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.

Novelist: Josef S Viera

Josef S Viera wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Having served in the war, he wrote numerous accounts of his experiences. Many of these were banned when the Soviet Union took control of East Germany. Where fiction and fact diverge is yet to be assessed. Below are all his works covering the war years. Juma, his first book is a confirmed novel.

1890 – born 22 July Josef Sebastian Vierasegerer in Munich
1910 – moved to East Africa
1914 – 1918 – soldier with von Lettow-Vorbeck
1922 – Graduate in Philosophy and Literature at University of Munich
1970 – died 5 June

Books on World War 1

1922 – Juma: der Afrikanische Laubsbub (von Lettow-Vorbeck wrote the foreword)
1924 – Bana Sikukuu or Der Afrikan Ranger (short stories; Governor Heinrich Schnee wrote the foreword)
1926 – Mit Lettow-Vorbeck in Afrika
1936 – Erzählungen aus den deutschen Kolonialkämpfen im Weltkrieg Deutsch-Ostafrika kampft! Deutsch -Ostafrika Leben! ; Lettow-Vorbeck, im Weltkrieg unbesiegt ; Die Tangaschlacht. Wie Deutsch-Ostafrika unter Lettow-Vorbeck im Weltkrieg verteidigt wurde
1937 – Mit Lettow-Vorbeck im Busch
1938 – Die Mikindani-Patrouille. Mit Lettow-Vorbeck in Deutsch-Ostafrika. Aus dem Leben erzählt

Sources

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_S._Viera

He is not listed in Sonke Clasen, Die Angehorigen der Kaiserlichen Schutztruppe fur Deutsch-Ostafrica zur Zeit des Ersten Weltkriegs

Enemy aliens

The term ‘enemy aliens’ conjures all sorts of images… however, in time of war, they are people linked with an enemy country, foreigners. At least that’s the idea. However, many who were born in one country and living in another were quite loyal to the ‘new’ country, yet in times of trouble, good friends became distrusted, the worst being expected. During the two World Wars, many of these individuals found themselves imprisoned in camps such as Stobs and on the Isle of Mann.

Even in places geographically far removed from the war, enemy aliens were to be feared. In South Africa, a camp was set up at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal for German nationals, both internees and prisoners of war.

A few South Africans found themselves stranded in other countries on the outbreak of war, or their nationality called into question because they hadn’t become naturalised or, if they had, not changed their surname to something more Anglicised.

One of those who found himself stranded in Britain, was Hermann Kallenbach, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi who travelled with him to Britain shortly before war broke out. Two daughters of the mining magnate, JB Robinson found themselves in Germany on the outbreak of war, but managed to smuggle themselves out – how many were not so fortunate? In South Africa, L Baumann was forced to changed his name after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. As a result, his firm also changed its name – to Bakers. Baumann had been in business from 1881. It does not appear he was interned.

For more on internment of enemy aliens in war, visit the Internment Research Centre.

While researchers have looked at the internment of those seen as a threat to society, I wonder if anyone has studied the re-integration of those interned into the society which ostracised them. How long did it take for friendships and trust to be reinstated? Was it the same for those who found themselves under the authority of a new country such as the Boers under Britain in 1902 and the Germans in East Africa and South West Africa in 1918?

Re-Naming GEA

Have you ever wondered about how places got their name? Thanks to proofing a book on Tanzanian co-operative movements I discovered this little gem in The National Archives, Kew. Of all the German colonies in Africa to be taken over as Mandates under the League of Nations, only German East Africa (GEA) was to see a radical name change. German South West Africa simply (GSWA) became South West Africa (SWA, and then in 1990 Namibia), Kamerun became Cameroon, and Togoland changed to Togo. So how was it that GEA, excluding (Ruanda) Rwanda and Urundi (Burundi), became Tanganyika (until it became Tanzania on uniting with Zanzibar in 1964)?

CO 691/29 29530 contains the discussion. Possibilities ranged from Azania for both British and German East Africa, to New Georgia  and New Maryland, Lululand after Colonial Secretary at the outbreak of war, Louis Harcourt. North and South Kingland were other potentials, as was Eburnea by Horace Byatt in honour of the largest ivory tusks and the economic link with the ivory trade. Bantuland in recognition of the majority population was a further consideration in attempts to describe the territory in a name rather than name it after someone.

Amongst the immediately discounted were Smutsia, Balfouria, Lloyd Georgia…

On 24 June 1919, it was noted that the present title – GEA – had about 48 hours of existence left and no replacement had been decided.

In response to a prompt, Leo Amery suggested Victoria after the British victories but also Lake Victoria. His other thoughts were geographic related pending a reorganisation of the management of the British territories in East Africa.

It’s not clear who made the final decision, but it was Tanganyika – after the largest lake in the area which ran the length of the newly acquired British territory. But it appears as Tanganyika Protectorate in a later discussion on the design of the territory’s flag (CO 691/29 43245).

The giraffe on the flag – that was the suggestion of Horace Byatt, an elephant being on various other African territory flags aready.

The name Tanganyika apparently derives from the Swahili word Tanga – sail and Nyika – uninhabited plain or wilderness; although in 1877 Stanley thought it meant ‘collection of water vegetation’ (Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London). Perhaps a reader knows more specifically?

As a related aside, I remember being told at school in the 1980s that Azania would be the new name for South Africa but also Africa at some point in the future. It became caught up in the politics of the day. According to a note in the CO file, the name Azania was ‘Derived from Ancient Geographers who gave the name to all East Africa south of Cape Guardafui’.

Novelist: Elspeth Huxley

Elspeth Huxley was both a novelist and non-fiction writer, although her non-fiction dominated especially concerning World War 1. Of her novels, Red Strangers, although not set in the war or about it, is a relevant read as she attempts to explain the relationship between the white newcomer settler and the black long-time resident in East Africa. It seems almost fraudulent to include her as a novelist of World War One in Africa but I decided to do so anyway as it confirms which of her books about the war are not novels…

1907 – born 23 July, London
1912 – parents move to Kenya
1913 – Elspeth moves to Kenya
1914 – Father, Josceline Grant, joins East African Mounted Rifles
1914 – December, leaves for England to rejoin Royal Scots, family goes with
1919 – returns to Kenya
1925 – 1927 studying Diploma in Agriculture at Reading University
1927 – 1928 Cornell University
1931 – Elspeth married Gervais Huxley, a writer and tea commissioner for the Empire Marketing Board
1997 – dies 10 January in Tetbury

Relevant Books by Elspeth Huxley

1935 – White Man’s Country: Lord Delamere and the making of Kenya (Biography; section on WW1)
1939 – Red Strangers (Novel)
1959 – The flame trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood
1962 – The Mottled Lizard (memoirs)
1980 – Nellie: Letters from Africa (correspondence with her mother)
1990 – Nine faces of Kenya: Portrait of a Nation (includes snippets from various books including some on World War 1)

Sources

https://prabook.com/web/elspeth.huxley/3743476
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elspeth_Huxley – for complete list of books
Her papers are at the Bodleian Library, Oxford