REVIEW: The first campaign victory of the Great War – Antonio Garcia

The first campaign victory of the Great War: South Africa, Manoeuvre Warfare, The Afrikaner Rebellion and the German South West Africa campaign, 1914-1915 by Antonio Garcia, Helion, 2019

Where does one start? There is so much in this short book on the first victory of World War 1. The first striking feature is the title – today without being in inverted commas, it’s inaccurate as the book covers the second Allied African victory of the Great War, the first being Togoland in August 1914. Although a short conflict, Togoland is regarded as a campaign. However, at the time, the scoop in Britain was that this was the first victory by a white African army of the war and that, no less, by a country which had previously fought against Britain. It is only recently that the historiography is correcting this technicality.

The second feature is the book’s approach – assessing the campaign through the theory of ‘manoeuvre warfare’. At a time where historians are tending to focus on the social and cultural aspects, consideration of a conflict from a military theory perspective is different and rather refreshing. However, what is not mentioned on the cover is that another theory features to explain the Boer Rebellion: relative deprivation theory. Tony is one of the first authors to try and integrate the rebellion and the fighting in German South West from a military point of view. Most authors tend to put the SWA campaign on hold to discuss the rebellion and then return to the campaign, while others ignore the first days of the campaign and go straight to January 1915 seeing it as completely unrelated to the rebellion. One day an historian might well address the question of why the Germans didn’t take the opportunity of the rebellion to safeguard their colony – this may have been addressed in German accounts but I am yet to see anything in English or Afrikaans.

A third striking feature is the seemingly tick-box approach to including people of colour in the text. Labour was an important feature of this campaign and in line with South African social and employment culture, was mainly undertaken by people who were not white. Black and Coloured labour was employed to build and repair railways, load and unload ships in dock, groom horses, look after transport animals amongst other tasks. Tony emphasises that the white soldiers would not have achieved what they did without the support and contribution of these men but does not take it further as they are militarily peripheral to the topic under discussion – manoeuvre warfare. It is in this regard that the weakness of the book is to be found. It reads and feels like an academic dissertation and knowing the academics involved, it is out of keeping with their own approaches reinforcing the text’s meeting of academic requirements. Although I believe the book’s editor should have worked with Tony to reconfigure the text for general consumption, its present form provides an insight into the academic approach and how this differs in SA to say the UK. The approach taken by Tony going back in time to set the context resonates with my own experience which was challenged by my UK supervisors as not necessary and that readers, if they want more background, can find it out themselves. The need we South Africans have to ground the past seems to be part of our nation building and national memory formation. The first campaign victory provides a good example for comparison with similar academic outputs, dissertations and theses, in other countries. This is something students studying in another country experience and have to deal with, as I know through personal experience and in supporting overseas students settling into the UK, but I am not sure anyone has seen this as an area to research either educationally or from a cultural historical perspective.

With these striking features out of the way, what about the rest of the book? As alluded to earlier, Tony looks at the South West Africa campaign using a modern theory of warfare. Rather than trying to understand why decisions were made at the time, he considers how effective those decisions were in retrospect. I was left wanting more, purely because Tony’s clear and succinct explanations prompted deeper thinking. Here, again, circumstances conspired against him. With few specialists available on the campaign, opportunities for greater interrogation of the material available was missed. But what is here is tantalising and sets a good solid foundation for future work either by Tony himself or others. The inclusion of relative deprivation theory and attempts to understand the human motivations for becoming involved in the war, or not, is another valuable contribution and had this not been the academic study it is, I’m sure would have led to greater integration, analysis and linkage between the two theories, and an easier inclusion of all forces, armed and otherwise, in the discussion. Tony has gone some way to showing the complexity of war through his theoretical approach and, for a theatre which is as understudied as German South West Africa is, is to be commended for opening new windows and bringing it to wider attention. Together with James Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast which looks at the conflict from the battlefield-archeological perspective, The first campaign victory provides historians of all flavours with rich, new insights.

Education and war

It was not unusual to hear South Africans complaining about the state of education during my recent visit and subsequently. This wasn’t the usual issue of curriculum and what is being taught but rather that young people across the board are not able to think for themselves and make up their own minds about events and statements made by politicians. This was further extended to the workplace where automation and reliance on technology to do the work of humans is eroding the skills base. Who will be around in the next generation or two who has a global or ‘out of the box’ take to re-empower individuals when finances and systems are no longer available to support an ever longer-living society?

These are concerns and questions just as applicable in Britain as I’m sure they are in the USA and other countries.

