Transvaalitis – how do we overcome?

You’d be forgiven thinking this was a new disease – medical disease that is. Trying to find some clear background to the term has proven quite a challenge – Yahoo doesn’t want to know it (really) and Google gives a few book references. As soon as you add ‘origin’ or ‘meaning’ to your search you get results such as ‘Transvaal. It is…’ – not very helpful for someone like me trying to find an author who has tried to engage with the term and not just repeat what everyone else has said before.

I came across the term reading Richard Holmes’ chapter ‘The last hurrah: cavalry on the Western Front, August-September 1914’ in Facing Armageddon The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddel (1996, 2003) p281 – this book had been recommended by Jennie Upton some time back and it’s taken me about three years to get to where I have: it’s not a book to take on the tube or in handluggage due to its length (900 pages) so has to wait for opportune moments to be read at home. Having said that, it’s a worthwhile read (most of it so far) as it opens up insights into aspects of the war few have considered before. For a non-Western Front student like myself, this is rather refreshing. There’s not a great amount on the African campaigns, but it’s definitely worth seeing how other small groups and minorities compare. It’s a great attempt at breaking the myths.

Back to Transvaalitis. It’s best to quote from p281 after some context. Holmes is talking about infantry assaults on ‘others in a position which favoured defence’ looking back to what was learned from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870s.

‘From the 1880s till the outbreak of war infantry theorists grappled with this problem. Many concluded that the answer was to weld men together just as tightly as in the past, throwing them into battle shoulder to shoulder to the sound of drum and bugle. This would result in appaling losses in the short term – but it would at least produce a decision, not sterile butchery. And it would avoid what one caustic French officer described a ‘acute Transvaalitis‘ – paralysis by fire.

Even the British army, which had, after all, studied the epidemology of Transvaalitis at some collective cost, concluded in Infantry Training 1914 that ‘The object of infantry in the attack is … to get to close quarters as quickly as possible.’ Once there, the commander on the spot was to judge when superiority of fire had been achieved and then order the assault. And now, believe it or not, I quote.

‘The commander who decides to order the assault will order the charge to be sounded, the cal will at once be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the assault the men will cheer, bugles will be sounded, and pipes played.’

This looks to me no different in principle to the infantry tactics in vogue when the line was red rather than khaki.

The reference given for Transvaalitis is ‘General Langlois, founder of the Revue militaire generale, quoted in Joseph C Arnold ‘French tactical Doctrine 1870-1914’, Military Affairs vol 42 no 2 (April 1978).

I assume one will have to get into Langlois’ writings in French to see what and why he came up with the term as Holmes and a few other authors who have used the term don’t go much further than noting ‘paralysis’ or an ‘abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield‘.

The Australian Light Horse Study Centre website has the following:

Theorists and practitioners were unsure whether firepower favoured attack or defence. The Polish banker, Jan Bloch, author of the perceptive Future War, declared that it simply ruled out frontal attack, and British experience in South Africa seemed to prove that Bloch was right: both British and French infantry regulations were modified to reflect the reality of the fire-swept battlefield. But it was not that simple. The weight of military opinion believed that wars were won by offensive action, and it followed that an army which allowed itself to be paralysed by firepower –‘acute transvaalitis‘ – could not expect to win. Moreover, as Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq had acutely observed even before the Franco-Prussian War, on the new battlefield `cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation’. What would happen if these loose, flexible formations met the enemy’s fire? Officers would be unable to lead effectively, and soldiers’ courage would not be buttressed by the close physical proximity of comrades. Men – short-term conscripts, most of them – would go to ground and not get up again; impulsion would be gone and stalemate would result.

Simon Anglim in his KCL Dept of War Studies seminar notes, has

Howard: Commanders were unquestionably obtuse about the lessons of the wars of 1861-1905. The French had abandoned mass assaults in the 1870s, but then, under what he sees as the malign influence of du Picq, in 1894 returned to “elbow to elbow” assaults accompanied by bugles and drums. Foch, in a lecture of 1900, advocated the use of the bayonet to achieve victory, rooted in a faith in aggression, elan vital, Furia Frachese, etc. Yet, in 1904, they returned to the use of loose skirmish lines, against the wishes of certain generals, who spoke of Transvaalitis. The Russo-Japanese War was misread universally – true, the Japanese had carried Russian positions with the bayonet, but only through suffering horrendous casualties. Yet, the bayonet, and morale, were the lessons drawn; the German du Picq was Bernhardi, who saw the new tactics as a sign of national spiritual weakness. Joffre, the French chief of staff from 1911, oversaw the publication of a new set of regulations for handling large formations in1911, which emphasised the offensive. In England, Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of war as a clash of wills in which attack was the best form of defence, while FN Maude claimed that casualty conservation might weaken an army’s resolve. By comparison, Haig emerges as not so much “stupid” as a coldly ruthless pragmatist, occasionally prone to over confidence (qv. his views onthe Royal Artillery)

