To lead from the front or not…

Reading AC Martin’s regimental history of the Durban Light Infantry in World War 2, I was intrigued to come across the following on p246:

It was a mere nine days since Auchinleck had taken over command of Eighth Army and in that time the change in fortunes was remarkable. Auchinleck, who believed that a “Commander should be as close behind the line as he could be without risking dislocation by capture or bombardment”, had conducted the operations from behind the Ruweisat Ridge in uncomfortable and austere conditions, not much to the liking of some of his Staff or members of the Press. He wished to live in the same atmosphere as his men. He considered it good for his morale and that of the Army. Certainly he would the better be able to appreciate the atmosphere of the battlefield. His influence on the operations was immediately felt by Rommel who commented at the time:
“General Auchinleck, who had meantime taken over command himself at El Alamein, was handling his forces with very considerable skill and tactically better than Ritchie had done. He seemed to view the situation with decided coolness, for he was not allowing himself to be rushed into accepting a ‘second best’ solution by any moves we made. This was to be particularly evident in what followed.” (The Rommel Papers, edited by Liddell Hart, p. 248.)
By the 4th July Rommel had been forced onto the defensive and, as his intercept service warned him that Auchinleck was about to thrust from the south at his right rear, he withdrew 21st Panzers from Ruweisat Ridge leaving 15th Panzers in a precarious position. There is evidence to suggest that had a decided thrust been made along Ruweisat Ridge at this time by 1st Armoured Division, the results would have been spectacular. As it was, some 200 German infantry surrendered and many more were probably prevented from doing so by their own guns.
The offensive ordered by Auchinleck was not well co-ordinated or pressed by 13 Corps…

Why this is intriguing is that there seems to be some debate as to whether it is better for commanders to lead from the front or behind. This was one of the issues concerning the 1914-18 war in Africa, especially under Jan Smuts’ command. Smuts commanded from the front – ignoring his General Staff and getting himself into corners. However, his opposite number, German Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck seems to be highly regarded for his management of the campaign, many ignoring the fact that he also led from the front, and in fact was injured a few times. A little further on in Martin’s history (p294), he lists the commanders who tended to lead from the front, including Rommel, Bismarck, and Willoughby Norrie who led the South Africans into Sidi Rezeg ‘perched on a tank’.

With my focus being World War 1, with greater insights into commanders did before 1914 rather than after 1918, I had formed the view that leading from the front was out of fashion – until reading Martin. So I knew that Kitchener, for example, had got himself into trouble on the few occasions he was on the battlefield – where he lost sight of the big picture but also aware that for some cultures, that was what commanders or leaders did. The Indian officers and many African commanders moved with their men. This showed courage and solidarity. Auckinleck was able to galvanise his soldiers to greater heights being with them and showing he understood their position compared with comments one hears about Haig and others who, in WW1, stayed behind the lines.

No doubt, this debate will continue – it was one of the issues David Katz intended to address in his latest book on Smuts, but did not succeed in resolving. There are arguments for and against both leading from the front and from behind. Van Deventer, a man whose military approach needs investigating, seems to have got the balance right (at least from what I can see) and I wonder if that too, isn’t the reason many think Reginald Hoskins made a good commander.

Review: Weep Not, Child – Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I hadn’t expected to come across World War 1 in Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o but I did. And what a little gem. The short book (136 pages) written in 1962 was published in 1964 and deals with the life of a Kikuyu family in Kenya leading to independence.

While most authors on the GWAA list of novels concerning the war and those I’m covering in the Novelist posts have the war as a feature or setting, Ngugi’s characters refer back to it comparing it with World War Two. Both are referred to as the Big War – first and second. This correlates with my discovery of speaking to older generation people in Africa who do not associate the Great War with what we in the west call World War One, the First World War or even the Great War. I’ve generally come across it referred to as ‘the war between the great white queen and king’ or ‘the war where white men fought each other’.

What was more fascinating about Ngugi’s references to the Big War was how they were perceived. The first being of little consequence other than giving people a hard time by making them carriers, whereas the second was more fearful where black men were fighting the white man’s war which featured poison, bombs etc. The immediate horrors of the Second World War tower over those of the first. This contrasts with the veteran interviews Mel Page did in Malawi (Chiwaya War Voices) where the First World War was seen as more destructive than the Second. In fact a number of the veterans comment that Europe should be told about the Great War which happened in Africa as they have no idea about it, the Second being fought in Europe. These two texts bring to light the very different experiences of the same events by peoples of Africa – Kenya and Malawi – and the impact of these two great wars on the local communities.

