Review: Blockade and Jungle by Christen P Christensen

Blockade and Jungle (1941, reprint 2003) by Christen P Christensen is the fictionalised story of Nis Kock who served on the German blockade runner the Kronborg which managed to get through to German East Africa in April 1915.

At the very first Great War in Africa Association Conference in 2012, Bjarne S. Bendtsen (Danish Literature lecturer) presented a paper entitled: ‘Danes’ at war in East Africa: The case of the blockade runner SS Kronborg. In his abstract he noted,

There are at least two memoirs published in Danish about Kronborg’s voyage and the crew’s participation in Lettow-Vorbeck’s safaris: Nis Kock’s Sønderjyder vender hjem fra Østafrika (1938) and Anker Nissen’s Sønderjylland Afrika tur retur (1962), and a fictionalized version of Kock’s experiences: the author Christen P. Christensen’s Sønderjyder forsvarer Østafrika 1914-18 (1937).

The fact that Blockade and Jungle is a fictional account should not detract from its usefulness, particularly in view of its having been based on Nis Kock’s account and translated into English. As with all fictional (and I would suggest factual too) accounts, details should be checked before being taken as ‘true’. Through telling the story of Nis Kock, we discover yet another ‘forgotten’ micro-nation which saw action in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. The crew of the Kronberg were mainly Danish, although in 1914 the territory was occupied by Germany, again as Bjarne explains:

The 1864 war between Denmark and Prussia/Austria, which led to Denmark’s cession of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia, meant that about 30,000 ‘Danes’ had to fight in the German army in the world war 50 years later. Among these ‘Danish’ conscripts, a handful were picked for an adventurous voyage with a supply ship, cunningly turned into the fake Danish SS Kronborg, bringing supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops in East Africa and to the German cruiser SMS Königsberg, blockaded by British men of war in the Rufiji river delta in Tanganyika.

According to Christensen, who used Nis Kock’s account to write Blockade and Jungle, there were 50 South Jutlanders who fought in German East Africa and another 30 South Jutlanders who formed the crew of the SS Kronborg. Christensen takes us through the recruitment of the men providing some insight into how the German military administration system worked, the precision planning of getting a ship through the British blockade in the North Sea and life of board a blockade runner.

Once in East Africa, the ship came under attack from the British cruiser Hyacinth and was sunk, although the crew ensured they’d be able to recover most of the equipment on board. Harry Fecitt gives an overview of the blockade runner’s arrival (as well as that of a later blockade runner, the Marie) while Hans-Martin Somer, a Research Scientist gives an account of the blockade runner in his History of Manza Bay.

Nis Kock played an instrumental role in the salvage operation and as there is no longer work for the men on the ocean, they join the land forces – Kock becoming an ammunitions’ expert. Here again, we get some lovely descriptions and insight into how the Germans managed their logistics and how carriers were used (by some). Mention is made that Nis Kock and 450 bearers cleared Morogoro of all ammunition in one day (p140). In addition to this, we get a glimpse into how the German forces were able to use the variety of weapons and ammunition they had to conduct the war and the challenges these posed (p133), including those rescued from the Konigsberg.

The account ends with Kock being one of those who had to remain behind at Nambindinga in November 1917 when Lettow-Vorbeck trimmed his force to take only the strongest into Portuguese East Africa. Instead of the expected sense of relief at no longer being involved in this trying conflict, the reader is presented with a sense of loss, rejection and guilt at not being able to continue to do one’s duty. This is an aspect I particularly valued in reading the book – perceptions and assumptions being challenged. Christensen takes things a little further with a Postscript noting that Kock was sent to Sidi Bish in Egypt before returning to Denmark in 1919. The final words again provide a contrast to how we, in the English speaking world have come to see the arrival of the GEA forces back home:

When, later on, they went to Berlin to get their papers put in order, their welcome has hardly cordial: “Communists and Warmongers!” yelled the “Imperialists” at these men who had fought in East Africa to defend Germany’s last colony.

From “there came a darkness” to “it saw the light”

I’ve been overdosing on WW1 related events and information recently – more than usual. Following on from a week of conferences in Stellenbosch, Friday 17 July saw a different group of people gather in London at the British Library for the SCOLMA conference entitled There came a darkness: Africa, Africans and World War 1. Sunday provided the light as I attended the unveiling of the Rhodesia Native Regiment/Rhodesia African Rifles memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA).

It was my first visit to the NMA and I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were other memorials to regiments which had seen service in East and Central Africa during World War 1. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place with so many Zimbabweans/Rhodesians (all races) congregated and being South African, felt a little out of place. But that didn’t stop the warm welcome and discussion flowing. The unveiling was a time for reflection – of days gone by, good times and other, and of what might have been… The flypast by two Alouette helicopters was a significant moment as noted by a couple of men standing alongside who commented that the last time they’d heard that sound was when they were in the field over 30 years ago. As the choppers passed, so another reflected – that was the worst sound, hearing them go while we stayed behind… It made me reflect on how many sounds we discount or take for granted that conjure up raw emotions for those involved in conflict situations. The closest I get is recalling the feeling of seeing a ratel on a public road from when they did ‘peace-keeping’ duties in Johannesburg.

