REVIEW: John Masters – Loss of Eden

It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally worked my way through the three books John Masters wrote on World War 1. The series, Loss of Eden, was recommended to me by a friend from Tanzania despite there being little mention of the African campaigns. It was suggested that I ‘just have to read’ the books if I claim to be a specialist on World War 1.
I can’t say I was absolutely taken with the books, but thought them well constructed and written with a huge focus on social Britain and some of the big political issues of the day. For this the author needs to be commended. And to his credit, there was some mention of the conflict in Africa and these, although scarce, provide valuable insight into how people of the time saw the campaign.

Book 1: Now, God be thanked (1979), has five mentions of Africa in the war.
A white Kenyan enlists and serves in a traditional British regiment on the Western Front. His uncouth habits and behaviours being alien to those he serves alongside.
Two mentions of Smith-Dorrien having been sent to command East Africa having been sidelined on the Western Front, a move the author thinks was a mistake.
One comment about the Konigsberg having been sunk in the Rufigi Delta as part of the navy’s successes and one comment about fighting still continuing in Africa.
What is interesting is that when there is a discussion on the various theatres of the war, Africa is not included. It is almost as though this peripheral war will have no bearing on what happens in Europe at all. For those of us who study the campaign, this is not surprising, but what is noticeable is that the theatre is also not a drain on the activities in Europe and Mesopotamia. It’s as though what is happening in Africa is in complete isolation to the rest of the war. But yet, Masters feels it is included, otherwise he would not have had these five passing mentions.

Book 2: Heart of War (1980) focuses on 1916, and has two mentions of Africa.
Page one includes a reference to the war in the Africa theatre still continuing, whilst on around page 300 there is a newspaper summary dated 2 December 1916 reporting on the capture of Tabora and actions near Iringa from 19 October.

Book 3: By the Green of Spring (1981) brings the war to an end and takes us to the end of 1919. However, despite there being mention of the Indian troops being involved in the war, there is no mention of them at all in relation to their work in Africa. In fact, in this final volume, Africa does not feature – nothing about the war continuing after the armistice in Europe being concluded, nor anything to do with the peace discussions – the focus there being more on relations with the United States of America. As one of the leading characters points out in the book, the world was starting to import ideas and it would be good for those in Britain to see what was happening outside – that the focus was on the indigenous Indians in the USA and trade unions becoming ‘bolshie’ provides a clear indication of where Britain and the other leading power’s considered important – and it wasn’t Africa.

Review: South Africa at War – William Endley

It might seem a bit odd reviewing a book I’ve edited and published, but this provides me with an opportunity to explain what appealed to me about the book.

I met William back in about 2014 when I had the privilege of seeing his militaria collection, and what a collection it was. A discussion on how to preserve it in a climate where few were interested in preserving the past, or able to take on a collection like it, led to this book capturing the essence of one strand of this multi-faceted assemblage.

As William explains in his introduction, this book was due to be published in 2016 but due to imprisonment in Sudan, and challenges getting the text to the UK via South Africa, it’s taken till 2020 to see the light of day. While William has written about his imprisonment, the tale of this book’s journey will have to wait for another day.

As the title implies, South Africa at War: The Union Defence Force in World War One tells of the formation of the UDF and the role it played in the war of 1914-1918, but that is not the whole story. As with many things South African at that time, it’s a simple yet complex story. While aspects of the East Africa and Palestine campaigns feature in biographies, most notably that of Vic Clapham, there is no discussion of them as theatres of war in the same way there is the 1914 rebellion, German South West Africa and the Western Front. While this reflects the emphasis of the collection, it simultaneously provides an insight into South Africa’s war and how the different theatres were perceived in terms of military importance or significance. While all South Africans who served outside of the Union and South West Africa were imperial troops, that is paid for by Britain, those who served in Europe under General Tim Lukin were seen as a South African unit with their own identity. Those South Africans who served in East Africa, although fighting under and alongside other South Africans, were not regarded as a composite whole in the same way. And those in Palestine even less so. This was reinforced by subsequent remembrance of the theatres, the main memorial being at Delville Wood in France.

Effectively, South Africa at War tells of the Mounted Rifle units which came together after the 1899-1902 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War, to form the Union Defence Force. Despite all attempts to marry the Boer commando and citizen forces into one military unit, the nature of the mounted rifles and the early police forces dominated the situations that moulded the UDF, starting with the 1906 uprising by Bambatha. Although not discussed in South Africa at War, it becomes clear that the resignation in 1914 of CF Beyers and other leading previously Boer generals resulted in their influence being eroded and the British military system dominating, albeit with South Africanisms. The role of the South African Sharpshooters receives special attention – whilst private units were generally frowned upon, both by South Africa and Britain, this one, funded by Abe Bailey, was permitted. The 1922 miners’ strike too is featured, many leading military figures having served in the 1914-1918 War. And, as a bonus, there is some discussion on the German Schutztruppe in South West Africa.

