Review: World War 1 and the People of South Africa by Bill Nasson

Although written by a well-known South African academic historian, Bill’s latest book, WW1 and the people of South Africa, is not an academic text and has a surprising number of errors given his standing. This got me reflecting on the text and looking at the references Bill has used, this is not meant to be an historian’s book but rather a people’s history and in that context it is a very welcome and necessary addition to the growing literature on South Africa’s involvement in World War 1. In looking for a link to the book online, I came across two snippets of interview with Bill at The Book Lounge in two parts and he in effect says the same thing.

This easy read tells the story of how South Africans in South Africa who didn’t enlist saw the war as depicted in newspapers and social histories. His broad overview is inclusive of the major race groups in the country, looking at the role of women as well as men both in the cities and rural areas. For more detail on the content of the book, see Paul Murray’s review.

So, what about the errors? Well, these can be forgiven due to the sources referenced as newspapers do not have the benefit of hindsight and neither do people’s perceptions and oral accounts of the time. These slippages in themselves become an area of significance for understanding what was felt and thought at the time outside of official circles and can provide reasons for why the population (or sectors of it) reacted the way they did. And for this reason I won’t mention them specifically.

Apart from the new insights into the local view of the war and how little impact the war really had in South Africa, Bill has added a superb section of where to find out more information for those who want to follow through on a range of topics. His editorial role in the online International Encyclopedia of the First World War has enabled this breadth of source to be identified and is a good place for anyone looking for something new on the First World War to start.

As a fellow historian of South Africa in World War 1, I’ve gleaned some new ideas and routes to follow up on as well as identifying some new avenues for investigation (eg how did imprisoned rebels impact on the 1915 election outcome?). Thanks to Ian for this wonderful unexpected Christmas present and to Bill for a good, thought provoking read.



One thought on “Review: World War 1 and the People of South Africa by Bill Nasson

  1. Pingback: Report on Stellenbosch & other bits

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