Review: The Great Silence by Tim Couzens

One of the joys of visiting South Africa is that I stock up on history books not easily obtainable in Britain. And, being the centenary of the Great War, there has been opportunity to invest in a number of relevant texts. The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One was one I collected for review.

As with Bill Nasson’s WW1 and the people of South Africa, Couzens’s book is not an academic text and has a few significant errors. Highlighting these errors in the review is not meant to put people off reading the book. In fact, as accessible overviews of South Africa’s involvement in WW1 go, this is pretty comprehensive and an easy read – one I would recommend with a health warning to double check obscure-sounding facts before quoting (always good practice, I’m learning). Tim, himself in his introduction raises some of the hurdles he had to overcome in researching and writing this book, indicating that he is well aware there may be some inaccuracies.

I didn’t specify the errors in the review I did of Bill’s book as the errors there are minor (most scholars of the theatre will pick up on them) or form part of the historiography, but I will with Tim’s due to their significance as they have been perpetuated in a few other texts which is where Tim likely sourced them – one of the downfalls with general, accessible histories which are not referenced is that a misconception, myth or error cannot easily be sourced. Another reason for doing so is that they highlight the pitfalls authors suffer when having to write to tight deadlines and will hopefully serve as a lesson to others (it’s one I’ve learnt by experience and hope not to repeat in future publications). This blog could almost have been entitled ‘confessions of an historian’.

I deal with the points in the order they appear in the book which makes the next part rather listy, I’m afraid to say, but it seems the best way to cover them.

WG Grace’s brother, a doctor was killed during the same roadblock in which General Koos de la Rey lost his life (p35). It wasn’t Grace’s brother, but his nephew Gerald Grace, who was a doctor rushing back to Springs for a medical emergency. I don’t hold it against Tim for getting this one wrong, I had myself until recently and it was only through Andrew Samson questioning my statements that I tracked down the most reliable account.

p63 has Rebel Maritz escaping to Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique whereas he went to Angola where he was captured. This is probably a simple proofreading slip – easily done when a book is written to a short deadline. I know because of a similar failing (about the dates of the Anglo-Boer War) in my own book.

A commonly perpetuated myth and one I was also prone to believe until I really thought about it (and started reading more widely about World War 1 in Africa) is the idea that The conquest of German South West Africa was the first Allied victory in the Great War (p111). The first allied victory was in fact Togoland

To show that accurate history writing is a challenge, we look to Mkwawa’s skull that Tom von Prince took from the Wahehe tribe when he subdued that people in Iringa. The skull was returned in 1954 whilst the tooth was returned in 2014 (personal correspondence with von Prince family).

Another challenge is the use of terms. On page 114, Tim challenges the claim that Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German to occupy British territory and that in East Africa. He suggests there was German occupation of South African territory from South West Africa (GSWA). Personally, I don’t tend to see the incursions from GSWA as occupation and neither do I see Lettow-Vorbeck’s moves into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), Nyasaland (Malawi) or Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as occupation. These were incursions which lasted a day or a few months. The Germans were continually on the move. However, there was German occupation of the Tsavo-Taveta area of Kenya where Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces took over British forts and buildings and made them their own for at least nine months.

A reference I would really like to know is the one for the glue holding the Sopworth planes photographing the Konigsberg melting. I don’t recall reading this before and although I know there were challenges facing the pilots and their crews, this is new to me.

The Battle of the Bees (p 121) – mention of the bees always brings a smile when I come across it. I recall including it in an early draft of my thesis only for one of my supervisors to insist on it coming out as although it was a good story, it was flawed. And so it proved to be. Tim suggests the Germans must have been affected and so they were. According to Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs, the Germans suffered as much from the angry bees as did the British and Indians at Tanga. And, there was more than one battle in East Africa in which the bees featured (and most likely won).