I assume (not a wise thing to do, but needs must) therefore that Tranvaalitis was a term derived from the British response to the Boer defence (a rather strong term some might think) of the Zuid Afrikanse Republiek (ZAR) or Paul Kruger’s Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War on 1899-1902. Did this arise from Tommy’s reluctance to move forward unsure of where Boer snipers were hiding? The Boers had a reputation for being crack shots – whether this reputation was well-grounded in fact or not, the point is their reputation was enough to stop a larger force in its tracks. Overcoming the fear instilled by this reputation would have been challenging for any commander until there was a complete rethink and break in traditional approaches to the fight: the blockade and concentration camp system that was then introduced by Lords Roberts and Kitchener.

Interestingly, these lessons do not appear to have been learnt by the high commands in exploring options for future wars. Men fell back on what they were comfortable with and what they’d been taught. Those who tried to break the mould were sidelined and ostracised. As in many cases, the victor wrote the history and men like Haig and Kitchener who did try to do things differently whilst keeping their men alive, were maligned and labelled along wiht the majority. Perhaps Smuts’ encircling movements in East Africa was part of his attempt to avoid Transvaalitis…

Today, we still struggle to think outside the box and find innovative, non-violent solutions (where possible) to many problems. We all suffer from Trasvaalitis – paralysis of fire – in some way.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if Langlois came up with the term after seeing this little fellow: the Transvaal fat-tailed scorpion aka parabuthus transvaalicus. It would definitely stop me in my tracks, and that’s without knowing about its firepower.

Water – what a choice

A recent perusal of the George Farrar documents at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is responsible for this posting.

Going through Mrs Farrar’s visitors’ book for 1900 (she was in Cape Town for the duration of the Anglo-Boer War while George was working intelligence for Col Brabant), I came across a dinner menu with a list of Mineral Waters. I don’t know about you, but I thought the variety of mineral waters was a recent thing but it appears not. For Mrs Farrar’s dinner, the following was on offer:

Mineral Waters:
Van Riebeck
Victoria Water
Plain Water
Boiled Water
Hot Water

This was offered alongside: Soda, Lemon, Ginger, Sherbert, Apollinaris – if you are as curious as I was regarding the last mentioned, take a look here (p17) – ending with sparklets. Curious again, I found this, and this advertising.

Compare all these waters to the alcoholic drinks on offer. There were only Wines, listed as:
Sherry White Wine, Hock* (Johannesburg 1900) and Mariani Wine.
* I wonder if this is where the term Hoggenheimer (and a bit more) came from…
Some info on Hock bottles

One can’t say Mrs Farrar was not cosmopolitan in her tastes: Spannish, German and French.

Dinner was just as intriguing so I thought I’d include it here for others who might be interested to know what a typical dinner menu looked like and what was available when a colony was at war.

Warm soup (flavour not specified),
Sardine Fish. Not too surprising as South Africa is well-known for its Sardine Run
Boiled Duck and Caper Sauce. I found a Polish and American recipe
A roast ‘Ground Hornbill‘ (caught near Trarato) – this has stumped me. The closest I came was Tarata – a New Zealand plant or a place in Bolivia
Fricasee of Owl. I assume the owl is instead of chicken?
Cold Cream. Straight forward, I think.
Snoek on Toast – clearly a South African thing. I love it!!

and NO DESSERT. My emphasis. Was this Mrs Farrar’s attempt at saving costs during a war?

It appears that Mrs Farrar became disillusioned with South Africa following George’s involvement in the Jameson Raid and after his release tried to spend as little time in South Africa as possible. However, when the 2nd Anglo-Boer War broke out, George returned to South Africa to serve (he already had investments in ERPM, the gold mine in Boksburg) and Mrs Farrar (Ella) joined him although did not seem to leave the Cape. Here she had a stream of visitors including Frank Rhodes, Lord Milner, Richard Furse and many other ‘big’ names including Margaret of Tweck and the Duke of Westminster. It didn’t look like Kitchener, Roberts or Buller popped in, although there is a letter signed by Kitchener authorising Farrar to source horses for Brabant. When the war became a guerrilla or mobile war, Farrar resigned his commission and returned to the Transvaal to rebuild his mining empire.

