The SS Mendi shroud – 21 Feb 2017

Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 2017 is an opportunity to remember all those who served in a non-combatant role, especially men of colour from Southern Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

As awful as what the loss of lives on the Mendi was, for the families of the 135 of 700 men who died on the Aragon returning to South Africa from East Africa (also in 1917), the sense of loss was no less. A reviewer of an article I’d written once asked how could I equate the loss of lives on the Aragon with those lost on the Mendi. The loss of any life is significant and devastating for the family and the impact at home on recruitment was noticeable.

What does the Mendi signify?

Today, a political statement. But I want to move away from that. I want to think about the few men – black, white and coloured – who survived the Mendi’s sinking. What did they go back to? Much is made of the medals the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) never received. The story behind that decision is comples and still needs to be fully told.

A medal means nothing if you’re forgotten and ignored. A medal doesn’t put food on the table or et you a job if you’re too depressed and guilt-ridden for surviving. Similarly, those who were physically maimed, suffering from fever, malaria and other debilitating illnesses as well as having lost a limb – of all backgrounds – were unable to get work unless someone took pity on them. These men and their families paid a different price to those who lost their lives – their suffering lasted a lifetime.

How must the men of the Mendi felt every time the songs of protest evoking the words of Wauchope were sung? Bringing back memories of those awful moments of freezing cold and wet, not knowing which breath was going to be your last.

And then, there were those 19,500 men of the SANLC who did see service in Europe, some of whom chose to serve in East Africa too after having been in South West Africa at the start of the war. Their contributions lost and disregarded except as a by-line or example of racial discort in South Africa at the time. Yes, some were commandeered or forced to serve, but many went willingly for adventure and to earn money.

The men made their mark – their quality of work, their upbeat spirit despite the hardships. Life was not easy for many reasons, not least the political and social positions they found themselves in. Pawns on a chessboard as many soldiers of all races and nationalities would testify.

Back home, life went on as usual – work was difficult to obtain, perhaps many were ostracised depending on the areas they lived and worked for having supported the King of England. We know there was little allegiance to the Union then.

The names of the men are known and recorded, despite popular belief. They have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten. As the white government of 1917 rose 100 years ago to honour the black men who lost their lives when the Mendi went down, let us today use the opportunity to also honour those 200 who survived and all of the SANLC and other support workers such as the Indian Bearer Corps, the Cape Boys, Chinese, West Indian, Seychelloise and Kroo Boys from Sierra Leone who all crossed the sea to help make the world a slightly nicer place for us to live.

Let us follow their example today and work together irrespective of race or creed to make our world a better one.

We will not forget. I will not forget – those who lost their lives but more so, those who survived and who lived out the rest of their days in obscurity; no doubt wondering if it had all been worth it.

We will remember!

This is the transcript of a video I did for Diversity House, Breaking the Myths.

Understandably the Mendi and any remembrance of World War 1 in South Africa evokes strong emotions, often underpinned by political views. This is not surprising given the history of the country – surely now is the time to put aside all these differences and acknowledge the humanity of man(kind) in all our conflicts. Perhaps if we did that, we’d go some way to building the better world our ancestors thought they were fighting for.

Tito Mboweni is the descendant of Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni who died on the Mendi. Our starting points differ, but we ask the same questions.

Jacques de Vries is the descendant of Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick who survived the sinking of the Mendi. One of my most moving moments was finding records in Kew relating to Fitzpatrick helping Jacques fill in the gaps.

BBC summary of the story of the SS Mendi.

There are still documents to be studied both in London and in South Africa which will no doubt change the context in which we understand the SANLC to have served, only time will tell how we react to these findings. Every memory matters.

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Review: To Complete the Jigsaw by Nicholas van der Bijl

To Complete the Jigsaw: British Military Intelligence in the First World War by Nicholas van der Bijl (The History Press, 2015) was a roller coaster read.

Having heard about the book, I eagerly waited its publication date – little has been written on military intelligence during World War 1 and even less mentioned East Africa. It’s an area I’d been thinking needs to be addressed and within months of the thought, a book was due to appear.

Opening the book, the ups and downs of the roller-coaster began.

New discoveries of the Western Front, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Of particular interest for me was the setting up of military intelligence and how it developed from the Crimean and Anglo-Boer Wars with not much done in the intervening years. However, there was a recognition that ascertaining what the other side had planned would prove invaluable during a war. How it came about and evolved during the war and around the different circumstances or contexts was fascinating.

Then came the downers. Although the discussion below my suggest they outweigh the uppers, don’t be mislead. This book is definitely worth reading and provides a valuable overview of military intelligence in World War 1. There are, however, a few aspects readers should be aware of.

