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.

Maths and History

Not too long ago, I took a detour back to a previous role and read a book on teaching for teachers. Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck. The authors are all in Australia and working together as educationalists and mathematicians they explored how to make maths accessible and engaging having noticed a decline in the take up of maths as a school subject. For us, in South Africa in the late 20th century, it was compulsory to have maths to Matric or A Level equivalent if we wanted to go to university, irrespective of what you planned to study. What a good idea in retrospect as maths featured in so much, from the obvious in Economics to statistics in Sociology and Psychology and with hindsight, there’s the logic one develops through problem-solving which impacts on Philosophy, History and Law, amongst other subjects.

The concern though is that fewer people are engaged in studying maths or mathematics which is of concern as skills and knowledge is being lost. Working on a teaching programme in Tanzania brought this home very strongly where teachers got frustrated and turned to rote learning as they did not understand what they were teaching. We were looking at ways to overcome this and the project is now being implemented in Rwanda. We had similar challenges with teaching in the UK, although then not to the extreme it might now be – preparing students for higher education while meeting business needs. So, it seems the issue the Australians have been trying to deal with is not unique. It’s global.

Taking place over a number of years (yippee – it was not a simple 3 year project to fix the world of education), the authors gathered and processed evidence, listened to pupils, students and teachers, engaged with subject experts, produced resources and continued to monitor, evaluate and collect evidence. The results are collated in this book which focuses on 3 case studies: my favourite being the tracking of bees (Bees with Backpacks) to see how they communicate with the hive… sadly the book doesn’t say how they managed to put small enough tracking devices onto individual bees. There is also a case study on Stargazing and another on 3D. It’s worth looking at the publisher’s website as there are links to resources and other references which you wouldn’t get on other sites. There are also related downloads on Academia and there’s the institution’s website with all the videos etc.

Bottom line, if you haven’t yet worked it out, is that I was rather taken with this book – it might be a bit academic and scientific for some but the message is clear – maths is important and there are ways to make it relevant to everyday life within the curriculum (and questions whether the curriculum – across the globe – actually needs rethinking). Now to the link with history…

My eureka moment as an historian needing or using maths was a module on my MA in 20th century history taught by Tony Gorst at Westminster University. Back in 1996/7 he gave us a table of British politicians and the universities they’d studied at along with the degree they’d undertaken. The unit was post 1945 politics (incl Suez). For someone recently arrived from the ‘colonies’, this was rather an eye-opener on many fronts but it was only when I started teaching and we needed to embed maths, English and IT into all aspects of the curriculum that I really saw the value of Tony’s source analysis exercises. The maths aspect was secondary, no fuss was made about the subject, but it was there and integrated seamlessly into what we were looking at. Since then, maths regularly features in my work as an historian – have you seen the tables and info from the Pike report on the Great War in Africa website? Trying to reconcile numbers of dead and buried in Africa as part of the CWGC investigation into non-commemoration and more recently economic issues in South Africa during World War 1.

Now, I don’t expect maths teachers and researchers to make specific resources on historical topics, but I do support initiatives to make maths more accessible and less daunting for students. And for this, Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck is most definitely worth exploring.

Review: the global world and writing history

As a result of having to change my reading patterns, rather than review a single text this time, I thought it might be worth considering some of the positives and negatives that have come to light with regards source material.

Not too long ago, I was rather harsh on a new publication – my comments were not at the author but rather at the support systems around his book. One of the issues with the book was that I felt the author had paid lip service to a particular topic to meet certain requirements. This omission was not within keeping with what I know of the author, so I was over the moon to read an article by the same author, published before the book, which set out what was and was not available on the topic. My question therefore became, why did this not feature in the book?

Sadly, I think this is the result of current education policy where everything has to go through some sort of electronic plagiarism testing. This was coming in as I was moving out of education and already then I could tell what the implications were going to be. Gone are the days of students developing on their prior writing – thoughts have to be completely rewritten or fully references (to an undergrad essay?) in order to comply with computers determining how much is original. This view has been reinforced and brought to light on numerous occasions when I’ve been discussing historiographical or literature overviews with history students at different institutions – what they submit in their dissertation proposal can’t be copied and pasted into their dissertation. Where does this leave us then when those same documents come to be used in books and later publications? I’m not promoting self-plagiarism here but rather a more practical approach to developing student thinking and training that reflects the reality of writing for a wider audience who do not have access to separate publications, published or not.

