The Great War was not all quiet on the home front
If a vignette provides one way of reflecting on World War 1, here is a random sample of microcosmic histories.
A first is the war as a hazy curiosity. Based at an isolated, dozy peasant village deep in the far west of Northern Rhodesia, a British missionary reported on an encounter with several visiting strangers late in 1916. They asked him to confirm a rumour they had heard about the existence of a "faraway" and "cruel" war apparently being fought in Europe. If so, as devout Christians, they wished to pray for all of its unknown dead souls.
The second is an informed awareness of the war, of sitting it out, and of hedging bets on the probable outcome. In 1915 in the Transkeian Territories of the Union of South Africa, Chief Mhlolo Mvuso Matanzima Mtirara named a new-born son Kaiser. But this Xhosa chief was also one for minding his back. A second son, born in 1918, was called George.
Thirdly, there is the war as an imaginative arena for disaffected minds, a magnet for vengeful wish-fulfilment. Britain's territories contained black mineworkers, agricultural labourers, industrial operatives, house servants and downtrodden others who were not necessarily taken in by the rhetoric of rights and liberties that featured so prominently in war propaganda. Having learned by experience to associate English owners and English masters with poor pay and bossy working conditions, some were rather inclined to back the enemy horse.
In places, news of early German advances were met with cheers from miners underground, while an upset Southern Rhodesian journalist reported that talk of the fall of Paris had got servants clapping, dancing, and "virtually gloating over our misfortune".
Fourth, there is the war as the spasmodic, frenzied demonising of those turned by it into enemy suspects.
Despite his faded German birth,mining magnate Ernest Oppenheimer at first lived untroubled, even continuing as the town mayor. His luck ran out with the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. When the news reached the union, it triggered violent anti-German protests in loyalist urban areas. Hoping to duck these, Oppen-heimer promptly resigned as the mayor of Kimberley. A hostile mob made for the family house in Belgravia, Kimberley, and Oppenheimer himself was stoned in his car and injured by flying glass. Managing to get his wife and children out and packed off to Cape Town, Oppenheimer found refuge in a Catholic convent. He was smuggled out of Kimberley and retreated to London.
Fifth, there is the war of live and let live, experienced by those who were bemused by the war, did not consider it to be their affair, even less their cause, and who shrugged off its imposed divisions and animosities.
Around Cape Town, as Germans were being rounded up as enemy aliens and shunted off to detention camps, another line was being drawn. White English-speaking midwives refused to provide services to the pregnant wives of tiny communities of German farmers. As patriots, they had no desire, one wrote, to "assist in the breeding of unwanted Prussians". But there were others who were swift to step into the breach.
Casual, self-trained amateur midwives, almost all Afrikaners or Afrikaans-speaking coloured women, bustled forward. A war may have been going on, a former unregistered midwife recalled many decades later, "but we weren't fighting these German people, and, anyway, German money was the same as anybody else's money".
Sixth, and the last of these individual, local snapshots of wartime experience, is a sense of the war as a rich theatre of wily African inventiveness and fabrication. Some with an eye to the main chance were able to subvert colonial assumptions. In Nyasaland, for instance, British military recruitment had an established ethnic preference for the Yao, elevated in Central Africa as soldiering material of the finest martial spirit. When war broke, volunteers for the King's African Rifles simply invented that identity for themselves, presenting their bodies of famed yet fake Yao masculinity to be measured up for khaki. Indeed, that was no more than the half of it. In pre-war years, some of the Yao of Nyasaland themselves, and footloose men from Northern Rhodesia, had been switching back and forth between bouts of garrison service in the King's African Rifles and in German East African askari units.
Dealing with it involved unusual contortions. It was not unknown for British officers training and drilling recruits to resort to German parade ground address.
- This is an extract from a lecture 'Sometimes somnolent, sometimes seething: British Imperial Africa and its Home Fronts'. Nasson's book 'World War 1 and the People of South Africa' (Tafelberg) is due out in November