It was certainly a widespread expectation in 1919, and remains a common view, that the impact of the First World War would, and did, reach right down to the farms and villages of rural America.Footnote 2 Indeed, a similar impression applies to a variety of rural outposts throughout the world, even among the rural peoples in relatively isolated parts of Africa.Footnote 3 The global conflict directly involved more people than any war before and, along with the worldwide influenza pandemic which followed in its wake, swept up more communities and touched the lives of a greater number of individuals than any previous event in world history. Such assertions, however, frequently offer little help in understanding the similarities – or indeed the differences – in the experiences of diverse peoples caught up in the shared ordeal of that war and its aftermath. Finding commonalities in the wartime experiences of rural peoples worldwide, despite the uniqueness of their communities and cultures, as well as the particularities of their encounters with the horrors that were the First World War, requires more than a side-by-side reading of general histories or even efforts at side-by-side narrative juxtaposition. A much more fruitful approach would be to seek direct, point-by-point comparisons of smaller groups of people whose experiences may be typical of others. On the surface, such global microhistory comparison might appear to be elevating the trivial to an unjustified level of importance. Yet the world historian Diego Olstein has pointedly argued that the First World War offers ‘a meaningful global context for the study of the local’, suggesting that the conflict is indeed an ideal framework for a comparative global microhistorical study.Footnote 4
Inspired in part by the recent discussions regarding centennial celebrations of the 1918 armistice,Footnote 5 this study attempts to seize on that context and make such comparisons by looking at how the First World War was experienced and perceived in two extremely different locations and by the groups of individuals who lived in each: Africans in the small British Protectorate of Nyasaland in south central Africa; and southern Americans of the Jackson Purchase region of far western Kentucky. Indeed, as the Africanist historian Michelle Moyd recently argued, ‘if we want to understand the war as global, we must demonstrate the extent to which ordinary people living in diverse locations shared certain experiences even as operational and political patterns diverged during the war years and their immediate aftermath’. Moreover, she continued, ‘Africa has to be a part of that project if it is to be at all meaningful.’Footnote 6
At the core of this present analysis are two separate research projects, both collections of interviews with survivors of the war period, most recorded in the 1970s and 1980s. Each is a source of ‘telling examples’, which taken together open ‘a useful evidentiary paradigm’ for comparative analysis.Footnote 7 At first glance, these two regions may seem far removed from the main concerns of the war; indeed, that is one factor making the people of these two areas at least potentially ideal candidates for such scrutiny. In addition, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, neither had been as affected by the encroaching demands of an increasingly integrated world as had many of their contemporaries in the United States or even the colonial outposts of southern Africa. But surely comparisons must be extraordinarily strained, if not impossible, for two such divergent places with vastly different cultures and outlooks! A closer examination and careful analysis, however, may dispel this concern. Though nearly on opposite sides of the world, there are some broad, general similarities in both the geography and economy of the two regions.Footnote 8 And within the apparent differences between them, some ‘functional similarities’ in the operation of their sociopolitical systems may be found which are also of value in the application of a comparative historical approach.Footnote 9
The first obvious similarity is that these two relatively small and compact areas were dominated – geographically and to a lesser extent economically – by their links to critically important bodies of water. Nestled alongside Lake Nyasa and astride the Shire river, which flows south from it, Nyasaland was tied not only to the East African interlacustrine zone, but also to the extensive network of the Zambezi river and its tributaries. That historic tie was intensified with the effects of British imperialism in the late nineteenth century, as virtually all communication with the outside world depended on the Shire/Zambezi route. Similarly, the Jackson Purchase was bounded on all but the south by three of the great rivers of mid America – the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee – with another, the Cumberland, a scant 20 miles to the west. From the time of American westward expansion, these rivers similarly dominated the communication links of their region.
As well watered as these two regions were, they both remain overwhelmingly agricultural, even today. During the early years of the twentieth century, one of the main crops was essentially the same: maize in Nyasaland, corn in the Jackson Purchase. But both also had a considerable cash crop base, with tea the chief export for Nyasaland, followed by coffee and tobacco. In the Jackson Purchase, tobacco was easily the most important cash crop, although it was grown by small, independent farmers rather than the large colonial estates which were the mainstays of Nyasaland’s export agriculture. And in both cases, the value of those crops was greatly influenced by links downriver to wider markets, a fact not lost on the peoples of either region.
Perhaps most striking of the similarities, however, was the relative isolation of both. Despite the readily available river and lake routes to the outside, the peoples in each only reluctantly joined in the cultural and political life of the wider world. The African peoples of Nyasaland were constrained by the British declaration of a Protectorate over their lands in 1891, and even those British colonials who had made the Union of South Africa their home found Nyasaland far from the beaten track. Indeed, the Protectorate was such a backwater of empire that it came to be seen as an ‘imperial slum’.Footnote 10 Of course, none among its African population saw themselves in such terms, yet from early days the small number of European settlers – with a nod to their imperial isolation – referred to Nyasaland as the ‘Cinderella amongst the Protectorates’.Footnote 11 Almost equally isolated from the centres of power where decisions were made regarding its future, the Jackson Purchase was, not least physically, more removed from the cultural heart of Kentucky and its politics than the renowned and also isolated eastern Appalachian communities of the Commonwealth.Footnote 12 Only formally becoming United States territory – and thus officially part of Kentucky – upon ratification of the Treaty of Tuscaloosa with the Chickasaw people in 1819, the Purchase region was home to considerable Confederate sympathies during the American Civil War. Subsequently it was widely considered to be ‘the most “southern” part of the Bluegrass State’.Footnote 13
These historical similarities suggest that both areas were rural and removed, each a distant outpost far from the centres of events which dominated the First World War. Yet being so removed they are thus ideal subjects for attempting to understand whether there were similarities in the impact of that global conflict on peoples worldwide. To accomplish this, though, requires a focus on the functional similarities within the two regions; in this way, what may appear to be differences can be seen as having the same practical application in both areas. For example, the awareness of both populations about the war and the availability of news concerning the conflict might at first appear to provide evidence of marked differences. In Nyasaland, despite an early attack on the Protectorate’s northern frontier launched from German East Africa, there really was little basis to expect news of the war to spread widely. Literacy was low and newspapers not widely available; other sources of news were very limited. In contrast, the Jackson Purchase, despite its isolation, had a number of news outlets and several newspapers which were widely circulated. Throughout the area people were generally aware of the war, especially by the time of direct United States involvement.
