Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Remember the forgotten

In memory of those names we never knew, and whose stories we were never taught, from the First World War.

The factory/house roof was of corrugated iron so when the big game rifle was fired each round sounded as if it was coming from a piece of artillery. The African troops along the riverbank fired at a largely unseen enemy who feared to rush the position due to the 'artillery' barrage. In the middle of the engagement a messenger arrived for the British officer. He took the white tablecloth from the house dining room, tied it to a pole and raised it aloft. The firing ceased. Shortly afterwards German representatives met with the officer and they were given the following telegram: 'Please send the following to General von Lettow-Vorbeck under a white flag - an Armistice has been arranged and fighting on all fronts will cease on 11th November at 11 o'clock - signed Van Deventer', a South African who was the head of British forces in East Africa.

As there was no one to formally surrender the full force to, the actual surrender took place with all assembled forces at Abercorn, now Mbala in Zambia, when the General von Lettow-Vorbeck and the German officers and their 1,168 Askaris finally and formally laid down their arms on the 23rd November. So ended the tragedy that had flared across the world from that shot at Sarajevo. The German general was granted the unique privilege of marching his German troops through the Brandenburg Gate on his return home. He had led a now largely forgotten campaign in Africa but even more disregarded and forgotten are the Askaris who fought for both sides. Some fought under duress, fighting for Empires they had no participation in eventually finding the fate of their homeland was decided in the gilded splendours of Versailles. A monument to the missing, for few formal records were kept, sits now rather forlornly on a roundabout in Mbala, reduced in scale to avoid excessive costing.

While the war was being fought by proxy using largely African troops, colonial life went on. Belgium had vast possessions in Africa. Even before the war Great Britain and Germany were in discussions about the take over and division of Portuguese possessions in Africa! On 3rd February 1915 there had been a conference in London between Belgian and British officials defining new boundaries between their possessions. The frontiers were amended: many sections mere straight lines across country which meant the 'native inhabitants of the areas assigned to either party under Article 3 who have hitherto been under the administration of the other party are now deemed to be subjects of GB or Belgium as per the new frontier. The implementation will be immediate'. The Treaty was ratified in London on the 20th October 1919 - an oddment too trifling to be considered at the Peace Conference. Britain had apparently gone to war in 1914 to defend the rights of small nations!

Think of the new nations that emerged from the war with the right of people to their national identity and independence: Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia etc. The spoils of colonial rule were spread among the victors without regard to the native populations. Straight lines on maps are a sure sign of political expediency ignoring complex tribal, cultural and social societies especially those without a European identity.

With the carnage on the Western Front draining the manpower resources of the UK it was decided to utilise the 'coloured' populations of the colonies as non-combatants freeing up men for service in the front lines. A South African Labour Corps was raised early in 1917 but the officers and NCO's were white as none of the black men were allowed to take such a position. In addition, they were not allowed to carry arms and to mix with the white communities or other units. This was to change to some degree in Second World War.

In the silent cities of the dead that run across Northern France are listed many South Africans, with white and coloured troops laid to rest together. In death the Imperial War Graves Commission did their best to honour all.

One of the great tragedies of 1917 was the sinking of the SS Mendi carrying of over 700 men, many of whom came from South Africa. Nearing the Isle of Wight in thick fog the Mendi was rammed by the SS Darro travelling at high speed and failing to emit the required fog signals. As the ship was holed, many men died below decks, but others gathered on deck as she began to list and sink. Panic ensued. An interpreter Isaac Williams Wauchope raised his arms and shouted 'Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, what is happening now is what you came to do - you are going to die but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill, let us die like brothers, I am Xhosa, say to you are my brothers - Swasis, Pondes, Basotho - We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries for though they made us leave our assegais in the Krall, our voices are left with our bodies'.

Isaac Wauchope had been a pastor in the congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort a segregated church by the law of the Union at that time. Most of the men and crew died. It makes almost unbearable reading. Thankfully, the men were remembered both in the UK and South Africa with 13 buried in West Sussex where their bodies were recovered from the sea. A memorial was raised to them as was a special memorial in Soweto. The ship's bell was returned to South Africa in 2018 after it had been looted from the ship, a war grave. It was returned from an unknown source to the BBC.

