Does the post office restrict progress?

Not too long ago, someone recently arrived from South Africa to Britain commented that the British post office was “holding back progress”. The person concerned was all for everything being done online. This got me thinking…

In Britain, there is still an operational post office and mail delivery system. Sadly, this is not the case in many African countries. I say ‘sadly’ as a number of people have commented to me about the pleasure they get when a letter or parcel (not a bill) pops through the door, in contrast to having another email to deal with. It therefore makes sense to do as much online, if there’s no operational post delivery service. However, many African countries are suffering from electricity shortages and outside of the major cities, access to computers and internet is still non-existent. Mobile or cellular phones, though, generally have good coverage but are only owned by a small group who can afford them.

Recent dealings with South Africa in particular are suggesting that the power shortages (load shedding as it’s called) is having a real impact on business – and many are turning to their phones (and Whatsapp) to communicate as email is a hassle to access on computer. Phones, however, are also reliant on electricity for charging and in many cases wi-fi drops out when there’s a power failure. I have noticed the South African National Archive catalogue is seldom available over weekends to search. Is this because the archive has a generator to keep things going during the week but not on weekends?

Poor connection is not just an African issues, over the past years it’s become noticeable in the UK too – internet connection is not as consistent as what it used to be and mobile phone companies have reduced services in some areas (notably on the London underground) to invest in other developments. Dips in power supply are also happening more frequently than in the past.

So, why are we trying to put everything online? Years ago, I gave up on electronic calendars/diaries. It took longer to load and find a free time for a meeting than digging in my bag for a paper diary and skimming it. I have also moved to a paper post-it type project planning system for keeping track of books I’m working on – computer updates deleting online post-its and slow connection etc again forced this move. And, how true it is, I’m not sure but a fair number of years ago it was already said that Russia was returning to the old tick-tick typewriter, as I refer to it, for recording sensitive information – online hacking was too much of a risk. Further, there was talk in the archive world of securing important documents on vinyl type surfaces as they could be read with a simple pin/sharp pointed prod running over the grooves and stored better than online systems which constantly had to be updated and material migrated to ensure continued access.

Yet, technology has its plus-points – I can communicate with people across the globe in ways I couldn’t do twenty years ago, we can share research, ideas and be more independent when it comes to international transactions. But as many say, there’s nothing that beats the personal connection when you can get it. And while I do enjoy peace, quiet and solitude as found in an archive or working at home without distractions, much of it on a computer, there is something to be said for interacting with people when giving a talk and doing the shopping or popping into the post office (as frustrating as the server can sometimes be). It’s a reality check – one of the things I love about going back to Africa and being out of the cities: a reminder of what is important in life. Turning to the phone and actually speaking with someone too, has allowed many a misunderstanding caused by email to be resolved. And I could go on about the benefits of non-online interactions over online.

As a teacher we were always advised to have contingencies in case the planned lesson didn’t turn out the way one expected. It was good advice on many an occasion. Experiencing how London came to a gridlock back in the day with the 7 July 2005 bombing and hearing of people having difficulties contacting each other in the USA on and after 11 September 2001 is sufficient evidence for me to keep paper and more traditional ways of communicating. On a more local level, just watch the frustration at the train exit or in the coffee shop when a person at the pay-point’s phone decides it needs to do its own thing rather than register the payment.

I really cannot see how making everything electronic is progress… and if that is progress, how do we justify it not being available to all? The wealth gap is growing as it is – is this indicative of progress? The comment coming from a fellow South African suggests to me an out-of-touchness with reality, and the masses (how many schools had to find non-electronic means of supporting students/pupils during the recent lockdowns – in all countries) and if that makes me a non-progressive, so be it.

Review: General Jan Smuts – David Brock Katz

Having waited patiently and expectantly since about 2016 for this study on Smuts as a military commander in World War 1 to come out, I have to say upfront that I’m disappointed in General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917 by David Brock Katz.

In short, David has sadly missed, or ignored, the complexity of Smuts, and by not taking the political context into account, has misinterpreted some of Smuts’ motives and actions. In addition, there are numerous inaccuracies and contradictions throughout the book – most of which should have been picked up in the proofing stage. There are also far too many typographical errors for my liking. While the book appears to be well referenced, this belies the selectivity of sources and omission of some such as War Diaries (other than two concerning Salaita Hill in February 1916), reports in the London Gazette and papers in the UK Parliamentary and Imperial War Museum archives as well as the British Library (India Office collection). Finally, I felt there was an imbalance in content – for a book touting an assessment of Smuts’ World War 1 experience, of the 260 pages of text, 50 concerned his pre-WW1 life and involvement in politics with no links made as to how this would play out in the years 1914-1918. Similarly, a whole chapter is allocated to the battle of Salaita Hill which occurred before Smuts arrived as commander in the theatre. Although the title of this chapter suggests a discussion on a clash of military doctrine, it fails to link with Smuts’ later actions, or what had happened in German South West Africa. The conclusion of the book reads like an academic assignment, telling the reader what the book covered through repetition of what had been said before, effectively a narrative summary, with little development of argument or new areas for investigation.