Some other aspects Tim raises which need, and are now receiving, specific study concern Jan Smuts’s role as commander and the failure of the South Africans at Salaita. Salaita was fought according to the battle plan drawn up by Smith-Dorrien and put into action by Michael Tighe (not Malleson) who was acting Commander-in-Chief East Africa pending Smith-Dorrien’s arrival. But before this could happen, Smuts had beeen appointed instead as Smith-Dorrien required extra time to recuperate from ill-health. Related to this was Smuts’s attitude to the Indians (p122) which Tim puts down to their performance at the Battle of Tanga. White South Africans generally had a poor perception of Indians as noted by Hughes and van Deventer’s report on South Africans going to serve in East Africa and Smuts’s encounters with Gandhi from before 1900.

Page 133 has an error I myself made in my book and which has only this year (2015) been corrected thanks to a discussion with Archie Henderson of the SA Sunday Times. Tim makes reference to Pieter Pretorius the Intelligence Officer who served with Smuts. His real name was actually Phillip. How he came to be known as Piet Pretorius in the texts is another story which needs to be uncovered. In the same piece where Tim mentions Pretorius, he is discussing Richard Meinertzhagen whom he rightly identifies as ‘one of the most interesing and eccentric of the characters in the East Africa campaign’. What was surprising about this piece is Tim’s failure to mention the controversy surrounding the truth of what Meinertzhagen wrote/claimed as identified by Brian Garfield.

There may well be a few other points I’ve missed and that would not be surprising as a reviewer can only comment on their own area of expertise. However, I really want to stress that despite the few errors identified above, this is a book worth reading especially if you’re new to South Africa’s involvement in World War 1.


4 thoughts on “Review: The Great Silence by Tim Couzens

  1. Dear Anne

    I regret not sending this comment by way of your “comment” block, but I am frankly baffled by the login requirements. So I hope this reaches you.

    I am glad Couzens wrote this book. We have had far too little good stuff done about the East African campaign, and especially the South Africans’ part in it. About the only books I trust on the subject are “The Battle of the Bundu” and James Ambrose Brown’s “They Fought for King and Kaiser”, which I am sure you have read. Various works of reminiscence, of course, but these are only assistance sources, as I am sure you will agree. I am just sorry that Brown’s book had not yet been published when I wrote about East Africa in my 1978 book “The Soldiers”.

    The Indian regiments’ performance at the Battle of Tanga really was execrable, but the reasons are not often given. The assault was badly planned and executed (the Brit commanders were not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer) and the regiments concerned were bottom-of-the-barrel ones because the best ones were committed elsewhere.

    They had not seen action for a generation and at least some were so poorly armed that they were carrying single-shot Martini-Enfields, and received Short Magazine Lee-Enfields at the eleventh hour. Von Lettow’s askaris, on the other hand, were well-trained and disciplined, and fully prepared. So the Indians got their heads stuck into a meat-grinder and broke, which is quite understandable.

    Smuts’s opinions about Indians as fighting men might well have been affected by his local experiences. SA Indians generally did not come from India’s great martial races like the Sikhs, Marathas and Jats. If they had he might have come to some different conclusions. This is not to denigrate them, let me hasten to add. But there is a difference.

    Smuts’s greatest problem was that he inherited a largely foot-borne army in a country of bad terrain and enormous distances; the Brits had made the same mistake as they had during 1899-1902. Von Lettow, meanwhile, had absorbed the lessons of the ABW and German campaigns in SWA, and whereas he did not have many horses either, his askaris were acclimatised to the country and capable of marching much faster and farther than the British infantry and were less likely to fall ill. So he was faced with fighting a very mobile enemy with a less than mobile army.

    Later it was often said that Smuts deserted the theatre in 1917 because he could not nail Von Lettow down, but in fact this is not so if one looks at the bigger picture. The first object of war is not necessarily to destroy the enemy but to make it impossible for him to operate effectively, and by the time he left he had done that. Von Lettow was still free and functioning, but he was no longer a significant threat to British interests in the theatre; he was fighting defensively rather than offensively.

    I agree with your comments about German occupations – “incursion” is the correct word, as you stated, in all cases except (arguably) in the case of the Tsavo-Taveta area. Von Lettow was far too intelligent to occupy anything except for strictly tactical purposes, and had no intention of making himself a static target: somebody once said (and damned if I can remember who it was) that he was trained like a Prussian and thought like a Boer.

