Experiential learning

I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.

So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.

Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.

While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.

In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?

And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 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’.

Kitchener and his gang of murderers

The week before my book Kitchener: the man not the myth was published, my attention was drawn to a demo song by Piet Botha called Kitchener. It’s an Afrikaans song, the main line translating to the title of this blog. Unfortunately the lyrics are not all that clear – this is what I think they are:

Hy het lotte geskiet in die veld net buite die dorp op ‘n stooltjie vasgebind, nog verwond
In die ongebluste Kaap en die water kou las daar
Kitchener en sy bende moordenaars
In die Kaap het hy nog gehoor nog drie rebelle is vervang Maar deur die goeverment swaar windpomp opgehang
En die hele dorp word gedwang werk suiwer bekend
Kitchener en sy bende moordenaars
Swaar swaar in die see waarop jy val
kalm kalm is die see wat jou kom haal
En diep o so diep is die donker ja
hiep hiep hoera vir die ou Transvaal
Kitchener en sy bende moordenaars

This translates (roughly) to:

They drew lots in the veld/field just outside the town tied up on a chair/stool, still wounded
In the windblown Cape and the chilling water
Kitchener and his gang of murderers
In the Cape he heard of another three captured rebels who were hanged from a windmill by the government
And the whole town is knowingly forced to work
Kitchener and his gang of murderers
heavy heavy in the sea where you fell
calm, calm is the sea which comes to fetch you
and deep, so deep, is the dark, yes
Hip hip hooray for the old Transvaal
Kitchener and his gang of murderers.

It’s not quite clear what event Piet is referring to out of all that happened in the 1899-1902 war. What is clear is his recognition of Kitchener’s drowning.
The reference to Kitchener’s gang of murderers is a general perception of how the Boers saw the British and Kitchener. As head of the British army after Lord Roberts handed over in 1900, Kitchener took the brunt of blame. Kitchener’s reputation has suffered the ravages of time of a nationalist people – yet those who negotiated the peace with him in May 1902 preferred Kitchener to Milner.
I initially wondered if the reference to Kitchener’s gang of murderers was a reference to Breaker Morant who was one of the few men Kitchener approved being executed. There’s still much discussion over Morant’s death, but it was believed at the time that Morant and others had murdered innocent refugees in angered retaliation.
As with Smuts and Jopie Fourie, Kitchener made his decision by the book, with little consideration of how their action would be read/understood. Both Morant and Fourie are still revered today as martyrs.
Had it not been for the clear link to Kitchener’s death by drowning, the reference to the Transvaal could well have applied to Kitchener’s brother Frederick Walter who was a General in the area.

Piet’s songs tell stories – incredible stories – yet this one doesn’t quite get there. It is definitely a work on progress (demo) and one that will leave me wondering what story he would eventually have told had he lived a little longer. What is significant about the song Kitchener is that 120 years after the war, the name Kitchener still elicits strong emotions proving that myth is stronger than truth.

A wedding in war

Amidst the pressures of war, if having to sort out a rebellion by a large number of your own people, command a force to conquer German South West Africa and oversee countrymen serve in Central and East Africa and Europe is not enough, there is a little matter of a daughter getting married.

This was certainly not something I expected to discover in war-time Colonial Office correspondence. Yet, in CO 551/84 16355, there is correspondence marked Private and titled Message from SofS on Marriage of General Botha’s Daughter. The summary continues:

‘Botha’s youngest daughter is to be married on Saturday at 2 o’clock. Sure it would give him pleasure if you could telegraph your best wishes direct to him or through me so as to reach him Saturday.’

Correspondence within the file has David Davies letting Bonar Law’s assistant JCC Davidson know that he can ‘add the Prime Minister’s congratulations to Mr Bonar Law’s.’

The telegram which was sent at 11.30am on 7 April 1916 read:

‘Please convey to General Botha expression of my sincere congratulations on the occasion of his youngest daughter’s marriage. The Prime Minister also requests me to forward his best wishes for the future happiness of bride and bridegroom.’

Minnie Frances Botha, born 24 January 1894 in Vryheid, was to marry Hubert Gordon Reid, born 9 December 1882 in Swellendam, on 8 April 1916 at Groote Schuur in Cape Town.

Hubert changed his name to Hubert Gordon Botha-Reid and together with Minnie, they had four children, the eldest Annie Frances born on 19 April 1917. Two and a half years after the birth of this grandchild, Prime Minister Louis Botha died from the influenza. His daughter Minnie died 10 August 1972 and son-in-law Hubert 25 May 1944.

This was certainly not the only wedding to take place during war, but it is one of the few to feature in official correspondence before the actual day and not as part of a pension claim or the reason for a woman resigning her post. (And 80 years to the day, another wedding took place – in Boksburg, South Africa. Who would have thought…) Not all war time weddings lasted or were happy, and one can only hope the Botha-Reids enjoyed their 28 years of marriage despite the two world wars which impacted so on their relationship.