Perhaps surprisingly, there actually was a similar awareness throughout Nyasaland. It was ‘difficult not to know there is war somewhere’, one veteran later insisted, adding that ‘even the children heard about it’.Footnote 14 Despite the obvious differences, such as the lack of newer communication technologies, the justly famous ‘bush telegraph’ and the associated ‘village or community “talking-place” … [found] in every part of native Africa’ functioned as purveyors of current information almost as effectively as any newspaper or the post office did in rural America during the early twentieth century.Footnote 15 Thus, by relying on well-documented oral historical evidence and using it to make functional comparisons, the literal truth of the assertion that the First World War (or at least news of it) spread to the farthest reaches of the globe can be confirmed. Similarly, an emphasis on several other functional comparisons is useful in discovering what similarities the war’s impact may have had on these distant, diverse regions as they were drawn into what began as a European war.
Evidence and analysis
In both regions, the role of spiritual and political leaders in attempting to shape opinions about the news of war proved to be somewhat similar. In Nyasaland an American Baptist-trained pastor, John Chilembwe – whose Providence Industrial Mission at Chiradzulu had become a focal point of millennial expectations – preached publicly against the war. A letter he penned to the European editor of the Nyasaland Times newspaper in November or December 1914 – but which was suppressed and never published, under orders from the government censor – explained the basis of his preaching:
We have been invited to shed our blood in this world’s war. … If it were a war … for honour … let the rich men, bankers, titled men, storekeepers, farmers and landlords go to war and get shot. Instead the poor Africans who have nothing to own in this present world … are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs.Footnote 16
Stridently anti-colonial, Chilembwe’s opposition only grew as demands for African manpower increased, especially for labourers as well as soldiers. He sent one of his followers, Yotam Bango, to German East Africa with a letter appealing for assistance in an uprising against British rule. German authorities crafted a noncommittal reply, and, though he never received it, Chilembwe forged ahead with his plans to resist, organizing his followers for a violent rebellion.Footnote 17 Chilembwe and his ‘army’ killed three Europeans in January 1915 before a hastily organized response scattered the rebels, with European members of the Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve and a few King’s African Rifles askari (soldiers) chasing Chilembwe himself into neighbouring Mozambique, where he was killed.Footnote 18
It was another Baptist preacher – H. Boyce Taylor, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Murray, Kentucky – who spoke and wrote openly against the war, causing much consternation in at least some Jackson Purchase circles. He was known as ‘an outspoken pacifist, on public record against all war’ and virulently opposed to the new conflict.Footnote 19 Writing in 1917, Taylor used his nationally circulated News & Truths newsletter to denounce religious appeals encouraging military service, especially what he saw as the US government’s attempts ‘to speak for God or put the call of country above the commands of God. … War is anarchy against international law as truly as mob violence is anarchy against state law.’Footnote 20 Taylor’s reading of scripture – focusing on the ‘render unto Caesar’ injunction in the book of Matthew – led to at least one fiery sermon which aroused suspicions that he was ‘very pro-German’ as well as ‘anti-conscription’. Denounced as such to federal and state authorities, the pastor became the subject of two serious criminal investigations, though never charged with any specific offences during the war. However, his refusal to shutter his church during the ensuing influenza pandemic did lead to his being jailed for a brief period, though he was scarcely deterred by such an inconvenience.Footnote 21 The preacher ‘held church services through a barred window’ from his ‘dingy front cell’ with a ‘handful of faithful’ parishioners ‘kneeling in prayer’ outside the Calloway County Jail.Footnote 22
The first news of the conflict brought political reactions in both regions as well. For the newly elected Jackson Purchase Congressman Alben Barkley it actually meant supporting President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on American neutrality after the start of hostilities in Europe. His greater concern, as it was throughout his first congressional term, was to protect western Kentucky farmers from British, and then German, embargoes on cotton and, most importantly, tobacco exports. After his first re-election – and following increased German military provocations in early 1917 – Barkley shifted his position, supporting President Wilson’s call for a declaration of war, as well as wholeheartedly endorsing conscription, chiding some reluctant fellow Congressmen, saying bluntly ‘every soldier must follow his commander in chief’.Footnote 23
In northern Nyasaland, another prominent political leader, Ngoni Paramount Chief Chimtunga Jere, responded somewhat differently. Thinking that his people would believe he was joining with British colonizers – who only a decade before had enforced colonial rule upon them – Chimtunga simply ignored requests to supply men for the war effort. His further defiance reaffirmed long-held colonial distrust of Ngoni power and quickly resulted in his banishment to the southernmost reaches of the Protectorate, prompting reactions from his Ngoni people.Footnote 24 An ngoma dance song (a form of expression relatively safe from British disapprobation) first performed after his removal expressed well the disaffection:
Ironically, in becoming such a widely praised public symbol, Chimtunga Jere inspired not so much continued resistance, but a greater willingness among his people to join the ranks of soldiers and military labourers, hoping that their chief would soon be returned to live among them again.Footnote 26
Coming on the heels of John Chilembwe’s full scale rebellion, the Ngoni chief’s non-cooperation incentivized a marked reluctance on the part of the British to call upon Nyasaland’s African population for increased military manpower, even to defend the Protectorate’s northern frontier with German East Africa. Instead, white troops from South Africa were rushed to Nyasaland, and into 1916 their numbers actually exceeded the total number of locally recruited African askari on the border. It was only after May 1917 that ‘the campaign was dependent almost entirely on the endeavours of African soldiers’.Footnote 27 In strikingly parallel fashion, it was only ‘after the United States entered the Great War in April 1917’ that most residents of the Jackson Purchase, like their fellow ‘Kentuckians banded together in enormous efforts to support’ a wide variety of wartime undertakings, including ‘registering for the draft’.Footnote 28 But, in an uncanny analogue, those demands from the US government also sparked a protest reaction to recruitment in the Jackson Purchase, though nothing even approaching the violence set off by John Chilembwe.
