basic knowledge base of World War 1 and Africa.

Our first stop was the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette . This provided an opportunity to discuss the differences between French, British, Belgian and German colonial management. The French cemetery would further provide a visual comparison for when we got to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites.
In the same cemetery there were Muslim graves. Muslims had played an important part in both the European and African theatres. With information from The Unknown Fallen we were able to see the instructions French Minister for War had issued regarding burial practices. This helped explain why the graves faced a slightly different direction (east) to the others in their uniformity.
A visit to the Ring of Remembrance provided an opportunity for everyone to discover the reach of the war – by finding their name. For most tour groups, everyone would likely find at least one mention of a family name. However, this trip proved the claim false. One young lass couldn’t find mention of her name anywhere – she was Nigerian, and this opened a learning opportunity regarding which European powers used African troops in Europe and which did not. A subsequent search has identified a relative who participated in World War 1 (WO 372/2/182235) – I think there’s going to be one happy young person when she’s told, and I’m sure there’ll be another learning opportunity at school.
Lochnagar Crater provided further opportunity to see how engaged the young people were as they went round making links with things they spotted such as the board to Edith Cavelle – a school block has recently been named in her honour. In contrast, mention was made of Brett Killington’s project 64 stops where New Zealand miners burrowed to make accommodation undground.
Dickie’s interactive session on gas attacks brought much amusement when the gas masks were paraded. But this did not undermine the impact the horrors of gas has on the youngsters as shown by the insightful questions asked. Again links to the African campaign were made – no gas attacks but Lettow-Vorbeck notes in his memoirs that the Germans had to drink urine on occasion when water was scarce during their attacks on the Uganda Railway in 1914/5. While men in Europe feared gas, those in Africa feared wild animal attacks and jigger fleas.
Next day we were able to compare trench warfare practices between the different theatres. Newfoundland Memorial Park introduced us to trenches and how these where used in Africa were different. The experience of the Inuit sniper John Shiwak provided a link to how black Africans must have thought when faced with having to shoot white men especially having been taught that this was completely taboo and that for those with a missionary schooling, this was one of the biggest sins ever. I’m not sure exactly how the teachers felt when I asked the young people how they would feel being told to shoot their teachers but it seemed to get the shock, horror and extremeness of the instruction across. Further, less controversial diversity was explored with the Legion of Frontiersmen, Shiwak having been a Frontiersman himself and how fitting that the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are linked with the Legion of Frontiersmen still today, whilst the UK contingent is Countess Mountbatten’s Own. It’s incredible how linked the world is and was – even in the days before technology seemed to rule.
Delville Wood took me to home soil and gave an opportunity to welcome everyone to another country (the land is owned by South Africa unlike other properties which are French loaned). Here we explored VCs and how, although in print all are equal, it didn’t work in practice – Walter Tull (not African) was a case in point. I was able to share my new found discovery about Samson Jackson (I’d managed to keep it quiet for 2 days having just discovered the link on my way to join the trip). Samson was a black Zambian who had absonded from his employer, Stuart Gore Brown, when he was supposed to return to Zambia in 1915. He eventually joined the 19th London Regiment and saw service in Europe and Palestine. In 1925 he turned to the stage and became an actor. Watch this space as we try and piece together more about Samson who was originally known as Bulaya.
Remembrance was fitting theme for the remainder of the time at Delville Wood as a brief history of the Museum was given and the latest all-inclusive approach being that the statue at the top of the dome by Alfred Turner was specially designed in bronze which would go black to include all South Africans, not just the two white micro-nations working together to calm the horse. Finally a history of the two-minute silence as thought out by Percy Fitzpatrick saw us move to Thiepval where we put the silence to use to lay a wreath and remember those who had done their bit to make our world a slightly better place. It also turned into a pilgrimage as one young person knew there was a relative’s name on the wall. A short moving service was held and recorded for her to take back to her family who had not been before and were unlikely to do so.
I learnt as much, if not more in these two days – not least that the past resonates in so many ways. On the Eurostar back, a trio aged 10 were singing Madness’ Baggy Trousers from 1980 – harmonies and all (I asked no questions, I was in such shock), another (white British born) was experiencing his first train trip ever – something I’m used to hearing about in rural Africa where children haven’t seen a train or even a bus, but not in the UK. It just goes to show, don’t ever make assumptions.
Thank you to all for making this a most enjoyable learning experience for me and for holding your school name so high. The number of compliments you received along the way were well deserved and something to behold. It was a privilege.

