/ 21 July 2023

War memorials, a cautionary memory bank for peace

Memorial (1)
Memory: South African Native Labour Corps members who died when the SS Mendi sank, have been remembered, and 381 people, most of them from the corps, are buried in the military cemetery in Arques-la-Bataille, France. But the names and stories of other South Africans and those of hundreds of thousands from Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Malawi have been forgotten. Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images

War continues to dominate headlines as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its 20th month in July. The conflict has seen more than 354 000 casualties from both sides, with grave economic and social consequences to human welfare. Set against this context and considering worldwide conflicts of the past, one reporter from The Standard asked the question: if war has brought untold suffering to humankind and its impact keeps on reshaping the modern world, is memorialising war part of the means we have to prevent future ones? 

Societies can learn and heal from the past, and this past awareness builds a more inclusive future. With the World Wars being global in scale and effect, the breadth of these stories has played a role in reconciling and understanding complex histories — and there is much to be said for paying respectful and visual tributes through memorialisation, which serves as a warning for us all to count the costs before choosing voluntary destruction. 

As we reflect on how history has been preserved for future generations, particularly through educational systems, it becomes evident there is a significant task at hand to define and narrate the complete stories of the brave individuals who gave their lives in military service.

Uncovering the past has revealed inequality and disparity in treatment, and gaps in inclusive commemoration are apparent. As recently as two years ago, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission undertook work to better understand the role and contribution of personnel from countries across Africa and India during World War I (1914-1918) who had been overlooked — from Kenya to Tanzania to India and Egypt. 

Today these contexts are being carefully and meticulously reconsidered and a new memorial in Cape Town is one of the first carefully co-created architectural responses. 

Many people are surprised to discover that thousands of black South Africans were recruited for non-combatant military service in South Africa — travelling by land, foot and sea around the continent. These servicemen were brought into the Great War through labour units that included the Cape Coloured Labour Regiment, Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport, Military Labour Bureau and the South African Military Labour Corps. 

But, unlike South Africa’s Native Labour Corps, whose connection to the SS Mendi is well known and commemorated, the significant contributions of these units were all too often overlooked and left behind. 

As part of this journey, what must be acknowledged is that World War  I across Africa was not a wholly European story. 

While the fighting forces of the British Empire during the East African campaign alone exceeded 150 000 men, more than one million personnel from countries including present-day Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Malawi and South Africa served in supporting roles in the same operations. These forces quite literally carried the burden of battle, yet their contribution has been untold in chapters of the world’s history books. 

Consider that in the early part of the war, 35  000 black South Africans provided labour services to forces in German South-West Africa (now Namibia), fulfilling a wide range of auxiliary roles including stevedores, wagon drivers, railway builders and repairers. 

In German East Africa (now Tanzania), thousands of men worked in any number of jobs, ranging from arms-porters and labourers to ox-drivers. People did gruelling work in harsh conditions. They cleared scrub, built roads, and constructed buildings as well as game-changing defensive positions. 

These servicemen made an essential contribution to the war effort by feeding and supplying the front lines and keeping armies in the field. Not only did black people serve on the African continent in greater numbers than Europeans, they also died in greater numbers. 

Although the official death toll for British Imperial troops fighting in East Africa was more than 11  000, it is widely accepted that no fewer than 100  000 African carriers or labourers died during the same operations. 

It would not be too wide off the mark to assume that in this campaign for every one soldier lost on operations, 10 carriers lost their lives. 

Sharing the stories of South African servicemen is part of the process of memory and commemoration. It is in understanding our shared history — even when painful — that we can learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past. 

Archive research can open minds to the possibility of what might have been by evidencing powerful, deeply human experiences: enlisted as boat men and employed by the South African railways and harbours department at The Point in Durban, Dolly Jenniker and Zulu Madhliwa drowned on 23 January 1915 while working for the South African defence department. 

They had been transporting supplies across a flooding Orange River when the craft they were piloting capsized. Dolly never returned to his wife, Molly Jenniker, and Zulu’s father, Ngobongwana, received his son’s unpaid wages of £3 but never saw him again. 

Later this year, the names of South African military personnel such as Dolly and Zulu will be permanently etched on dedicated commemorative markers, along with more than 1 700 of their comrades. Their historical contribution will be shared through the creation of a new memorial. 

With construction to commence this year for an unveiling in 2024, the Cape Town Labour Corps Memorial is an initiative to honour more black South Africans who served in the military labour units across Africa during World War I, and perished between 3 August 1914 and 14 August 1921, with no known grave. 

May their stories form part of a new memory bank that motivates for peace. May they each be remembered by us all. 

Claire Horton CBE is the director general at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.