On death and remembrance: more unsung heroes

I went to a white British funeral the Friday of the same week as the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi. It was for a remarkable man, a person I only knew for about two years. The emotions caught me unawares – from the moment the piper started warming up (whilst I was doing some other bits in the area). How and why?

Here in the church was a body in the coffin, once at the front of the church, the ashes of his wife carefully wrapped in a scarlet velvet cloth were gently placed on top. After nearly two years the couple were together again. I’d been to Jean’s funeral too. And I couldn’t help but think of others in the congregation who were looking forward to the day when they too would join their partner in rest and peace.

On Thursday, I was paging through the records of York Hospital which had treated men suffering from various ailments as a result of the Peninsular Wars – letters of what happened to the effects of those who died were stapled to returns.

Wednesday afternoon was spent with the student Historical Society of Warwick University, talking about cross-cultural research around World War 1 Africa. A focus being on how different cultures remember their past and how we record it – traditional Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries and Indian Cremation memorials for those of recognised faiths and unmarked mass graves for the others. I’ve often spoken of my encounter with the Masai women at the foot of Salaita Hill who couldn’t understand why white people keep coming to this dusty hill and walk up it. Their remembrance takes place telling stories around the fire. And then my other African friends who believe that a person still lives (a little bit in everyone) until the last person who knew them dies.

Tuesday was remembering the Mendi dead, all those labourers (of all colours) who survived and others who crossed the seas to serve elsewhere during the Great War. And in particular, thinking of the family members of those closely linked with the Mendi, praying the day would not be used for political gain but to truly honour the sacrifice all made in different ways. This had been preceded by my writing and recording an oral history piece for Diversity House on Lifting the Mendi Shroud.

And not to be left out, the previous Friday remembering those who struggled with the conditions and challenges presented by flight, aeroplanes and falling bombs, with a diversion afterwards to the Biafran War and whether childhood recollections could be valid. While on the Thursday I’d been proofreading a piece of work on military chaplains.

There are so many ways of dealing with death and remembrance – and on the note of chaplains, they have a special role to play irrespective of their religious or cultural background as seen in the Chaplain War Diaries of East Africa (WO 95/5308). A moving account or two appears in David Mannall’s Battle of the Lomba. Death at the best of times is difficult to deal with and one can perhaps become immune. However, when it’s a friend or person who departs this earth before their time due to age or violence, it can only be a challenge for these people of faith who give the rest of us succour. They are the unsung and oft-forgotten heroes in all the commemoration events.

What always catches me and one of the reasons I like to go to funerals and memorial services of people I’ve known where I can, is what you discover. I can’t think of one service I’ve been to where I haven’t learnt something extraordinary. This latest funeral revealed that Jim and his wife had not been allowed to marry in a church because they were ‘mixed-race’ – two different Scottish Christian denominations. That was in 1950’s Scotland and not what one generally thinks of as ‘mixed marriage’. At least it was not quite as draconian as the Mixed Marriages Act in South Africa which banned people of different ethnic backgrounds marrying. Digging a bit brought this interesting article to light which suggests that South Africa was not too far removed from what was happening elsewhere. It’s reassuring to know that there were people like Jim who rose above the mass beliefs of the day and fought for equality in their own way.

And today, Saturday, typing this post, I heard about another friend in his eighties who suddenly departed this earth – as Ken had been a professional singer I’m sure the angelic choir has already been enriched with the addition of another baritone.

To all religious men and women, then and now, who cross so many boundaries to bring peace and comfort to the families, friends and comrades of those departed – thank you. Your silent work is recognised.

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Carriers, labourers and others in WW1 EA

@WW1EACampaign is responsible for this post following a tweet on 1 April 2016 which read ‘Getting a proper perspective on nos & names of Africans who participated in EastAfrica may be a whole project on its own!’

Yes, it is a whole project and one which I started on behalf of GWAA. I don’t think we’ll ever get a complete picture of the numbers who served in the East Africa Campaign, although I think we should for the other African campaigns as they were ‘cleaner’ in terms of force differentiation.

