The first novelist/fiction writer of the war in Africa between 1914 and 1918 was Gertrude Page with two publications, one in 1915 and the other in 1918.
Gertrude had links with Rhodesia. She was there when war broke out in August 1914. She is known as the ‘Kipling of Rhodesia’.
1872 – born in Erdington, Warwick 1902 – married George Alexander Dobbin who had been an ambulance driver in the 1899-1902 war. 1904 – Arrived in Southern Rhodesia and eventually bought a farm 1922 – died in Salisbury, Rhodesia
By all accounts Gertrude left Rhodesia at the start of the war to assist with evacuating wounded from Belgium/France. Her collection of short stories and her novel concerning the war in Africa are set around the outbreak and the challenges settlers faced in determining whether to stay and develop their farms, protect their new country or go back to England to safeguard the motherland. Her insights are such that she had to have been there. For more about Gertrude and her war time experience, scroll down to the obituaries.
WW1 Africa Books by Gertrude
Follow After (1915) Far From the Limelight and other tales (1918)
Having written about Solomon Tshekedi Plaatje, another journalist was brought to my attention around the same time. This was Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi who became famous for his poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi and the recruitment of labour. It struck me that Mqhayi had been writing at home without having experienced the war outside of the home front.
While Plaatje was overseas lobbying for black rights, Mqhayi was in South Africa working as a school teacher and journalist for Imvo (edited by Dr JT Jabavu) becoming famous as a poet. What Plaatje was doing for Tswana, Mqhayi was doing for Xhosa and both through their writing provide an insight into the richness of African culture through African eyes.
Although he published pamphlets or books during the war years, he did not write about the war except in his poetry. His most famous book The Lawsuit of the Twinswas published in 1914 looking at Xhosa customs. A new edition in 1915 was much longer. He made an impression, as recorded by Nelson Mandela.
Mqhayi wrote a short autobiography (click on the image to download the file) which unfortunately doesn’t give any particular insight into what he was doing during the 1914-18 war. Yet, it is the war which brought him to my attention and a translation of his Mendi poem by Thabo Mbeki in 2007 (scroll right down although you might want to see the other poets referred to, some of whom were also journalists at the time).
While I have issues with how we are remembering the Mendi today, Mqhayi was an eyewitness of the causes and impact of the loss, and one who can possibly tell us more about life on the home front with a little more digging.
This was a book which nearly did not get published for reasons similar to why Alex du Toit has remained an obscure name until now. It’s not my story to tell but I am grateful to the editorial team of Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies for having picked up on it.
Some might call it a biography, but that is rather a misnomer as du Toit (1878-1948) did not leave many clues to his past, but rather the story is the history of a South African geologist and his struggle to be heard and recognised over the political noise of all that was affecting South Africa at the time. It could, perhaps, be called a biography of South African geology. The book brings together geology and history, showing how interconnected everything is – linked as Jan Smuts suggested holistically. It explores the complexities of identity – both personal and national – and the struggle for recognition.
Reading Africa forms the Key brought together a number of strands I’d parked for later thought (that ‘when I’m retired’ project). Having spent time in the Great Rift Valley and read about the First World War in the area, I could visualise what du Toit was talking about and it supported the geopolitical take in Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. Similarly, Africa forms the key opened new windows through the links it makes with science, politics and society, while the discussion on how South America and South Africa ground it in the international arena, both physically and politically.
As an African historian working on Africa in the early twentieth century, this was a fascinating read, adding another dimension to the story of the continent.
It’s generally Jan Smuts who is regarded as a farmer and botanist outside of his political and military reputation. However, working through There was a Man: the life and times of Sir Alfred Theiler by T Gutsche (1976), it was reinforced just how much Mrs Smuts did behind the scenes. In similar fashion to the women further north (Karen Blixen et al) when the menfolk went off to war, it was the women who stayed to look after the farm and keep it operational.
But Issie Smuts was more than just a farmer’s wife. In addition to her studies when she and Jan met, she ensured she stayed up to date with scientific farming methods being aware of what Alfred Theiler and others at Onderstepoort (veterinary laboratories) were doing. When Alfred made a donation of his herbarium on the occasion of his being awarded the first ever Scott Memorial Medal for Science, it was Issie who thanked him and drew attention to all he had accomplished during his 25 years in South Africa and especially during the 1914-1918 war years to assist South Africa’s farmers in combatting animal diseases despite the challenges put in place by the war. (His son, Max Theiler was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1951 for his development of a vaccine to combat Yellow Fever. Max had served as a ‘veterinary dresser’ in the East Africa campaign from 1917-1918).