The strength of South Africa at War lies in the detail supported by photographs and biographies. William looks at often overlooked military aspects – the medical forces, chaplains, trades, weapons, equipment and uniforms. This is a book packed with information on aspects of the Union Defence Force in its early days, and while it will most certainly fall short of those wanting more on South African involvement in East Africa and Palestine, it is far more than a ‘medal collection’. In the words of Brian Conyngham who wrote the foreword, it’s ‘refreshing and enlightening’.

More thoughts on KAR vs Schutztruppe Soldier – Gregg Adams

King’s African Rifles vs Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 by Gregg Adams is an 80 page overview of the two forces during the latter part of the East Africa campaign which I reviewed back in 2017. Recently I had reason to revisit the book and on this occasion there were a couple of things which caught my eye which I thought worth exploring/sharing.

Glossy images are used to explain the differences between the two sides and I have to say these jarred a bit, more so on this read than my first – perhaps because I’m working more with photos for various reasons.

For those in the know, a quick glance at the trousers men are wearing indicate who was German and who British. However, at this stage of the war we also know men were commandeering uniforms from those they captured or found dead, so beautifully painted images of men all wearing the same immaculate uniforms seems a little out of place. However, the images do allow comparisons to be made.

Another interesting feature is the image of the King’s African Rifles soldier wearing boots in the images used to explain the uniform. This raises some questions as at the start of the war the KAR went barefoot and not being supplied with shoes/boots was an issue for West Africans. Mel Page in his novel-biography of Chimwere Juma explains that when Juma became a sergeant and was entitled to wear shoes he declined as his feet were not used to them; they would cause him more problems than going without – although he did ask for an upgrade in shirt. A later photograph in the book, by J Granville Squires, of KAR marching suggests the men have some sort of foot covering but they don’t look like army boots. Was it a case of the new recruits being issued with footwear of some kind as part of their 6-9 month training prior to going into the field? Perhaps with a little more delving into primary sources and the General Routine Orders we’ll one day sort out when the KAR started to wear ‘traditional’ army boots.

It pays to revisit books – you never know what you might spot having discovered so much more between reads.

REVIEW: Distinguished Conduct – Melvin E Page

Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi by Mel Page is not quite what one would expect from someone like Mel, but it works.

Thankfully Mel explains at the outset that this is not an historical narrative, so those who don’t appreciate the value of footnotes will be pleased. For those of us trying to get a better grip of the events in Africa at the time, this is frustrating, but then as Mel explained, he has not written a history book per se but a novel.

However, this is a novel with a difference. The lead character, Malawian Juma Chimwera was real and the information concerning his military service is based on fact, as are some of the other characters. Chimwera’s experiences, though, are conjectured, as is the role of a white officer who provides the linking thread through the book. So, where does this leave the history scholar?

Effectively, Mel has used his extensive research and knowledge of the King’s African Rifles and Malawi, for most of the novel Nyasaland, to provide a context for Chimwera’s life as a soldier, looking at why he enlisted and his experiences from before the First World War through to Malawian Independence. There are many white missionary and other settler accounts of this period, but few on local black experiences and this is what Mel has tried to encapsulate and in my opinion, succeeds.

Having the advantage of knowing Mel’s academic work, broadly knowing the wider history and at the time of reading Distinguished Conduct literally wading through the whole Colonial Office collection of KAR correspondence, War Diaries and other accounts, I could see how the book was grounded historically.  Yes, literary licence has been taken but one could argue that has been necessary to provide an overview and the feel for the Yao community which has not been known for its written literary record. Mel is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Giles Foden took a similar approach with Mimi and Toutou go forth, and I have recently become aware of a South African publication of the life of 688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse DCM of the Cape Corps – They said we could not do it – written by his great grandson M Adeel Carelse. As Adeel explained, there was insufficient information to write an historical book, but also that wouldn’t ‘bring the characters decorated for valour to life’. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Adeel’s book but I have read Mimi and Toutou by Foden which as an historical account is sadly lacking and which was one of the main reasons for the GWAA embarking on the mammoth project which culminated in The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology being published (vol 2 due out later in 2020). I do not foresee a similar project having to be undertaken to set the record straight concerning Distinguished Conduct. While recording the life of one man, Mel has remained an objective historian and it’s that which makes this very readable novel a valuable contribution to the novels and history of the First World War in Africa. My only concern is that it gets used as evidence/footnote material for the wrong reasons. So, I nearly end this review with a plea to anyone wanting to use it as reference material, by all means do, but let us know the reason you’re using it and if for historical accuracy, please find further supporting documentation.

Thank you Mel for sharing the life of this little-but-well-known Askari. If only your editors had shown as much care in proofreading the book – there was one too many typographical gremlins for my liking and the non-justification layout of the text took a little while to get used to.