Untold Friendships: A journey with The Unknown Fallen

Every now and then a challenge comes along – well, working on World War 1 in Africa, it’s more often than not as so little has actually made it into the public domain and some archives remain a challenge to access. Having managed to contribute a piece on Sikh involvement in the East Africa campaign, I started gathering information on Muslim involvement. Did you know that the Governor of East Africa called a jihad? This is a passing comment in some literature but had little, if no impact, on what happened. I was intrigued. Using primary source material I was able to write an article charting Muslim involvement in World War 1 only to have it declined as I refused to go into detail on how the different Islams were affected or developed (a minefield I am still trying to navigate and understand). I also didn’t challenge how the Governor, being a German, could declare a jihad – that wasn’t my purpose. I was more interested in why the Governor had made such a statement; it suggested that there were far more Muslims involved on both sides than existing literature had us believe. Here was another group of people whose contribution had been glossed over and who needed a voice.

Not long after submitting the above article for review, I was approached by Luc Ferrier to contribute something on Muslim involvement to The Unknown Fallen. Keep it simple – this is an introduction to the topic, were the instructions. It soon became apparent that thoughts of focusing on East Africa, the central theatre where most of the troops served from 1917, would not work and that separate pieces would need to be written on East, West and South Africa. Others were looking at the north and French involvement. Back to my task, the first two were ‘easy’ enough, as ground work had been done, but with the article in the publishing pipeline, I had to beware of potential copyright infringements so a different angle to the war in East Africa was taken in particular. South Africa proved the challenge – but through fortuitous discoveries, assumptions were shown up for what they were and a new little window has opened on another micro-nation or two. Job done!

Not so. Meeting with Luc and Vera to discuss feedback on my contributions, more was to come – editing, proofreading through my role as a publisher and supporting students with academic writing. And finally to assist with translations from French to English. Thankfully, technical translation had been done. My role, if I could do it, was to capture the feel of the original author. And by all accounts, we achieved this. I use ‘we’ on purpose. I have never known a book to be so thoroughly checked and reviewed by so many people to ensure that what has appeared in print does not offend but educates and respects – as well it should.

Initially, I had issues with the fact that this book only focuses on Allied Muslim involvement (and I know a few people I spoke to felt the same), but I soon came to see why it should. To do anything else, as my article experience proved, would require more complex explanations and enter into a world of politics which would distract from the aim – to show the diversity of men and women who worked together for a common goal.

One of the things that struck me, and still does, is that religion didn’t matter. If it did, the officers and those who wrote diaries and memoirs would have made an issue of it, but they didn’t. Few mention religious aspects. It was traditional for the British army to keep religious and ethnic groups separate for dietary purposes, but in East Africa, the nature of the campaign meant this didn’t happen and the delivery, or rather non-delivery of rations, meant that men had to eat what got through or what they could find. If anthing would cause religious unrest and ill-feeling, this would have been it. To date, I’ve not found mention of issues around having to eat foods not in keeping with religious practice or that men could not do their work becuase of the need to fulfil religious duties – be they Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other locally practised belief. There were differences, I don’t deny – and after the war in particular, politics reared its ugly head, but that’s all for another discussion.

There are so many gems in this ‘little’ book. [‘Little’ refers to the amount of text given the size of the book. It’s light reading but intense – so much packed into so few words.] I cannot say what my favourite part of the book is – there are too many different ‘pulls’.

  • Working with it, I became quite attached to some of the characters depicted by the artist Eugene Burnand – the diversity of soldier is incredible, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
  • What has been revealing working on The Unknown Fallen was the care and interest taken by the French government, in particular, the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand, in ensuring that Muslim soldiers were buried correctly. I’ve subsequently found a British reference which needs further investigation (thanks to Nick Ward, The Black Titanic).
  • Another highlight is the night sky of Verdun on 4 September 1914 – a double page spread of peace and tranquility, ignorant of the carnage going on below.
  • 28 statements of what Islam is – an eye-opener and in many ways a reiteration of the Christian and Jewish Ten Commandments.
  • Images to challenge stereotypes: Muslims praying in a forest or wood juxtaposed with an image of a Christian chaplain conducting mass. Brothers in Arms, Standing Together.
  • The walls of remembrance.
  • Stories of those who sacrificed their religion in name to fight for what they believed was right.

This is a book which goes beyond war to look at the human-ness of mankind. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it certainly achieves what it set out to, and far more. Something is bound to grab at your heartstrings.

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and honour to be a small part of The Unknown Fallen journey; a project which lays the foundation for more to come.

And for anyone wondering about the title of the blog – Untold Friendships – this caught my eye only days before I sat down to write this piece. It’s the ‘title’ of the back cover and an unexpected reward for having embarked on a journey to stand shoulder to shoulder with men of women of all faiths and backgrounds then and now in an attempt to make the world a slightly nicer place for all.