Whether it’s intentional or not, Nugi’s telling of the story of young Njoroge who is the first in his family to go to school provides an insight into the impact of war. There was a justification for the First World War, being to prevent German slavery across Africa whereas the Second was purely for British interests. Those who participated in the First were not as severely impacted as those who served in the Second where killing and death from military action was more intense than that of 1914-1918 (fewer than 10% of losses in WW1 East Africa were directly war related). One can see the result of the disillusion of returned soldiers leading to freedom fighters linked with Mau Mau.

This is one of the few books I’ve read where the legacy of war has been addressed at a local level – where the outcome is not ‘moonlight and roses’. It’s one of the reasons Ngugi is such a powerful writer: he’s not scared to tell it how it is.

Another special remembrance

I attended a remembrance service with a difference on Monday 10 February 2020. It was to mark the 75th anniversary of the day a V2 bomb hit the central office of the then Presbyterian Church of England killing 10 people. Today it is the central office of the United Reformed Church (and between 1868 and 1970 the lodging of cross-dressers according to the blue plaque outside). I can just see those of you who know my blogs going – no Africa, no WW1… and yes, to a large extent you’re right. However, one of the men who died in the blast had served as a Church of England chaplain during the First World War. Africa featured through some of those attending.

What made this remembrance service special was its inclusiveness in a way others I had attended had not been. Others had been nationally, give or take, inclusive but this one was religiously inclusive, for all its being overtly a Christian service. Accompanying the service was an exhibition which had been put together of the area and the aftermath of the bomb’s visitation alongside short biographies on each of the people who lost their lives – men and women, clergy and other, from the receptionist, to the bookseller, the visitor and general secretary. All were regarded as equal, during the service their contribution to the work of supporting others read out in alphabetical order by those who fill similar roles today – crossing ethnic and gender lines. And all of this had been lovingly and carefully put together by the archivist – a sister of the Muslim faith. The main challenge in putting the exhibition together was that the building then belonged to the Presbyterian Church so no material was available in the current archive, and being sensitive to conditions of GDPR in a way those of us dealing with World War 1 don’t. Material had to be sourced elsewhere, including from Cambridge.

Together archivist and historian stood while the past was remembered – poignant for those who work in the building realising that one minute you’re all getting on with the day’s business and busyness, the next, ten of your friends and colleagues are no more, you’re a survivor along with 100 others in the area who were injured. Not content with only remembering the past, thoughts turned to those who suffer similar experiences today across the world.

I was the outsider in so many ways, but what a feeling of togetherness…and to think, I nearly didn’t attend.


REVIEW: Distinguished Conduct – Melvin E Page

Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi by Mel Page is not quite what one would expect from someone like Mel, but it works.

Thankfully Mel explains at the outset that this is not an historical narrative, so those who don’t appreciate the value of footnotes will be pleased. For those of us trying to get a better grip of the events in Africa at the time, this is frustrating, but then as Mel explained, he has not written a history book per se but a novel.

However, this is a novel with a difference. The lead character, Malawian Juma Chimwera was real and the information concerning his military service is based on fact, as are some of the other characters. Chimwera’s experiences, though, are conjectured, as is the role of a white officer who provides the linking thread through the book. So, where does this leave the history scholar?

Effectively, Mel has used his extensive research and knowledge of the King’s African Rifles and Malawi, for most of the novel Nyasaland, to provide a context for Chimwera’s life as a soldier, looking at why he enlisted and his experiences from before the First World War through to Malawian Independence. There are many white missionary and other settler accounts of this period, but few on local black experiences and this is what Mel has tried to encapsulate and in my opinion, succeeds.