While Issie was not a practising botanist, she was recognised for her knowledge of plantlife, there were various other women who were professional botanists or mycologists at the time. These included:
Ethel Doige – she was the first woman in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in any subject and was awarded the Scott Memorial Medal in 1920 Louisa Bolus – curator of the Cape Town Herbarium from 1903 Mary Thompson – married IB Pole Evans in 1922 and moved to Irene to be near Issie and Jan. She then published under her married name. While various others seemed to contribute to the study of fungi.
It appears that although the first two Scott Memorial Medals were awarded to men (Alfred Theiler and Illtyd Buller Pole Evans), they had no issue employing or working with women, Ethel Doige being the third recipient of said medal.
Although not a botanist, the name of Dr Jane Ruthven popped up in connection with giving evidence to the 1918 commission which sought to discover how the South African government had not contained the Spanish flu, thereby allowing 150,000 deaths (excluding figures from Transkei)
There have been various novels published over the years which touch on the First World War in Africa. A full list appears on the Great War in Africa Association bibliography. Some published more than one book covering the war – what I find interesting is their connection with Africa and what inspired them to write a work of fiction about the war. No promises, but my plan is to do a short exploration of each of the authors in chronological order, once a month.
The first known book to have a story of the war in Africa was published in 1915 by Gertrude Page. Two more publications occurred in 1916 – Joan Kennedy and Percy F Westerman – followed by four in 1918 – Francis Brett Young, Gertrude Page, Herbert Strang and again Percy Westerman.
Below is the list of books, authors and year in which the book was published. Many of the older books are available on Gutenberg or elsewhere. I’m not setting out to review the books unless something in particular grabs me (Distinguished Conduct, The Celebration Husband are examples) as I do not believe in retelling the tale which is what reviews today tend to do. What I will say is that I have really enjoyed the majority of the novels I’ve read (which is most of them) and between them they cover most of the major actions or events of the East Africa campaign with some linking to other theatres and the homefronts.
Sun, sand and sin
Westerman, Percy F
Rounding up the raider: A naval story of the Great War
Brett Young, Francis
The Crescent Moon
Far from the limelight
Tom Willoughby’s Scouts
Westerman, Percy F
Wilhelmshurst of the Frontier Force: a story of the conquest of German East Africa
Wren, PC (Percival Christopher)
Cupid in Africa: Or the making of Bertran in love and war – a character study
Comrades Ever! etc
Mader, Friedrich Wilhelm
Die Helden van Ost-Afrika: Am Kilimandjaro: Ubenteuer und kämpfe in Deutsch-Ostafrika (Die helden von Ostafrika, erfter Teil
Brett Young, Francis
On virgin soil
Schwarz-weiss-rot über Ostafrika : Roman
The African Queen
Malumba, Mutter aller mutter: Roman aus Deutsch Ost-Afrika
Christensen, Christen P
Sønderjyder forsvarer Østafrika 1914-18
Mader, Friedrich Wilhelm
Die Schlacht bei Tanga Erzahlung aus dem Weltkrieg
Christensen, Christen P
Blockade and Jungle: From the letters and diaries etc of Nis Kock
Deutsch-Ostafrika unverloren! Erzählung aus den deutschen Kolonialkämpfen im Weltkrieg mit kartenskizze und Bildern nach Federzeichnungen von Willy Planck
Our fatal shadows: A story of German East Africa and Tanganyika
McCann, Hugh Wray
Shout at the devil
How young they died
Lion in the evening
The alpha raid
The Ghosts of Africa
An ice-cream war
Kanonenboot auf den Tanganjika-See
The Burning Shore
The Gunny Sack
Journey into a dark heart in Tales of the Night
Tentar al Diablo
The book of secrets
While the Light Lasts
Die weiße Jägerin
The King’s shilling: a novel
The White Rhino Hotel
Lord of the Loincloth: The Adventures of the Royal Naval African Expedition and its Intrepid leader, Commander Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson
Afrika! Mon amour
A matter of time
Coelho, João Paulo Borges
O Olho de Hertzog
Where I’m bound I cannot tell
Speak Swahili, dammit
Chui and Sadaka
Letter to an unknown soldier
The Black Knight: Loss of innocence
The celebration husband
The lion and the leopard
Cotton, Eleni Trataris
Bertha: The Swiss trader’s daughter
At night all blood is black
Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi