Review: Sideshows of the Indian Army in World War 1 – Harry Fecitt

Sideshows in the Indian Army in World War 1 by Harry Fecitt was published in India in 2017.
For those who know Harry’s writing, the 28 chapters or essays in this publication follow the same style and format as his web and other articles. Harry assumes his reader knows the military terms and structures as well as the basic context in which the action is taking place, so anyone new to the Indian Army and its role in World War 1 would do well to read a little more widely of the theatres concerned to obtain some context.

These are accounts for the military-oriented person, but are of use to social, cultural and other historians and students for a quick overview, a list of significant people involved and those who received awards.

The book for me felt a little disjointed, a random set of essays thrown together. However, a close look at the dates in the titles, suggests the book follows a broadly chronological approach. However, given that the Indian Army was active on so many fronts simultaneously, I wonder whether a regional chronological approach would have made it a more coherent read – especially for those of us who prefer to read a book cover to cover rather than to dip in, as I imagine was the logic behind this publication’s structure. Operations cover Aden, the North West Frontier, Somaliland, China, Suez and Egypt, Persia, Macedonia, East Africa, the Bolsheviks, Sinai, Kamerun, Senussi and Burma.

Some might take umbrage at the use of the term ‘sideshows’. As with the African ‘sideshow’, the fighting and experiences of those caught up in the conflict was as intense as for those in the main theatres. Although some might not have known what they were fighting for, they knew who they were fighting for and had their reasons for doing so. One could even argue that India’s involvement on the Western Front was for India a sideshow, while the actions on the North West Frontier were not… nomenclature when dealing with the wider war has its own challenges. Similarly, others might be annoyed at the use of World War 1 rather than First World War – for those working cross culturally either is acceptable. Those who seem to have issue with the use of World War 1 seem to be mainly British military historians looking at conflict from a British perspective.

At the end of the day, Harry’s book covers a wide range of actions and is a start at drawing attention to India’s wider involvement in the war in a way which George Morton-Jack’s Army of Empire: The untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 or The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to victory, the untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 (both 2018) and Alan Jeffreys’ The Indian Army in the First World War: New perspectives (2018) don’t. While Ian Cordoza in The Indian Army in World War 1, 1914-1918 (2019) gives a basic overview of the various theatres, Kaushik Roy’s Indian Army and the First World War, 1914-18 (2018), a more academic text, covers the same theatres Harry does providing a greater context and understanding of the Indian Army in the war and is probably the best current complementary text.

Feet of Clay

On 31 May 2020, I was meant to give a talk to the East Rand Military History Society in Benoni, South Africa. As a result of travel restrictions, I was unable to be with them in person so recorded a shortened version of my talk which is below – video and transcript.

Hindsight is, as we know, a great friend, and looking back, Kitchener’s time in South Africa was a major turning point. It was effectively his complete entry into the British Army. Yes, he was an officer in Her/His Majesty’s Armed forces, but before he arrived in South Africa, he hadn’t been fully integrated into the service. He had been in the peripheral forces, mapping Palestine (as it was known in the 1870s) and Cyprus, and then in the Egyptian Army – a force seen as subordinate to the British Army. Expectations were high and, as could only be anticipated, Kitchener failed to meet them. Feet of Clay gives some idea of why this was.

Reflecting on this chapter in my biography on Kitchener, new questions have come to mind – some needing further research in terms of their impact on WW1 in Africa – but it is also striking how easy it is to accept the judgments of the past and how we potentially misinterpret the reasons people do things.

We’ve all got feet of clay – what makes the difference is the quality of the clay and how it’s treated.

Recorded talk Kitchener – Feet of Clay 31-5-2020

transcript Kitchener – Feet of Clay 31-5-2020


Egypt and World War 1

Writing a paper on the end of World War 1 in Africa, I thought it only appropriate to include something on Egypt having discovered through a paper presented by Lanver Mak that there’d been ‘homefront’ involvement there too.

Further investigation led to a litttle book by Stuart Hadawayon the events at Qatia in 1916 – a note in the front explaining that a “battle” needs one or more Army Corps and an “action” one or more divisions. Anything else is an “affair”. Put like that, there were no battles in East Africa – perhaps an action or two. I wonder where skirmishes fit? But I digress…

Blood on the Sand: The Affair at Qatia, Sinai Desert 23 April 1916 is simply told through official accounts and diaries – a military outline which for the novice provides an overview but one which is also jam-packed with detail for the more seasoned historian or student of the theatre to follow through. Numerous maps and some photos help to shed further light on this ‘more forgotten’ campaign of World War 1, Africa. (review)

And of course, one book leads to another…
Chris Vaughan’s book on Darfur: Colonial Violence, Sultanic Legacies and Local Politics, 1916–1956 explores British occupation of the territory from 1916-1956. This links with the Egyptian campaigns as Darfur was brought into the Anglo-Sudanese condominium as a result of the actions taken in 1916. (review)

Where Stuart’s account is military, Chris’ is political and you have to dig a little for the military. It’s richness is showing how colonial policy and ignorance impacted on decisions with sometimes disastrous consequences for future generations. Threading its way through both accounts is that of the Senussi – a group which tends to be better known than many of the others mentioned in both books.

Review: The Great Silence by Tim Couzens

One of the joys of visiting South Africa is that I stock up on history books not easily obtainable in Britain. And, being the centenary of the Great War, there has been opportunity to invest in a number of relevant texts. The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One was one I collected for review.

