Review: Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 by Adam Cruise

I came across Adam Cruise’s Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 as a number of colleagues asked if I had read it, mentioning in passing that my name featured in the bibliography. Having covered a fair bit of Botha’s politics and involvement in the war in my thesis (published as Britain, South Africa and the East Africa campaign, 1914-1918: The Union comes of Age), I was intrigued to see what Cruise had used, naturally assuming it would have been this publication. It wasn’t – it was a summary of a talk I had given in Boksburg on the Mining Magnates, the full talk being available on academia.edu and on Brenthurst Library‘s site. My curiousity was raised – what had he used?

By page xvi, I was aware that my expectation of discovering something new was not likely to be fulfilled. Ignoring the repeated myth that the South West Africa campaign was the first to ‘be brought to a conclusion in the Great War’, it was the statement that read ‘Only recently, after trawling the internet, did I discover more about Botha…’, followed soon after by ‘The only published account of Botha’s life’ referring to the ‘long out of print General Louis Botha: A Biography‘. In contrast to Cruise’s claim, there have been a few biographies on Botha: apart from that by Meintjies, Sydney Buxton Governor General of South Africa during World War 1, FD Engelenberg, Botha’s secretary and H Spender have all written biographies on the man. OpenLibrary, provides the clue to Cruise’s statement ‘only published account’ – online, although Spender’s account is also available online as is Engelenberg’s if you register for the site.

My concerns with the book resonated with those of colleagues whose specialist interests are more military in nature, and unlike the book by Tim Couzens where most of the errors can be explained, those in Louis Botha’s War seem to be the result of poor and speedy research and for that reason I’m not going to go into detail on them.

This has been a difficult review to write, and I’ve probably spent as much time pondering over these few words that I’ve written as what I did reading the book. It’s important to recognise the toil and effort which has gone into the production of a book and I am grateful to Cruise for putting the spotlight onto Botha – something which desperately needs to be done.

Overall, I’m definitely disappointed in the book and am concerned that it’s going to be seen as a significant text on Botha – which unfortunately it’s not. Cruise has ably pulled together various secondary sources on the campaign which, disappointingly, has resulted in generalised statements and myths being perpetuated. The result is another book narrating the events of the South West Africa campaign and the Rebellion. It provides very little insight into Botha’s conduct and role as Commander in Chief of the UDF and Premier of South Africa.

Having been so critical, there are some positives which need to be recognised. The book is very readable and provides an introductory overview of the campaign in South West Africa. It has some good photos as well as little titbits such as that about feral horses. Importantly, as mentioned above, it rightly raises the profile of one of South Africa’s greatest generals and politicians and all I can hope for is that it inspires a more indepth and rigorous study into the man (in the same way that Lindie Koorts has looked at DF Malan).

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