I read this book for the first time in draft form nearly a year ago and what a pleasure to return to it in its final form. In keeping with recent form, I’ve been delving into non-traditional historical accounts and this one by James is no different. James is a battlefield archeologist – an area new to me and one I’d normally shy away from as I really can’t get my head around encircling movements, who has the high ground and what calibre of weapon is more effective than another etc. So, I’ll refrain from commenting on the accuracy or not of these details and focus on the rest of the book.
By implication, the approach James has taken leaves the academic or wider context enthusiast with some questions about certain statements and as usual, I’m not going to focus on these as they shouldn’t detract from an insightful and ground-breaking publication. For battlefield archeologists there’s probably nothing ground-breaking in James’ approach, however, given the paucity of information on this theatre of war and particularly one including the German perspective, it is ground-breaking. He doesn’t cover the whole campaign but restricts himself to the northern invasion led by South African Prime Minister Louis Botha.
The South West Africa campaign of World War 1 is one I classify as even ‘more forgotten‘ than the traditionally ‘forgotten’ campaign of WW1, namely the East African campaign. A few interested scholars (enthusiast and academic) are slowly producing publications on the theatre but a few good detailed histories are still needed. James’ contribution is welcomed from various points of view, not least for opening up to those of us outside of Namibia what the Namibian archives hold. Another value is his use of German material in producing a book in English – the other side of the story has been opened up and this, in terms of my personal study on this theatre of war, is most welcome as I have some ideas of where to go to start answering some of my burning questions: why did the Germans not attack South Africa during the latter’s rebellion? James talks about there being discussions between the rebel Manie Maritz and the German General von Heydebreck which contrasts with my wider understanding of the German Colonial Office instructing the colony not to get involved. There’s clearly more to this than meets the eye – and then add Bill Nasson’s people’s views to the account and a slightly different story starts to emerg (which I’ll leave for another day).
Another valuable aspect of Horns of the Beast is the fantastic selection of photos. Now, I’m not a great photo expert but the range of photos and maps is brilliant. Many are from the Namibian National Archives but James has supplemented these with more recent photos from his explorations. They bring to life another aspect of this campaign. Reading James’ book, along with Collyer’s official history of the campaign (also limited in scope), one gets the impression that there was quite a lot of almost non-stop action in the theatre. However, this was not the case, which careful reading of both texts support, somewhere I read that Botha was only in action for about 26 days of the whole time he was in South West. The rest of the time was waiting for supplies to arrive (participate in sport) and for troops to get into position.
This is definitely a book I’ll be referencing in future work as having waded through (desert sand and) official historian JJ Collyer’s account years’ ago, James’ account brought the action to life in a clear and concise manner. And then of course, there are the detailed references to Namibian archival sources and German texts.
Other texts worth looking at:
Ian van der Waag’s Battle of Sandfontein
Gordon McGregor’s 1st World War in Namibia