British Empire’s African soldiers to receive belated recognition


African soldiers and bearers who fought for the British Empire in little-known theatres of World War I will finally be acknowledged equally to British soldiers as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) originally intended. In line with this goal, the organisation set up a Special Committee to recommend ways to correct these omissions.

The committee’s Special Report, released in April, was compiled by the CWGC’s official historian, authors on the subject, professors and specialist historians, cultural and ancestral researchers, with members coming from both the UK and Commonwealth nations, such as India and South Africa. They do not normally give interviews and the interview below is exclusive to defenceWeb.

The report investigated why the over 160 000 mainly African and Egyptian casualties were not remembered equally as the Commission intended, and made recommendations to the CWGC. The new information will include many South Africans who fought in that war and will become available as the research progresses.

One of the contributors to the report, South African born WW I Africa historian, Dr Anne Samson, told defenceWeb: “The African campaigns were very much seen as a sideshow at the time.” Other causes of a lack of documents included the loss of documents in fighting and ships being sunk.

“Peripheral” areas, such as East Africa or the Middle East, only sent vital documentation to London: “The numbers of locally recruited soldiers or carriers were needed, the names were not. Enlistment papers, death records, carriers, labour, all of that information is kept in local countries.”

The report had to omit the South African invasion of German South West Africa (Namibia) of 1915 due to a lack of available materials. Another consequence was a concentration on WW I. Some 35 000 Black and Coloured South Africans served in this campaign as drivers and manual labourers, but the CWGC plans to include them in its future work.

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, founded in 1917, was determined to treat all the war dead equally in death, regardless of social or military rank or religion. (The name change occurred in 1960). It was decided that a headstone would be placed over an individual grave or the serviceman’s name carved on a memorial where this was not possible.

As conditions in Europe were more conducive to keeping records of unit members, the names of most of the dead in Europe, especially the Western Front, could be recorded, even if their bodies had been lost, thanks to regimental and other records. This applied to White South Africans on the front lines as well as to members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). However, in places like East Africa, conditions were much tougher and often the dead went unrecorded or incorrectly named. Names of Indian, East African, West African and Chinese service personnel could be found in registers. In some cases, a memorial was raised, but with no names or with only numbers.

The report indicates that the IWGC used mainly religion and education to categorise people. Prejudice is also recorded as a factor, notably among post war colonial administrators. Jewish, Christian, or Muslim soldiers were given named burials, and in the case of Indians, Hindus and Sikhs, they were cremated according to their religions. However, traditional African religions were dismissed as “pagan” or “native superstition.” Interestingly, the Cape Corps was considered “European” and treated as such.

The South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), founded in 1916, raised a total of 74 000 black men, and sent 18 000 to serve in the East African campaign. These men came under the command of the East African Military Labour Bureau, also referred to as the Carrier Corps. Some 21 000 of them went to France.

The South West Africa campaign and notably the East African campaign have largely been overlooked and the Indian stretcher bearers apparently forgotten. There was a total of 500 South African Indians in these units. The records are also confused. An example would be Cape Corps recruitment documents which should have gone to Cape Town but went to Zomba in Malawi.

During the ‘Great War’, Samson stressed that locals could be “employed” both by force or voluntarily. Official records are also not accurate, because: “The local military units are allowed to recruit locally on a needs basis, so they are not necessarily going to keep records. If I need 50 local men or women and children to get logs to build a bridge, and it’s only going to take two days, I’m not going to record names. We’ve also got to recognise that some officers were not diligent enough to keep records. Some war diaries are very diligent in recording names, others will just say, ‘five men killed.’”

In addition, nicknames, such as “Ben”, or even “Left Foot”, were recorded. “The fact that we now have to work out who ‘Left Foot’ was is almost impossible”, Samson said. In some cases, labourers gave false names so as to avoid further call-ups after the war. In addition to cultural difficulties, language problems existed, as Samson explained:

“You have phonetics, so if you have a Swahili or a Yao speaker, they’re pronouncing their name one way, and it’s recorded in a different way, so it gets misinterpreted through that as well. You then end up oversimplifying things like: Oh, it’s John from whichever village or John from whichever tribe and you end up with five Johns from that same village, and all that distinguishes them is their number.” In addition, even within the British Army, how Scotsmen, Welshmen, Londoners, or South Africans heard names would vary greatly.

She added: “The response of the CWGC is that they are now looking at alternative ways to recognise people’s war service where there isn’t the traditional written documentation. There wouldn’t necessarily be a death certificate for an SANLC or King’s African Rifles soldier because that didn’t mean anything in the culture at the time. They need to now look at other ways to confirm war experiences.”

This is one of the 10 recommendations of the Special Committee to the CWGC. Other recommendations include that the CWGC establish a consultative committee including experts and historians, community engagement and education and worldwide digital rather than only physical commemoration. Finally, the inscription of recovered names on existing memorials, the adoption of memorials not raised by the CWGC and the creation of new memorials or commemorative structures was recommended.