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).

Remembrance and Commemoration: a never-ending cycle

I’ve missed a few commemoration and remembrance occasions recently for various reasons and as usual, it’s provided an opportunity for reflection.

Recent commemorations as I write have included Gallipoli, Tanzania’s national day and South Africa’s Freedom Day. (April). Somewhere along the line, in May, VE Day and Dunkirk featured and whilst I was in Africa at the start of the year there was Mendi Day. The SA Military History Journal for Dec 2014 (read in late April) was full of commemorations linked to WW1: Sandfontein, Square Hill, the 1914 Rebellion at Zandfontein, and the annual 11 November parade. They also had an article on a series of films being shown at Ditsong Military Museum as part of an ongoing commemoration programme. A War and Peace Concert took place in August.

A military journal in itself suggests commemoration although I’ve focused mainly on WW1. In addition there was an article on the Anglo-Boer (AB) War, specifically looking at the work of the SA CWGC. No mention of the WW1 cemeteries at Maitland and elsewhere. This is not surprising as the AB War probably resonates more strongly amongst South Africans than World War 1. Again, not surprising as the AB War was fought on SA territory and impacted on more of the population than did WW1.

This general lack of knowledge or awareness of WW1 and SA’s involvement was brought home on 21 February when I heard a newsreader announce that in future 21 February was to be National Troops’ Day. I stopped. How did they get to that? 21 February is Mendi Day, the day the SANLC lost over 600 labourers: not troops! Before sharing my horror with the world about myth generation, I thought it best to investigate a bit. Low and behold, officially the day is National Forces Day (whew! all inclusive and appropriate) and 2015 wasn’t the inaugral day but 2012. The challenge now will be to ensure that all the forces (WW1 and other) are recognised – from labourer to soldier to medical and support services. They all played a significant role in furthering the aims they believed they were fighting for and should be remembered for their contribution to creating the country we know today. For reasons of unification and reconciliation, Mendi Day is well-chosen but it will depend on the dominant voices and how they ‘use’ the day that will determine whether it perpetuates the myths or encourages honest investigation and recognition of how all the sectors of the armed forces worked together to succeed as they did.

And the reference to VE Day, I discovered is the release of a film showing HM The Queen celebrating the news in Piccadilly Circus as one of the people. Soon after and long past by the time you get to read this, was the commemoration of VE Day by the South African Legion, whose newsletter also contained coverage of the WW1 battle of Trekkopje amongst other bits of interest.

A Polish cemetery in Tanzania – Really! and the outbreak of World War 1

Whilst most people were commemorating the outbreak of World War 1 on Monday 4 August, I took a bit of a break as events in Africa kicked off on 6 August in Togoland and on 8 August in Dar es Salaam. All going well, I should be in Kenya for a special commemoration there on 15 August, the day the first soldier of the war was killed in East Africa. Ed Paice, though, fittingly published a piece on the Great War in East Africa in remembrance of the conflict which began 100 years ago yesterday.

I turnedto World War 2 and a Polish cemetery a friend told me about on my last visit to Tanzania. Your reaction might well be the same as mine was, especially when you realise, if you know Tanzania at all, where the cemetery is – in a little village just outside Arusha called Tengeru. Had the cemetery been on the coast, or possibly even in Moshi or Arusha, it would still have been surprising but made more sense.

Nevertheless, it is this village of Tengeru, about 24km outside of Arusha, where the Polish cemetery dating back to World War 2 can be found. The camp was formed by Polish refugees who were fleeing from Russian occupation of Poland on the one side and Hitler on the other. About 24,000 (18,000 according to Kresy-Siberia Foundation) found themselves in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania with the biggest settlement being at Tengeru. They were en route to the UK, US and other destinations. This spot at Tengeru was apparently chosen because of its climate – this may well be, but it is not the easiest place to get to and there were other white settlements around the slopes of Mount Meru [this is going to require some further investigation in the British archives in due course]. Despite the challenge of getting to the cemetery, it must be acknowledged that it is a beautiful setting.