None of these attempts to rally dissent, though well known locally, directly deterred Americans or Africans from participating in the military effort. It is possible, though, that an indirect effect of anti-war preaching filtered through to some men in both regions, who remained decidedly uncertain about the act of killing which war required. Ruben Longwe, a Nyasaland veteran from Nkhata Bay on the lakeshore – a short boat ride from the influential Universities Mission to Central Africa outpost on Likoma Island – rejected the whole idea. Likely influenced by Christian teaching, he remained convinced that killing ‘was in the power of the devil himself; there was no sorrow, no mercy in killing’,Footnote 29 while in the Jackson Purchase, H. T. Waldrop reluctantly accepted the need for his participation, remembering that ‘we didn’t want Germany to take over’. But the Murray native may also have been aware of Boyce Taylor’s pacifist pronouncements, since he was hesitant about ‘going to the front line because I was – actually, I wasn’t wantin’ to kill anybody’.Footnote 30
In fact the men of Nyasaland and the Jackson Purchase alike were often ready, if not altogether willing, to join the army. ‘The disinclination of southern white men to fight’ may actually have been less pronounced in the Jackson Purchase.Footnote 31 Overall, ‘anti-war sentiment in Kentucky paled in comparison with other states’, with fewer such concerns in its far western counties.Footnote 32 Yet in Calloway County, once the wartime Selective Service Act was signed by the President, ‘the rush for matrimony set a fast pace’, with draft-age men seeking ‘a shelter from active military service in most instances’.Footnote 33 Nonetheless, most western Kentucky men registered for the draft and reported for duty in the US army. In Nyasaland, many African political leaders – prompted to do so by colonial officials – cajoled young men to join the King’s Africa Rifles (KAR). Typical of their efforts was this praise song lyric from the period:
Such appeals had limited effect, however, as even some who later did enlist initially ‘lost confidence in the chief … [who] would make us die in the war’.Footnote 35
Realizing such difficulties, Nyasaland military authorities became more proactive, famously sending the KAR marching band into many nooks and crannies of the Protectorate, encouraging young men to fall in line, leading them to waiting recruiters who would sign them up for war duty. The result, acknowledged widely and explained by James Mbalazo, was that ‘the band was parading tricks to coax young men to join them’.Footnote 36 And since ‘the band’s marching was really thrilling, it was irresistible for brave young men to join the army’.Footnote 37 Disgusted missionaries of different denominations occasionally condemned the ‘drums and trumpets’ as diverting disinclined men into military service.Footnote 38 With a sense of regret, Issa Lipende recalled ‘the beauty of the parading band would blind us to the real issues of war’.Footnote 39 In an ironic juxtaposition, Americans who volunteered rather than await being drafted, were sometimes similarly disappointed, as a nationally ‘popular’ poem revealed their ‘mixed emotions’:
But what prompted men – both in the Jackson Purchase and in Nyasaland – to volunteer? While their motives seem divergent, such as those Ngoni who hoped that their service might hasten the return home of their exiled chief Chimtunga, a functional analysis shows that many more in both regions were perhaps inspired by appeals to some of their greatest fears. In the Jackson Purchase, for example, most ‘understood that the Germans was rapin’ all the French women’. Ellwyn Coffman believed that this was ‘general news, how terrible the Germans were’, no doubt carefully spread through the news media ‘to get the Americans riled up’. The effort certainly worked, especially with men who had grown up in the racially charged culture of the post-Civil War American South. Propaganda playing upon the spectre of women violated by outsiders motivated many, like Coffman, who ‘wanted to go over and put a stop to it’.Footnote 41 For Nyasalanders the fear was just as palpable, if focused somewhat differently: a long-held belief that Europeans, and especially the ‘cannibal Germans’, harboured a special taste for Africans. ‘This is what the Germans were talking about in Europe’, a Nyasaland village headman, Makumba, asserted, no doubt remembering the fears of foreign slave traders who, only a generation before, had inspired similar accusations of cannibalism as they sought to remove Africans from their homes to distant markets for sale. The news of this latest cannibalism ascribed to German colonizers was no doubt carefully planted, for it ‘reached us through the British’, the same headman recalled, prompting him and other African leaders to aid in British wartime recruitment; ‘naturally we helped them because we didn’t want to die’.Footnote 42
Nonetheless a strong undercurrent of reluctance remained for men of both regions. In Nyasaland it was frequently expressed directly, undoubtedly encouraged by an existing and growing hostility to both colonial labour policies and land alienation. People feared that the ‘war would bring about sad things’, especially the prospect of general ‘desolation [and the] break up of families’.Footnote 43 It was no wonder, then, that young men ‘fled when the [British] recruiting parties came in the respective villages’,Footnote 44 sometimes hiding in nearby hillside caves or sacred graveyards, or digging holes in the ground as hiding places.Footnote 45 Near Nkhota Kota, Vmande Kaombe was so desperate to avoid the recruiters that he ‘escaped and hid in a river and my parents … secretly brought food to me’. Yet when his parents were interrogated by colonial officials, they ‘said they did not know what had become of me. They even accused the whites for my disappearance!’Footnote 46 Though he avoided service, Kaombe’s strategy was seldom replicated, leading others to flee across international frontiers, especially into the neighbouring Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
The hesitation of men in the Jackson Purchase was perhaps more muted, although the Fulton County agricultural extension agent Morris Gordon reported in late 1917 hearing complaints about ‘the unpatriotic farmer’ – opposed to war – in discussions with businessmen and bankers.Footnote 47 When questioned, some drafted veterans admitted their reticence. ‘No, I didn’t volunteer’, Carl Hainline insisted; ‘Anxious to go? Heck no!’Footnote 48 The reasons that Kentuckians offered for wanting to escape wartime military service were strikingly similar, with family concerns topping the list. ‘I didn’t want to leave my daddy by himself. That’s how I come to be drafted in’, Carl Milam remembered, emphasizing that he ‘didn’t want to go’.Footnote 49 Others relied on religious objections to ‘protest against registering for the draft because they were conscientious objectors’, as was the case for some acquaintances of Jesse Flowers.Footnote 50 However, nothing in the Selective Service Act of 1917 exempted men from registering with local draft boards, who were left to determine those deserving of ‘status as a conscientious objector. Obtaining such status did not, however, exempt men from the draft.’ Rather, on conscription they were assigned to military units ‘where their officers were supposed to find some sort of non-combatant work for them to do’.Footnote 51
Perhaps because such a system was open to abuse, nationally there ‘were not very many conscientious objectors’ in the United States.Footnote 52 Yet the prevailing sociopolitical climate in the Jackson Purchase seems to have encouraged such pacifist tendencies, in some extreme cases leading men to flee the country, not unlike a few of their central African counterparts. Noble Cox recalled one young man he knew in the farming community of Kirksey in Calloway County who, rather than registering, left home, heading south of the border.
