Africans in Europe during the 14-18 war

That colonial forces of all colours served, to various degrees, in Europe during World War 1 is fairly well known. The French Tirailleurs, the white South Africans and SANLC on the Western Front. What is less well-known are accounts of black and Arab Africans who found themselves in Europe and Britain on the outbreak of war.

Four from British territories served in the armed forces – two from West Africa, one Zambian (Samson Jackson) and one Malawian (Frederick Njilima). There may well be others who still need to be identified. And also in the other European territories.

So it was with some intrigue that I approached Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari: Swahili Lecturer and Author in Germany by Ludger Wimmelbücker published in 2008. Ludger gives an overview of Mtora’s time in Germany, also mentioning two other East Africans: Mdachi bin Sharifu and Halidi bin Kirama. While Mtora refrained from political involvement, the other two did not. It also appears that the latter two were employed by the German colonial office during the war while Mtora had to fend for himself, especially after being returned from East Africa after eight days in 1914.

We discover more Africans in Europe in the prisoner of war records as Annette Hoffman explained in 2017. They came to be there for a variety of reasons. Some were serving in merchant ships which were captured, such as Ntwanambi who was taken prisoner in October 1915 when the ship he was serving on as a boilermaker was captured. Others were taken prisoner whilst working on the war front as hinted at in the article. Sadly, these records were destroyed years ago, and as one commentator points out, we are reliant on the information coming to light in other recorded forms such as diaries, and non-military records.

The records from the Half Moon Camp in Wunsdorf, where many recordings were done are proving a valuable source on this front, but only where the information has been accessed, translated, interpreted and presented in (academic) publications by researchers with specific music or other specialised interests.

They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.

Engaging Africa in remembrance

Does having a list of African High Commissioners due to attend a remembrance event prove inclusivity? I’m not sure. It shows engagement at a basic level. I put my theory to the test, again and introduced myself to various of the High Commissioners and/or their Military Attachés. As expected, they were [pick your term] polite, politically correct, giving lip service, saying what they expected others to want to hear. And of course, wearing a poppy. They were present but not engaged in any meaningful way.

This war which was being portrayed as inclusive still had/has no direct resonance with many from the African continent. How do I know? Well, in my encounter at this particular event, as with others, I’ve got to know the signs of polite tolerance, until you hit with a snippet that says, ‘I am serious, this is about YOUR country, how you can start engaging with the commemoration at a local level. It’s about people, not Empire.’

For Zambia, it was realising there was a black Zambian who served on the Western Front in an armed capacity. He was not just a name but a person with a history; not all positive, but that’s life. We won’t know why Samson Jackson (aka Bulaya) really enlisted, and the military records are no longer available, but he served and stayed until 1921.

Tanzania’s moment came when it was realised that the whole territory had been caught up in the war and that everyone was affected in some way, not least the local population having their homesteads overrun and having to supply food and manpower to the various forces. Added to this were the Askari and King’s African Rifles which forms the basis of the present military system. And the fact that their first President, Julius Nyerere’s policies around land were no doubt influenced by his early life experiences in the 1920s.

Kenya is an interesting one. A look at Wikipedia for Jomo Kenyatta shows he joined Masaai family members to avoid enlistment whilst Geoffrey Hodges in Kariokor notes Kenyatta worked for the British administration learning the value of organisation to achieve a goal.

I can go on, but what difference will this engagement make? In the big scheme of things, I don’t know, but it might well help fill in gaps and give confidence to a people told they should remember but who can’t see why. At a more altruistic level, it should create a more level playing field to overcome divisions as greater understanding of the past is understood for what it was.

Of one thing I’m clear, remembrance as it is currently practised in Britain and other British-influenced communities is not (yet) inclusive. This will take time – Hew Strachan points out in an essay on remembrance: ‘[The] 1914-18 [war] drew a clear distinction between the theory and practice of war in their own [European] continent and wars waged outside it.’ It’s taken Britain a century to reconcile these two points at an intellectual level. The challenge now is for Britain and others to explain this at national and local level, and develop an understanding of the African context of the war.

The impetus to remember does not rest with Britain and the European powers alone, Africans can, by looking outside the traditional European narrative, create their own remembrance as witnessed in Zambia in November 2018.

War Diaries of the Base Commandant DSM – a little gem

Finishing off a book on the end of the war in East Africa, I thought I’d check some War Diaries. Per chance I came across the Bast Commandant for Dar es Salaam and it is a little treasure trove.

The diligent Base Commandant(s) have dutifully recorded the names of all who died under the command irrespective of position – with the result that we have some records of Chinese Labour still being in EA at the end of the war and the names of some of the German prisoners of war (all ranks). In addition to listing the person, the date and cause of death are recorded as well as initials where available and force number. This should prove a very useful source for indentifying names not on the Imperial lists (and when I get a chance I’ll transfer them to the Great War In Memory lists).

In addition to the death records, there are the embarkation notfications for shipping. This includes the names of officers travelling and numbers of other ranks. What stands out here is the diversity of ‘other ranks’ – including the number of women and children attached to units who are being transported between bases 22 women and children of the KAR were going from Dar-es-Salaam to the Detail Camp at Kilindini (Mombasa) on 31 December 1918. Animals, vehicles and equipment are all listed – quantity and destination.

And then there are church services listed for the forthcoming week – a range of venues and denominations are covered. As are significant general orders and various Courts Martial and enquiries including the verdict in many cases,

For the patient researcher who is prepared to strain their eyes with the poor quality print (it is clearly copy x of xx rather than the original here), there should be more than a few gems which come to light.

Ref: The National Archives, Kew: WO 95/5359 parts 4 and 5
The book commemorating the end of the war is called Zambia: the end of the war, 25 November 1918 – 25 November 2018 (GWAA, 2018)

 

God Bless Africa

A little while ago I looked up the English translation (God Bless Africa) of N’kosi Sikelele, the national anthem of South Africa and Mungi ibariki Afrika, the national anthem of Tanzania. At independence it was also the anthems of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia until they adopted new ones: Zambia Stand and sing of Zambia; Zimbabwe Blessed be the land of Zimbabwe; Namibia Land of the Brave

The history of this hymn and its use as a national anthem seems to have raised interesting questions over copyright.

All the anthems seem to have been translated into multiple languages, the Zambian noted has having been written in English first and then translated. The South African anthem is currently sung in four languages (Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans), the first part Nkosi Sikelele having been written in Xhosa and then translated, the second part originating in Afrikaans and the third being an English variation of the original Afrikaans.

This raises some interesting questions with its banning by the Apartheid government: was it a hymn or a political statement? Siemon Allen challenges the banning in a fascinating summary of the use of the hymn. It is claimed that the hymn was first used as a protest song in 1919 with additional verses being added in 1927 by Samuel Mqhayi. Coplan and Jules-Rosette discuss its use in the liberation struggle.

What intrigued me were the topics covered by N’kosi Sikelele – they provide an insight into what was important to the authors and their communities at the time and surprisingly, these are still big topics today: Chiefs (leadership), public men, youth, land, wives, women, ministers (religious), agriculture, stock, land, education, unity.

Another interesting aspect links with wider discussions on the value of African languages and their being subordinated to English and French. Where there are multiple translations of the anthem, which is used at official national occasions and what is the reason for this? With so many language groups, how is unity developed? Or is it through the common tune that unity is achieved? One of my highlights was approaching a Tanzanian primary school during assembly when the children started singing the anthem. I might not have been able to join them in Swahili but I could in Xhosa and Zulu. And in solidarity we asked that ‘God Bless Africa’.