The East Africa campaign was ‘messy’ – from a logistical and organisational perspective, if nothing else. In 2014 I attempted to gather the existing information on numbers in one place but wasn’t happy with this as it was confusing and didn’t give a clear overview. @WW1EACampaign has prompted my latest attempt to clarify the position – which I’ve done in the attached. In this approach, I’ve used the map of Africa (you’ll have to stretch the imagination a bit here) and looked at the number of men (and women) each territory supplied. For some, you’ll see there are different numbers provided for the same country which raises the question of how were men counted? At what stage of the war? The German author Boell notes that although there were about 18,000 German forces, they were at their peak in early 1916 with approximately 16,000 in the field.  He also has a number of 40,000 KAR which were British forces. However, we don’t know how many of these were recruited from German territory. The KAR position is further complicated from before the outbreak of war as KAR forces from Nyasaland were serving in Uganda and BEA whilst KAR from Uganda could be found in Nyasaland. This situation applies to other forces too, especially as the war dragged on and white soldiers were transferred and commissioned into the KAR from the 2nd Loyal North Lancashires and 25th Royal Fusiliers. The East African Mounted Rifles was an amalgamation of various Scouting bodies and never officially discharged although its members too were absorbed into other contingents.

The only way I think we’re going to be able to unravel all these movements and get some accurate idea of how many served and in what capacities is to try and gather all the names we can and then analyse the data. Having captured nearly 20,000 names for the East Africa campaign, 250 for the West and North African campaigns and just over 4,000 for the Southern African theatres, the complications become apparent:

  1. How do you account for men who served in different theatres?
  2. How do you work out what nationality (or micro-nationality) people were?
  3. How do you account for men who found their own way to a theatre to enlist?
  4. Where do you find the records when at least 6 different administrative bodies were involved in managing the campaign with the ability to pay for forces?

Let’s start with answering question 4 as this relates directly to @WW1EACampaign’s tweet.

In short, whichever administration paid for the force enlisted will hold the records. So, for East Africa, we have lists (in theory) held by Britain’s War Office (Imperial Service Troops such as the South Africans who served in EA) and India Office. Those recruited for purposes of labour would have been through the Colonial Office representatives so British East Africa, the British South Africa Company for the Rhodesias, Nyasaland, South Africa for labour from the Union, Swaziland, Basotholand and Bechuanaland.

So far, so good. However, fate has worked against us: During WW2 when London was bombed, the records for most South Africans who served in WW1 were destroyed, as were about 1,000 Indian Office files (those dealing with EA). In addition, we lost some of the East African files when, in 1924 the archive in Nairobi caught fire. So, we are left to rely on what we have available. On the link above, I’ve provided references for some of the Medal lists which are available in Kew. Transcribing all these names onto the spreadsheets takes time so progress will be slow, but the info is available and will in time become more widely so. In addition, there is a fantastic project underway in South Africa where tw researchers are painstakingly capturing all the details on the SANLC attestation cards which they stumbled upon in the SANDF Doc Centre. When I met them on my previous visit to SA, they believed they had every attestation card and were all already able to trace some individuals who had served in GSWA, Europe, EA and then went onto Palestine – all by choice! I can’t wait for this project to be completed.

The War Diaries (kept @UKNatArchives) contain some nominal rolls – incuding gun carriers, special porters and camp followers. This is hit and miss – as is the general quality of the War Diary – as it depended on the meticulousness of the recorder and presumably the challenges they faced in the field. This means that the recording of casual labour is less likely to be recorded as is comandeered labour – this is the position facing us particularly with regards German and Portuguese records.The other challenge is getting into the local National African archives to see what they hold and hoping that the records are in a usable state (record preservation doesn’t address housing, health and education issues which have greater priority for governments).

There is much more to be said – and at least another 3 questions to answer, but this post is already long enough and I think/hope gives an overview of what is available which for various reasons hasn’t before made it into the public domain.