One boy, he was in to be drafted and he went off and he went to Mexico and he stayed down there and he never did come back. … [His parents] didn’t want him to go [to Mexico], but they didn’t want him to go to war either. … They didn’t believe to send anybody to war. They wasn’t Quakers; they’re just ordinary people.Footnote 53
Despite such occasional desperate attempts to avoid service, great numbers of the ‘ordinary’ men in both regions did join the colours of either the King’s African Rifles and its associated labour contingents or the American Expeditionary Force and its many support units.
Though by no means all the Americans actually made it ‘over there’, those who did frequently found that ‘the people treated us royally everywhere in France’. A Calloway County native, Felix Holt – who served as a reporter for the American forces newspaper Stars & Stripes – wrote that ‘the French kids are very generous with their time … teaching us the lingo. Also the young damsels do their share and I must say there are some swell lookers’ among them.Footnote 54 Extremely few Nyasas shared such experiences, as almost all of them served in the East African Campaign. A very small number who had travelled to South Africa before 1916 enlisted in the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) for duty in Europe. The missionary Donald Fraser, on the way to Nyasaland shortly after the war, met one Nyasa SANLC veteran in Cape Town, writing that the man had received ‘an intensive education … in Flanders’.Footnote 55 And at least one young Nyasa, Frederick Njilima, actually served in the British army despite a laxly enforced policy of discouraging black recruits. Claiming that his home before moving to London was in Mississippi – where in fact he studied for a time – and enlisting under his adopted Christian name, Frederick N. Gresham, he served three years, most of it in a Machine Gun Corps regiment. ‘Struck by war-fever, I decided to join the White war’, he wrote; ‘I also did so because I am a brave man and for fun.’ Severely wounded in action on the Soissons–Rheims front in May 1918, his actual bravery under fire resulted in his receiving the Military Medal before being discharged and returning to Nyasaland.Footnote 56
Although in decidedly different ways, matters of race played outsized roles for Americans – both white and black – and even for Africans who coped with fighting both for and against Europeans for the first time. As a young African American assigned to a mostly black infantry unit, Andrew Carmen found the atmosphere in France refreshing, a far cry from the stifling racism he had grown up with in the Jackson Purchase.Footnote 57 Being personally familiar with ‘segregation and prejudice’, which he had experienced even in the army, he recalled ‘I didn’t see any of that’ among the French.Footnote 58 But the same feature of French life struck Ellwyn Coffman – albeit a white Kentuckian from Fulton – very differently:
The first thing I saw when I got over there was a nigger [sic] about 7 foot tall walking along with one of the prettiest French girls you ever saw and I wished then I was back in Fulton, Kentucky.
I met a lot of French people, farmers and country people, their morals was low … they didn’t mind mixing races at all. They didn’t mind the colored and whites mixing.Footnote 59
As had been true before the war, the racial attitudes that some of the Kentuckians encountered in France were certainly far from the norm in western Kentucky. Despite being lauded in his hometown Hickman Courier after winning a bronze star for valour ‘under heavy shell fire’ at the front near Pont-à-Mousson, Rufus Atwood was awaiting discharge in February 1919 when his father advised him in a letter to ‘take your bonus money and buy an ordinary suit and wear it home. That way you won’t have no trouble.’ The elder Atwood was likely recalling an 1866 incident in Hickman County when railroad employees assaulted a uniformed Union soldier aboard a train, leaving the man all but dead while also nearly fomenting a riot. Arriving home in Fulton County without incident, his uniform safely packed in his bag, Rufus Atwood soon learned why he was wise to have heeded his father’s advice.Footnote 60
Only a month after the armistice, Fulton County was the site of the first lynching in the United States of a black soldier returned from the war. Private Charles Lucas, after receiving his demobilization orders on 14 December in Camp Sherman, Ohio, boarded a southbound train expecting to be reunited soon with his family in Alabama. During a stop in Fulton, Kentucky local police came aboard the train and made their way to the compartment where a number of uniformed soldiers were riding. As an honourably discharged veteran, Lucas objected to an order he empty his pockets and open his bags for inspection. Confronted with a belligerent police order – ‘Shut up nigger [sic], and open your baggage’ – he bolted from the train. Despite finding no contraband in his abandoned luggage, police followed and subsequently arrested him, ultimately taking him to the county jail in Hickman. All this activity aroused a mob, who proceeded to drag him from the jail, kicking and fighting, to a grove outside the town. There Private Lucas was brutally lynched while still in uniform. Although lynchings had been all too common there since Reconstruction, this incident marked the Jackson Purchase as the site of the first of many such acts of racial violence which scarred the nation following President Wilson’s war to ‘make the world safe for democracy’.Footnote 61
The symbol of wartime violence in Nyasaland – the rebellion of John Chilembwe – when coupled with the recruitment resistance of Chimtunga Jere, symptomatically suggests increasing racial tensions during the war. But widespread evidence supports a more nuanced conclusion, that any such conflicts were born more from the legacy of colonial conquest. The coming of war, however, did somewhat change the dynamic of racial relationships. After the 1914 battle of Karonga, the KAR corporal Eleija Kimu confessed in a letter written to his wife:
I may as well tell you that I killed one German [European] myself. … I am afraid because I killed him and I got my head muddled when I think of it. … I am a soldier and delight in war. I have killed many black men and not felt like this, but that one white man I killed has made me afraid.Footnote 62
Though he need not have feared that action itself – KAR officers frequently praised their men for similar conduct in battle – his mere admission of fear was of more concern, as military censors seized his letter. It was never delivered. Indeed the second most senior white colonial official in the Protectorate, Hector L. Duff, even suggested that askari might have started ‘boasting eagerly among themselves of the number of white men who had fallen to their rifles’.Footnote 63 That was not the case, however. In the heat of battle, Europeans were no more important than any other enemies.Footnote 64 In fact, the prevailing impression that Nyasa soldiers formed of European officers, German or British, was that they possessed the same qualities of fortitude and frailty as did their fellow askari.Footnote 65
Whether African or American, once transported to the front the usually reluctant soldiers often encountered the appalling conditions which have widely become associated with the First World War. Struggling to make his experience understandable to civilians afterwards, one of those veterans recalled simply,
Think of lying on the ground when the hot sun is beating directly on your backs; Think of yourself buried in a hole, with only your head and hands outside, holding a gun. Imagine yourself facing this situation for seven days, no food, no water, yet you don’t feel hungry. Only death smelling all over the place. Listen to the sound from exploding bombs and machine guns, smoke all over and the vegetation burnt. … Look at your relative getting killed, crying and finally dead. These things we did, experienced and saw.
