Field Marshal Ironside in Africa

I was asked a little while ago about General Ironside having served in South West Africa as a spy. The result was some investigation as surely I would have registered on such a notable having been involved in the 1914-1918 GSWA campaign. That we had a Goebels and a Goering serve in EA as well as a Trapp (but not related to the Sound of Music von Trapp), and Edward Grey’s brother…a name like Ironside should have stuck. But it also didn’t sound quite right. There would have been a lot said about such a personage serving in Africa during World War One – it must have been at a different time he was there, if he was…

All was revealed by discovering Edmund Ironside’s biography of his father Ironside: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Lord Ironside (2018). Ironside had served during the 1899-1902 war in southern Africa and had gone into the neighbouring German colony as a spy, working with John Buchan. However, a little more searching revealed that others knew this before 2018.

Already in 1987, an article in History Today discusses John Buchan using Ironside as one of his inspirations for Richard Hannay. According to Roderick (Rory) Macleod’s entry at King’s College London Liddell Hart Military Archives, Ironside was in South-West Africa until 1904. Macleod edited Ironside’s Diaries published in 1962. His exploits in GSWA are also mentioned in Brian Parritt, The Intelligencers: British Military Intelligence from the Middle Ages to 1929 (2011) and Nicholas Rankin’s Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for deception, 1914-1945 (2008).

Find a Grave has a summary of his service – I wondered how realistic his disguise as an Afrikaans Boer would have been, but this given his fluency in seven languages and having learnt them from a young age, this is plausible. Kitchener managed to disguise himself as an Arab in Sudan.

This little snippet prompts more questions about Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck having met Louis Botha around the time… (foreword by Thomas Ofcansky in reprint of East African Reminiscences) although I still cannot see Milner allowing an erstwhile enemy to meet a future enemy,

Culture clash: Rules of war

One of the things that struck me when researching Kitchener: the man not the myth was Kitchener’s idea on what constituted a fair war. He was said to have exclaimed ‘It’s not war’ when he heard about the first use of gas on the Western Front, and felt at a distinct advantage when facing the Dervishes with his guns against their spears. It was also apparent that there were differences concerning women – Kitchener offered the Dervishes an opportunity to surrender to safeguard the women and children whilst the Dervishes did not see this as an option. The role of women as camp followers was a further difference between the British and Dervish forces although Kitchener allowed the Egyptian Army to have female camp followers, as did the German Army.

These cultural differences were brought home quite recently again reading Robin Smith’s history of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 Practically Over. During the 1899-1902 war in South Africa there were numerous instances where the Boers misused the white flag of surrender by firing on the British forces when they were in close proximity having been lured over by the white flag. Reading these accounts, I often have the question ‘how would the rural Boer have known what the rules of war were?’ and ‘how likely were they to know the decisions agreed at Geneva and the Hague about the conduct of war?’ Few of the Boers had any formal military training.

What prompted me to write this up was reading of an instance where the Boers in June/July 1900 asked Archibald Hunter for an armistice whilst they sorted out who was to be their new commandant following the departure of Christian de Wet. Hunter obviously refused the request and the Boers quickly resolved their differences by electing a leader who promptly surrendered (p52). This incident was either a cheeky ploy on the part of the Boers or more likely due to their take on what constituted a fair war. Reading the encounters Robin has included in his book bring home how little the Boers fired at men, rather killing the horses to reduce the British soldier’s mobility. A similar attitude was evident in the derailing of trains – enough explosive to derail the engine and cause delays rather than death.

In the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 we read of captured soldiers being given parole and the exchange of letters complaining about inappropriate action in contrast to medical supplies being left for prisoners of war, local truces or understandings to bury the dead etc.

We tend to object to the other side ‘playing unfair’ – but that’s according to our rules. What about their rules? We assume all countries and cultures follow the same basic principles – think of the outcry at the Japanese Kamikaze or suicide unit of World War Two. Their view of prisoners being similar to that of askari in the East Africa campaign. And the more recent terror attacks where attacking civilians is seen as fair game in their struggle. How we engage in war was brought to the fore again when reading about China sending observers to the Western Front to learn what they could to develop their military forces.

Retaliation seems to be the standard response as seen in the dropping of the atomic bombs and targeted air strikes etc. However, I can’t help but wonder whether our stepping back to consider and understand the ‘other’ culture would lead to a different outcome than we have seen in the past.

Publishing 100 years ago

I was undecided whether to post this here or with my publishing hat on, but in the end decided here was more appropriate because of the historical links.