Having the advantage of knowing Mel’s academic work, broadly knowing the wider history and at the time of reading Distinguished Conduct literally wading through the whole Colonial Office collection of KAR correspondence, War Diaries and other accounts, I could see how the book was grounded historically.  Yes, literary licence has been taken but one could argue that has been necessary to provide an overview and the feel for the Yao community which has not been known for its written literary record. Mel is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Giles Foden took a similar approach with Mimi and Toutou go forth, and I have recently become aware of a South African publication of the life of 688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse DCM of the Cape Corps – They said we could not do it – written by his great grandson M Adeel Carelse. As Adeel explained, there was insufficient information to write an historical book, but also that wouldn’t ‘bring the characters decorated for valour to life’. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Adeel’s book but I have read Mimi and Toutou by Foden which as an historical account is sadly lacking and which was one of the main reasons for the GWAA embarking on the mammoth project which culminated in The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology being published (vol 2 due out later in 2020). I do not foresee a similar project having to be undertaken to set the record straight concerning Distinguished Conduct. While recording the life of one man, Mel has remained an objective historian and it’s that which makes this very readable novel a valuable contribution to the novels and history of the First World War in Africa. My only concern is that it gets used as evidence/footnote material for the wrong reasons. So, I nearly end this review with a plea to anyone wanting to use it as reference material, by all means do, but let us know the reason you’re using it and if for historical accuracy, please find further supporting documentation.

Thank you Mel for sharing the life of this little-but-well-known Askari. If only your editors had shown as much care in proofreading the book – there was one too many typographical gremlins for my liking and the non-justification layout of the text took a little while to get used to.

Lasts matter too

I was asked about this a little while ago in the context of Africa and WW1 and wrote about it in October 2018. In short, firsts allow the context of a situation to be set, they provide a point on the timeline that other events can be related to, but there is also the chance that the first is not the real first and in confirming what happened and when it did, other potentially valuable insights can come to light.

Similarly, lasts do the same. Specialists on the Western Front will be able, no doubt, to give the time of the last shot fired whether it was by rifle, machine gun, heavier artillery, unit and the last soldier killed will be known (Private George Ellison of the 5th Irish Lancers and George Price of the 28th Battalion Canadian Infantry). Answers will be dependent on the searcher’s context, eg American. And if you’re looking at Africa, each of the lasts meant something different depending on the area under discusion, with the final shots of the war fired on 13 November 1918 and the laying down of arms/surrender on 25 November 1918 in Abercorn.

As with the discussion on firsts, exploring lasts opens up the conflict in its diversity. It also necessitates clarification of terminology as fighting or rather civil war continued in Russia which withdrew from the Great War in 1917. Similarly, territories in Eastern Europe continued to experience conflict as different groups fought for their rights and independence. The lasts merge into something else.

Lasts, as with firsts, can give rise to myths, and ‘lessons’ – what is the significance between the first and last British soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict being buried 3 miles apart? In Africa, 1/4 King’s African Rifles from Uganda and the Northern Rhodesian Police, both involved from the outbreak of war, accepted the German arms in Zambia in November 1918 – what is not known (yet) is how many who started in 1914 were still there in 1918.

And then we have the veterans – as far as is known, there are no more veterans alive from the 1914-1918 war. There might still be a few alive who were born around the time but none who served. As the list grew smaller, historians and others became more aware of lost opportunities to find out first hand. (Last widow, Scottish) By all accounts this realisation has spurred families and researchers to capture accounts of minority groups who participated in World War 2 before they are lost forever. We might yet get a more comprehensive account of Africa’s involvement in WW2 Burma and other theatres than we so far have with WW1, as a result – I certainly hope so.

We’re yet to identify the last names in Africa – and probably never will. However, consideration of the task to do so allows other questions to be asked:

  • where is the line drawn? Where do those who died from influenza fit into the equation?
  • did the person still need to be enlisted to be counted as a war statistic?
  • where are the records? In the home country languishing in some basement? hidden amongst other papers in the old imperial archives?
  • how are those whose home front became a battle front fit accounted for?
  • was there a major sense of relief, sense of celebration linked with any of the cease fires in Africa or did life ‘go on’?

What is significant looking at diaries of the last days of those who served in East Africa, whether personal or official, is the lack of mention of the end of the war either on 11 November or the weeks after. Those who have tended to mention the date were directly impacted by the news such as officials managing the armistice and peace discussions, involved in the final fighting or some administrative/logistic role. This lack of mention prompts questions over how men got to learn of the end of the war and what it meant for them stuck out in the bush. The Commander in Chief, van Deventer was keen to get men home as quickly as possible, and later Jan Smuts and Louis Botha were putting pressure on Britain to get South Africans home fast – why?

And as a final consideration, lasts give an end, in the same way firsts give a start, in other words: periodisation…which in itself is useful and constraining, but that’s for another day.