Some readers may have realised postings this last little while have been erratic. The reason is that I was engrossed in research in Pretoria followed by a week of wonderful discussion about the Great War in Africa whilst in Stellenbosch. Apologies to those of you who thought this would be a commentary on the wine farms of Stellenbosch. Our conferences and discussions were so good that despite the best intentions, some of us never actually made it to a wine farm!
Over two days we had 22 papers purely on the Great War at a conference hosted by Ian van der Waag of the Military School at Stellenbosch. Many then stayed on for the SA Historical Association where some select different papers were presented. The discussion interspersed between the papers and across the conferences was insightful and engaging.
As with previous conferences the Great War in Africa Association has been involved in, there was a mix of academic and enthusiast presenting. One difference, however, was the presence of a keynote speaker – Jeffrey Grey from Australia. His overview of the dominions and war skirting over SA on purpose set an appropriate theme and ideas for the remainder of the week.
A theme running through most of the discussions was Jan Smuts. This was launched by Tilman Dedering‘s assessment of Smuts as the ‘Prophet of Air Power’. David Katz followed with a military assessment of Smuts’s management of the Battle of Kilimanjaro in March 1916. A related military paper was by Kobus van Aarde on South Africa’s first battle experience in East Africa (aka Salaita). James Willson provided some insight to the area through his reminiscing of the discovery and preservation of the battlefield sites along the Voi-Taveta line (13 have been declared national monuments). Anri Delport opened up the health aspect of the East Africa campaign from 1916 onwards whilst Tait Keller looked at the wider ecological implications of the war in Africa, including a hypothesis on the origin of HIV/AIDS. Another fascinating paper regarding well being was that by Kenneth Steuer on the role of the YMCA in East Africa.
Kathleen Satchwell brought the individual at war to the fore through some of the stories she’s constructed around names on memorials. A published example is her book ‘Your loving son, Yum‘. German South West Africa and the rebellion received much attention too. The personalities of the generals was explored by Jaques de Vries. Tony Garcia presented on the military tactics of quelling the rebellion and on South African airpower in German South West Africa, whilst Evert Kleynhans (his paper read by Will Gordon) set out the complexities of getting water to South West Africa and how this affected the military movements. Kent Fedorowicht explored the issue of reconciling the rebels as David Katz and Ian van der Waag shared some fascinating insights to the rebels who had been captured. David and Ian’s analysis of data collected at the time presented some contradictions with previous work done by Sandra Swart and Albert Grundlingh. This presentation together with Jaques de Vries’s one on the SS Mendi, of which his grandfather was a survivor, shows how difficult it can be to ascertain full details and numbers of people involved in upheavals. Fankie Monama put it all in context in his analysis of South African propaganda attempts during the Great War, whilst my paper looked at the chaos of South Africa going to war.
Michelle Moyd introduced the German perspective, in particular that of camp followers including women in East Africa. My related second paper on ‘The Boy’ aka personal servant or batman opened up more questions than providing answers and will provide a research student with a fascinating area to study. Ross Anderson and Ed Yorke opened up the East Africa campaign to the King’s African Rifles and Northern Rhodesia. Ana Paula Pires added to the wider East African outlook by examining Mozambique’s role in the war and Enika Ngongo highlighted the Congo’s role. The final paper was by Ian van der Waag appropriately looking at an ‘invisible conflict’ of the war in Africa, namely the Senussi.
For the remainder, the sessions I attended on World War 2 and Border Wars had numerous links to experiences and conditions to aspects of World War 1 in Africa. The final comments on the Border War in response to a question of who won resonates with that of the East Africa campaign: all won but don’t forget that when two elephants clash, the grass suffers.
What was clearly apparent throughout the discussions we had on World War 1 was the need for further historical research into various aspects of the African theatres to ensure the myths are dispelled. The need for rigorous historical research and the need for historians to speak out to protect the truth was brought home in Sandra Swart’s presidential talk on the danger of historians. For the African campaigns, the threat to truth is the number of journalists who are producing material without checking their facts before publication (there are some exceptions). This is not surprising as journalists respond to the moment whilst historical research can be painstakingly slow. And perhaps that’s part of the cycle of remembering the past… what we historians need to remember is not to overindulge in what we find and keep it to ourselves but to ensure we get the stories out before the myths become too entrenched.
This need has been brought to light by numerous correspondents of mine who have shared stories published on the BBC whilst I was indulging in conference:
Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten: Only now are the sacrifices made by thousands of Indians who lost their lives in WW1 beginning to be remembered, writes Shashi Tharoor
The African soldiers dragged into Europe’s war – more than one million people died in East Africa during World War One – some soldiers were forced to fight members of their own families, writes Oswald Masebo
In response to the latter, a colleague noted: “He’s half-way to the realities of 1914-18 in East Africa, which is far further than most commentators get. I will stick to doing what hardly any of the other commentators do – researching and writing about the gallantry and fortitude (leavened with the necessary violence and brutality of close-quarter bush fighting) of the Askari of both sides.”
I look forward to seeing some of the conference papers in print in due course. They promise to offer new insights to the Great War in Africa and dispel some of the ever increasing myths. For further information on the publication and books on the Great War in Africa, see the Great War in Africa Association website.