Review: General Jan Smuts – David Brock Katz

Having waited patiently and expectantly since about 2016 for this study on Smuts as a military commander in World War 1 to come out, I have to say upfront that I’m disappointed in General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917 by David Brock Katz.

In short, David has sadly missed, or ignored, the complexity of Smuts, and by not taking the political context into account, has misinterpreted some of Smuts’ motives and actions. In addition, there are numerous inaccuracies and contradictions throughout the book – most of which should have been picked up in the proofing stage. There are also far too many typographical errors for my liking. While the book appears to be well referenced, this belies the selectivity of sources and omission of some such as War Diaries (other than two concerning Salaita Hill in February 1916), reports in the London Gazette and papers in the UK Parliamentary and Imperial War Museum archives as well as the British Library (India Office collection). Finally, I felt there was an imbalance in content – for a book touting an assessment of Smuts’ World War 1 experience, of the 260 pages of text, 50 concerned his pre-WW1 life and involvement in politics with no links made as to how this would play out in the years 1914-1918. Similarly, a whole chapter is allocated to the battle of Salaita Hill which occurred before Smuts arrived as commander in the theatre. Although the title of this chapter suggests a discussion on a clash of military doctrine, it fails to link with Smuts’ later actions, or what had happened in German South West Africa. The conclusion of the book reads like an academic assignment, telling the reader what the book covered through repetition of what had been said before, effectively a narrative summary, with little development of argument or new areas for investigation.

The most fluid read were the few chapters on the campaign in East Africa. However, this also contains somewhat heavy-handed criticism of the  works of Ross Anderson and Hew Strachan. Elsewhere in the text, there is criticism of Ian van der Waag and Rodney Warwick who are challenged on their interpretations of the battle of Sandfontein. While some of the criticisms against all four might be justified, there has been a failure to adequately contextualise these works and they ways in which they challenged the existing historiography. All the texts are nearly 20 years old. They were researched and published at a time when access to foreign archives was not as easy as today and while the internet was available, the rich links to archival material did not yet exist. In criticising these historians for being selective in their source material, David opens himself to the same criticism. Concerning criticism and evidence of his source selectivity, it was rather surprising not to see my own work challenged, especially as I have written a fair amount on the leadership of the campaign and generally agree with statements made by all four mentioned historians. But then, I’m a student of war, not a specialist of military strategy or tactics and this appears to be a significant divide for David. ‘Many contemporary historians’ are referred to – who they are, we are not told. His decision to not engage with contemporary material (except for one or two texts) has led to major gaps in his work and misinterpretation.

To address all the weaknesses in the book would lead to another book and would appear nit-picky. So, I touch on only a few. I have also limited my comments to East Africa, as my concerns regarding South West Africa and Palestine would require much longer contextual explanations.

In discussing the leadership of the East Africa campaign, David has regarded the commanding officers pre-Smuts’ arrival as British Army. What has been missed, is that they were all Indian Army, who although trained in British military fashion had adapted their ways to the Indian Army where officers tended to lead from the front. (George Morton Jack refers amongst others) In addition, the Indian Army was the first port of call for additional troops in Africa rather than British troops. They therefore had a history and some inherent knowledge of the theatre they were engaging in. Little was said about Charles Callwell’s Small wars in relation to how the East Africa campaign was fought, yet Richard Meinterzhagen‘s views are regularly considered (it is only acknowledged in the conclusion that questions have been raised about his reliability as a source).

Many questions remain unanswered in the book. Smuts seemed to fall into the same trap in chasing von Lettow-Vorbeck across East Africa that Kitchener fell into in trying to stop Smuts’ raid into the Cape. How was this? Why did Smuts think von Lettow-Vorbeck would surrender at the end of 1916 when Smuts knew that if he’d been in the same position, he would not have done so? On p169 there is mention of Lettow-Vorbeck and the Boers operating together to suppress uprisings in GSWA. This is incorrectly dated to 1900-1901 which is during the Boer War when Lettow-Vorbeck was first in the German Colonial Office and then China. Lettow-Vorbeck was in GSWA with von Trotha and the Herero uprising of 1904-1907. Who is the von Botha referred to in his memoir? Would Lord Milner really have allowed senior Boer commando leaders who would not co-operate in his government to join the Germans to suppress an uprising? Why has Smuts not said anything about this in any of his letters?