The first is the poor editing of the book. A basic proofread seems to have been missed, and although generally not a problem, there are one or two instances where a significant word has been missed. Another challenge has been the structure of the writing/content. Thoughts/claims are strung together with no obvious link being made or context set. Where people feature in different parts of the war, no link is made to their other role – the obvious one being Meintertzhagen. The impression is that this is a book wich was put together and published in haste. The sad thing about the haste is that it detracts from what is a significant contribution to the historiography of First World War.

Closer to home, I was rather disappointed in what was written about intelligence in the East Africa campaign. It seemed out of date and a perusal of the books consulted, even Ed Paice’s excellent Tip and Run, proved they were. Much more first hand information is available – by those mentioned in the book – yet Nick has relied on second hand accounts rather than going to Weinholt’s The lion hunt (reprint of 1922 book) and Philip (not Pieter) Pretorius’ Jungle Man to name but two. In some ways, this is understandable. A book of this nature relies on overviews and even those take a long while to work through. To delve into each aspect in depth and detail would take years and would produce a very different book.

Nick has followed the mainstream, again not surprising given the (until very recently) little published on the Great War in East Africa. One of his main sources is Charles Miller’s Battle for the Bundu. Again, I’m not surprised given how many people rate the book. I, too, rate it as an  overview/starting point, but it is not enough anymore. With the information we have today, it is superficial, contains errors and is very Anglo-centric. It provides the basics.

Intelligence bridges the divide between the military, political and social spheres, and apart from chapters dealing with Mesopotamia and Palestine (and even then superficially) the political and social have been largely ignored – despite information having been available at the time the book was being written, albeit not that easy to identify.

My final issue is a related one – that of perpetuating myths. Unfortunately in a book such as this – an overview relying on secondary sources – myths have a tendency to be perpetuated unless challenged in a forthright manner such as Brian Garfield did about Meinertzhagen. I wonder how the narrative of To Complete the Jigsaw would have gone had Nick been aware of Lord Kitchener having completed the first thorough mapping of Palestine. Nick mentions the mapping in passing, focusing rather on the 1913 exercise but made no mention of Kitchener’s involvement in the first. Kitchener had also done his share of intelligence gathering – even allowing himself to be imprisoned as an Arab to obtain information and having to witness a colleague be tortured and killed once found to be a spy. Although Kitchener never spoke Hindi, he had learnt the language allowing him to follow conversations during his time in India before the infomation was translated into English for him. These are just a few points which provide a different image of Kitchener to that portrayed in To Complete the Jigsaw.

I have been overcritical – on areas I have some detailed knowledge. This is not meant to detract from what Nick has done but rather to spur others on to take this first stage further and to delve more deeply into specific areas so that a more complete picture can be put together of the role of intelligence during the First World War. Together with the 1914-1918 Online encylcopedia entry which looks at Europe and the Eastern Front we have the first holistic overview of military intelligence in World War 1.

Thank you Nick for identifying this gap in the historiography and for doing something about it. You’ve laid the foundation for others to build on.

 

Don’t ever assume … it’s not FC Selous!

I assumed, given he died aged 64 and that the Legion of Frontiersmen was the only contingent allowed to enlist men over age, that Frederick Courtney Selous was the oldest soldier to die in WW1 when he was shot by a sniper at BehoBeho on 4 January 1917.

A visit to the Temple Church in London taught me, once again, not to assume! In their World War 1 exhibition they named had a soldier who I recalled was 65 when he died. My photographic skills having failed me, I couldn’t work out his name when I came to do this write-up, so a quick search (I assumed) on the WWW for his name revealed he wasn’t the oldest soldier to have died in the war either! According to the BBC and the Telegraph, it was a 67 year old man from Tonbridge, Henry Webber. The Great War Forum provides some other little interesting snippets about the oldest who died and is worth a quick skim through.

For those of you wondering who the Temple man was, thanks to John at Temple Church, who kindly went to check for me, he was Jasper Myers Richardson of the Inner Temple who died aged 68 (! not 65 as I initially thought). And, yes, he was in fact (so far as is currently known) the oldest British man to die on active service during WW1.

Another assumption which needs to be corrected is that FC Selous of the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) was not the only man to die on 4 January at BehoBeho. A sad follow-on to Selous’ death was that of his son, Frederick Hatherley Bruce, who died exactly a year to the day on 4 January 1918 on the Western Front.

Review: The Great Silence by Tim Couzens

One of the joys of visiting South Africa is that I stock up on history books not easily obtainable in Britain. And, being the centenary of the Great War, there has been opportunity to invest in a number of relevant texts. The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One was one I collected for review.

As with Bill Nasson’s WW1 and the people of South Africa, Couzens’s book is not an academic text and has a few significant errors. Highlighting these errors in the review is not meant to put people off reading the book. In fact, as accessible overviews of South Africa’s involvement in WW1 go, this is pretty comprehensive and an easy read – one I would recommend with a health warning to double check obscure-sounding facts before quoting (always good practice, I’m learning). Tim, himself in his introduction raises some of the hurdles he had to overcome in researching and writing this book, indicating that he is well aware there may be some inaccuracies.