Such an image was likely common to many American soldiers fighting in France, but this particular picture, framed by Fololiyani Longwe of his wartime experiences in the East African Campaign, concluded simply: ‘War itself is bad.’Footnote 66 His eloquence is a reminder that men in war – even those engaged in what was then called, and is remembered still, as ‘a sideshow’ fought in the East African savannah and ‘a distraction from … the Western Front in France’Footnote 67 – often found in the horrors of combat some constants which united their experiences with those campaigning in more familiar theatres.
The Jackson Purchase Congressman Alben Barkley – dissuaded from enlisting by President Wilson himself – actually spent ‘enough time in the grungy, vermin-infested trenches to appreciate the grim process of war from the perspective of the common soldier’, during a privately arranged August 1918 congressional fact-finding mission to Europe. Though naturally loquacious, Barkley – like many who experienced the horrors of that war – seldom spoke of those details, simply remarking later ‘you wonder if anyone really wins a war’.Footnote 68 And Andrew Carmen, a farm boy from Graves County, had hardly spent a full day in those same trenches when he caught a glimpse of ‘no man’s land’ which appeared to him a landscape not unlike ‘an old broom sedge field. Nothing was growing. The ground was all tore up.’ He was soon ordered ‘over the top’ with his mates from the 369th Infantry, rushing across that torn-up field in attack; Carmen described the experience years later as ‘like chasing rabbits back home’. He was soon wounded, finally transported to a field hospital, and on volunteering to return found no-one from his former squad still at the front. ‘I never did know what happened to them – if they were killed or wounded or transferred or what.’Footnote 69
Indeed, survival was perhaps the greatest challenge facing all those timorous troops, whether Nyasas or Kentuckians, in the killing fields of the First World War. As a frightened twenty-one-year-old, Fritz Metzger had one overriding memory of his combat experience in France: ‘All I remember is that I was trying to keep alive.’ Few other details of the fighting were etched in his memory. ‘The main thing is trying to keep alive.’Footnote 70 This became much more basic than merely avoiding death in battle; frequently it was purely a matter of finding enough food for survival. As a sailor assigned to a naval air station being built on the Gironde estuary in south-west France, Hughie Butler had a miserable three-day train ride after disembarking in the country: ‘We had some canned tomatoes and a few things to eat’, he recalled, including ‘some good, stringy horse meat, … but we were really hungry. I thought I’d been hungry before, but I hadn’t.’ His was a quiet resignation, however, born of a realization that the local authorities were overwhelmed with ‘so many of us they had no place to put us and they didn’t have supplies for that many people’.Footnote 71 And not even the diligence of many residents of the Purchase in support of the nationwide Food Administration conservation programme seemed actually to have made a difference for some of the troops it was intended to support.Footnote 72
For the Nyasaland askari the situation was all too similar, but the response became more an open declaration, often expressed through their exuberant marching songs in similar, yet frequently variable lyrics:
So pervasive were the food shortages experienced in East Africa by the Nyasaland askari, their campaign became widely known as simply ‘the hungry war’.Footnote 75
Not even the armistice of 1918 brought an end to the peril and suffering that the diffident recruits – American or African – experienced. In significant measure, the pain actually intensified for soldiers from both regions as they were also caught up in the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 sweeping the post-war world. Kazibule Dabi simply could not forget: ‘It got us when we were in the bush; many people were dying’, including some of his friends from Nyasaland.Footnote 76 One of them, Disi Katita, like his comrades, had seen a good deal of disease sweep through their ranks during the war,Footnote 77 but quickly realized that this latest outbreak ‘was a very bad one indeed’. As men died, ‘bodies were just burned in trenches by soldiers’ to prevent the affliction from spreading still further.Footnote 78 Yet the influenza tracked them home, carried by demobilized soldiers through the bush and across the sea.Footnote 79 Ellwyn Coffman was aboard the USS Mount Vernon coming back to the US when the epidemic became a graphic reality, as he watched while many of his comrades ‘died like flies on that boat because of the flu’. Medical officers tried to curtail the outbreak: ‘They would scrub the decks down and these boys would lay down before they would get dry, and I saw one die right out there.’ But he was well aware that many others also succumbed, since ‘they had the whole top of that boat covered up with caskets’.Footnote 80
The influenza soon struck at home in Kentucky, too, with unexpected ferocity. First detected in the crowded confines of Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, the disease ‘spread across Kentucky from east to west’, reaching the Jackson Purchase just in time for massive Liberty Loan promotional parades in all of the small towns, unfortunately attracting some of the largest crowds seen during the war. ‘Within a matter of days, the eight counties of the Jackson Purchase were swept with a tremendous influenza attack’, resulting in reports of several hundred cases throughout the region. ‘Fewer cases of influenza were reported in the countryside’, whereas large concentrations of population were more vulnerable. But ‘perhaps the most disease-ridden community’ in the entire Purchase area was ‘the tiny village of Hazel in southern Calloway County on the Kentucky–Tennessee border. Of its population of less than two hundred inhabitants, over one-hundred and fifty reported ill effects from influenza.’ The best that local and state public health officials were able to do was insist that stores, schools, and even churches remain closed. In their frustration, many western Kentuckians turned to ‘a “rural textbook” for folk medicine: … old family cookbooks, diaries, journals, and even Bibles’, at their wits’ end to find a cure for ‘the dreaded symptoms of influenza and pneumonia’.Footnote 81 Their efforts, too, seemed futile. ‘So many died’, the survivor J. M. Bumgarner of Mayfield recalled; ‘It’s a wonder it didn’t kill me.’Footnote 82 And in Murray, ‘deaths were so numerous it became an impossibility to record their demises’ in the local newspaper.Footnote 83 All told, however, only a little more than 800 in the entire Purchase region perished from the flu and its complications. Yet the total number of cases was considerably higher, perhaps accounting for remembered impressions of the epidemic’s severity.Footnote 84
In Nyasaland – indeed throughout Central Africa – local residents were simply overwhelmed by the seemingly new disease; in some places they ‘called it “bombom” because it hit them like machine-gun fire and took terrific toll’ in lives.Footnote 85 The disease, once ‘brought back to the Protectorate by the people who had been to war’, created – as Diamond Chirwa experienced it – ‘an additional battle to fight’, brought on by ‘the diseases brought back to the Protectorate’.Footnote 86 Despite the best efforts they could muster at the time, colonial medical officials were able to do little to ease the crisis. Some Africans remembered being advised to dissolve ashes from their cooking fires in water, pour the resulting liquid through a cloth, then drink the solute. While such alkali treatments to combat influenza were not unknown elsewhere to European and American physicians, such an approach likely seemed similar, in the minds of many Nyasas, ‘to infusions … prepared to cure colds, coughs, and pneumonia’, and may have appeared as well in the ‘rural textbooks’ consulted by western Kentuckians during the pandemic.Footnote 87
With a far less developed public health infrastructure than even the government-service-neglected Jackson Purchase, the desperation felt by many afflicted Africans was reflected in the symbolic actions of the Nyasaland nationalist Levi Mumba’s father, who also functioned as ‘the family priest’:
One evening he … stood shaking in front of his chief house [to] appeal to his ancestral spirits. … He took a sip of beer … and spued [sic] it to the right and then to the left. … ‘Why have you forsaken us? Here is beer – we give to you. Look on us compassionately, let the sick get better, peace be on us.’