While I promote, the use of primary sources in historical writing, particularly when writing about the campaigns in Africa during WW1, there is great value in using secondary sources to verify interpretations and criticisms but also to open new windows onto situations and sources. Two missing texts which spring to mind are the Regimental History of the Durban Light Infantry (vol 1) by AC Martin especially as they were one of the South African units caught at Salaita, and James Willson’s Guerrillas of Tsavo. While this last is not an academic study, its value lies in the fact that James has walked the battlefield, uncovering numerous bases – Mbuyuni, Mashoti, Serengeti, Hill 930 etc and together with material available in Kenya, has pieced together the events around Salaita and Latema-Reata. It was my having visited the battlefields with James and time spent in the area around Kilimanjaro that got me looking at the maps in General Smuts – based on existing maps, they do little to illustrate the case put forward especially as border markings were left out making it unclear what was in British or German territory. Similarly, in a number of maps, adding the position of Kilimanjaro, a significant landmark, would have given a clearer visual of the area under discussion.

Statements along the lines of “Salaita, deep inside British territory” alerted me to the fact that David hadn’t experienced the battlefields there, the same applies to his comments about Stewart’s march through Longido. On Stewart’s advance, had mention been made of his poor leadership at Bukoba in early 1915, the argument would hold greater sway than the single assessment of his progress around Kilimanjaro – it’s challenging enough today in a vehicle on tarred roads, let alone in uncut bush, not knowing where Germans were hiding. It was also striking that little has been said of the removal of Stewart’s mounted unit before he embarked on his march.

A feature running throughout the book is the split in the Union Defence Force between mounted Boer and infantry English forces and how the former differs to British fighting strategy with regards encirclement and frontal attack. Yet, the fact that the South African forces mainly involved at Salaita are SA infantry is missed. Having recently worked through Ludwig Boell’s history* of the campaign from the German perspective, it was rather intriguing to read of the German tendency to use encirclement where possible. Yet, I did not pick up on this in David’s discussion of the clash in military doctrines despite his having used Boell.

For all I’ve said and could say, there is still value in General Jan Smuts. It will certainly start a new discussion on Smuts and leadership of the African campaigns. I learnt that Smuts joined the Victoria College Rifle Association whilst a student there – before he went to Cambridge – and a little more about the Anglo-Boer War. There are also numerous potentially useful references to follow up on. I may have used some in the past for different purposes but will now be going back to assess my initial interpretation.

In conclusion, however, the potential strengths of this book are outweighed by the points mentioned above. I would therefore only recommend General Jan Smuts if you are doing an academic study and need it for your historiography or literature review. In the meantime, I look forward to the next book investigating Smuts (and Botha) as commanders in World War 1 – by Antonio Garcia and Ian van der Waag.

* An English translation of Boell’s history is soon to be published by the Great War in Africa Association.

Pure duty – An irony of history

Jan Smuts in September 1919 was returning for the first time to the area he had raided eighteen years before when fighting for the Boer republic. He wrote to Issie, his wife, telling her that ‘Now I go there to ask them to let the republic go. That is the irony of history, apparently contradictory; and yet both are in the way of pure duty. But people do not easily understand such choices.’

How do leaders of all kinds convince their followers that circumstances and situations have changed, requiring a different approach? Unfortunately, Smuts doesn’t give any suggestions and judging by the fact that he lost the election in 1924, he wasn’t very successful in his attempts. 

I can’t help but recollect when thinking about human behaviour and change that Marthe Kiley-Worthington believes it takes two generations of elephants for them to overcome the effects of a traumatic experience. Is it the same for humans? Or are we more selective in our forgetting? How is it that many of the youth in South Africa today have little or no recollection of the struggles their parents went through in the ending of Apartheid? As far back as 2003 when teaching A level students in the UK about the Cold War etc, none of my students from Eastern Europe had any idea of life before 1991 – did their parents purposefully not share what they had been through?

This contrasts with friends across the globe who have come through the tail end of civil upheavals – comparing notes is fascinating and insightful. Yet our reactions and responses can be quite different to those of our parents’ generation. Some have struggled to make the transition to a more free and equal society while others have embraced the new world, with all variations in between. And yet, despite all this wealth of experience and first hand knowledge, we don’t always see (or want to see) the warning signs of society and countries getting themselves into similar twists… this strange amalgamation of past, present and future seem to play a part in how we respond to being warned of changed and changing circumstances. 

Bringing about lasting change is a slow process which many experts have written about. Yet, it still seems that a catalyst is needed to jolt us (some at any rate) to action. I wonder how elephants work through the process of overcoming the trauma their ancestors experienced?

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.