Education is important – on that I think all people are agreed. The contentious issue is what education and for whose purpose. I can’t help but think of Marx’s keeping the masses ignorant in order to uphold those in office. Labour’s introduction of Critical Thinking in the 2000s was a case in point and I’m sure the current teaching on how to identify fake news is not much different.

The significance of education in war has featured in some recent reading (chapters 50, 52 and 54 of Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experience, edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Lidddle). How teachers in Germany and France supported (or not) the war effort in their respective country, what kept children from attending school etc. Unsurprisingly, these factors can still be seen today in many African countries and more subtly across education institutions I’ve had dealings with in England over the years.

But there’s also positives to this potentially gloomy picture:

  • On my recent trip to Zambia I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline the force behind ensuring children in battle-impacted Afghanistan are able to access education again.
  • An initiative in Rwanda to teach English is doing more than that through time-tested books written specially for the locality and teachers who have lost their fluency in the English language.
  • A chance Christmas Eve meeting with Shelley of told me about the bilingual (Arabic/English) books they’re distributing with Trauma Teddies helping children in the Lebanon (and elsewhere) come to terms with what they have witnessed.
  • Seeing young people in South Africa break the technology norm being engrossed in reading real books with historical narrative and making links with discussions around them. And also saying ‘if only school history were this interesting’ – a huge compliment when it’s a ‘dull boring’ historian’s nephew making such a comment.
  • Hearing Johan Wassermann, at the Unisa conference on the legacy of WW1 in southern Africa, explain how much freedom there actually is in what appears to be a narrow curriculum which allows teachers to broaden what content they cover.
  • Knowing individual teachers and academics who do what they can to ensure their learners are equipped for the future – I am eternally grateful to Amy Ansell for the impact she’s had on my approach to teaching and history.

As Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau (chapter 54 – French children as targets for propaganda) noted, children are resilient and get through. Complaints about poor or inadequate education have been around for centuries and no doubt will continue but as our ancestors across the continents have shown, mankind muddles through – somehow.

Little literature appears on education in Africa during the war years. Immediately springing to mind are the novels: Iron Love by Marguerite Poland and Chui and Sadaka by William Powell. Any takers for looking at … missions schools and the war … post-war school policies … settler children being educated in country or going ‘home’ … African nationalism and war-time education … education and the armed forces?

A musical tangent

Continuing with my reading of the Smuts Papers, vol 2, by Hancock and van der Poel, I couldn’t help but do a double-take on reading Lord Selbourne’s 1908 missive on the Transvaal policy for ‘Coloured people and Natives’ (pp374-394). This document, 20 pages long, was clearly written in the time before social media and short attention spans.

What made me stop, and there were many such occasions, was Selbourne’s thoughts on black education. For him, this should be allowed, be optional and to show commitment, part paid for by the person attending. More was to follow… The curriculum (p364) says it all:

The Native must be taught a little ordinary elementary knowledge, elementary arithmetic, and how to read and write, and I should add a considerable proportion of music. The former would make him a more useful servant, and the latter a happier being; but the main lines on which I should like to see his education developed, are those of what in England I should call a first class agricultural labourer… the one work for which the Native is most suited is agricultural work; and as an agricultural labourer he will never come into competition with the white man.

Wasn’t this, other than the agricultural aspect, what aristocratic white young women in Britain were to be taught? So much can be pulled from this quote alone, so I say no more other than that Selbourne’s paper has to be read to be believed today, but these were the thoughts and views of the time. Interspersed amongst Selbourne’s class and racial views, are some insightful comments. His statement about preventing competition between the black and white man being one such – this was the main reason for the colour divide. Education today is still used to divide and rule, across the board.

Still reeling from what I’d read in this paper, I was later following a lead on the Rhodesian Regiment which served in WW1, only to discover another musical link: this from after the war.

Percival Kirby had gone to Natal in 1914 and worked at the university before going to Wits in 1921. By all accounts he didn’t enlist. His fame is for recording ‘the music of the South African people’. He collected instruments and recorded their sound on wax cylinders. The collection is now at UCT forming the basis of various studies – how research was conducted during colonial times, what was included/left out and so forth.

I wonder how much of what Kirby recorded was influenced by black education as promoted by Selbourne? – I imagine not much. What I do know is that music is an integral part of South African life and is as diverse in genre as the people.

And for those wondering, I didn’t find what I was looking for on the Rhodesian Regiment…

Turn-around time?

I am absolutely fuming having just had a budget review at staff meeting at work (a primary school) where we have NO MONEY for exercise books

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a statement by a teacher in Africa – it’s a standard complaint that there are not enough books, chalk or red pens for teachers to do their work. However, this statement appeared on Twitter by a teacher in Britain.