REVIEW: Remembrance, Memories and Representation after 100 years – edited collection

Africa and the First World War: Remembance, Memories and Repesentation after 100 years, edited by De-Valera NYM Botchway and Kwame Osei Kwarteng, 2018

The pending collection was brought to my attention by someone who had hoped to attend the conference where these papers were first presented. Having seen the list of papers presented, I was keen to get hold of any published version and eventually tracked the publisher down. Thankfully I was able to get a review copy as the book is retailing at an unbelievable £116.00. I am aware this is within keeping of academic tomes but it does price texts out of the general researcher’s pocket and for an obscure topic such as Ghana’s role in the Great War, is rather depressing, especially if little of the profit makes its way to the authors.

With that out the way, the publication promises more than it delivers but is definitely worth a read if you can access a copy. The first few papers after the introduction, are a little of a let down with either not being referenced or citing Wikipedia for detail on Africa’s involvement in the war. This raises another of my bug-bears related to the price of the book. I often hear UK institutions complaining about the price of academic texts which makes me wonder how African institutions with smaller budgets are able to purchase books and articles. Without decent access to published material, how can scholars in the ‘west’ (Britain, America and Europe) expect scholars in Africa to produce material of an ‘acceptable’ standard?* And it’s not just me, See here for a local SA perspective on the value of archives/historical libraries.

The great value of this collection is the use of local archival material, allowing us in other parts of the world to get a glimpse into what can be found in Ghana, in particular. While it is not the same as doing one’s own research, having local researchers with local cultural knowledge interpreting local material is welcome and hugely valued. The richness of the local archival material is unfortunately missing from this sample but it does contain the list of Contents.

The regional approach taken with the book, and it being published through a non-traditional academic publisher has meant the contents/text have not been ‘airbrushed’ for the western audience, allowing further insight into cultural differences and acceptabilities especially where terms, generally frowned upon in western publications, are used quite freely by the authors. My experience of Africa is that we have vivid descriptive ways of saying things and one or two chapters in this book employ these effectively. In this way, I learnt about ‘Hyphenated-Americans’ being those first and second generations in the USA, effectively making me a ‘hyphenated-Brit’.

Another value is that readers are exposed to different interpretations to those we generally come acoss in American, British and European oriented texts. While some thinking from the west has clearly influenced African interpretations, there is much that is still local which is refreshing and opens new avenues for exploring concepts and ideas.

The chapters I engaged with most were towards the end of the book, possibly because they were a little out of the ordinary: Italian and Libyan involvement in the war by Stefano Marcuzzi, making historical connections by Adjei Adjepong, and an overview of cinema in Ghana with brief reference to the 1914-18 war by Vitus Nanbigne. The chapter on the flu epidemic by Kwame O Kwateng and Stephen Osei-Owusu had some interesting insights as did the chapter on the role of chiefs by Samuel Bewiadzi and Margaret Ismaila.

Overall, this is a book worth accessing, and I’ll definitely be making use of some of the content in future publications. I only wish it had a more accessible price-tag for others to be able to access as easily, and that colleagues in Africa are able to access a wider range of scholarly material than they currently do.

 

 

*It is for this very reason that the Great War in Africa Association has set up a publishing arm – to facilitate information transfer more cost-effectively and fairly for authors/contributors.

Review: Southall’s Immigrant Communities 1900-2000 – Jaspal Singh Bhambra

Southall’s Immigrant Communities 1900-2000: A religious, political and socio-economic perspective by Jaspal Singh Bhambra (New Millennium, 2017) has been a labour of love and in some ways is autobiographical as the author, Jaspal Singh Bhambra was involved in so many of the events that feature in this book.

I had the pleasure and honour to meet Jaspal and his wife, Satnam, at their home before the book was published, thanks to his daughter Barjinderpal Kaur with whom I had worked when I was in education. Jaspal struck me as a man of clear vision and passion and this dominates the book, and it’s been good to see some of the paintings I recall hanging on his wall feature in this book – he is a man of many talents.

For those who do not know, Southall is a ‘town’ in the London borough of Ealing. It’s well known for its Asian flavour – Indian restaurants, colourful clothing and shoe shops and has a very different feel to other parts of London. It’s cosmopolitan, yes with its rough edges – where doesn’t? – but more so a place of coming together and celebrating diversity.

My last significant visit to Southall was to a Sikh Gudwara with an activist who was helping me understand the religion and culture for a piece I wrote on Sikh involvement in World War 1 Africa. Reading how the Gudwaras developed in Southall was therefore rather poignant, and a trip down memory lane.

But that was not all. Many of the residents of Southall had lived or worked in Kenya before moving to the UK. Some families dated far back, although most were post-WW2. That people from the Asian sub-continent were so mobile was an eye opener. I had been aware of the movements of families, but the extent was suprising. And how people worked together to make a difference.