The most fluid read were the few chapters on the campaign in East Africa. However, this also contains somewhat heavy-handed criticism of the  works of Ross Anderson and Hew Strachan. Elsewhere in the text, there is criticism of Ian van der Waag and Rodney Warwick who are challenged on their interpretations of the battle of Sandfontein. While some of the criticisms against all four might be justified, there has been a failure to adequately contextualise these works and they ways in which they challenged the existing historiography. All the texts are nearly 20 years old. They were researched and published at a time when access to foreign archives was not as easy as today and while the internet was available, the rich links to archival material did not yet exist. In criticising these historians for being selective in their source material, David opens himself to the same criticism. Concerning criticism and evidence of his source selectivity, it was rather surprising not to see my own work challenged, especially as I have written a fair amount on the leadership of the campaign and generally agree with statements made by all four mentioned historians. But then, I’m a student of war, not a specialist of military strategy or tactics and this appears to be a significant divide for David. ‘Many contemporary historians’ are referred to – who they are, we are not told. His decision to not engage with contemporary material (except for one or two texts) has led to major gaps in his work and misinterpretation.

To address all the weaknesses in the book would lead to another book and would appear nit-picky. So, I touch on only a few. I have also limited my comments to East Africa, as my concerns regarding South West Africa and Palestine would require much longer contextual explanations.

In discussing the leadership of the East Africa campaign, David has regarded the commanding officers pre-Smuts’ arrival as British Army. What has been missed, is that they were all Indian Army, who although trained in British military fashion had adapted their ways to the Indian Army where officers tended to lead from the front. (George Morton Jack refers amongst others) In addition, the Indian Army was the first port of call for additional troops in Africa rather than British troops. They therefore had a history and some inherent knowledge of the theatre they were engaging in. Little was said about Charles Callwell’s Small wars in relation to how the East Africa campaign was fought, yet Richard Meinterzhagen‘s views are regularly considered (it is only acknowledged in the conclusion that questions have been raised about his reliability as a source).

Many questions remain unanswered in the book. Smuts seemed to fall into the same trap in chasing von Lettow-Vorbeck across East Africa that Kitchener fell into in trying to stop Smuts’ raid into the Cape. How was this? Why did Smuts think von Lettow-Vorbeck would surrender at the end of 1916 when Smuts knew that if he’d been in the same position, he would not have done so? On p169 there is mention of Lettow-Vorbeck and the Boers operating together to suppress uprisings in GSWA. This is incorrectly dated to 1900-1901 which is during the Boer War when Lettow-Vorbeck was first in the German Colonial Office and then China. Lettow-Vorbeck was in GSWA with von Trotha and the Herero uprising of 1904-1907. Who is the von Botha referred to in his memoir? Would Lord Milner really have allowed senior Boer commando leaders who would not co-operate in his government to join the Germans to suppress an uprising? Why has Smuts not said anything about this in any of his letters?

While I promote, the use of primary sources in historical writing, particularly when writing about the campaigns in Africa during WW1, there is great value in using secondary sources to verify interpretations and criticisms but also to open new windows onto situations and sources. Two missing texts which spring to mind are the Regimental History of the Durban Light Infantry (vol 1) by AC Martin especially as they were one of the South African units caught at Salaita, and James Willson’s Guerrillas of Tsavo. While this last is not an academic study, its value lies in the fact that James has walked the battlefield, uncovering numerous bases – Mbuyuni, Mashoti, Serengeti, Hill 930 etc and together with material available in Kenya, has pieced together the events around Salaita and Latema-Reata. It was my having visited the battlefields with James and time spent in the area around Kilimanjaro that got me looking at the maps in General Smuts – based on existing maps, they do little to illustrate the case put forward especially as border markings were left out making it unclear what was in British or German territory. Similarly, in a number of maps, adding the position of Kilimanjaro, a significant landmark, would have given a clearer visual of the area under discussion.