When General Allenby took Jerusalem in 1917 after defeating the Turkish forces in his Middle East campaign, men from the British West Indies Regiment were among his forces. Raised in 1915 it could trace its earlier history back to 1795. Initial recruitment was originally from freed slaves from North America and slaves actually purchased in the West Indies. They had fought in the East African campaign and in Jordan and Palestine as well as part of a multi-colonial army of Nigerians and Ghanians conquering the German colonies of Togoland and Cameroon. However, when British troops were awarded a pay rise in 1918 the men of the regiment at the time were denied it as they were classified as 'natives'. The men of the BWIR had been awarded 81 medals for bravery and 49 men were mentioned in despatches during the war.

The Imperial War Museum holds in its collections a cigarette case presented to each man to mark Christmas 1917. It is surprising what a prominent role tobacco played for both the military and civilians at the time. I wonder if families in the Caribbean still have any of these tokens handed down through the generations.

At St Etienne Au-Mont Communal cemetery, 3 miles south of Boulogne are 163 Chinese burials from No 2 Native Labour General Hospital from the First World War. The entrance is a typical Chinese gateway which is quite a change from the standard neo-classical styles. The presence of Chinese graves is also marked across the other military cemeteries of Northern France. Their resting in France was a result of the acute manpower shortage as the war ground on. But their presence was due to a basic financial transaction. The Allies made an agreement with the Chinese government for 100,000 'Collies' to work on the Western Front. Most recruits came from the poor of the Shandoug province and initially were attracted by the promised cash bounty, a regular wage and an allowance to their families. Most of this was lost in the inefficient administration.

As both the US and Canadian had in place an anti-Asian immigration policy the labourers were secretly landed at Victoria, British Columbia before being taken in sealed trains across Canada to Halifax and then to France. Trade unions refused them landing in the UK as they feared the government were intent in using the Chinese as cheap labour in the munition factories.

Conditions for these recruits were poor and dangerous as they had frequently worked up near the front with casualties from the artillery barrages. In 1919, 80,000 still remained in France and they were used in mine and ordinance clearance, recovering the bodies of the dead and filling in the trench systems. Many were ill from the poor food, housing conditions and the weather. This led to mutinies against the British authorities. Local shops were looted for food and clothing. Finally, the Corps were returned to China by the route they had travelled previously but not by name on the passenger lists, just given a reference number. The government granted them the 1914-18 war medal but this was cast in bronze while the medals for British troops were cast in silver. Tales of their experiences soon made the press across China fuelling anti-European feeling in China, a legacy that we are still living with today. In 2002, at least there was a remembrance ceremony at Noyelles-sur-Mer when the last survivor of this forgotten army, Zhu-Guisheng died aged 106. The transit camp in Metchosin, British Columbia has a burial ground and the initially un-marked Chinese graves were only finally documented in 2019.

At the Peace Conference at the end of the war the Chinese Delegation were ignored and the concessions forced earlier from the Chinese were not addressed. The trading posts established on the Chinese mainland still continued to be occupied by the Allies with two being re-allocated. One from Austro-Hungarian control was awarded to Italy while the German base at Kiatschou Bay was actually awarded to Japan. Little wonder that the Chinese delegation returned home and the peace treaty of 1919 was never ratified.
At the present time a carved marble memorial column to these Chinese soldiers lies in China still awaiting shipment to London because of disputes about its final location in London despite support from the Mayor. Memory and political considerations are now intertwined.

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton was used as a segregated hospital in the First World War for soldiers from India. The bodies of some of those who fought in the war who died there were taken to a spot high on the South Downs cremated with their ashes scattered in the channel. A memorial Chattri was built on the spot with marble from Sicily and unveiled in 1921. It rapidly fell into decline as the caretaker was not replaced on his death in early 1930. The area was taken over by the military in Second World War as the monument was casually used for target practice by troops. I wonder if it would have been allowed if it had been a British Regimental monument. 1951 saw the monument repaired by the War Office and the local British Legion made an annual pilgrimage. With the decline on membership of the Legion the local Indian community have now undertaken this role. The Chattri bears an inscription: 'to the memory of all Indian soldiers who gave their lives for the King-Emperor in the Great War, this monument erected on the site of the funeral pyre where the Hindus and Sikhs who died in the hospital in Brighton passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly love'.

Br Henry Wilson

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