Edward Paice in the keynote talk provided some insight from the Pike Report (see p17) and from the private diary of Captain Caulfeild who had commanded the naval vessels in the Battle against Tanga in November 1914.

This was followed by Holger Hansen providing an overview of the letters Karen Blixen sent home to Denmark during the war, David Stuart-Mogg on Frederick Njilima, a Malawian, who served as an armed soldier in the British forces on the Western Front. The significance of Njilima’s service is that this was at a time that Britain was not keen to have black colonials serve in an armed capacity in Europe whereas the French had no issue allowing this. John Pinfold and Alison Metcalfe provided some further insight into the East African theatre through their presentations on Geoffrey Hodges (how the transcripts of his interviews differ to what he published in his Carrier Corps book) and Archibald Clive Irvine (joined the RAMC in East Africa working with the Carrier Corps and after the war remained as a missionary).

Missionaries provided a theme for the day as Terry Barringer gave an overview of what appeared in the missionary periodicals about the war and Ben Knighton spoke of the missions as political grievance among Christian Agikuyu in Kenya.

Another theme was that of image. In addition to Irvine’s photo album, Daniel Steinbach linked verbal images with those of visual drawing attention to the role of the ‘other’ on the Allied side. This continued over refreshments with discussions on the violence those seen as superior (rank and race) meted out on those perceived to be inferior and also the use of images and quotes to illustrate a point when society has quite different views of what is acceptable. This resonated with the talk by Sandra Swart on the Dangers of History. Others who brought to light the different roles of Africans during the war were Martin Plaut who reminded the audience that African forces in East Africa included white South Africans.

Dan Gilfoyle provided some insight into what the War Diaries can tell us of experiences. His specific example was that of the King’s African Rifles War Diaries (80 of them held at The National Archives in WO 95), while Allyson Lewis of Essex County Record Office shed light on the service of an Essex man in East Africa – Harry Ripper, RFC. He was one of 24 men who served in East Africa and was the one who came home to marry the nurse who cared for him. He served with the King’s African Rifles but saw field service for only 2 weeks out of his 18 month enlistment.

As a change from the East African front, I looked at why and how South Africa invaded German South West Africa while Iris Wigger, a sociologist, looked at the Black Horror campaign which was started in response to black soldiers being used to guard prisoners in Germany during the occupation. And amongst all the war and battle that was discussed, Sarah Longair turned to the peace in looking at the struggle to get the Zanzibar <a href="http://” target=”_blank”>Peace Memorial Museum built.

All in all, both events were good with much discussion and further opportunity to touch base with colleagues of old and forge new relations in remembering the past.

Danish raiders in World War 1

A post-concert (JS Bach’s St John Passion in English at St Mary Abbott, Kensington) chat with viol player Jenny Bullock brought to mind the Danes and their involvement in African wars. Jenny was off to Denmark to perform the same in German over the Easter weekend.

I first came to hear about Danish involvement in the East Africa campaign when Bjarne Bendtsen offered to present a paper on the German blockade runners to East Africa. Bjarne’s papers are still to be published, but Harry Fecitt provides an overview of what the blockade runners did. What piqued my interest was that Denmark was supposed to be neutral during the war, so how did they manage this? Quite simply, the map of Denmark was slightly different to what we know today as Schleswig was part of Germany.

Some of the Danes who ran the blockades recorded their experiences which helped ensure the Danes have a place in the centenary commemorations of the 1914-1918 war years. Nis Kock’s memoirs Sønderjyder vender hjem fra Østafrika written in Danish in 1938 were used by Christen P Christiansen for Blockade and Jungle: From the letters and diaries etc of Nis Kock (1940). This is the only known English version. Knud Knudsen published Farht nach Ostafrika in 1918 and Anker Nissen, Sønderjylland Afrika tur retur: oplevelser som tysk soldat i Afrika under den første verdenskrig in1962.

To get a feel for what the blockade runners faced, The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, although a novel of a raider, is highly recommended. And for something a little lighter and from the other side is Boys-Own writer Percy C Westerman’s Rounding up the raider (1916).

Many of those who served on the blockade runners remained in East Africa joining the German forces in their struggle against the Allies, although Karl Christiansen of the Kronberg (aka Rubens) returned to Germany through neutral Portuguese East Africa. Although the blockade runners (that is the ships) lost their lives, their contents was rescued by the Germans despite the British Navy’s patrolling of the coast. To find out what remains of the blockade runners, Hans-Martin Sommer has some of the story in his History of Manza Bay, 1915-1945

Previous posts concerning the Danes (in case you were wondering) are linked below.