If this had been a statement by a school in Africa, there would no doubt be a huge rush in Britain to collect money, books and pens and rush them over to the school in question without a clear understanding of what was really required. At least this has been my experience to date. So, it was natural that when reading this tweet about a school in Britain, I immediately wondered why a school in Africa hadn’t thought to do some fundraising and send assistance accordingly.

Simply, we are products of our experiences and breaking out of the mould can be quite a challenge. African countries and institutions have become so dependent on handouts that the idea of helping themselves is an alien one even though some in those countries are far more well-off than those in the countries trying to help. It often astounds me that we turn to help others without looking after our own first. There is some logic in the flight travel advice: once you have put your own mask on, then help others.

Handouts don’t work. There’s more wisdom in ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for life, than give him a fish and feed him for a day’. Similarly, teach a child to read and think and they can work things out for themselves rather than tell them what to think. This can be quite scary for parents but how refreshing when a youngster comes up with an innovative idea.

It’s being bold to break the mould that leads to development and improvements. This was recently reinforced when I was researching about Jaap van Deventer who commanded the forces in East Africa in 1917/18. During the Anglo-Boer War he was with a commander, General Koos de la Rey who changed the style of Boer fighting by simply moving the trenches/hideouts from the top of a hill to the open ground at the base. He used it a few times including at the battle of Magersfontein. Yet, the South Africans fell foul of the Germans doing the same at Salaita Hill in February 1916. Similarly, I’m regularly stunned by reading accounts of basic training in the SA army where men are broken down to all think and behave the same, yet within a few years are expected to be independent thinkers and rise to officer rank where some initiative is required. Some manage it, many don’t – why?

How people get to break the mould they’ve been trained in is one of my fascinations but I don’t think I’ll ever really find out how/why this happens. For now, I’ll just revel in the moments when others do break the mould and do something suprising. Perhaps a school in Africa will start fundraising for schools in Britain … I’ve learnt to never say never.

Things we take for granted

A recent trip to Rwanda again brought to light how we take things for granted.

Rwanda, as I’ve said before is a place too good to be true and long may it last. There are problems as with any country and still scars from the genocide 23 years ago with people still needing to be reintegrated into communities as they are released from prison etc. Where are the Nelson Mandela’s of the world practising forgiveness when you need them most? I can’t help but think too, of the importance of handshakes in building relations. In Africa, we have a three-hold shake symbolising solidarity (although others exist too), but a Muslim friend recently explained to me that the shaking of hands – ie the passing of hands against each other briefly folding fingers around is in effect a way of offering forgiveness for past misdemeanours – purposeful or not. What a lovely thought and another friend – Christian – shared with me his thoughts: simply writing For-I-give.

In Rwanda, I’m hesitant to say I’m involved in the aid industry, but truth be told, I am. I cringe knowing what I know about most aid agencies and hope the work I do is true to my principles and beliefs. I was horrified to hear a friend tell me he’s applying for two jobs – both with aid agencies – one British, one Australian – as they are offering double his Rwandan salary for similar work he is currently doing for a semi-state company. How can any country develop self-sustainability when market prices are so inflated? In addition, there is talk of putting a tax on second-hand clothing – a staple supply. The reason? To protect or encourage the local clothing industry. Surely the answer is to find ways to reduce the cost of locally made items and basic materials such as kitengi (cloth)?

Whilst all of this was happening/being spoken about in Kigali, a short drive away in one of the neighbouring rural areas of the capital, the schools don’t have electricity, the pupils are crammed 5 to a desk which should take 3, the teachers young and mostly enthusiastic, are unable to teach their subject English as they can barely speak it themselves. These classrooms are better equipped and built than many I saw in Tanzania, but are still a huge way off from what we take from granted in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere. The staffroom consists of a concrete floor and everyone sitting around huge big tables with chunky wooden chairs. No clock on the wall – a standard basic in every classroom or training room in England.

A flashing light caught my attention – a teacher was taking photos on his phone. Further investigation revealed that of the 9 or so teachers in the school who do double shifts of teaching (7.20am-11.30am; 1pm-5pm), 3 have smart phones. Rwanda is a classic case of the technological divide. So much can be done online and throughout Kigali Wi-Fi is generally present, however, not all are able to access it. This is not only the case in Rwanda, the same can be found in Tanzania, Malawi and many other African counries.

Not too far out of town, one gets the ‘untarmac’ roads letting you know you’re in the countryside. It’s quite surprising how close to town these areas really are. Managing these in ‘normal’ times is one thing, but I shudder thinking how people do so in the downpours we had whilst I was there. Even those travelling on tarmac found it treacherous. One can’t take the sun for granted on a daily basis, even in March, but at least the sun does shine more frequently in Africa than in Britain.