Statements along the lines of “Salaita, deep inside British territory” alerted me to the fact that David hadn’t experienced the battlefields there, the same applies to his comments about Stewart’s march through Longido. On Stewart’s advance, had mention been made of his poor leadership at Bukoba in early 1915, the argument would hold greater sway than the single assessment of his progress around Kilimanjaro – it’s challenging enough today in a vehicle on tarred roads, let alone in uncut bush, not knowing where Germans were hiding. It was also striking that little has been said of the removal of Stewart’s mounted unit before he embarked on his march.

A feature running throughout the book is the split in the Union Defence Force between mounted Boer and infantry English forces and how the former differs to British fighting strategy with regards encirclement and frontal attack. Yet, the fact that the South African forces mainly involved at Salaita are SA infantry is missed. Having recently worked through Ludwig Boell’s history* of the campaign from the German perspective, it was rather intriguing to read of the German tendency to use encirclement where possible. Yet, I did not pick up on this in David’s discussion of the clash in military doctrines despite his having used Boell.

For all I’ve said and could say, there is still value in General Jan Smuts. It will certainly start a new discussion on Smuts and leadership of the African campaigns. I learnt that Smuts joined the Victoria College Rifle Association whilst a student there – before he went to Cambridge – and a little more about the Anglo-Boer War. There are also numerous potentially useful references to follow up on. I may have used some in the past for different purposes but will now be going back to assess my initial interpretation.

In conclusion, however, the potential strengths of this book are outweighed by the points mentioned above. I would therefore only recommend General Jan Smuts if you are doing an academic study and need it for your historiography or literature review. In the meantime, I look forward to the next book investigating Smuts (and Botha) as commanders in World War 1 – by Antonio Garcia and Ian van der Waag.

* An English translation of Boell’s history is soon to be published by the Great War in Africa Association.


For years now I have not carried an umbrella around with me. Instead I have a rain poncho in my bag which hopefully covers me and my laptop and books when I’m out and about. I’m yet to find the ideal rain keeper-off-er. Why I no longer use an umbrella is because there are so many inconsiderate people who do use them – it’s easier to dodge them and protect my eyes and hair not having one.

So, it was rather intriguing that on one of the few downpour days in London, I happened to be going through the Cape Times at the British Library only to discover a history of the umbrella. (p14, Saturday 1 August 1914 for anyone interested).

In short, it appears that umbrellas (including parasols) have been around for centuries – 3000 BC/E. There is/was a sketching of an Assyrian King being cooled by a parasol being held by a woman.

The article continues that the word umbrella derives from ‘uni bra’ and Johnson (presumably Samuel Johnson) described it as ‘a screen used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain’.

The parasol was back in the day, only for the monarch – is that why it plays such a prominent role in Ashanti festivals. We caught the Yam Festival back in 2002 in Ghana and I recall the impressive parasol indicating the chief’s presence.

By 1616, umbrellas were used in England as a luxury, made of feathers to represent water birds (why?). It was only during the reign of Queen Anne that oiled silk was used for umbrellas/parasols. In particular, they were chiefly used by women. They crossed the gender line in the 18th century when a Jonas Hanway, recently returned from Persia, was seen carrying one on London’s streets. In 1782, the first umbrella was seen on the streets of Scotland when Dr John Jameson had one in Glasgow following a visit to Paris.

It is said that the Portuguese navigators brought the umbrella to the north (France) from tropical countries. 1630 is the date given for umbrellas having whale bone handles and copper frames, and were so sturdy they were passed down from generation to generation weighing 3-4 pounds. They were covered with leather and oiled with silk.

In the 1770s, colourful taffeta parasols started to appear and in 1825 darker colours became fashionable, remaining popular to 1914.

How rapidly the life of an umbrella has changed since then. Now they come in all shapes and sizes, some able to cope with strong winds, others too flimsy, and I wonder how many get lost in a day. I’m still after an umbrella that is self-holding, as apart from it being a dangerous weapon, carrying one can get in the way of carrying other things, especially where both hands are needed, and many of us haven’t been trained to carry goods on our heads. By the time I realised this valuable skill, I was too old to build my neck muscles – I needed to start age 5 or 7. On the plus side, having to carry an umbrella might well reduce the number of people oblivious to others on the pavements because they’re so engaged with their electronic device. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I wonder how this article would have ended if it had been written after the 1914-1918 war – especially given the nature of the East Africa campaign where downpours and sun both wreaked havoc on all involved.

