Review: Gregg Adams: KAR Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18

My first thought on staring to read Gregg Adam’s King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey, 2016) was ‘Oh my! What am I going to be able to say about this military history?’ I felt out of my depth getting into this book which takes a very (in my opinion) military look at the differences between the KAR and Schutztruppe during the years 1916 to 1918. Gregg has done well. Although I found my eyes glazing over at numbers and calibres of weapons, etc, the value of this little book (less than 80 pages of text) became apparent to the student of war.

Readers and those who know me, must be tired by now of my statement that Lettow-Vorbeck was not all he is made out to be – he was a commander with flaws, and these need to be fully reviewed amongst English-speaking historians – using more than just Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs to make an objective assessment. Gregg has just about got there. At the start of the book he comments on Lettow-Vorbeck’s status, but by the end of the book, the flaws and quirks of the man’s military strategies and tactics are apparent – if only Gregg had emphasised these more. Smuts is regularly criticised for his love of the encircling movement. Gregg’s commentary suggests that a similar criticism could be levelled against Lettow-Vorbeck for his selection of ‘battle’ grounds.

The main focus of the book though, is the difference between the fighting forces and here, Gregg achieves a good balance. Taking three major encounters between the two sides, he explains how the encounter started, developed and ended, compares the forces facing each other and gives a timeline of the encounter.

I struggle with book layouts of this kind – blocks of text interspersed in the narrative and long descriptions with photos. However, I can’t think of a better way of presenting such information and it’s great for dipping in to; just not for those of us who prefer reading narratives without interruption. In fact, one of the benefits of how this material is laid out and the repetition of certain points is that the military implications are made more accessible for those of us without that first hand experience.

For readers familiar with Harry Fecitt’s Kaisercross/Soldiers’ Burden articles, this publication is complimentary. Harry looks at specific encounters from the perspective of the British Army, explaining them in detail and acknowledging the contributions of individual soldiers within the group. There is nothing that I picked up contradictory and in fact, the snippets of military info Harry gave this student of war to help her along, was only reconfirmed in this book. Gregg brings in the German side and explains how/why the encounter progressed as it did – broadly speaking.

I was also interested to read about Gifford’s role in World War 2 – it fits perfectly with the War Office assessment of the contribution of black soldiers undertaken by the War Office in 1937. Thank you Gregg for filling in another piece of the jigsaw.

With more military studies such as this, including the Belgian and Portuguese contributions for East Africa and doing the same for West Africa, and even Egypt – the ground for social, cultural and other histories will be well and truly set, let alone a whole stack of myths being dispelled.

Review: Katrina – crossing the colour line

Katrina was released in 1969 in South Africa and is now available on DVD and Youtube. It was directed by Jans Rautenbach (interview in Afrikaans; Abraham) and starred Jill Kirkland who was also sang the theme song. The rest of the cast included Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Cobus Rossouw, Joe Stewardson and Carel Trichardt.

Looking back, it is incredible to think that this film was even made and shown in South Africa in 1969 given the storyline.  It tells of an Anglican priest, newly arrived, who falls in love with Catherine Winters. As their relationship develops so it becomes apparent that Catherine is also Katrina September, a Coloured woman who is light enough in skin colour to pass for white. This revelation has significant consequences for all involved, not least Catherine’s son Paul who returns to South Africa as a qualified doctor wanting to work in a deprived Coloured area.

This was a brave film to make given that Hendrik Verwoerd had only been assassinated three years previously and BJ Voster was Prime Minister. Although the latter was slightly more lenient in his approach to Apartheid, his notoriaty as Minister for Justice was well-known. One wonders what the establishment’s reaction would have been had they actually seen the film – would they have found a different way to classify people, in particular the Coloured community? What I also find incredible is that Jans originates from Boksburg, my home town, which was notorious for its ultra conservative approach to Apartheid. (There was clearly something in the water as a number of cultural activists hail from Boksburg.)

The implications of the colour line and how it was applied hit full-force in this movie. It’s one thing to read about it in books and to use one’s imagination, but to see it depicted on the screen is something else. All credit to the director and cast. What strikes home though, and is really sad, is how fickle human nature is, despite all intentions of doing otherwise. This is a film of real human emotion, getting to the core of identity and cultural cohesion. It’s not difficult to see how, on a wider scale, nationalism has an attraction causing division and heartache by forcing people apart and to conform especially in communities where people have started to break down the barriers.

What is striking is that in 2017 a film made in a specific context in a specific country in 1969 has so much resonance for the world we live in today. The colour divide issue was not (and is not) unique to South Africa as a recent Guardian article reminds us. Sad to say, colour and cultural divisions still impact on our lives despite all the progress we’ve supposedly made. Perhaps if enough people watch Katrina and work to overcome the fickleness of man(kind), we might create a better world for all. (Yes, I am an idealist at heart, but as a sociologist whose name I can’t remember used to say – strive for perfection even though you know you won’t achieve it fully).

