Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

Where to start? I found this book challenging to read, I didn’t like the style of writing and I had been annoyed before I began reading when a glance at the bibliography showed that once again we have a memoir of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck where German texts have been ignored other than those by Lettow-Vorbeck himself. In addition, all the myths of the First World War in Africa have been perpetuated as no primary or archival research was undertaken. How very frustrating, but thankfully all was not lost …

I always try and find something positive and for this book, it was a timely read as it reminded me of certain aspects of the campaign I had forgotten about and which were necessary for a paper or two I was writing. The basics are there.

Mixed feelings abound over Gaudi’s sidetracking – the opening scene for example is a long drawn out account of how Britain got the German codebook which eventually allowed it to pick up on the Konigsberg. And there are many others besides. The pros of this approach include new info and ideas, widening the scope of the war, showing how inter-related it was but on the con side, I just couldn’t help thinking the author was showing off.

It seems I am not the only one to have mixed feelings about this book. Mark Thatcher posted on Facebook (and I purposefully ignored it until I read the book) as follows:

Mark Thatcher So far so good with a couple of exceptions. I love the LOTR and all things Tolkien but mixing fantasy and History…hmmmm ….maybe on HBO. Also the author describes the Pour le Merite as a ‘metal’. It may be comprised of metal but the Pour le Merite is a ‘Medal’, as in medallion not metallion. Ugh.

For those not sure, LOTR = Lord of the Rings. I have no issue with including fiction in a history book – I do it myself, it’s more about how it’s done and which fiction is being referred to.

A librarian friend sent the Spectator review to me coincidentally just as I was starting the book – it must have been something in the ether – the copy I had was marked ‘Uncorrected proof, not for resale’ – it appears as though the Spectator reviewer had a similar copy. I sincerely hope that the errors, typos and other gremlins were all sorted for the release. Many of the major errors are listed in the Spectator review and I’m really pleased to see that one of the myths I had fallen for and have been trying to unravel, has been confirmed or at least sufficient evidence has been supplied for me to double check – that Max Aitken (newspaper mogul) and Arthur Aitken (Tanga fiasco) are not related:

And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).

The Spectator refers to the Washington Post review – I can only agree with what was said in the Spectator, but I can understand where the Washington Post reviewer is coming from. If this is the first you’re reading about the East Africa campaign or von Lettow-Vorbeck, then it will be rivetting and an eye-opener, and the writing style – well, that may be a matter of taste. This is not the first American write-up I’ve seen on the campaigns in Africa which show a general ignorance of Africa and what was happening there.

Would I recommend this book? I think on balance I would, just, but with lots of cautions. The main one being to double check everything before you use it.

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6 thoughts on “Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

  1. Anne, I just recently finished a memoir by Von-Lettow, covering his experiences in the war. I will send you the title, on the off chance…. Regards, Chris Dalton

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. The German Archives particularly those dealing with the armed forces were badly damaged during bombing in WW2. How did this affect access to WW1 records? I read somewhere recently that they have been able to scrape together some records of the WW1. But are they the ones needed regarding GEA? Also, as you would know, there was always much more interest in the Western Front than the other theatres … unfortunately …

    • Thanks Deon. Apparently WW1 records were caught up with those WW2 missing documents, although those which had been taken from Belgium to Germany ended up in Russia and are now back in Belgium. I used them for the Lake Tanganyika Chronology. There might be other documents languishing in other archives still which we don’t know about.
      Boell’s papers (regarded as the Official Historian of WW1 in Africa) are in the Bundesarchiv in Berlin and there are various memoirs by soldiers who served in EA which have not been translated into English. There are also a few biographies (Eckart Michels for example) which are recent and also not translated into English – but I see there is an English summary (having done a search to ensure I spelt his name right) at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/lettow-vorbeck_paul_von. Interestingly too, there are a number of memoirs by German women who were in EA before and during the war, more than there are in English from what I’ve seen. And there are English translations of German documents in the British National Archives and Imperial War Museum. These are from documents captured during the war. The orginals were apparently returned to their owners after the conflict.
      The material is there…

      • Thank you Anne. This has called to mind two unexpected sources I found when undertaking research into the battle of Delville Wood for Purnell’s WW1 series in 1973. One was the War Diary of the German Division (I think) faced by the S Africans. A part had been translated and published in the Army Quarterly in about 1936. It was a lovely source. The other was letters from the SA soldiers to their families after the battle – They were published in The Springbok, the newsletter of what is now called the SA Legion and they were a gold mine – They seemed to be more accurate than the 1st SA Inf Bde’s War Diary which was only written after the officers emerged from hospital or returned from leave. Did the German soldiers in GEA not have a similar post-war veterans’ organisation with a journal that could contain similar letters? Here are the examples I noted:
        ‘German War Diaries Series’, Army Quarterly, November, 1936.
        Letters from Survivors of Delville Wood in Springbok – Journal of the SA Legion, April 1929, July 1930, Sept 1933, July 1965, July 1966, Sept 1966, July 1969, Oct 1969.
        War Diaries of the 1st SA Infantry Brigade, February 1916 to July 1917. Box 127, Directorate Documentation, SANDF
        Reyman, M. Das Infanterie-Regiment von Alvensleben, Nr.52, im Weltkriege 1914-1918, Oldenburg, Berlin, 1923.

  3. Thanks Deon, that’s good to know too and supports my argument entirely.

    On the post-war veteran associations – I haven’t come across any – there are some very useful online forums which have a German focus such as Axis History (https://forum.axishistory.com//) – those I’ve found are listed on the GWAA resource page (http://gweaa.com/home/resources/). Lettow-Vorbeck and Governor Schnee joined forces for a bit to try and get Tanzania given back to Germany but after that failed, seemed to return to their former avoidance of each other and 1930s politics soon dominated. I can’t see them as having spurred anything. It will be interesting to hear what German colleagues can add to this.

    The pressure to get publications out quickly these days and the lure of ‘everything being online’ is, in my opinion, a major part of the issue. The other is taking the sensationalist approach to boost sales. Both Gaudi and Adam Cruise – “Louis Botha’s War” which I reviewed some time back now, are victims of both these approaches.

    Over my years of researching, and possibly due to the political-cultural approach I take, I’ve become more aware of ‘the other side(s)’ and needing to take that into account when trying to understand personal motivations at any rate. My experience is that historians aware of their multi-heritage background are generally more sensitive to this and make a concerted effort to get as rounded a picture as possible of the event, person or community.

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