Review: Forged in the Great War by Jan-Bart Gewald

Forged in the Great War: People, transport and labour, the establishment of colonial rule in Zambia 1890-1920 is the second book regarding the Great War and Zambia’s role to have been published during 2015. The other is Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis.

I recommend both and although my intention is not to review Ed’s book here, I need to refer to it, not least because Jan-Bart does. Interestingly Jan-Bart feels that his argument contradicts that of Ed’s. However, I think the two compliment each other as they are looking at slightly different aspects of the same thing. Added together, we have a very rich new understanding of the politics behind Northern Rhodesia / Zambia’s involvement in World War 1.

I’ve more to say about Ed’s book elsewhere (still to be published) and as the heading of this blog indicates, I want to focus on Jan-Bart’s short expose (174 pages incl bibliography) of labour and the making of Zambia.

As with the recent studies coming out on the East Africa campaign, we are starting to get a deeper understanding of the subtle differences between the micro-nations involved in the conflict and how these interacted with each other and the dominating colonial power structures both locally and internationally. While Ed’s book has looked at the broader internatonal position with a greater focus on the role between te British South Africa Company’s (BSAC) relationship with Britain, Jan-Bart has tended to focus more internally and it is in this regard that the ‘difference’ in argument is perceived.

Jan-Bart claims that the reason the BSAC was able to take control of Zambia during the war was because they were given carte blanche on expenditure by the British government. Here I have to differ as this was not the case. The British War Office certainly (with Kitchener in the chair) believed that no expense should be spared to enable Britain to win the war. However, this is too superficial a reading of the situation. Kitchener was known for saving costs and being frugal but not at the expense of quality. He did not believe in throwing money at a problem and certainly not in a battle he did not think necessary (or where the final decision would be made at the peace table). In this he differed to the rest of his War Office staff and back in London there was a constant struggle between the War Office and Colonial Office about expenditure in Africa and who was paying for what in connection with the war. The Colonial Office was hesitant to incur costs it, or its territories, would have to pick up at the end of the war. The BSAC was responsible to the latter for its work in Zambia and a careful reading of Forged in the Great War points to this.

On p31 Jan-Bart states:

it was precisely on account of the war, and in particular the limitless funding made available to the BSAC by the War Office during the course of the war, that the BSAC was able to establish an effective administration in Northern Rhodesia

This is in line with my findings but what Jan-Bart hasn’t picked up on was the relationship with the Colonial Office where on occasion, I imagine, somewhat heated discussions took place over who was responsible for what costs. By 1917 Jameson is less eager to spend money in Zambia as he is aware that the company might not be reimbursed. And I would go so far as to say this is the reason the chiefs do not receive in full the rewards they were promised for recruiting labour.

This is the only area I could see were the two text differ in their argument and hence the conclusions they draw.

What is more significant than differing conclusions is the information which has been brought to light  especially from the Zambian National Archives which few students of the Great War are likely to be able to visit.

Through Jan Bart’s account we get a chronological overview of how labour practices in Zamabia changed over 30 years and some of the reasons behind these changes. He looks at the slave trade and the changes end ending of that brought, how  farming practises changed and the impact of the introduction of cassava as a food source.

Of particular note is how the administration sought to find alternatives to using human carriers and the challenges introducing mechanical transport posed. Who would have thought using a truck wouldhave been so expensive to run when one thinks of the overcrowding on our roads today (p117/8):

In the course of 1916 a road was cut and bridges built from the railhead at Broken Hill to two points on the border. Up to 17 motorcars were obtained via South Africa and converted into lorries able to carry 700 lbs plus a driver and his kit. The road was an earthen track, with exception of approximately 80 miles of sand where, ‘wheel tracks in the sand were filled with soft stone and the cars ran on two slightly sunken ribbons of Macadam thus formed’.

Taking into account the amount of food carriers would need to survive a journey (p119):

Administrator Wallace wrote:
I hear from Colonel Masterman that he has asked Mr. Chaplin for authority to buy 10 more motor lorries and cars for the road Kashutu to Kasama, this will make a total of 26 cars with which he hopes to be able to deliver 2,000 lbs per day at Kasama. I estimated that three tons per day were needed and I am now informed that the amount required is nearer five tons per day. It is evident that if the motor transport had to be depended upon we should need a very large number of cars. The road will be a safeguard against failure but I hope that except for urgent stores we shall not have to use it much as the running costs alone cannot be less than £70 to £80 per ton.

Man power was still the most efficient, reliable and cost effective.

Another option which opened for the duration of the war, was river transport. The administrators, were despite today’s views, very conscious of the need to look after their labour as it was scarce and deaths or losses of any kind would have a major impact on the delivery of food – for all.

Goodall, based at Nsumbu Island, systematised and supervised the transport route through the numbering: ‘a numbered metal label nailed to each craft’, and registering of all craft. Canoes and paddlers were collected from all the river systems, and Goodall ‘soon had registered over 12,000 paddlers and 2,000 canoes’. The canoes were hired for whatever period they were needed and the owners received hire payment at the rate of 6d. per load per trip. Paddlers were engaged for two complete journeys and received 6s. pay and 2s. food allowance per journey. An extra shilling was paid to those who completed the journey in under one month. Canoes in need of repairs were dealt with at Kabunda, free of charge to owners. In this manner boats, ‘ranging from small ones of not more than 12 inches wide which with only one paddler carried 120 lbs, to large ones which with 5 or 6 paddlers would carry half a ton’, transported nearly 70,000 loads of an average 25 kilogram a piece between January 1916 and February 1917.

That the administraton was concerned is also evident in its reaction to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the lack of food availability. I can just imagine the confusion and anger there must have been with the government insisting that all farmers who had produce sell it to the government which then saw to it being distruibuted more fairly and widely to ensure that all had something rather than many having nothing. I’m not naive enough to ignore the ideas of misappropriation of goods and some getting more than others for various reasons (the same happened in the UK with rationing and in other countries), but it does serve to show that at least on a local level there were whites with a conscience.

Finally, it was also refreshing to see Jan-Bart’s take on The Lake Tanganyika Expedition. This is something I’ve been very aware of through the photographs of the expedition and as he notes, there is very little in the written documentation, but it is there if you look.

For May, I’m going to review Richard Smith’s Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, masculinity and the development of national consciousness. I mention this here as it provides a very insightful take on British attitudes to micro-nationalities outside of Britain.


One thought on “Review: Forged in the Great War by Jan-Bart Gewald

  1. Pingback: Review: Information History of the First World War | Anne Samson - Historian

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