Back in 1922, Solomon Plaatje tried to get his novel Mhudi published in the USA. Plaatje was a black South African but before assumptions are made and conclusions drawn, it’s worth considering the wider context. In the 1920s according to Brian Willan, Plaatje’s biographer, there was an interest in the USA for black literature and Plaatje was a published author in the UK with Native Life in South Africa and various pamphlets to his name. He was a well-known newspaper writer and editor too and his work had the support of academics at University College London (UCL) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Despite his resume, Plaatje’s book was rejected by the big players of the day but a small publisher offered to print his book – which he praised, predicting 20,000 sales for the grand total of $1,500 which worked out at $5 per book.

It was these figures that jumped out at me – the figures quoted haven’t changed much in 100 years. Authors I speak to today have often been told a publisher will publish if the author contributes or pays for the print. The lowest figure given to me has been £1,500 and this is from both small, big and academic publishers.

The other striking aspect on book selling which Plaatje brought home was the unpredictability of sales. He travelled widely – in the UK, USA and South Africa promoting his work and selling his books. In 1920 he recorded that, in the USA, he got $40-50 from sales whereas in 1922 he could hardly get $8 or $10. His books did not feature in bookshops (since 2010, only 1% of all books published are likely to make it into a bookshop) despite there being reviews in recognised newspapers of the day such as the South African.

Again, this resonates with book selling today. Publishers generally do very little marketing of books expecting the author to do most of it, preferring to focus their energies on books they expect to make a return within three months of being released. There are numerous outlets now (social media) for letting people know about new books which technically means reaching more readers however, some time ago I read that only 7% of social media gets seen in a day. An article published at the beginning of December 2020 suggests that the average user receives 1,500 posts a day of which only 300 are shown in their feed (those deemed most relevant). This prompts the question then: is the ‘reach’ any different then from Plaatje’s time?

It has also been suggested that today that the book buying world consists of authors and publishers – few outside of the book producing world buy books. There may be something in this, but it’s hard to say. Reading habits have changed over the years and there are more books entering into the world every year whilst the second-hand book market ensures older books continue to circulate almost in perpetuity. Another random read recently noted that what is really important when it comes to books is not the number sold but the number read. Much is seen today about tsundoku or the art of buying books and never reading them as I wrote about recently. Can one make the assumption that, with fewer books in circulation and relatively more expensive 100 years ago, people read more of what they bought? I’m not sure we’ll know.

Today there is a huge industry in self-publishing but I don’t think this is much different to Plaatje’s day. Numerous books I encounter regarding the First World War in Africa are noted to be for private circulation or privately published, confirming there was no major market for the book but the author felt it needed to be made more widely available. The difference today is that technology has levelled the playing field when it comes to self-publishing. Most of Plaatje’s travels and book promotion tours were to raise funds to get new books published where the publisher asked the author to make a financial contribution. This effectively puts his books into the ‘self-published’ category. I wonder how Plaatje’s writings would have fared had he had access to the technology we have.

Mhudi was eventually published in 1930, ten years after it was written, by Lovedale University – Plaatje having to make no financial contribution. Since his death, and the reprint of the book in 1978 (with a foreword by Tim Couzens) more copies of the book have been sold than during his lifetime – and not for the reasons Plaatje initially set out to write the book but despite this, by all accounts, once again according to Willan, Plaatje’s aim has been realised.

Who would have thought that a biography on the first published black South African author would have provided such an insight into the world of publishing? Willan’s biography is definitely worth a read – it opened many windows onto a man whose name has generally been confined to Native Life in South Africa and his reporting of the Boer siege of Mafeking in the 1899-1902 war.

Ghostly fascinations

There seems to be a fascination with the dead returning to life. Recently we have television programmes such as The Mentalist and Sue Thomas FBI to name but two. There are also vampire and werewolf interests (The Vampire Diaries, etc). I have recently read a few books, linking the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) with the present. Damian Barr‘s You will be safe here, and soon to be published Roberta Eaton Cheadle‘s A ghost and his gold.

This fascination is not new, it was prevalent a century ago in literature and Folklore Thursday amongst others tell tales of even further back. Of the texts published a century ago, these prompted this posting, two again set in Africa: Prester John by John Buchan and Benita: An African romance by H Rider Haggard. In both these tales ghosts or spirits appear or are called on to give power either politically/spiritually or economically. There also appears to be a significant role for caves which are difficult to get into. Interestingly, an author of the time probably most associated with spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle, although mentioning it in an early letter to the press, embraced it in 1916 writing a novel The Land of Mist in 1925.