Maths and History

Not too long ago, I took a detour back to a previous role and read a book on teaching for teachers. Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck. The authors are all in Australia and working together as educationalists and mathematicians they explored how to make maths accessible and engaging having noticed a decline in the take up of maths as a school subject. For us, in South Africa in the late 20th century, it was compulsory to have maths to Matric or A Level equivalent if we wanted to go to university, irrespective of what you planned to study. What a good idea in retrospect as maths featured in so much, from the obvious in Economics to statistics in Sociology and Psychology and with hindsight, there’s the logic one develops through problem-solving which impacts on Philosophy, History and Law, amongst other subjects.

The concern though is that fewer people are engaged in studying maths or mathematics which is of concern as skills and knowledge is being lost. Working on a teaching programme in Tanzania brought this home very strongly where teachers got frustrated and turned to rote learning as they did not understand what they were teaching. We were looking at ways to overcome this and the project is now being implemented in Rwanda. We had similar challenges with teaching in the UK, although then not to the extreme it might now be – preparing students for higher education while meeting business needs. So, it seems the issue the Australians have been trying to deal with is not unique. It’s global.

Taking place over a number of years (yippee – it was not a simple 3 year project to fix the world of education), the authors gathered and processed evidence, listened to pupils, students and teachers, engaged with subject experts, produced resources and continued to monitor, evaluate and collect evidence. The results are collated in this book which focuses on 3 case studies: my favourite being the tracking of bees (Bees with Backpacks) to see how they communicate with the hive… sadly the book doesn’t say how they managed to put small enough tracking devices onto individual bees. There is also a case study on Stargazing and another on 3D. It’s worth looking at the publisher’s website as there are links to resources and other references which you wouldn’t get on other sites. There are also related downloads on Academia and there’s the institution’s website with all the videos etc.

Bottom line, if you haven’t yet worked it out, is that I was rather taken with this book – it might be a bit academic and scientific for some but the message is clear – maths is important and there are ways to make it relevant to everyday life within the curriculum (and questions whether the curriculum – across the globe – actually needs rethinking). Now to the link with history…

My eureka moment as an historian needing or using maths was a module on my MA in 20th century history taught by Tony Gorst at Westminster University. Back in 1996/7 he gave us a table of British politicians and the universities they’d studied at along with the degree they’d undertaken. The unit was post 1945 politics (incl Suez). For someone recently arrived from the ‘colonies’, this was rather an eye-opener on many fronts but it was only when I started teaching and we needed to embed maths, English and IT into all aspects of the curriculum that I really saw the value of Tony’s source analysis exercises. The maths aspect was secondary, no fuss was made about the subject, but it was there and integrated seamlessly into what we were looking at. Since then, maths regularly features in my work as an historian – have you seen the tables and info from the Pike report on the Great War in Africa website? Trying to reconcile numbers of dead and buried in Africa as part of the CWGC investigation into non-commemoration and more recently economic issues in South Africa during World War 1.

Now, I don’t expect maths teachers and researchers to make specific resources on historical topics, but I do support initiatives to make maths more accessible and less daunting for students. And for this, Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck is most definitely worth exploring.

Novelist: Josef S Viera

Josef S Viera wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Having served in the war, he wrote numerous accounts of his experiences. Many of these were banned when the Soviet Union took control of East Germany. Where fiction and fact diverge is yet to be assessed. Below are all his works covering the war years. Juma, his first book is a confirmed novel.

1890 – born 22 July Josef Sebastian Vierasegerer in Munich
1910 – moved to East Africa
1914 – 1918 – soldier with von Lettow-Vorbeck
1922 – Graduate in Philosophy and Literature at University of Munich
1970 – died 5 June

Books on World War 1

1922 – Juma: der Afrikanische Laubsbub (von Lettow-Vorbeck wrote the foreword)
1924 – Bana Sikukuu or Der Afrikan Ranger (short stories; Governor Heinrich Schnee wrote the foreword)
1926 – Mit Lettow-Vorbeck in Afrika
1936 – Erzählungen aus den deutschen Kolonialkämpfen im Weltkrieg Deutsch-Ostafrika kampft! Deutsch -Ostafrika Leben! ; Lettow-Vorbeck, im Weltkrieg unbesiegt ; Die Tangaschlacht. Wie Deutsch-Ostafrika unter Lettow-Vorbeck im Weltkrieg verteidigt wurde
1937 – Mit Lettow-Vorbeck im Busch
1938 – Die Mikindani-Patrouille. Mit Lettow-Vorbeck in Deutsch-Ostafrika. Aus dem Leben erzählt


He is not listed in Sonke Clasen, Die Angehorigen der Kaiserlichen Schutztruppe fur Deutsch-Ostafrica zur Zeit des Ersten Weltkriegs