This leads to the next issue – where material is available. The article referred to above is behind a pay-wall. Thankfully I have ways of accessing such articles including through the British Library, but what about other researchers who are not in an academic institution or close to a repository such as the British Library? (I’ll leave my gripe about new legal deposits, and many review copies, only being available in electronic form for another day, it’s not as effective as paper!) Yes, there might be an abstract, but in my experience an abstract doesn’t always tell me what the article contains in relation to what I’m looking for. A quick flick through does. You might then say, that’s why open-access has been put in place. That’s all well and good too, but unless one is in an academic institution again, invariably the author submitting an article to an open-access journal has to pay for the privilege. What all this is resulting in, is a skewing of access to source material and incomplete conclusions (in my own work as much as in others). And then there are the book titles – so many, including my own – do not reflect the true nature of the content. While some of this might be due to author ignorance of wider interest, experience suggests this is more to do with what marketing departments think will sell. The old adage of don’t choose a book by its cover seems very apt here (although change cover to title). No doubt I’ll have more to say on this in future reviews.

A related point in skewing source material is what is now available online. While the internet has revolutionised access and linking with people across the globe, it has also unwittingly (?) contributed to the skewing of information. Access to information is at the whim/fancy of the person putting it on the web – politics (certain cultural gender groups have no voice online), interest and what is perceived as topical, play a big part here. In days gone by, before the internet, researchers would visit archives in one or more countries. What was produced was therefore more local with, depending on what was being researched, an element of the other side’s version. Reviewers and readers generally had access to the same material. Little made it outside the country of origin, and where it did, has led to varied interpretations of other country events. Now, as a result of the web, it’s easier to access texts from other countries, and online translators allow texts in other languages to be accessed too. However, not all countries (and here I think especially of colleagues in Africa and Asia) have access to material online and if they do, it is filtered. Similarly, not all universities are able to access all journals as some are too expensive for the local budget. In the same way, some archives have made their catalogues available online while others are still very much paper-based. Accessing the archives in person, is another matter altogether. Popular material is digitised and made available online (generally for a fee, which in principle is acceptable but not always affordable depending on where researchers are). And not all archives allow photographs or copies being made of documents – to maintain copyright etc. This all impacts on the material researchers use in creating their historical jigsaw.

The result of this, together with researcher bias (which we need to own rather than dismiss), is a range of new histories which remain incomplete, despite our thinking otherwise. How one overcomes these challenges, I’m not sure, but they’re worth keeping in mind when writing and reviewing works of an historical nature. It would be remiss not to express my gratitude for the move by education institutions to put dissertations and theses online, and to do so for older papers too, free of charge (despite the implications). This has been revolutionary in terms of opening up access to new ideas and archival sources. Yes, these publications need to be treated with care, as do all writings. If there’s one thing I’ve come to learn over my years as an historian – one never gets the full story, there’s always something new coming to light. And as a significant historian told me when I started on my journey, critiquing one of the first academic historians to have written on East African campaign, ‘if someone was looking at my work 40 years after I’d written it, no matter what they said, I’d be more than satisfied’ – that piece of work is now over 60 years old.

Review: 2 novels – Africa in Europe during WW1

Co-incidently I recently read two novels which dealt with the First World War in Africa. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. Thankfully they turned out to be two rather different books.

