Review: Gregg Adams: KAR Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18

My first thought on staring to read Gregg Adam’s King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey, 2016) was ‘Oh my! What am I going to be able to say about this military history?’ I felt out of my depth getting into this book which takes a very (in my opinion) military look at the differences between the KAR and Schutztruppe during the years 1916 to 1918. Gregg has done well. Although I found my eyes glazing over at numbers and calibres of weapons, etc, the value of this little book (less than 80 pages of text) became apparent to the student of war.

Readers and those who know me, must be tired by now of my statement that Lettow-Vorbeck was not all he is made out to be – he was a commander with flaws, and these need to be fully reviewed amongst English-speaking historians – using more than just Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs to make an objective assessment. Gregg has just about got there. At the start of the book he comments on Lettow-Vorbeck’s status, but by the end of the book, the flaws and quirks of the man’s military strategies and tactics are apparent – if only Gregg had emphasised these more. Smuts is regularly criticised for his love of the encircling movement. Gregg’s commentary suggests that a similar criticism could be levelled against Lettow-Vorbeck for his selection of ‘battle’ grounds.

The main focus of the book though, is the difference between the fighting forces and here, Gregg achieves a good balance. Taking three major encounters between the two sides, he explains how the encounter started, developed and ended, compares the forces facing each other and gives a timeline of the encounter.

I struggle with book layouts of this kind – blocks of text interspersed in the narrative and long descriptions with photos. However, I can’t think of a better way of presenting such information and it’s great for dipping in to; just not for those of us who prefer reading narratives without interruption. In fact, one of the benefits of how this material is laid out and the repetition of certain points is that the military implications are made more accessible for those of us without that first hand experience.

For readers familiar with Harry Fecitt’s Kaisercross/Soldiers’ Burden articles, this publication is complimentary. Harry looks at specific encounters from the perspective of the British Army, explaining them in detail and acknowledging the contributions of individual soldiers within the group. There is nothing that I picked up contradictory and in fact, the snippets of military info Harry gave this student of war to help her along, was only reconfirmed in this book. Gregg brings in the German side and explains how/why the encounter progressed as it did – broadly speaking.

I was also interested to read about Gifford’s role in World War 2 – it fits perfectly with the War Office assessment of the contribution of black soldiers undertaken by the War Office in 1937. Thank you Gregg for filling in another piece of the jigsaw.

With more military studies such as this, including the Belgian and Portuguese contributions for East Africa and doing the same for West Africa, and even Egypt – the ground for social, cultural and other histories will be well and truly set, let alone a whole stack of myths being dispelled.

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10 thoughts on “Review: Gregg Adams: KAR Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18

  1. Hello Anne. I have bought the book and it has yet to arrive. The composition of the opposing forces is an important aspect of assessing their fighting power. For instance the Schutztruppe company fielded 2-4 machine guns and these were central to the company structure. Their main fighting power came from the machine gun and they fielded a higher amount per company than their opponents.

    What is important is the differences in opposing doctrine. This is where Lettow-Vorbeck is misunderstood by most non-military authors. Lettow-Vorbeck is merely a product of the German military way of war. He fought according to his background and training and he was the product of a long German military doctrine and tradition. Its silly to get into a good general, bad general argument. Its presumptuous to assess generalship from the comfort of a chair as many modern day historians do. He was a tough, resourceful, wily and very able soldier, who enjoyed the benefit of being steeped in a doctrine that allowed Germans the tactical and operational advantage in most battles during the First World War.

    I deal with this in an article “A clash of military doctrine: Brigadier-General Wilfrid Malleson and the South Africans at Salaita Hill, February 1916”
    https://www.academia.edu/33381216/A_clash_of_military_doctrine_Brigadier-General_Wilfrid_Malleson_and_the_South_Africans_at_Salaita_Hill_February_1916

    • Hello David
      My comment stands across the board – I’ve read many an article and book by militarily trained historians working in English (the Fort Levenworth collection is a specific case in point) and am not convinced at their arguments. There are one or two exceptions as they have engaged with the German texts.
      There is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in all commanders and politicians. I don’t believe in judging but rather to let the documents do the talking. My issue is with authors who do judge without taking the other side into account. One also can’t ignore the political impact on those fighting the battles on the ground which is another area which needs to be addressed. But I’m also aware it’s a process – you have to peel layers of an onion to get to the core. And as I delve more into the German and Belgian sources, it’s becoming clearer how one-sided the English history of the campaign has been (mine included).
      One of the benefits of being a non-military historian working on war issues is that we can often see gaps which militarians can’t necessarily because they’re too close to the topic and vice-versa. Together we can build the best holistic picture.

      • You can dispell Von Lettow Myths all you want..as much is Myth w/ all leaders.But,the proof is in the pudding ,he held on for 4 years..w/ the aide of disease and such. You can’t take that away.I guess I am just dismayed ..that we have to dismantle all our past heroes. I understand correcting faulty history.but I think it then turns into vendettas..just my humble opinion. Heia Safari.