The son later wrote: ‘my father … showed great faith, and his appeal was effective’.Footnote 88 Yet, in general, mortality from the disease was considerably higher in Nyasaland than in the Jackson Purchase – perhaps exceeding 50,000 deaths – leading to widespread public frustration.Footnote 89 One Nkhota Kota resident, Amos Isaac, concluded simply that ‘God was angry from 1918 to 1919.’Footnote 90
The influenza visitation certainly affected victory celebrations in both regions. In Murray, Kentucky, an unintentionally fake national news story announcing the war’s end set off celebrations by ‘the largest throng to ever assemble in the town’, and the resulting ‘salvos, hurrahs, and thundering explosions lasted on into the night’.Footnote 91 When the same false report spread to the more removed Ballard County on 8 November 1918, the county seat of Wickliffe prematurely ‘went wild with celebration’.Footnote 92 After official word of the armistice broke three days later, Mayfield’s Daily Messenger – like many newspapers nationwide – featured a banner headline ‘War ends, country wild with joy’. Even in the most rural reaches of the Jackson Purchase, people ‘could hear the sounds of whistles, fireworks, gunfire and the hoarse shouting’ accompanying a host of spontaneous celebrations.Footnote 93 But the euphoria was short-lived, as a second wave of influenza soon rocked the region. Kentucky’s state historian noted that victory observances ‘were often muted [as] the flu epidemic’s close more accurately reflected the ending of World War I than did the November armistice’.Footnote 94
In Nyasaland, celebrations were also delayed, first because the local German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had to be informed by British officers of the general armistice signed in Europe. Only then could askari at the KAR base camp at Fort Johnston on the southern lakeshore mark the occasion ‘with bugles blowing and rifles, machine guns, Lewis Guns, and Stokes Mortars firing’.Footnote 95 Elsewhere in the Protectorate, victory demonstrations were further delayed for several months, only coming on 16 July 1919, in concert with those planned in the United Kingdom. Recognizing the necessity to symbolically signal the end of hostilities for the African population, government officials ‘just lit fire all over the highest hills in the world!’ as Madi wadi Selmani remembered.Footnote 96 Since fire had long been a positive indicator of transition to many of Nyasaland’s peoples, the well-planned synchronous government bonfires throughout Nyasaland suggested to Mlekano wadi Kalisinje ‘happiness and success on the side of the British’,Footnote 97 though for many others – despite the government’s commemorations – ‘the end of the war was not a complete peace’.Footnote 98
To be sure, evidence of racial enmity remained in both Nyasaland and the Jackson Purchase after the war, but the euphoria of victory did lead to some marked initial softening of positions. Phillip Mitchell – who later became colonial governor of both Uganda and Kenya – as a young colonial official seconded to the KAR and in command of Nyasaland askari, believed that what ‘the war did for many hundreds of Europeans and thousands of Africans was to introduce them to each other, so to speak, in a way and with a completeness hardly to be achieved otherwise’. But, as an ever paternalistic colonialist, he also conceded limitations to any war-induced changes in attitudes: ‘I do not think many of us reached that remarkable unconsciousness of race or colour.’Footnote 99 However, in western Kentucky, the black American veteran Leslie White was pleasantly surprised by the homecoming welcome he received, remembering that ‘nobody bothered you’, despite the legacy of racism to which he returned. ‘Everybody be glad to see ya and shake hands with you … go down[town] every night and have a good time … free of charge for soldier boy.’Footnote 100 His delight, experienced for the most part within the expanding African American community of the Purchase, must have matched that of some returning Nyasaland askari who ‘were treated as if they had risen from the dead’ when they returned to their home villages.Footnote 101
For a few, in both Africa and America, the celebrating sometimes went too far, as former soldiers spent their meagre wages, bonuses, and gratuities recklessly – ‘so we could forget about what had happened at the war’ – leaving little to show for their service and suffering.Footnote 102 Nyasaland veterans squandered money on gifts to attract women, or more often drank away their modest new-found wealth: ‘after spending the money uselessly, then we began to realize how stupid we had been in not thinking of doing something really constructive’.Footnote 103 They were not alone. Too many Jackson Purchase veterans ‘came back from over there with a letdown’, not only having lost their wages while in uniform, but also having ‘lost respect for themselves. They got to be alcoholics … and one thing or another that hurt as bad as anything.’Footnote 104 Even disabled veterans, who had a continuing source of income from small pensions, often spent it freely and frivolously; a youth at the time observing such behaviour, Leon Phillips attributed it to their knowledge that ‘next month they would have more’.Footnote 105 As disturbing as such behaviour was to their homefolks, there were other causes for concern in the conduct of returned veterans in both regions.