    I can’t quote a solid reference re the aircraft either (I’ll try to find one), but that sort of problem was nothing new. In the GSWA campaign, Botha was given a bunch of fairly well-worn Be2c aircraft which soon had structural problems because the wooden airframes – perfectly suitable for service in Europe – warped as a result of the harsh, hot, dry climate, and had to be replaced by metal-framed Farman Shorthorns. So the chances of the very hot, humid East African climate playing hob with the Sopwiths are very good.

    I agree with your remarks about Meinertzhagen – a very peculiar character, forsooth. The reason why he is so widely quoted is, of course, because he is so “out of the box” and no respecter of persons at a time when most people tended to be more circumspect about criticising British generals. But I also suspect that sometimes he is over the top and does not hesitate to exaggerate his own role in various events. Very entertaining reading, though! His remarks about Smuts and Van Deventer are particularly interesting to me as a South African.

    It is interesting to note that at the time there was no clear doctrine for fighting a bush war in the African battle-space, but the experience stood the South Afgricans in good stead. During the 1940-1941 fighting in Abyssinia they fielded the only fully motorised formations south of the Sahara and fought what was basically a Boer-style war with innovative use of artillery which the Italians were not equipped or organised to match. The result was that they beat the Italians just about every time with a minimum of own losses (one writer, I think Brigadier E P Hartshorn, later claimed that some British officers suspected Brigadier Dan Pienaar of shirking battle because his brigade had so few casualties).

    But this was not so, Pienaar used his artillery very intelligently and was a master of what is now called “asymmetrical warfare”. My old man fought in Abyssinia, and became one of Pienaar’s confidants, and he told me that Pienaar’s instructions were always to go in like a snake and then attack like a lion i.e. surprise in the approach and then maximum force in execution. He liked to exhort his troops with: “Men, go in and shoot their bloody tail-feathers out!”

    This, in turn, had a direct effect on SADF planning after World War II, so that from the 1960s onwards a great deal of effort was spent on developing a mobile doctrine for the African battle-space which proved very successful in the Angolan fighting of the1980s.

    Just a general comment about the 1914 Rebellion: It is very difficult to write accurately about the events surrounding this sorry business unless the writer is rather fluent in Afrikaans, in which so much of the relevant literature appears (and a reasonable understanding of Dutch also helps). I think this is the reason why much of what has been written about earlier SA history is so one-eyed. When I wrote my history of the Cape up to 1806, “Assegais, Drums and Dragoons”, I wrote what I believe is the only reasonably comprehensive account of the Battle of Blaauwberg by making extensive use of a couple of valuable writings in Afrikaans, one of them a very comprehensive thesis produced by a podst-graduate reseacher in the1 970s but never published.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Willem. There is some good material coming out – Ed Paice and Ross Anderson have done some pretty good studies on the campaign which includes updates on South African involvement. Another good current writer on the campaign but not published in book form is Harry Fecitt. I’ve got most of his articles listed and some published on

    On the immediate SA front, there is a very slow growing interest in the First World War and I see some interesting and well grounded studies coming to the fore but it will take a little time.

    Your point about needing knowledge of Afrikaans and possibly Dutch is spot on. I’m also finding that a knowledge of German, French (for Belgian input) and Portuguese is becoming more significant in trying to unravel some of the aspects of the war in East, Central and Southern Africa. Ek is vreeslik dankbaar dat ek die taal praat en lees … which helps with the Dutch and German; and can read French too. It really does open up a new world in terms of understanding the time.

    On a personal note, I’m working more specifically on SA’s involvement in the war in far more detail than Brown (I’ll be presenting on this at Stellenbosch and then GSWA in London later this month and July respectively), but I acknowledge I am not a military historian but take more of a political/social approach. My latest challenge is to bridge the gap between the military and political which won’t sit well with some.

    Please do keep your reflections and comments coming on posts and watch the SA academic scene. I’m looking forward to the next few years and what is going to come out on WW1. But there’s still so much more to discover and bring to light, not least because of the impact the actions of 1914-1918 had on later SA developments, as you pick up on.

  3. Pingback: Review: Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 by Adam Cruise | Anne Samson - Historian

  4. Pingback: Review: To Complete the Jigsaw by Nicholas van der Bijl | Anne Samson - Historian

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