I’m not sure how I came across Simon called Peter by Robert Keable as it dealt purely with the Western Front. The Africa link is tangential – two women nurses and an officer are from South Africa. The officer ends up in charge of a Labour Corps unit. We get very little insight into the daily workings of the Labour unit, the focus of the book being on Peter who is called Solomon by one of the nurses. The story focuses on Peter’s adjustment to life as a chaplain on the frontlines. One often reads about those back home betraying the love of those fighting or being away from home – the ‘Dear John’ letter being the meme. However, in Simon called Peter, it’s the other way round. Why the author chose South Africans for additional characters, I’m not sure as, apart from Julie’s extravertedness, there is nothing stereotypical about their characters that I could discern. According to The New York Times of 1929, this is a semi-biographical story with Keable going to Europe with a South African contingent after spending time in East and Southern Africa before the war. Does Keable’s depiction of the South Africans he includes suggest that back in 1921 when this book was published, there was little difference between white South Africans and Britons?
It’s a bit of a challenge putting this book into the World War 1 Africa listing as a result, but it is worth a read for an alternative take on the war. As a result of this, I will soon be reading his Standing by: war-time reflections in France and Flanders published around 1919 which has 22 direct references to Africa, so watch this space.

The other book was At night all blood is black (originally written and published in French as Frère d’âme) by David Diop. This was brought to my attention by a contact in Kenya soon after the book was released in 2020. And it’s taken till 2022 to get read. This is a short book – it took a 3 hour return tube journey from home to the archives to finish it. Although a little too abstract for my liking, the book explores the mind of a French West African (Senegalese) soldier on the Western Front – his blood lust and how that developed, how he perceived his fellow soldiers’ attitudes towards him change and his time in a recuperative (psychiatric?) hospital. There is much repetition of phrasing which I assume to be cultural, while potentially distracting, together with a poetical lilt, it did add an element of authenticity I have often found missing in African books published in America and Britain. Discovering that Diop was born in France and spent his formative years in both Senegal and France with parents from both countries might well account for this. It certainly explains the more egalitarian-appearing relationship between the characters, which together with the reference to Toubabs (whites) took me back to my short visit to Senegal where I experienced a more egalitarian engagement with the local population than I have in East African countries. At no stage of the book is it made clear that Toubab means white. It is inferred through reference to the rank and file being Chocolat alongside the Toubab officers.
While clearly a book for the WW1 Africa novel list, this is another worthwhile read for a further different take on war – particularly one in English focusing on a French-speaking experience of the war.

Review: Promoting Agricultural Export Crops & Co-operative Societies in Tanzania – Somo ML Seimu

I have a confession (or more) to make regarding Promoting Agricultural Export Crops and Co-operative Societies in Tanzania during the British and Post Colonial Era, c 1914-2014. The book appealed to me for a number of reasons:

1. It took me back to Tanzania, and one of my favourite towns – Moshi – which is where the main coffee co-operative is based. The KNCU coffee shop was a good place to meet and have a coffee. Discovering how it fits into the wider co-operative movement and its influence on the rest of the country was fascinating. Little had I realised its national significance.

2. I love coffee so gaining a better understanding of how it came to be a dominant part of the Kilimanjaro economy has been a bonus.

3. World War 1 features – this is a longitudinal look, over a century, at the development of export commodities, mainly coffee, but also cotton and rice. Seimu traces the start of mass production under the short German colonial rule and the consequence of the 1914-1918 war leading to the British taking over. How they built on, and further developed, the German system making it British, until the Africanisation from post-WW2 is the main focus of the book. In dealing with what could be rather politically sensitive matters, Seimu has maintained an objective view by keeping the focus on primary source material. Gaining an idea of what is held in the Tanzanian archives (also referred to as TNA – the same as The [British] National Archives] has been great. Returning to World War 1, from as early as 1916, civil administration was being re-introduced in the Kilimanjaro area with colonial officials working with the Chagga community to improve their lot and to give them an opportunity to hold their own against the white and Asian settler communities. It’s a reinforcement of the importance of having the right people in place to enable collaboration, irrespective of background.

4. I worked closely with the author to get the book published – through the GWAA.

So, yes, I am biased, but for anyone wanting to discover how coffee and other co-operatives developed and changed over time in Tanzania, as well as getting an insight into Tanzanian economic policy and how politics influences such, then this is a book worth reading. All due to the legacy of World War One, but more significantly Africans taking the initiative.