Perhaps because they were primarily rural and insular, residents of the Jackson Purchase and Nyasaland generally adhered to what they believed were high moral standards, while – as the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins writes – ‘the war acted like a battering ram’ before any ‘fixed moral code’.Footnote 106 Too often, returning veterans seemed to challenge existing social conventions based on their wartime experiences. Jackson Purchase observers frequently blamed such disturbing actions and attitudes on ‘the morals of the French [who] were so loose … [about] the boundaries of moral conduct’. The problem arose when ‘men brought that notion back here’, and it led to a kind of moral ‘restlessness’ which was disturbing to many in the rural communities of the Purchase.Footnote 107
The Nyasaland equivalent was equally stark, often involving complaints that ‘most of the soldiers contracted diseases … such as syphilis and gonorrhea’ during their war service because ‘we did not have these sort of diseases before the war; all these came after the war’.Footnote 108 Even more striking was an assumption that interracial contact was the culprit, that it was white South African soldiers – referred to locally as majoni – who, while deployed to bases on the lakeshore, infected Nyasa women. Some of the women were naturally curious about those European strangers, although monetary temptations also drew some of them to the comparatively wealthy South African newcomers.Footnote 109 No such specific complaints appear to have been voiced in the Jackson Purchase, perhaps because of unusually extraordinary measures taken by the American military to prevent its First World War soldiers from returning home similarly infected,Footnote 110 even though sometimes ‘black soldiers suffering from venereal disease went untreated’ by white doctors.Footnote 111 This common ‘double standard … based on race’ likely contributed to ‘higher proportions of black troops … [being] infected with venereal disease’ during the war, although nothing in the available evidence suggests a greater prevalence of such infections among the African American veterans of the Jackson Purchase.Footnote 112
Despite some differences in this functional comparison, moral changes did disrupt both societies. But it was economic change brought by the war that actually proved to be the most profoundly troubling of the post-war effects felt in both regions. As rural areas with high proportions of farming people, the costs of basic goods were critical, and that is where the economic problems seemed to strike hardest. In Nyasaland, Africans both complained at the time and long remembered the increased cost of basic goods. Iron hoes – the essential implement of agriculture – which were once cheap, after 1918 became very expensive, if available at all. Calico cloth was also in short supply, resulting in threefold price increases over pre-war levels or sometimes more. The cost of grain moved upwards similarly, while the price of fish on Lake Nyasa dramatically increased during the five years of war, rising at Nkhata Bay from twenty small fish for a penny to only six or seven for that same penny in 1919.Footnote 113 The problems had become so severe by August 1919 that the Governor, Sir George Smith, reported directly to the British Colonial Office that ‘excessive prices [were] causing unrest among [the] native population’.Footnote 114 Despite the implied spectre of festering discontent, his government, ignoring evidence of commercial profiteering, also raised taxes in the belief that increasing African wages would be commensurate with the increasing cost of living. But ‘only the tax section of the government got strict’, as Petro Mbwana, a medical orderly during the war, angrily remembered.Footnote 115
The problem of rising prices was similar in the Jackson Purchase, where before the war, and even into 1917, ‘everything was just as cheap as dirt’, with, for example, seed corn about 50 cents a bushel. By 1919, however, ‘everything had gone up. We had prices I remember very well’, according to the veteran Hugh Gingles. ‘When I came back and was gonna make a crop that year; I paid $12.00 a barrel for [seed] corn, that’s $2.00 a bushel.’ Prices on other goods also increased, ‘everything in proportion’,Footnote 116 with the asking prices for farm stock – particularly cattle, sheep, and pigs – going up by as much as 45% everywhere in the Commonwealth. Any gains experienced by Jackson Purchase farmers during the war, however, were largely outpaced by the market performance of tobacco – by far their most important crop – since ‘after the war overproduction finally began to outstrip demand, and prices tumbled’.Footnote 117 Throughout western Kentucky, ‘business came to a near standstill in the post-war years’.Footnote 118 The result, as happened elsewhere in the country, led to shifting concerns, with ‘veterans focused on the financial, rather than the physical, hardships of military service’.Footnote 119
The plight of America’s war-weary veterans sparked national concern, including calls for a Soldiers’ Land Settlement Scheme backed by the newly chartered American Legion veterans’ organization. The Kentucky Governor, A. O. Stanley, named a prominent Purchase political figure, Paducah lawyer, businessman, and banker, William F. Bradshaw, to an executive committee charged with developing just such a plan for the state. The choice of Bradshaw was unfortunate and not in keeping with the region’s agricultural interests. Farmers throughout the nation – including the Jackson Purchase – firmly opposed the resettlement proposals, believing them, however well-meaning, to be detrimental to the long-term interests of rural areas and more likely beneficial to financial speculators – such as Bradshaw – rather than farmers.Footnote 120 In the end, a determined national opposition won the day, and land settlement schemes for veterans – while popular in the British empireFootnote 121 – were doomed in the Jackson Purchase, elsewhere in Kentucky, and throughout the United States. As the historian Bill G. Reid observes, ‘The fact was that Americans were moving away from the land, not toward it’, noting that ‘throbbing assembly lines meant fewer farmers, not more’ in rural areas such as far western Kentucky.Footnote 122
While some Jackson Purchase veterans, like Hugh Gingles, remained steadfast in their determination to continue work on the farms they had left behind when becoming soldiers, many others did not. H. T. Waldrop perhaps exaggerated slightly when he said that ‘they all wanted to get to town’, but recalled explicitly, ‘these boys comin’ back they had a feelin’ that they could do better in town’.Footnote 123 But their escape from the land did not generally take them to the very small towns in the Purchase. Some were no doubt attracted to the region’s only small city, Paducah, ‘which emerged from the turmoil of the First World War with a sound economy’.Footnote 124 One Purchase resident, Charles Farris, recalled that ‘a good many of the local people sold out their farms and went up there to [Kansas City]’, contemplating further that they ‘did all right, I guess’.Footnote 125 But Kansas City was not the only destination; many veterans picked up on small, earlier migration patterns and moved to larger cities in southern and border states, in addition to northern urban centres such as Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere, in attempts to make a better life for themselves.Footnote 126