      • Juergen
        The idea is not to ‘dismantle all our past heroes’ but rather to understand them better and the conditions they served under. I argue the same about Smuts and the other British generals as well as the politicians. The Portuguese and Belgian leaders need the same treatment. A war/battle/skirmish is not won by one man but by many and for me it’s important to see how all these individuals worked together to achieve what they did. When I look at the odds the men had to cope with, I am always astounded at how they managed to survive as long as they did in the field. Broad, unsubstantiated statements do them no justice at all. Seeing what the other side threw at them and how this impacted on decisions can throw different light on the outcomes of encounters. Not least the ‘luck of war’, which Lettow seemed to have in abundance. My experience of unpicking myths is that the individual comes out more rounded and human.
        You’ve got the advantage of having the German side of the story, how many English books have you picked up on the EA campaign which reference German texts other than Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs? Smuts is often taken to task for not listening to his General Staff, Lettow didn’t listen to Schnee who was technically his superior officer, yet we hear little of this and the impact it had on the direction of the war. There was also the conflict between Looff and Lettow which is seldom touched on. These two men, Looff and Schnee, together with many others – Wahle snr and jnr, Wintgens and even Naumann played their part in Lettow being regarded as he is. How this happened despite all the supposed individual conflicts is what I’m interested in uncovering.

      • I am interested to know of the one or two exceptions who have engaged with the German texts.

        I think you are arguing past me to a certain extent. Military doctrine includes and reflects a countries politics and social values. What I am suggesting is that Lettow-Vorbeck was a product of, and was steeped in, his countries military doctrine. The way he conducted the GEA campaign has more to do with his abiding by his countries military doctrine than his being a gifted leader of men.

        He was a manoeuvrist or practised Bewegungskrieg. He was a proponent of and expected Auftragstaktik. He waged an aggressive tactical offensive while on the strategic defensive, had plenty of fingerspitzengefühl (some of us less informed call that luck), As a German officer he preferred flanking attacks and the kesselshlacht. When in doubt he and his men would often attack rather than do nothing. I cannot find one piece of evidence that suggests that he conducted the war in GEA out of the bounds of German military doctrine. I would be grateful if anyone can furnish me with an instance of one.

        I am not surprised that historians wrestle with the idea of German military doctrine. It is a doctrine that all the major western powers military, including Israel, have struggled to adopt with varying degrees of success for decades. It is simply stated but difficult to execute. The works you cite from the “Fort Levenworth collection” are an example of the USA military and their long love affair with German military doctrine.

        Take a look at S. Mitchell, ‘Jan Smuts, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in German East Africa’, in The Greater War: Other Combatants and Other Fronts 1914-1918, ed. by J. Krause (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). for a refreshingly balanced view on the merits of Lettow-Vorbeck’s and Smuts’s generalship.

        Thank you for providing a forum for lively debate. I know the huge amount of work it takes to maintain these sites.

  2. I don’t understand why people think a fresh new look at a perceived hero, under-dog, victim or person in the shadows is a question of dismantling history. Surely it is democratizing and understanding the history better from a diverse and inclusive perspective.
    In my research of WWI, I find that many authors simply repeat what another author of another era says, and so a myth is perpetuated, without challenge. Of course human beings are not all good (and I place myself in that category). But to suggest that they are all good or all bad is false. Additionally as historians we have to take into account the socio-political environments of the period.
    Recent discussions I have had with people on “Was Ghandhi a racist?” (referring to his period in S.Africa) or “Was Nelson a racist?” (referring to his Caribbean pro-slavery stance) have heightened the need for historians to understand more then just the person they are studying; and being factual about them by using original sources and understanding the environment of those times and its norms, rather then being critical from today’s standpoint. It sound like Gregg Adams has done just that! I look forward to reading this book.
    It is not easy publishing works based on good original research, because the results often challenge the public (and the publisher’s perceptions). However if we pursue that line we would have no history of the women, civilians, merchant navies, Africans, Asians, or Native Americans in the two World Wars. For a Briton of Asian-African heritage, Scapa Flow is important, but so is the narrative of the Emden, or the Konigsberg – after all one nations heroes and pride is not universal.

    • Thanks Clifford – that’s exactly what I’ve found in terms of material on WW1 Africa.
      David mentions Stuart Mitchell’s 2014 article – it may be a fresh look at LV and co, but it still only uses English/British secondary sources – https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137360663_7 from what I recall having looked at it soon after publication and again today. Primary source material is crucial for areas as little researched as the East Africa campaign.
      In answer to David’s question, those who have looked at German material include Ross Anderson in his Forgotten Front (Bundesarchiv) and Harry Fecitt I know has had bits translated for his articles. Ross and Ed Paice have also looked at Portuguese records.
      David himself has started to look at German material and presented the kind of account I’ve been searching for at the July 2017 South African Military History Society meeting in Johannesburg (I was luckily able to attend). He’s taken a translation of Boell’s account of the battle for Kilimanjaro to assess Smuts’ actions – a very different (and now balanced) paper to the one presented a few years’ back.
      If I wasn’t able to get into the primary material and discover what I have been, I would have given up on researching this campaign a long time ago. The current medical project is just a case in point – see gweaa.com.

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