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.

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Perceptions of Identity

Some time ago I posted about beards and moustache wearing in the British Army. How we present ourselves is part of our identity, and that is determined by the situations within which we find ourselves. In searching for information about beards etc, I came across this fascinating insight into the Moroccan veil as it is presented in the French media.

It brought to mind Michelle Moyd’s work on the Askari in the Schutztruppe (Violent Intermediaries) and the various photographs we have of different communities in WW1 Africa. Soldiers, at least in the early days of campaigning were identifiable by their uniforms and badges. I’m constantly amazed at medal collectors being able to identify the campaign etc from black and white photos based on the stripe width, shade and order it’s worn. Then we have the photos of labour supporting the Lake Tanganyika expedition – the variety of dress suggesting levels of European/mission education and encounter. The photographer Dobbertin who accompanied the German forces also shows the differences in dress and relationship.

How individuals were identified determined how they were treated and the extent to which they were accepted. Kitchener only became tolerably accepted by the British establishment when he adopted more British ways; otherwise he remained an enigma and outsider. Jan Smuts did not follow British military ways and his reputation has suffered accordingly, while Jaap van Deventer accepted the fact that British officers had to do staff work behind the lines and was regarded as a better soldier despite his reluctance to speak English.

Yet, taking on others’ identities has led to accusations where cultural nuances have not been understood. The most obvious WW1 example is of the white South African forces taking on the Zulu impi tradition on the Western Front. As Bill Nasson points out, this was reflective of South Africa’s admiration for Chaka, the Zulu warrior and how the military tradition he forged has been assimilated into South Africa per se – not unlike the Haka the New Zealand rugby team performs.

Identity is tricky – both for the individual at the time in terms of how they perceive themselves and are accepted, but also for the historian trying to make sense of a different time and place. Memoirs, diaries, letters, photographs and other primary source documents all help in constucting the context to better understand an individual or group’s place within the wider community. My research into Kitchener has been a salutary lesson in identify and how myth and dominant cultural ideas can distort the person in question.

Diverted by war – dinosaurs

A little sidetrack into the experiences of a district commissioner in British East Africa led to the discovery of a book by Gerhard Maier recording the experiences of an expedition to find a dinasour: African Dinosaurs unearthed: The Tendaguru Expeditions (2003). In this Gerhard touches on the impact of the war.

The expedition had gone out for the big National Exhibition German Governor Heinrich Schnee was organising. This exhibiton led to huge quantities of food and supplies being imported into the colony. An unexpected little supply for when the war broke out.

News of Britain’s declaration of war was received in Dar es Salaam at 6.15am on 5 August 1914.

Schnee had apparently started a small pox innoculation programme.
There were about 100 government schools for African blacks while missionaries had a total of 1,832. 115,000 were enrolled out of a population of 7 million.
These and other developments were undone by the war, exaccerbated by the movement of people across the country and then the influenza outbreak. Maier estimates between 50 000 and 60 000 died from illness in the German colony.

The geologists, scientists and others involved in the expedition served in different capactities, some armed, others looking after supply etc. A couple managed to source bones which they then lost along with their notes. Maier suggests some of the dinosaur bones were taken to South Africa, while after the war the British picked up researching the dinosaurs.

I haven’t read the rest of the book yet, which looks rather fascinating. It might be one to recommend to my nephew and commission a synopsis.

Feeding an army

Much has been written about the poor feeding of the forces in the East Africa campaign of World War One, the men often on less than full rations. The Pike Report of 1918, published on the GWAA website provides insight into the different rations that each group was entitled to, which was rather an eye-opener, the level of detail and attention is rather astonishing even to the extent of animal rations.

It was therefore with some interest to discover rations for the Turkish Army at Gallipoli and the problems the Ottoman Empire had provisioning the men.

It doesn’t excuse the paucity of rations to the African troops, but it is rather reassuring that it was a more global issue. Having a very specific interest such as the war in East Africa can lead to thinking the situation was unique – indeed some authors have claimed this to be the case, myself included in earlier years. However, it’s helpful taking a peak into other areas of the war and other military encounters to see how similar wars are in many respects and that as with life in general, few learn from others’ mistakes.

For anyone interested in the Ottoman/Turkish side of the Gallipoli, Macquaire University have some useful links as I discovered on James Patton’s site Kansas WW1. And for those wondering how I was side-tracked to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire – it’s all Lord Kitchener’s fault.

Wide-awake hats, knickerbockers and sandals

Working through the East Africa General Routine Orders (GRO) for 1916 at The National Archives, I spotted a reference to ‘one wide awake hat’ – never having heard of a hat being awake, I thought it required investigating… here’s what I found

Also known as a Quaker hat or a wide-brimmed hat and it’s similar to what we refer to as a safari hat – well an old-fashioned one. There are modern day equivalents, not quite wide-awake but based on the same principle. And for variation, here’s an 1860s USA one.

Why it’s called a ‘wide-awake hat’ is explained here – it has no ‘nap’!

It also features in a few African related novels and histories: The Apostle of South Africa by Adalbert Ludwig Balling, 2015; A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and contexts for Pynchon’s novel by Steven C. Weisenburger, 2011; James Hannington of East Africa – Bishop Martyred for Africa by Charles D. Michael, reprint on 1920 book; Across Africa vol 2 by Verney Lovett Cameron, reprint of 1877 journey.

So, in what context was it used in the GRO?

It featured on 17 April 1916 in GRO 263 regarding the Scale of Clothing to be issued, referring back to 4 April orders.