I didn’t specify the errors in the review I did of Bill’s book as the errors there are minor (most scholars of the theatre will pick up on them) or form part of the historiography, but I will with Tim’s due to their significance as they have been perpetuated in a few other texts which is where Tim likely sourced them – one of the downfalls with general, accessible histories which are not referenced is that a misconception, myth or error cannot easily be sourced. Another reason for doing so is that they highlight the pitfalls authors suffer when having to write to tight deadlines and will hopefully serve as a lesson to others (it’s one I’ve learnt by experience and hope not to repeat in future publications). This blog could almost have been entitled ‘confessions of an historian’.

I deal with the points in the order they appear in the book which makes the next part rather listy, I’m afraid to say, but it seems the best way to cover them.

WG Grace’s brother, a doctor was killed during the same roadblock in which General Koos de la Rey lost his life (p35). It wasn’t Grace’s brother, but his nephew Gerald Grace, who was a doctor rushing back to Springs for a medical emergency. I don’t hold it against Tim for getting this one wrong, I had myself until recently and it was only through Andrew Samson questioning my statements that I tracked down the most reliable account.

p63 has Rebel Maritz escaping to Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique whereas he went to Angola where he was captured. This is probably a simple proofreading slip – easily done when a book is written to a short deadline. I know because of a similar failing (about the dates of the Anglo-Boer War) in my own book.

A commonly perpetuated myth and one I was also prone to believe until I really thought about it (and started reading more widely about World War 1 in Africa) is the idea that The conquest of German South West Africa was the first Allied victory in the Great War (p111). The first allied victory was in fact Togoland

To show that accurate history writing is a challenge, we look to Mkwawa’s skull that Tom von Prince took from the Wahehe tribe when he subdued that people in Iringa. The skull was returned in 1954 whilst the tooth was returned in 2014 (personal correspondence with von Prince family).

Another challenge is the use of terms. On page 114, Tim challenges the claim that Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German to occupy British territory and that in East Africa. He suggests there was German occupation of South African territory from South West Africa (GSWA). Personally, I don’t tend to see the incursions from GSWA as occupation and neither do I see Lettow-Vorbeck’s moves into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), Nyasaland (Malawi) or Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as occupation. These were incursions which lasted a day or a few months. The Germans were continually on the move. However, there was German occupation of the Tsavo-Taveta area of Kenya where Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces took over British forts and buildings and made them their own for at least nine months.

A reference I would really like to know is the one for the glue holding the Sopworth planes photographing the Konigsberg melting. I don’t recall reading this before and although I know there were challenges facing the pilots and their crews, this is new to me.

The Battle of the Bees (p 121) – mention of the bees always brings a smile when I come across it. I recall including it in an early draft of my thesis only for one of my supervisors to insist on it coming out as although it was a good story, it was flawed. And so it proved to be. Tim suggests the Germans must have been affected and so they were. According to Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs, the Germans suffered as much from the angry bees as did the British and Indians at Tanga. And, there was more than one battle in East Africa in which the bees featured (and most likely won).

Some other aspects Tim raises which need, and are now receiving, specific study concern Jan Smuts’s role as commander and the failure of the South Africans at Salaita. Salaita was fought according to the battle plan drawn up by Smith-Dorrien and put into action by Michael Tighe (not Malleson) who was acting Commander-in-Chief East Africa pending Smith-Dorrien’s arrival. But before this could happen, Smuts had beeen appointed instead as Smith-Dorrien required extra time to recuperate from ill-health. Related to this was Smuts’s attitude to the Indians (p122) which Tim puts down to their performance at the Battle of Tanga. White South Africans generally had a poor perception of Indians as noted by Hughes and van Deventer’s report on South Africans going to serve in East Africa and Smuts’s encounters with Gandhi from before 1900.

Page 133 has an error I myself made in my book and which has only this year (2015) been corrected thanks to a discussion with Archie Henderson of the SA Sunday Times. Tim makes reference to Pieter Pretorius the Intelligence Officer who served with Smuts. His real name was actually Phillip. How he came to be known as Piet Pretorius in the texts is another story which needs to be uncovered. In the same piece where Tim mentions Pretorius, he is discussing Richard Meinertzhagen whom he rightly identifies as ‘one of the most interesing and eccentric of the characters in the East Africa campaign’. What was surprising about this piece is Tim’s failure to mention the controversy surrounding the truth of what Meinertzhagen wrote/claimed as identified by Brian Garfield.

There may well be a few other points I’ve missed and that would not be surprising as a reviewer can only comment on their own area of expertise. However, I really want to stress that despite the few errors identified above, this is a book worth reading especially if you’re new to South Africa’s involvement in World War 1.