Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.

 

Fait accompli – battlefield decisions

One of my interests is the influence of the individual on the course of events, so rather than accepting a statement such as ‘the War Office decided…’, I will try and find out who exactly at the War Office made the suggestion which was eventually accepted. The same goes for ‘x won the battle’ – x being the commander, but there were many little actions taking place during that battle which could have gone either way. X, too, quite often wasn’t even at the site of the battle, having issued instructions via telegraph or command order. The classic case here is that of Horace Smith-Dorrien in England drawing up the battle plan for the battle of Salaita, which was approved by the War Office, Wully Robertson, on 26 December 1915, having to be carried out by General Tighe in British East Africa, now responsible to Jan Smuts who was still on his way to the theatre.

So, I was rather intrigued to come across this article on the Victoria Cross and how decisions made on the battlefield changed the way it was managed. This article raises some other fascinating little snippets to consider:

  • It draws attention to Lord Roberts making poor decisions during the Second Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1920. All to often it’s Lord Kitchener and the battle of Paardeberg which is used as the classic example of poor battlefield management.
  • The impact of family connections – Roberts lost his last son, Freddy, at the battle of Colenso shortly before he arrived to take over command from Buller. Both Lord Kitchener’s brothers joined the military – one, Walter, serving under him in South Africa and the other, Henry, being sent to East Africa during 1914/5 to assist with recruitment amongst other things. How did having family connections in high places in the army affect decisions regarding promotions, awards etc?
  • The fair play and detailed considerations of the War Office when it comes to changing precident. This connects with the previous point – Lord Roberts on arrival back in England sought to ensure that Schofield, who had also been killed at Colenso, was awarded the VC rather than the DSO which Buller had recommended him for.
  • The objectivity involved in making award decisions – Ian Hamilton who was quite involved in the decision-making about the changes to the VC awards, had twice been nominated for one and on both occasions Buller had denied them.

So much, from one little article, although it didn’t hold the info I was hoping to be able to use… the search continues.

Captain Henry Peel Ritchie was the first member of the Royal Navy to receive a VC, for action in East Africa on 28 November 1914 at Dar es Salaam.

John Fitzhardinge Paul Butler (date of action 17 November and 27 December 1914) in West Africa. He later accompanied West African Frontier Force troops to East Africa.

The first military VC awarded in East Africa was a post-humous one – to Wilbur Dartnell who was killed (3 September 1915) having stayed behind despite being wounded to protect some of his men who had fallen. Background can be found here.

William Anderson Bloomfield (date of action 24 August 1916)

Frederick Charles Booth (date of action 12 February 1917)

Andrew Frederick Beaucamp-Proctor, RFC (date of action 8 October 1918)

According to a list of VC winners on Wikipedia (not complete as only one WW1 East African listed), 8 VCs were awarded for actions in South Africa pre-1885, 3 in Rhodesia pre-1896, 6 Anglo-Boer War 1899-1901 – one of these is John David Francis Shaul who is buried in Boksburg, my hometown and who also served in Africa during World War 1; another is Alexander Young who, after serving in South West Africa, died on the Somme (the article incorrectly claims East Africa).

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!

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.