‘one “Wide-awake” hat per Cape Boy is authorised’, along with ‘1 pair of sandals for Nandi Scouts, Zanzibar African Rifles and Baganda Rifles’ and for Indian troops and followers – item 1 ‘Jackets, khaki, may be issued in lieu for Indian Officers and Civilian subordinates’
Item 20 – ‘or Knickerbockers in lieu’

Well, we now know about the wide-awak hat, but knickerbockers?

Wikipedia helps on that front to an extent, but the link to the Indian army and India is still obscure, although this image suggests the men might well be wearing knickerbockers tucked into their puttees and also the West Indian Regiment. And a collection in New Zealand has a pair dating to 1916 manufactured in India.

I wonder what the sandals were made of then? Today, the Masai and others tend to use old car tyres. Alas, no picture, although they may well have been similar to sandals Gandhi wore, but this article tells of the company which manufactured African sandals during the war and raises more questions: mosquito boots! and they’re required urgently for East Africa!

Who would have thought that a small mention in a GRO would lead to a lesson in fashion…

Walther Dobbertin raises questions

Walther Dobbertin was a German photographer who spent time in East Africa before and during World War 1. Many of the photos we know of German askari were taken by Dobbertin.

Suprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Walther. He was born in 1882, emigrated to German East Africa in 1903, served with the German army in East Africa during World War One until his capture in 1916. After being released as a prisoner of war, he returned to Germany where he died in 1961. There is a lovely photo of him here.

What I find intriguing though, is that many of his war photos are dated 10/4/1918. I discovered this when completing the book Zambia: The end of the Great War in Africa 1918-2018. We were, and still are, trying to identify the British officer in a photo with von Lettow-Vorbeck and Georg Kraut. This particular photo is marked March 1918, although the commons licence notes March 1919, and to the credit of the Bundesarchiv, it does not identify the photographer.

The photo and date pose some challenges:

– in March 1918, von Lettow Vorbeck was in Portuguese East Africa, so highly unlikely he’d be posing in a relaxed photo with a British staff officer.
– it is most likely this photo was taken after the surrender/laying down of arms once the German officers had arrived in Dar es Salaam which places is between December 1918 and 5 February 1919. At this time, Dobbertin was in a prisoner of war camp somewhere having been taken prisoner in 1916.

The conclusion here is that someone other than Dobbertin must have taken this photo, a British soldier who gave a copy to von Lettow-Vorbeck? This seems the most likely explanation for how this got into the Bundesarchiv.

But what about the other photos Dobbertin took which are dated 4/1918? eg 1, 2, 3

  • Was Dobbertin part of a prisoner exchange which saw him return to Germany earlier than post-war?
  • Was he allowed to send his wife all these photos or negatives whilst a prisoner? Surely the British authorities would have wanted to see the photos themselves and possibly kept a copy – are these hidden away in an archive or private collection somwhere?
  • Did Dobbertin manage to give the negatives to one of the captains of a blockade runner who then was able to return to Germany via Portuguese East Africa?
  • Are these the dates the negatives were developed by Dobbertin in his prison camp, which were then later adopted by the Bundesarchiv when it catalogued the collection? eg 2 looks like it was taken at Tanga in 1914

Other questions which then come to mind:

  • Did Dobbertin only take photos for his own pursposes? or
  • were any of his photos used for intelligence purposes such as those taken by Cherry Kearton?

From the sample of photos available on the internet, it appears that none were taken for intelligence purposes, which begs the question, why?
And then, the German photos referred to in the Bohill collection at Hendon RAF Archive – who were they taken by? And what did they consist of? And where are they now?

A sample of Dobbertin’s photos was published in 1932, since reprinted, but with the advent of the internet, many can be found online thanks to the Bundesarchiv’s accessibility policy.

Perhaps one day someone will consider investigating this man who has provided us with a fascinating collection of photos from the German colonial period in East Africa.

 

 

South Africans in WW1 Egypt

At last, some dates have been discovered…most texts referring to the white South African contingent which served in Europe make vague references to the unit having been diverted to Egypt before participating in the battle of Delville Wood. Few specify dates. Working through EWC Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and Sudan (94MB), I made some discoveries on pages 330-332 which I share below, along with a few other snippets.

Having completed the campaign in German South West Africa on 9 July 1915, white South African forces were demobilised by the end of August except for those remaining to garrison the German territory. Those demobilised were free to join another contigent. Some went Britain direct to enlist with regiments there, others waited to see what materialised in East Africa having heard rumour that action there was afoot, and others enlisted in the white South African contingent under Henry Timson Lukin to serve in Europe as Imperial trooops, paid for by Britain. On route, the contingent was diverted to Egypt to help contain the Senussi who were using the opportunity to assert their independence.

On 4 February 1916, Lukin and his brigade arrived at Mutrah. The whole force was under command of Major-General WE Peyton who took over from General Wallace on 10 February. Lukin with a column of 4 squadrons, 3 battalions and a battery set out and on 26 February defeated the Senussi at Agagir, 14 miles south-east of El Barrani. In this they were supported by the Dorset Yeomanry. El Barrani was occupied the next day. By 14 Marc,h, Sollum was occupied and Captain Gwatkin-Williams and 90 others of HMS Tara were released from the Senussi and the returned to Alexandria and the white South Africans continued to England

The white South Africans continued to England where they joined the 9th Scottish Division in Europe by 23 April. They remained in reserve until called on to defend Delville Wood on14 and 15 July 1916.

Later, in 1918, after serving in East Africa, coloured South Africans served with the Cape Corps in Palestine. On route, this Corps arrived in Egypt in April 1918 for two months’ training after which they the British 160th Brigade which formed part of the 53rd Welsh Division. On 18 September they participated in the Battle for Square Hill. They were withrawn to Alexandria until September 1919 when they returned to South Africa.