This was not unlike a similarly shifting labour situation developing in rural Nyasaland after 1919. The colonial government wanted to encourage African farmers, so declined opportunities to sponsor resettlement programmes for British veterans, even restricting potential independent European settlement in some parts of the Protectorate. Nevertheless, the number of white farmers more than doubled after the war – to a total of almost 400 – encouraged by the British South Africa Company’s private scheme for settling ex-officers on land it had already claimed before the conflict began. Africans living on those Company lands were understandably concerned, with government officials in Nkota Kota district reporting a widespread rumour that ‘Europeans are coming … to take away all their gardens’, while, further south, officials conceded great resentment regarding ‘wholesale evictions of 1920–21’ depriving Africans of their farms on lands transferred to soldier settlers by the Company. Sadly, many of the new white settlers – absent any real knowledge or skill required for their new occupations – were unable to sustain their initial enthusiasm, abandoning newly claimed farms to the detriment not only of themselves but also of their former African neighbours.Footnote 127
That result did nothing to encourage African agriculturalists facing war-induced inflation as well as pent-up demands for consumer goods. Their economic frustrations were further exacerbated by pressures of understandable population growth, plus the effects of prolonged drought, first in the north and later further south.Footnote 128 Seeking the best and most lucrative employment possibilities in response, many thousands of men left the Protectorate for jobs, most in Southern Rhodesia or South Africa, following patterns of labour migration which pre-dated the war. Not an inconsiderable number were veteran askari, although military labourers who had been impressed into wartime service also calculated that their absence would free them from any further such government demands for their service. Some are likely even to have been goaded by their wives into such actions.Footnote 129 Ironically, a post-war uprising against Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique, disrupting well-established migration routes, actually increased the number of Nyasas trekking southward for work, as the migrants preferred the safety of larger groups travelling together on such journeys.Footnote 130 The growing numbers leaving home seeking better prospects after the war reset the paradigm for twentieth-century, large-scale labour migration from Nyasaland to South Africa. In the process, earlier patterns were stretched far beyond the bounds of previous experience, just as the migration away from the farms of the Jackson Purchase reshaped population movements in western Kentucky.
Despite all the evidence of changes wrought by the First World War, when the current millennium dawned the received wisdom of the Kentucky Historical Society seemed to be that ‘World War I … had a limited impact on the state’, at least compared to the Second World War, which followed only two decades later. Footnote 131 Yet contemporary observers appear to have had a much more expansive view regarding the importance of the First World War to the Commonwealth. The Louisville Post, for example, on just the second anniversary of the armistice, wrote approvingly of ‘the glorious part played by Kentucky men and women in the great war for civilization, … achievements of which we are justly so proud’. Footnote 132 In the small Purchase town of Mayfield, which had been occupied by both Union and Confederate forces at different times during the American Civil War, a semi-official history published only four years after the 1918 armistice described the conflict just ended as ‘the greatest of all wars’.Footnote 133 And if another Kentucky historian, David Lee, is correct that ‘the sense of a changing perspective was a hallmark of southern life during the Great War’, then surely the Jackson Purchase – the most ‘southern’ area in all of Kentucky – was actually very deeply affected by the First World War. Footnote 134
The recognition of a similar fate in Nyasaland, however, has been long acknowledged, both by participants and by historical observers since. Indeed, in the memory of Nyasa askari theirs had been a momentous campaign, because ‘they were fighting for the world’.Footnote 135 The most recent national history – John McCracken’s 2012 History of Malawi – is unequivocal: the First World War not only marked a ‘high point of colonial violence’, but also proved to be ‘exceptionally disruptive’ throughout Nyasaland. Footnote 136 Even a half-century earlier the premier historian of the country, George Shepperson – who served as a KAR officer commanding Nyasaland askari during the Second World War – acknowledged that ‘the coming of the 1939 war did not hit Africans [of the Protectorate] with the same force as the 1914 war which brought “deep and fundamental” change’. Footnote 137
Wise old Mister Reuben may have been correct to question his dear wife’s assumption – that after the Treaty of Versailles was signed the soldier boys would be back on the farm – even though almost none of them actually laid eyes on the sights of Paris. While a select few veterans from the Jackson Purchase might have marched victoriously down the Champs-Élysées, it is all but certain that none from Nyasaland did so. But those Kentuckians and Africans both saw a good deal and experienced considerably more which impacted not only their lives but also the rural farms they had left behind. The historian Michelle Moyd has written that ‘the centenary of the war’s end reminds us that the ordeal of the war for Africans should not obscure the opportunities … that emerged from it’.Footnote 138 In a similar vein, David A. Davis, a scholar of the American South, recently observed that ‘the war changed the region by exposing provincial southerners to modernity’ after 1919.Footnote 139
By employing an analytical strategy recently endorsed by the historian Sebouh David Aslanian – approaching ‘primary source documents’ using ‘a multioptic lens’ with ‘a microfocus and attention to detail’, while also adopting ‘a macroview of global connections and comparisons’Footnote 140 – we can see that there is little doubt that the First World War had notably similar effects in both the Jackson Purchase of Kentucky and the British colonial Protectorate of Nyasaland. Former askari from the latter, and their civilian countrymen alike, for long after continued to sing, voicing a question about the conflict which had no answer:
In the Jackson Purchase, such concerns found more declarative expressions, such as Ellwyn Coffman’s assessment that the entirety of his war ‘was one of those things I wouldn’t take a million dollars for having done, but wouldn’t do again for a copper cent’.Footnote 142 Those observations, drawn from two far removed regions whose microhistories reflect strikingly similar experiences, offer confirmation yet again of the truly global impact of the worldwide conflict of 1914–18.
Melvin E. Page is Emeritus Professor of History at East Tennessee State University and was previously Associate Professor of History at Murray State University (Kentucky) and Fulbright Lecturer in History at the University of Malawi. His books include Africa and the First World War (editor, 1987), The Chiwaya War: Malawians and the First World War (2000), A Short Guide to Writing About History (with Richard Marius, 2002), and Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi (2019). He was the founding editor of H-Africa, https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa, and is currently Africa section co-editor for 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, http://www.1914-1918-online.net.