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.

Novelist: Hans Grimm

This has been one of those amazing yet frustrating finds. Having picked up on Der Ölsucher von Duala as being a World War One novel published in 1933 and slotted it into place, in researching about Hans, it materialised that he had at least three other books about the war published earlier. It’s frustrating as it throws my chronology of authors out of sync, but wonderful as more novels of the time have come to light. Now to brush up my German reading skills…

Hans Grimm had spent some time in Port Elizabeth and East London in about 1908 and then in 1910 was in German South West Africa as journalist for Tägliche Rundschau. George Danton mentions he served on the German front during the war before becoming an interpreter for the Foreign Office. He wrote numerous books based in Africa.

1875 – born in Wiesbaden, 22 March
1908 – Port Elizabeth and East London in South Africa
1910 – German South West Africa
1914 – War service in Germany
1917 – Writer for German Colonial Office
1920s – toured German South West Africa
1959 – died Lippoldsberg, 29 September

Books on World War 1

Der Gang durch den Sand (1916) – set in GSWA (summary)
Die Olewagen-Sagen (1918) – set in GSWA (summary and excerpt)
Volk ohne Raum (1926) – touches on East, West and South West Africa. For a breakdown of what is covered see Danton
Der Ölsucher von Duala. Ein afrikanisches Tagebuch (1933, although Namibiana suggests 1918 as his first commissioned book by the German Colonial Office.

Sources and other bits

Folk Dance and Safari – some thoughts on Hans Grimm’s photographs from South West Africa
Namibiana
Wikipedia

The Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi Strip or Caprivi Zipfel, for those who don’t know of it, is a strip of land between Namibia, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was named after German Count Caprivi, the German colonial minister between 1890 and 1894.

This little strip has been a fascination since I started work on my thesis in the previous century and discovered a reference to it having been loaned by Britain to Germany: a statement which appeared in Silvestre’s edited volume on Namibia. It was also one of the first victories of the First World War for the Rhodesian forces – Schuckmannsberg surrendered to Major A Essex Capell on 21 September 1914 after a two-hour negotiation. The German commanders responsible for the German town were Hans Kaufmann and Viktor von Frankenberg. In 2013, Schuckmannsberg, named after the Governor of SWA Bruno von Schuckmann in 1909, was renamed Luhonono.

The contentious nature of the strip continues. In researching material for a paper on the end of the First World War, I discovered that a petition was put to the UN in 2014 objecting to the treatment of the territory by Namibia. The petition argues that in essence this little piece of land is still under control of Her Majesty’s Government. It had its own agreement at Versailles separate to the South West Africa mandate which meant that when Namibia gained its independence in 1990, it was only the South West Africa mandate which was affected, not the Caprivi mandate.

What is remarkable too, in this petition is a note (p4) which reads:

The eight objective of this legal document is to demonstrate that Caprivi Strip is
inhabited by a people as defined under general international law and that all peoples inhabiting mandated and trust territories and colonies (i.e. sacred trusts of civilization) are entitled to be enabled by administering States to freely and without interference from any quarter, whatsoever, to exercise their inalienable and universal right to self-determination, failing which they have the right, including by means of armed struggle, to fight for independence as a last resort* as envisaged under inter alia UNGA resolutions 2105 (XX) of December 20 1965; 3070 (XXVIII) of November 30 1973; 3382 (XXX) of November 10 1975.

* This doctrine is based on the provisions of paragraph 3 of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”

I had never realised that today it is acceptable/legal for a micro-nation (peoples) to take up arms and fight for their independence.

Writing this post on 11 November 2017 seems appropriate – the end of the war to end all wars and to give the rights of determination to small nations is something some are still struggling for, more than 100 years later.

Matchbox full of diamonds

Matchboxes are wonderful things. You can build towers and other buildings with them and once the matches inside have been removed, they can be used for storing all sorts of things – tiny things. Someone’s even created a museum of matchboxes.

David Kramer, a South African musical social commentator has a song with the same title as this blog. In the song, he tells the story of men who leave the mines in South West Africa (now Namibia) with diamonds hidden in matchboxes. No doubt these diamonds are later sold in the illegal markets for additional income.

Diamonds in Namibia were discovered in the years preceeding the outbreak of World War 1 and as a result of what today could be regarded as insider trading, but then looking out for national interests, the MP Hull set in motion the formation of Anglo-American which was to obtain the rights to these mines soon after South African received the German colony as a C-type Mandate at the Treaty of Versailles. It was in the setting up of Anglo-American that Sir Ernest Oppenheimer was invited by Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts to be an observer at the Peace Talks.

At the outbreak of war, there were 1500 Coloured South African citizens working in German territory who had to be brought back to the Union. They had presumably been working either on the mines or on farms. The difficulty they faced was that the German bank notes they’d been paid with were not accepted by South African banks. This was because the banks weren’t sure whether they would recoup the money from Germany. The Government had to step in and help make decisions to ensure these men were fairly compensated.

And here’s a place you can go and get your own diamonds: Diamond Crater

Review: The First World War in Namibia 1914-1915 by Gordon McGregor & Mannfred Goldbeck

Many regard the East Africa campaign as the ‘forgotten’ campaign. Relatively speaking, it is no longer forgotten. And in any event there are other more forgotten, if that is possible, or rather ‘ignored’ or ‘invisible’ campaigns. Here, I think of Cameroon and Togo, the Senusi in Egypt and German South West Africa (today’s Namibia).

That South African forces captured GSWA in what is, mistakenly, believed to be the first Allied victory of the war completed in six months, is generally well known. So much so, that scholars do not think there is any reason to revisit the theatre as they do East Africa leading to my reference to it as the ‘Done’ campaign at the recent SCOLMA conference.

However, a few of us know differently and none more so than people who reside or have lived in Namibia. This is leading to more becoming known about this ‘little’ campaign which will hopefully inspire more detailed research to be undertaken.

After some struggles with South African post, I finally got a copy of Gordon McGregor and Mannfred Goldbeck’s The First World War in Namibia, 1914-1915 (published by Gondwana History in 2014).

This is a slim book, and as with James Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast has numerous photos from the Namibia Archive. Of particular note is the Battle Calendar of the campaign from mobilisation to the surrender of the German forces at Kilometre 500 and a chronology of the war as it affected Namibia. The bibliography, whilst using various known texts in South Africa lists some less well-known German and Namibian publications. Disappointing, however, is a reference to Wikipedia – various articles (not listed). Whilst it’s important to list all sources used, the inclusion of Wikipedia in the Bibliography confirmed that there is not much new in this overview of the First World War in Namibia.

The value of this little publication is that it takes a holistic approach to the campaign – this in my experience is unusual. It covers the SA Rebellion of 1914 (no account of the GSWA campaign can exclude that) but more significantly it covers the role of the Rehoboth at various stages, the Cameroon company and Vrei Korps (SA forces which fought on the German side). Logistics too are covered in terms of a chapter on animals and another on insignia/badges provides insight into how the territory operated once cut off from the motherland.

I’m sure this is a little book I’m going to be dipping into a fair bit as I continue investigating the chaos of SA going to war (unlike that of Adam Cruise’s Louis Botha’s War).

Details on how to obtain a copy are on the Great War in Africa Forum