There are a huge number of photos in the book, not all good quality but that’s to be expected given the exigencies of time and place. Although Jaspal is the author, this book, as with the development of Southall, has been a community project – many contributing memories and images I’m sure many had fogotten they had until asked by Jaspal for what they remembered. The style of writing (and spelling) is within keeping of the diversity that is Southall – don’t expect a polished product as this is a self-published book completed in a relative rush. That aside…

… it’s a valuable book for understanding the different Sikh communities, what they have in common and how they celebrate and put their faith into practise. As a Londoner, it provides insight into how one of London’s most colourful and dynamic areas came to be and as an historian of Africa and global movement, it’s testimony to how people moved about in a time before cheap flights to obscure locations and the drive and desire that motivated them. More than anything it’s a book about what can be achieved if people work together for a common goal.

To purchase a copy of the book, email

REVIEW: The first campaign victory of the Great War – Antonio Garcia

The first campaign victory of the Great War: South Africa, Manoeuvre Warfare, The Afrikaner Rebellion and the German South West Africa campaign, 1914-1915 by Antonio Garcia, Helion, 2019

Where does one start? There is so much in this short book on the first victory of World War 1. The first striking feature is the title – today without being in inverted commas, it’s inaccurate as the book covers the second Allied African victory of the Great War, the first being Togoland in August 1914. Although a short conflict, Togoland is regarded as a campaign. However, at the time, the scoop in Britain was that this was the first victory by a white African army of the war and that, no less, by a country which had previously fought against Britain. It is only recently that the historiography is correcting this technicality.

The second feature is the book’s approach – assessing the campaign through the theory of ‘manoeuvre warfare’. At a time where historians are tending to focus on the social and cultural aspects, consideration of a conflict from a military theory perspective is different and rather refreshing. However, what is not mentioned on the cover is that another theory features to explain the Boer Rebellion: relative deprivation theory. Tony is one of the first authors to try and integrate the rebellion and the fighting in German South West from a military point of view. Most authors tend to put the SWA campaign on hold to discuss the rebellion and then return to the campaign, while others ignore the first days of the campaign and go straight to January 1915 seeing it as completely unrelated to the rebellion. One day an historian might well address the question of why the Germans didn’t take the opportunity of the rebellion to safeguard their colony – this may have been addressed in German accounts but I am yet to see anything in English or Afrikaans.

A third striking feature is the seemingly tick-box approach to including people of colour in the text. Labour was an important feature of this campaign and in line with South African social and employment culture, was mainly undertaken by people who were not white. Black and Coloured labour was employed to build and repair railways, load and unload ships in dock, groom horses, look after transport animals amongst other tasks. Tony emphasises that the white soldiers would not have achieved what they did without the support and contribution of these men but does not take it further as they are militarily peripheral to the topic under discussion – manoeuvre warfare. It is in this regard that the weakness of the book is to be found. It reads and feels like an academic dissertation and knowing the academics involved, it is out of keeping with their own approaches reinforcing the text’s meeting of academic requirements. Although I believe the book’s editor should have worked with Tony to reconfigure the text for general consumption, its present form provides an insight into the academic approach and how this differs in SA to say the UK. The approach taken by Tony going back in time to set the context resonates with my own experience which was challenged by my UK supervisors as not necessary and that readers, if they want more background, can find it out themselves. The need we South Africans have to ground the past seems to be part of our nation building and national memory formation. The first campaign victory provides a good example for comparison with similar academic outputs, dissertations and theses, in other countries. This is something students studying in another country experience and have to deal with, as I know through personal experience and in supporting overseas students settling into the UK, but I am not sure anyone has seen this as an area to research either educationally or from a cultural historical perspective.

With these striking features out of the way, what about the rest of the book? As alluded to earlier, Tony looks at the South West Africa campaign using a modern theory of warfare. Rather than trying to understand why decisions were made at the time, he considers how effective those decisions were in retrospect. I was left wanting more, purely because Tony’s clear and succinct explanations prompted deeper thinking. Here, again, circumstances conspired against him. With few specialists available on the campaign, opportunities for greater interrogation of the material available was missed. But what is here is tantalising and sets a good solid foundation for future work either by Tony himself or others. The inclusion of relative deprivation theory and attempts to understand the human motivations for becoming involved in the war, or not, is another valuable contribution and had this not been the academic study it is, I’m sure would have led to greater integration, analysis and linkage between the two theories, and an easier inclusion of all forces, armed and otherwise, in the discussion. Tony has gone some way to showing the complexity of war through his theoretical approach and, for a theatre which is as understudied as German South West Africa is, is to be commended for opening new windows and bringing it to wider attention. Together with James Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast which looks at the conflict from the battlefield-archeological perspective, The first campaign victory provides historians of all flavours with rich, new insights.