Marconi

A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.

Jan Smuts and the Chinese

On 24 May 2016, had he still been alive, Jan Smuts would be 146 years old. For those of you too lazy to do the maths, he was born in 1870.

At the age of 34, whilst out of a government role, Smuts was vexed by what was known in South Africa as the ‘Chinese Question‘ or ‘Problem’. Following the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) of 1899-1902, Lord Milner had arranged for Chinese labour to work on the South African gold mines as local black labour was not forthcoming and there was not enough white labour prepared to work at the unskilled labour rates of pay. Getting the mines operational after the war was vital for the economy and to cover the costs of the war. But, for the likes of Smuts, Botha and other South African politicians, the introduction of another racial group into the already volatile melting pot of Southern Africa was anathema.

Smuts felt strongly about this as noted in his letter to JX Merriman on 31 August 1905 (Hancock, vol 2):

You are quite right, the Chinese business is contaminating the very well-spring of our national and social life, and I feel sure that we shall not soon get another such opportunity for getting rid of it as now. Feeling in the Transvaal has been profoundly stirred; those people (along the Rand) who were for sordid reasons in favour of Chinese labour repent and suffer bitterly now … the question is great enough to found its own party, which will yet be the most powerful in South Africa – unless we are really going to be an annexe of China, a Hong Kong…

The last Chinese labourers were eventually sent back in 1910.

This was not the end of Smuts’ dealings wiht the Chinese, however. During World War 1, whilst he was commander in chief of the forces operating in East Africa, he would have encountered the Chinese Contingent. Unfortunately little is known of the work these men did in the theatre other than what Steve Lau has brought to light and which he shared at the 2016 Great War in Africa Conference.

South Africa, however, has retained a relationship with China in some form since these early days. Chinese restaurants provide a tangible link – interestingly during Apartheid Chinese people were classified as black, whilst Japanese were classified white. Yet dispensations were clearly given: there was a Chinese restuarant (Golden Lake) in the Boksburg Lake grounds for as long as I can remember.

Today, China itself is economically involved in developing infrastructure and providing loans to African governments.

Did Smuts forsee this development way back in 1905?

It might be worth a mention that Smuts’ World War 1 nemesis, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.

Review: Memoirs of the Boer War by Jan Smuts

I set myself the challenge ot read through Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel’s 7 volume Selections from the Smuts’ Papers. So far, I’ve completed volume 1. As a specialist of WW1, I thought it would be interesting to see what documents and thoughts he’d written prior to the 1914-1918 war and to see how his younger days influenced his later…

What I didn’t expect to find though was a draft memoir of his Boer War experiences. Part V of volume 1 is the start of what was to be a book but which was never finished due to his getting more involved in politics from 1904. These almost 130 pages tell Smuts’s story from the Fall of Pretoria [*] June 1900 through to the start of The Potchefstoom Campaign in early 1901.

[* you can see some of the pages on Google books (the first page is 536)]

This is not a military account, I wouldn’t expect anything like that from Smuts; it is rather a personal reflection on how he saw the war (and no doubt how he wanted the public to see the war – compare this with his reports to the War Office which were published in the Gazettes in 1916 and 1917). Tucked within these pages, and the earlier part dealing with his correspondence during the Boer War, are insights into his views on military strategy and how these were received by others. For those with the patience to tackle military strategy, this should provide some good material for understanding (or confusing) what he did during the East Africa campaign. I couldn’t help but be struck by his comments about organisation and his take on small forces being chased by a force much larger than the numbers they were chasing.

