Monday 1 January 2018

African Soldiers in WW1: A Journey of Research, and Remembering

Guest post byYewande Okuleye, first published on Operation Black Vote and reproduced with permission.

Did you know the first shot of WW1 was fired by the British, in West Africa? Well, I must share a secret with you. I did not know this fact also.
My role as curator for the exhibition – Back from the Western Front: African Soldiers of the Great War in Britain required it was imperative to become somewhat of an expert, on all matters concerning African soldiers in WW1. The first thing I learnt was Regiment Sergeant – Major Grunshi, who served with the Gold Coast Regiment (former British colony and modern-day Ghana), fired the first shot, when the British attacked the German colony of Togoland in 1914. 
My identity as a British/Nigerian female curator of an exhibition about African soldiers was quite significant on two levels. Firstly, this was my first paid job within the museum sector. Although I had volunteered for about 15 years in different museum settings; archives, education and exhibition planning, securing paid employment was something of a holy grail. I was at the point of giving up, when I received an email from a colleague with a link that simply said “Yewande, this job has your name written on it”. Secondly, I brought a unique perspective, informed by my lived experiences and insights about African culture to the project. For example, my ability to speak Yoruba, and my local knowledge of South West, Nigeria provided a different lens to interpret archival primary sources. In this instance, the surnames of soldiers recruited in South West, Nigeria seemed to ‘leap off the page’ demanding my attention. It was obvious to me, that soldier’s surnames had been replaced with names of towns and villages. As it transpired, this was a common British colonial recruitment practice. 
My curatorial remit was designed to facilitate community volunteers to access, interpret primary sources, and co-curate the exhibition. Therefore, I played an important role in shaping the ideas which informed the exhibition. This blog post unravels how an exhibition which sought to highlight a ‘forgotten history’, became a journey of discovery for all of us. Our main aim for the exhibition was to research, remember and commemorate African soldiers who contributed to WW1, however we soon started to ask a pertinent question. 

Why was this history forgotten in the first place? My simple answer was history is not about recording all the facts. Historians are selective in constructing narratives about people and events. Historiography is biased, and the African narrative was a mere foot note in the script about WW1. My main motivation for this exhibition was to foreground aspects of the foot note. This was achieved by facilitating volunteers to question their assumptions, and fine tune their evidence gathering, and interpretations, to create a narrative which brought the voices of the people to the fore. For example, we wanted to share the story of Regimental Sergeant Major Belo Akure, a Nigerian soldier who was awarded a distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for bravery in South Nigeria and a Military Medal award for bravery in German East Africa. Regimental Sergeant Belo Akure represented the intersection of the local, global, and colonial as a Nigerian representative at the Empire exhibition at Wembley in 1924.  

Regimental Sergeant Belo Akure Outside the African Wall City Empire Exhibition Wembley 1924, 
Curtesy Brent Archives

As our research progressed, it become increasingly difficult to ignore the nuances and complexities thrown up within this enquiry. This narrative was not just about heroic African soldiers awarded medals for fighting against each other, to advance British and German interests. This narrative was also about the vast number of non- combatants who built roads, bridges, worked in quarries, transported weapons, and supplies. The non-combatants did the heavy lifting at the Western Front and the African war fronts in Togoland, (Togo) Kameroun, (Cameroun) German East Africa, and German South West Africa. This narrative was also about the absence of women from the story. We did not have the evidence of embroidered silk postcards sent from the Western Front to their loved ones. (1) 
In this exhibition, we selected a photograph of women digging roads in the Tanganyika district of British East Africa (modern Tanzania). This image really brought the reality of war home to me. I was really disturbed to discover women, and children were ‘recruited’ to build roads. The notion of recruitment under these war conditions is not very clear, as some accounts suggest recruitment was predominantly forced labour. In this case, the account, and contributions of less important people, like women and children might never be recovered. The metaphor of the fleeting presence of this history is reproduced by the blurred spectral figures we can just about make out in the extreme wide shot of the photograph.
I was very pleased when midway into the project, I was working with volunteers who were curious, committed, and passionate about creating an exhibition which not only highlighted the foot notes from history, but also foregrounded narratives which people might just care about. We cared, when we discovered over 646 men of the South African Native Labour 

Corps (SANLC) died when the SS Mendi sank in the English Channel on the 21st, February 1917. Although the sinking of the SS Mendi might have fallen into historical obscurity in the West, memories were kept alive through oral narratives which became embedded within the black South African collective memory. The SS Mendi also raised questions about how history is written, and why some events are forgotten. Dr Shawn Sobers film, African Kinship series  both articulated our questions and offered a fresh inflection of (re) presentations of remembrance and commemoration of the black South African non-combatants, who died in the SS Mendi maritime disaster.   

Still from African Kinship Series film by Dr Shawn Sobers

Back from the Western Front: African Soldiers of the Great War in Britain does not attempt to cover the whole story, it provides a space for the audience to absorb and reflect on different facets of the human experience of war. Themes of war were highlighted through a case study approach which provided vignettes from different parts of Africa. This was an attempt to lead the conversation away from the prevalent Eurocentric discourse which represents Africa as a homogenised, social, and cultural space which obscures contours of diversity, complexities, and historical specificity.  Although, the exhibition might increase awareness about the contribution of African soldiers, the impact of WW1 on the continent of Africa still requires inclusion in the wider narrative about the Great War.

Back from the Western Front: African Soldiers of the Great War in Britain is a photographic exhibition, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The exhibition is showing at the Willesden Library till the January 8th, 2018.

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[1] Fergus. Read, “Embroidered Silk Postcard,” Imperial War Museums, accessed  July 27, 2017, The embroidered postcards were very popular with British soldiers fighting at the Western Front, who often sent them home as souvenirs.

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