Review: Sporting soldiers by Floris van der Merwe

I jumped at the offer to review this book for two reasons:

1. It featured World War 1 in Africa, and

2. it featured a hitherto unknown aspect of the war.

My interest had been piqued shortly before as tentative links were suggesting that WG Grace’s brother had been the other person killed on the night Koos de la Rey was shot going through a blockade to capture the notorious Foster Gang. Armed with this knowledge, if it were true, and other titbits gleaned from van der Merwe’s book, I could potentially get one up on the cricket statistician in the family.

Sporting Soldiers was not quite what I expected. It is not an historical text in the traditional sense, and all fell into place when I discovered that van der Merwe is not an historian but a sport specialist with an interest in history. I read the book cover to cover, as that is what I do, but this became a bit listy as van der Merwe has painstakingly recorded all the mentions and experiences of sport that he came across where South Africans were involved. This may sound tedious but it was not. Chapters address each theatre and the type of sport, and game, played there. Each chapter contains a wider context of the war or theatre. These contexts contain the occasional error, but only obvious to a pedant of the theatre, and should not detract at all from the value of this book. There is also the ommission of the Comrades’ Marathon which was started in 1921 to commemorate the friends Vic Clapham lost in the East Africa campaign. In defence of van der Merwe on this aspect, the marathon didn’t take place during the war and so would not have been in the documents he researched.

My main issue with the book, as with Red Strangers, is there is no index for those of us who like to look for specific mentions. However, the book is rich with references and has 20 pages of bibliography.

The strengths of the book clearly outweigh the few issues mentioned:

1. I was absolutely fascinated by the range of activities included in the text and which are regarded as sport as well as how creative the men got – draughts and rat hunting spring to mind.

2. The inclusion of sports played by prisoners of war provides a contrast with those played on the fighting fronts and in the resting areas. This too, demonstrates the importance of sport and interaction for psychological well-being.

3. Photos and images add a rich dimension to the text and reinforces the diversity of the sports and those participating in them.

4. For anyone trying to trace a sportsman’s involvement in the war, this can be a useful text as van der Merwe has listed those he knows participated.  To assist with identifying a name in the book, these have been listed on the various In Memory sections of the Great War in Africa Association.

5. It’s been rather refreshing and uplifting to read about people enjoying themselves (albeit muted) during a time when one reads mostly about the horrors of war and the challenging conditions men and women lived through. It’s a reminder (and evidence) that there were times away from the front lines.

6. It opens up opportunities for cultural and social historians to explore, and given how important sport is to South Africans in general it offers an interesting insight into the psyche of the nation. And for those interested in the Christmas Truce football match, van der Merwe touches on this too.

I’ll be dipping into this book on many an occasion both for historical purposes but also in the hope of being able to catch the statistician out! (I may even convince him to read it…)

Dont’ just take my word for it, see Defence Web  and below for Bill Nasson’s review (p202)

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