Interspersed are accounts of meeting with his wife, how he got letters through to her and other family members on occasion, humour, and frustration. He explains the Boer take on fighting (or rather retreating) and their fear of being captured – one group being found reciting prayers aloud in the hope that they would not be mistaken for fighters. And to top it all we get some history lessons from Smuts – not least the significance of Dingaan’s Day (Day of the Covenant and now Day of Reconciliation) and the Great Trek – all in the context of the Anglo-Boer War. It was the day after 16 December 1899, a day of solemn reflection and rejoicing in the progress of the war, that things started to go awry. Smuts gives credit where it is due – I was surprised at the number of British officers he commented on: favourably. Another striking point was his regular references to Kitchener allowing the Boers to cross the lines to meet with fellow Boers or get messages to Europe where President Kruger was in exile. Surely, if one is at war, you don’t rely on the favour of the enemy to let you communicate with your own side which is positioned on the other side of the enemy? It clearly was a war with a difference…

It’s not the most gripping and exciting of reads, if I’m honest, but it is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding Smuts’s behaviour and actions during the East Africa campaign of 1916-1917.

How the Raid dominates…

I don’t dispute the significance of the Jameson Raid in the lead up to the Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1902, but I do wonder if by just focusing on the Raid without looking at what went before and after we are missing something.

I have started to question emphasis being placed on specific events to the exclusion of almost everything else when it comes to understanding or looking at an individual. Jameson is the most recent case in point, although it is by delving behind Kitchener’s avenging of Gordon‘s death at Khartoum, the Boer War concentration camps and Paardeberg that I’ve set myself the challenge of completing a biography of the man on the poster. There is so much more than what meets the eye.

This was brought home to me again by a reading of Chris Ash’s The ‘If’ Man – a biography on Jameson which by all accounts has had some mixed reactions.

What I did find intriguing in The If man is that there was no mention (or perhaps I missed it) of those others who were initially sentenced to death with Jameson – JG Farrar springs to mind. I would have expected some mention of Jameson and Fitzpatrick in terms of the court hearings and their fate especially as they were involved in organising the Uitlanders in Johannesburg. These men were also Members of Parliament and being in the mining world, their paths clearly crossed with Jameson’s.

There are numerous publications on the Jameson Raid – I wonder how many of them really have new insights into the events and how many just repeat the generally accepted views? One day I’ll get round to reading at least some of them… I might be as pleasantly surprised as what I have been reading the biographies on Kitchener.

Remembrance and Commemoration: a never-ending cycle

I’ve missed a few commemoration and remembrance occasions recently for various reasons and as usual, it’s provided an opportunity for reflection.

Recent commemorations as I write have included Gallipoli, Tanzania’s national day and South Africa’s Freedom Day. (April). Somewhere along the line, in May, VE Day and Dunkirk featured and whilst I was in Africa at the start of the year there was Mendi Day. The SA Military History Journal for Dec 2014 (read in late April) was full of commemorations linked to WW1: Sandfontein, Square Hill, the 1914 Rebellion at Zandfontein, and the annual 11 November parade. They also had an article on a series of films being shown at Ditsong Military Museum as part of an ongoing commemoration programme. A War and Peace Concert took place in August.

A military journal in itself suggests commemoration although I’ve focused mainly on WW1. In addition there was an article on the Anglo-Boer (AB) War, specifically looking at the work of the SA CWGC. No mention of the WW1 cemeteries at Maitland and elsewhere. This is not surprising as the AB War probably resonates more strongly amongst South Africans than World War 1. Again, not surprising as the AB War was fought on SA territory and impacted on more of the population than did WW1.

This general lack of knowledge or awareness of WW1 and SA’s involvement was brought home on 21 February when I heard a newsreader announce that in future 21 February was to be National Troops’ Day. I stopped. How did they get to that? 21 February is Mendi Day, the day the SANLC lost over 600 labourers: not troops! Before sharing my horror with the world about myth generation, I thought it best to investigate a bit. Low and behold, officially the day is National Forces Day (whew! all inclusive and appropriate) and 2015 wasn’t the inaugral day but 2012. The challenge now will be to ensure that all the forces (WW1 and other) are recognised – from labourer to soldier to medical and support services. They all played a significant role in furthering the aims they believed they were fighting for and should be remembered for their contribution to creating the country we know today. For reasons of unification and reconciliation, Mendi Day is well-chosen but it will depend on the dominant voices and how they ‘use’ the day that will determine whether it perpetuates the myths or encourages honest investigation and recognition of how all the sectors of the armed forces worked together to succeed as they did.

And the reference to VE Day, I discovered is the release of a film showing HM The Queen celebrating the news in Piccadilly Circus as one of the people. Soon after and long past by the time you get to read this, was the commemoration of VE Day by the South African Legion, whose newsletter also contained coverage of the WW1 battle of Trekkopje amongst other bits of interest.