Other films by Jans Rautenbach:

Jannie Totsiens (with English subtitles) (1971)

Pappa Lap (1971)

Ongewensde Vreemdelinge (with English subtitles) (1974)

Eendag op ‘n reendag (1975)

Blink Stefans (1981)

Broer Matie (1984)

 

 

 

Review of Blood River by Tim Butcher: Lost in Translation

Blood River came highly recommended with the result that I put it on the backburner so as not to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to my expectations. Another reason it hadn’t moved up my reading list was that although it dealt with the Congo, an area I’d been working on, I understood it not to cover the Lake Tanganyika region which was my specific interest in relation to World War 1.

So, when the opportunity arose to read it for a book group I belong to, I took it and personally was not disappointed. In fact, I could relate to many of Tim’s experiences – not that I’ve done the intense ravel he has, but our little bits along the east coast of Lake Tanganyika amongst others gave a flavour. And then, without being specific, there was reference to the Lake Tanganyika Expedition with railways still being in place as well as other remnants – all rusted and no longer used. This will make it into volume 2 or 3 of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition chronology – one of those fortuitous finds.

The group overall found the book a good read – naturally it didn’t suit all tastes but everyone who started it, finished it – unlike Tess. What divided the group was Tim’s reason for doing the route and a few were rather upset that he had put people’s lives in danger for what they saw as a selfish, personal endeavour.

To some extent, I could see their point, but I also know Africa in a different context – people will tell you something is possible, difficult, but possible, and it’s only after you’re some way down the line or at the end of your journey that you become aware of the danger you and they have been exposed to. We’ve had this twice during our travels in East Africa. Once when our vehicle broke down in the Tsavo area eighteen years ago (it was a little unsafe then but now no longer – the road is tarred and far busier), and then nearly seven years ago when a tyre needed replacing travelling by road from Kitavi to Kigoma along the lake – uninhabited bandit territory – not a place to linger and observe the beauty of the huge balancing rocks or garafu as they’re locally known.

If it wasn’t for people like Tim and Paul Theroux (Dark Star Safari) undertaking apparently selfish journeys, changes and conditions in parts of Africa (and elsewhere) would go unnoticed. Historians, social anthropologists, sociologists and others have some record of how things are and have changed. Yes, the material has been processed and adapted to fit a narrative, but it’s more than we had previously. I was also rather relieved that I’d made a decision – a difficult one – not to join a group in covering the footsteps of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition – my gut had felt uncomfortable, although excited, until I firmly made the decision I’d be more of a hindrance than what my historical knowledge could contribute. Reading Blood River confirmed my gut instinct and at some level I’m rather pleased the expedition hasn’t been able to take place, although I do hope it does at some point (willing funders please get in touch).

So, why did I call this review ‘Lost in translation’? Simply, because we translate everything we read through a lens of our experiences. How I understood Blood River contrasted with the rest of the group who are all British and retired. One had visited South Africa on a few occasions and although she had witnessed some poverty there, it wasn’t to the same extent as one finds in rural Africa. I find it fascinating discovering how those of us with Africa in our blood interpret /see things differently to people with British and other backgrounds. And I definitely interpret things in Britain differently to what my British-born friends do. It works both ways. We’re similar, yet not.

Thank you Tim for giving our group a stimulating discussion and which allowed me an outsiders’ view on a continent I love (warts and all).

Tim did gain some Brownie points when the group discovered that he’s patron of a medical charity in Malawi – AMECA. Both Blood River and Dark Star Africa were recommended, by amongst others, Ruthie Markus, founder of AMECA.

Detained

On my last visit to Rwanda I discovered the book Detained: A writer’s prison diary by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Many years ago now, I think it was about 2011, I heard him speak on education in Dar es Salaam and have found him an attraction since.

Detained, written during his incaceration by Jomo Kenyatta’s government post independence was a fascinating and insightful read. Where the other books (more later) I’d read by detained people had been under colonial powers, this was the first by someone who had participated, in his own way, in the independence struggle of his country, Kenya. Now he was believed to be an ‘enemy of the state’. During his stay, Ngugi was able to write a novel and keep this record of his experiences and thoughts – all recorded on toilet paper. As a fellow author, my heart dropped along with his when we recounted how a search of his cubicle led to the removal and anticipated destruction of his creation. Similarly, on the return of the document, my heart soared. I’ve lost writing on my computer before and know the anxiety of wondering whether the back-up will work etc.

Other fascinating insights included how the prisoners communicated to each other, how they could pick up on news despite the black-out and how they dealt with bullies. What was also intriguing was Ngugi’s discussion on religion – how he became aware of Islam and the differences with Christianity. Perhaps society can learn something from this…

The other two books by detainees that stick in my mind are Ruth First’s 117 Days and Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul.

I recall 117 Days being an emotional read – how Ruth managed to survive all they did to her and her resiliance in not giving in to what she believed was right. I couldn’t put it better than this blogger.

It may seem a bit odd having a ghost-written autobiography by Winnie Mandela included but in her early days as an activist she was someone to be admired. Winnie’s detention was quite different to both Ngugi’s and Ruth’s. She was under house arrest in Brandfort in the Orange Free State during Nelson’s early days on Robben Island. Again, how Winnie coped with her situation and maintained her values was fascinating reading.