After the war, about 1,000 refugees remained in East Africa with a number remaining in the Arusha area. They contributed to the local community building schools, an argicultural college, clinic and other facilities – all of which are still used in some form today with the agricultural college being their main legacy. There is one remaining refugee, aged 97, still living in Arusha and when it comes time for him to leave this earth, he will be laid to rest amongst his fellow Poles in a little corner of Africa.

The cemetery is striking in its similarity to the Commonwealth War Graves. Most of the head stones look the same and are lined in the same way. Frangipani trees, a common feature of the German African graves, provide shade. The garden is tended by Simon Joseph who has taken over the work from his father who tended the graves for 32 years. He is supported financially by the Polish Embassy and donations from the many visitors who come to see this little bit of Eastern Europe in the heart of Africa.

No matter what war one talks about, there are always those who are displaced, and it seems fitting, that on the day when most people are remembering the horrors the declaration of war started 100 years ago, we remember all those who were and have been displaced from their homes due to the national and other localised conflicts.

Pay to play: sport during WW1

Reading the book Sporting Soldiers by Floris van der Merwe (2012), I was struck by a number of references to money. I assume, like me, you might not have spent much time thinking about the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of the war – although I must admit I am becoming more and more fascinated by these aspects – but they provide a fascinating insight into how people survived the 52 gruelling months of war.

Floris’ book is quite obviously about sport, and although its main focus is on South Africa, it does cover the war in Europe. The idea of gambling and betting on sporting events is nothing new and so references to such activity was not surprising – although what was, was the extent to which it took place despite being banned. But the comments that made me stop and think were complaints by French farmers that their fields were being used for parades and sports without the farmer’s permission or the farmer being paid for the use of his land. Another comment refers to the German government in South West Africa purchasing farms to set up prisoner of war camps.  And, if that wasn’t enough, prisoners of war had to pay their prison guards for the privilege of playing. They had to rent the sports fields and entertainment venues.

Equipment such as footballs, cricket bats and balls, even playing cards had to be purchased or sent to the men by family and friends. The YMCA played its part in helping the men access materials at a better price than the prison-camp or ‘corner’ shop. And in Africa where hunting took place either with the camera or gun, there are references hidden away in some diaries of men having to account for the number of bullets they went out with compared to what was returned. Where unsatisfactorily accounted for, the men had to pay for the missing ammunition.

What surprised me, was that I assumed these facilities would have been made available free of charge. Why demand payment from people who are giving up their lives to protect your livelihood and beliefs? Allowing the soldiers free use of the land seems a small price to pay when others had completely lost their livelihoods when their property was turned into trenches and no-man’s land.

But then, thinking about it, people still had to keep the country going, food prices soared as food became more scarce due to farm land falling to other uses, blockades and submarine attacks on merchant ships. It was a matter of economics.

Documents in the South African National Archives in Cape Town show how concerned local and national government was about the increasing costs and some unscrupulous business people taking advantage of the situation to increase their profits. After taking stock of prices on the outbreak of war, the South African government introduced price-caps on many goods. Other documents in the SANDF Archive and in the Colonial Office series in The National Archive  (@UkNatArchives) in London discuss the payment of soldiers and prisoners of war – both of their own men being prisoners and those of German and Austrian prisoners in Allied camps.

I was also reminded of the outcry a few years’ back (roughly 2004/5) when archive documents were released in London about the ‘little ships‘ which participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 needing to be paid before their owners risked their lives and livelihood. But can I find the press release or articles today? Unfortunately not, but they are there…

In the study of war-time, we tend to focus on the noisy aspects, taking the rest for granted or not even giving it a passing glance. Yet, life went on in both World Wars on both sides and we can get an insight into it from the little, almost throwaway, comments that diarists and others made at the time. We just need to look out for them.