No rose water to balance the books

JX Merriman wrote to Smuts on 23 December 1914 about the challenging position the latter found himself in as Minister for Finance having to balance the budget of a country at war [Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts papers, vol 3, p615]. The 1914 rebellion had recently ended. Merriman’s words resonate today across a range of issues:

I know what a position you are in. Huge deficiency, enormous war expenditure. Half the producing population running about with guns in their hands destroying and not producing. The whole population in semi-hysterical calling on you to do some great thing instead of setting to work themselves. And the worst of all is the certainty that when the war stops you will have to face a general impoverishment and a reduction in our purchasing power in both diamonds and ostrich feathers. You are in much the same plight that Pitt was in in 1797, of which you will find a very good and instructve sketch in Buxton’s Finance and politics, vol 1, chap 1. Rest assured you wil not mend matters with rose-water.

Interestingly, Sydney Buxton had been appointed Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa, taking up his post on 8 September 1914. Merriman suggests reading the book, rather than speaking to the man. Before his appointment to South Africa, Buxton had been head of the Board of Trade, the issue of finance and war being a matter of concern.

Similarly, William Pitt had to deal with the issue of finance and war when America chose to break away from the British Empire. In response to Pitt’s measures, John Sinclair came up with the idea of ‘armed neutrality‘.

And now to the all important rose water: according to Baby P Sakria it apparently has been around since ‘ancient times’ for medicinal purposes. At weddings, rose water is sprinkled on guests, although it also seems to have laxative effects… today rose water has mostly been replaced by geraniol. Eleanor Sinclair Rhonde shares a recipe for rose water in Rose recipes from olden times. ‘It takes only a few minutes and costs nothing beyond the trouble of gathering the roses.’ The complication is in the colour of the water depending on which roses you use…

Merriman suggested rose water would not be a remedy to balancing the books, but maybe there’s something in taking time out to gather rose petals instead of knee-jerk reaction.

My Sarie Marais

My Sarie Marais  or simply Sarie Marais – pronounced ‘may sari ma-re’ as in ma(terial)-re(d) – is an Afrikaans song dating back to the 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African or 1899-1902 War although it goes back to an English song from 1815 – the link has various versions and the lyrics in Afrikaans. (p292 has the 1815 lyrics alongside the Afrikaans – for Afrikaans readers this looks a fascinating publication.)

For years, I’ve known the piece of music has been played on bagpipes and heard it once a the Edinburgh tatoo. The links between the Scots and Boers go back to a time when Scottish missionaries to South Africa would go to Holland to learn Dutch before heading south. John McKenzie covers this in his excellent book, The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Race, 1772-1914. There was a definite mixing of cultures, during the First World War, many Afrikaners who decided to serve in Europe joining the Transvaal Scottish which wore the Atholl Tartan.

Sarie Marais, the name of a young girl, has a far reach:

Who knows what else (excluding the parodies which I’ve purposefully ignored) will come to light around this young girl who is now over 100 years old.


Childhood memories

Early in September 2019, I discovered the Smurfs were Belgian and were visiting Uganda. I didn’t know much about them other than that we collected the toys as a result of putting petrol in the car – there must have been some scheme which if you bought petrol, you could get a Smurf: thanks to the internet, here it is! We then made up our own games and I still have two Smurf mugs dating to this time. Low and behold, there’s a whole Smurf world out there or as the website says ‘Village’.

This made me think back to other ‘institutions’ we had when I was growing up. Television was only allowed into the country from 1976, when I was a tiny tot – I recall us renting a television and man-handling it into our holiday sea-side cottage in 1981 specially to watch the Royal wedding of that year. Televisions were not yet standard in every house or hotel room.

One of our early TV programmes was Heidi (scroll down in the link for the SA blurb or search on Afrikaans), the little girl who lived in the Alps and whose best friend was Peter. It was dubbed into Afrikaans (youtube video), having been deemed culturally acceptable for the early 1980s. Another was Pinocchio and I see IMDb has a number of programmes we had on television as children.

On radio, we had Squad Cars – an institution on Springbok Radio which closed down in 1985. Many of my generation can still tell you how the show started…

Out on the school ground, we played, and collected, marbles, created skipping games, and on the beach made sandcastles.

In many ways, life, at least for the community I grew up in, was not much different to that of children in Britain. On the other side, in the late 1970s, we ran around barefoot, rode bicycles down the middle of the street, and created hideaway tents by barricading chairs around tables – reminscent of ‘duck and cover’.

All in all, for all South Africa being cut off from the rest of the world, we were exposed to the global world, albeit one the government thought safe.