In essence, none of the three authors differed much in how they coped. It must be one of mankind’s inbuilt processes.

What made reading Ngugi’s book more poignant is the fact that a friend is currently being detained with few hearing of his well-being. I take hope from those who’ve gone before and survived that he will too. I know prior to his being detained he was working on a book of South African involvement in World War 1 – a project which helped him escape from the harsh realities around him. The day I was meant to get the complete manuscript was the day he was taken. That is now over four months ago.

I can’t help asking myself, what does detaining people in this way achieve? It didn’t change Ngugi, Ruth or Winnie’s outlook on life or what they believed and I don’t think, from the conversations I had with Will that his detention will change his views. And for those doing the detaining? What do they achieve? In the big scheme of things, not much! Apartheid still fell, Jomo Kenyatta died and Kenya continued struggling – we still wait to see what will happen in the Sudan and elsewhere where others are currently detained.

Winnie and Ngugi continued their struggle and still do, whilst Ruth continued hers until she was exterminated by a letter bomb. Will felt strongly about helping those who were being bullied, as did Winnie, Ngugi and Ruth – for me Will is a humanitarian. May he and all others standing up for what they believe be set free soon to help make the world a better place. And as Ngugi so aptly put it – not let the innocent family members and friends suffer simply for their association with the detained person.

 

 

 

An alternative take on a history talk

My sister-in-law attended the talk I gave on novels in August 2016. As someone not interested in history, she accompanied her husband who was listening to me present a history talk for the first time. Knowing the likely boredom levels, I provided a pen and paper for the inevitable doodling (she’s got an artistic streak) and this was the outcome:

A Review of Dr Anne Samson’s talk by Sr S… S… [that’s the young one]

Dr Samson is dressed in a minion-like suit complimented by yellow, black and blue and slight white. Other people at the talk were all old [she’s 32 – I’m old]. You don’t need to worry about being overdressed only if you are old!! The auditorium is dressed in carpet – that is on the wall.

If you give talks here you get wine – so worthwhile thinking of doing a talk here.

The being referred to as the GANG aka supporting party – are just known as the ‘medical party’.

Anne promises to only talk for 20 minutes – hope she keeps to her time. Also she needs more colours in her pencil bag. The other speaker hasn’t arrived yet. Maybe he doesn’t like wine – shame. With all these old people here, X and I might be at danger – lots of health risks. There is one other young person ere. Maybe I must introduce him to Y… The chairs aren’t very comfortable – not suitable for a movie theatre. The MC is clearly Afrikaans [so is she] The Boris guy sounds important [a book launch was being promoted]. Anne is almost coming up – Yeah! They have just turned off the lights. Eish difficult to make notes in the dark.

Anne looks kinda scary in that dim light – whooo she is talking about East AFrica.

Gertrude Page (Northern Rhodesians, protect, Britain) like JK Rowling now!! Wow!! and talks about some other dudes (dead ones). Gertrude was a farmer and used their car as an ambulance. They said tese books are novels, don’t sound very romantic.

These chairs are really not comfortable.

Anne starting to lose me now. Something about marching tangoes [Marching on Tanga] wonder if these people can even do the Tango? There were nurses there too – Yeah [she’s a nurse].

Anne seems to know her s*** ag I mean stuff desn’t look on her notes very often. People here think the history stuff is funny, maybe they must be introduced to a comedy bar. Lion King also came up [Simba – Cherry Kearton’s dog which went up in a plane]. Covers of the books look interesting – and something of ice-cream [An Ice-cream war by William Boyd]. King money or shilling [The King’s Shilling by Hamilton Wende] and Shidaka [Chui and Sadaka by William Powell] – must have eaten a lot of toffees.

Anne really likes the book A Matter of Time [Alex Capus] – came to Germany in a crate or something – something about Spies Simpson [Spicer Simson]. Ok there are more books. Annd did a lot of reading – a lot of boring reading. Note self: get Anne a stick to show people pictures on slide thing.

Anne – it’s not Kloetie – it is Cloete (pronounced Kloe-te) [Stuart Cloete – How young they died]. We on the last slide now with 4 books about Intelligence. Anne don’t worry bout spelling mistakes on slide. All the people here are clearly old and I don’t think they can see that far!

Karen Bliksem [Blixen] – shame having a vloekword [swearword] for her surname. They get excited about dogs named after a lion going up in planes. Yeah dog!!

Maybe the bee also featured. They keep going on about planes.

Anne uses novels to make people understand concepts. OK I thought we done but we are NOT! More boring questions. Now hiatuses…look at that page 9. Don’t feel like writing any more. I’m out!

I might try and convince her to attend a few others in the future – some interesting perceptions and an honest take. In its own way, a history of the evening and one which no doubt differs to many of the others of the same event if they were to be written.

Thanks Sussa! [Afrikaans term of endearment for sister]

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.