While these accounts are fictional, Africa, along with other territories, seems to have a close connection with the spirit world. Ewart Grogan in his travels from Cape Town to Cairo overland at the end of the twentieth century shared in From the Cape to Cairo: The first traverse from south to north described his encounters with people impacted by the fear of spirits as they refused to take him through certain areas. Various of the British South African Police reminiscences also refer to the impact of spirits on people’s actions and the fear of witch doctors. Appeasing the ancestors is important – then and now.

An article on Why we see dead people flitted across one of my social media platforms on no less than 11 November – a day of remembrance, specifically for those who died during World War One or the First World War, the Great War or the war of 1914-1918 (depending on your pedantic stance as to how you refer to the conflict). And accounts abound of people encountering ancestors on the battlefields and elsewhere which give insights into what potentially happened. I find these fascinating but as an historian, I wonder how much of our interest and fascination with a ghostly past in whatever form is important for our defining who we are as individuals and communities, especially bearing in mind how our cultures are defined or influenced by past and present religious practices, beliefs and traditions through education in its widest forms. To what extent did our ancestors who served in Africa during the Great War and other earlier conflicts respond to those who died where ‘normal’ practices could not be enacted? What impact did this have on later remembrance?

Review: The Corfield Papers – Kim Leslie

I was given a copy of The Corfield Papers in West Sussex Record Office: An illustrated catalogue and family history by Kim Leslie, the author of the book.

This might seem a bit of an odd thing to do but there is an African connection in none other than Daniel Patrick Driscoll of Driscoll’s Scouts in the 1899-1902 war and of 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) fame in the East Africa campaign of World War 1.

Driscoll has a reputation something Kim touches on as an illegitimate daughter of Driscoll’s, conceived in South Africa, was adopted by Carruthers Corfield and his wife Betty in 1903 in England. More will be coming on this in due course as I am currently editing a biography on Driscoll written by Peter Lovatt (a family connection), to be published through the Great War in Africa Association.

The book is a publication format I hadn’t come across before – a catalogue of family papers as one used to dealing with paper catalogues would understand, supplemented with background to the various contributors to the archive providing a valuable family history with select family trees and a range of illustrations from the collection. All in one publication – an absolute labour of love and for researchers interested in social history of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this looks a rich and varied source of data.

While there wasn’t much on Driscoll for obvious reasons, some things caught my eye which gives a flavour of what can be found in the book and collection.

It was a timely reminder of how apparently official documents can have inaccuracies – names, dates of birth/death can differ, all through human error – supporting the need to corroborate evidence. This is a family with some tricky pasts linking into Japan, the USA and Australia. I wonder if such situations are as prevalent today in our technologically linked up world? Is it as easy today as it was then for a person to marry someone else whilst still married to another or to believe one is married only to find out it wasn’t legal for some technical reason? These are questions posed by some family experiences.

I’ve already mentioned the Inspector of Nuisances in a previous post. Another interesting discover is ‘snowbird communities’. This seems to be a United States of American thing where people find winter hideaways – in this case it was Lake Alfred in Florida.

There is also a fascinatingly sad story about Carruthers and Betty’s daughter who set herself alight aged 18 months. That this happened in a doctor’s house and so rapidly suggested the matches concerned were not what we know as ‘safety’ matches. An article published in May 2020 explains the difference and sets out that although they were invented in about 1893, they only became legal in 1910. How many other children lost their lives due to this seemingly innocuous little piece of wood. For anyone interested there is a website called History of Matches.

There is much (relatively speaking) being published or said about the difference in burial or treatment between black and white in Africa (interestingly little attention is given to the demise of the local Arab, Indian or Chinese in these discussions). So I was intrigued to read in The Corfield Papers of a letter dated 1859 (p113) in which it referred to a death in Jamaica as follows: “…it is the custom of the Country for every Estate to have a burial ground on it, one for the white, another for the black people”. Without debating the rights and wrongs or reasons for the difference in treatment, it was clearly a practice of long standing.

And finally, I discovered another link with Kitchener: Carruthers Corfield was a trustee of the Kitchener Benevolent Society with correspondence or information predating 1918 suggesting Corruthers was there from the start and there is reference to a 1918 letter regarding tensions with Frances Parker otherwise known as Millie, Kitchener’s sister. The other related Frances Parker is Fanny Parker the suffragette.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to get this book, but can see the value for family, social, cultural and medical historians/researchers. It was a real bonus to discover some of these links and all compliments to Kim on a labour of love – it’s a useful catalogue, fascinating family history and beautiful book.