As with Bill Nasson’s WW1 and the people of South Africa, Couzens’s book is not an academic text and has a few significant errors. Highlighting these errors in the review is not meant to put people off reading the book. In fact, as accessible overviews of South Africa’s involvement in WW1 go, this is pretty comprehensive and an easy read – one I would recommend with a health warning to double check obscure-sounding facts before quoting (always good practice, I’m learning). Tim, himself in his introduction raises some of the hurdles he had to overcome in researching and writing this book, indicating that he is well aware there may be some inaccuracies.

I didn’t specify the errors in the review I did of Bill’s book as the errors there are minor (most scholars of the theatre will pick up on them) or form part of the historiography, but I will with Tim’s due to their significance as they have been perpetuated in a few other texts which is where Tim likely sourced them – one of the downfalls with general, accessible histories which are not referenced is that a misconception, myth or error cannot easily be sourced. Another reason for doing so is that they highlight the pitfalls authors suffer when having to write to tight deadlines and will hopefully serve as a lesson to others (it’s one I’ve learnt by experience and hope not to repeat in future publications). This blog could almost have been entitled ‘confessions of an historian’.

I deal with the points in the order they appear in the book which makes the next part rather listy, I’m afraid to say, but it seems the best way to cover them.

WG Grace’s brother, a doctor was killed during the same roadblock in which General Koos de la Rey lost his life (p35). It wasn’t Grace’s brother, but his nephew Gerald Grace, who was a doctor rushing back to Springs for a medical emergency. I don’t hold it against Tim for getting this one wrong, I had myself until recently and it was only through Andrew Samson questioning my statements that I tracked down the most reliable account.

p63 has Rebel Maritz escaping to Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique whereas he went to Angola where he was captured. This is probably a simple proofreading slip – easily done when a book is written to a short deadline. I know because of a similar failing (about the dates of the Anglo-Boer War) in my own book.

A commonly perpetuated myth and one I was also prone to believe until I really thought about it (and started reading more widely about World War 1 in Africa) is the idea that The conquest of German South West Africa was the first Allied victory in the Great War (p111). The first allied victory was in fact Togoland

To show that accurate history writing is a challenge, we look to Mkwawa’s skull that Tom von Prince took from the Wahehe tribe when he subdued that people in Iringa. The skull was returned in 1954 whilst the tooth was returned in 2014 (personal correspondence with von Prince family).

Another challenge is the use of terms. On page 114, Tim challenges the claim that Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German to occupy British territory and that in East Africa. He suggests there was German occupation of South African territory from South West Africa (GSWA). Personally, I don’t tend to see the incursions from GSWA as occupation and neither do I see Lettow-Vorbeck’s moves into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), Nyasaland (Malawi) or Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as occupation. These were incursions which lasted a day or a few months. The Germans were continually on the move. However, there was German occupation of the Tsavo-Taveta area of Kenya where Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces took over British forts and buildings and made them their own for at least nine months.

A reference I would really like to know is the one for the glue holding the Sopworth planes photographing the Konigsberg melting. I don’t recall reading this before and although I know there were challenges facing the pilots and their crews, this is new to me.

The Battle of the Bees (p 121) – mention of the bees always brings a smile when I come across it. I recall including it in an early draft of my thesis only for one of my supervisors to insist on it coming out as although it was a good story, it was flawed. And so it proved to be. Tim suggests the Germans must have been affected and so they were. According to Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs, the Germans suffered as much from the angry bees as did the British and Indians at Tanga. And, there was more than one battle in East Africa in which the bees featured (and most likely won).

Some other aspects Tim raises which need, and are now receiving, specific study concern Jan Smuts’s role as commander and the failure of the South Africans at Salaita. Salaita was fought according to the battle plan drawn up by Smith-Dorrien and put into action by Michael Tighe (not Malleson) who was acting Commander-in-Chief East Africa pending Smith-Dorrien’s arrival. But before this could happen, Smuts had beeen appointed instead as Smith-Dorrien required extra time to recuperate from ill-health. Related to this was Smuts’s attitude to the Indians (p122) which Tim puts down to their performance at the Battle of Tanga. White South Africans generally had a poor perception of Indians as noted by Hughes and van Deventer’s report on South Africans going to serve in East Africa and Smuts’s encounters with Gandhi from before 1900.

Page 133 has an error I myself made in my book and which has only this year (2015) been corrected thanks to a discussion with Archie Henderson of the SA Sunday Times. Tim makes reference to Pieter Pretorius the Intelligence Officer who served with Smuts. His real name was actually Phillip. How he came to be known as Piet Pretorius in the texts is another story which needs to be uncovered. In the same piece where Tim mentions Pretorius, he is discussing Richard Meinertzhagen whom he rightly identifies as ‘one of the most interesing and eccentric of the characters in the East Africa campaign’. What was surprising about this piece is Tim’s failure to mention the controversy surrounding the truth of what Meinertzhagen wrote/claimed as identified by Brian Garfield.

There may well be a few other points I’ve missed and that would not be surprising as a reviewer can only comment on their own area of expertise. However, I really want to stress that despite the few errors identified above, this is a book worth reading especially if you’re new to South Africa’s involvement in World War 1.

History, storytelling and song

On Saturday 21 June, history came to life through storytelling and song. I’ve written of my work with the Northwood VAD Hospital before and 21 June saw all the work come to fruition when a selection of the stories were shared with the community in an afternoon of storytelling and song.

As a purist when it comes to history, I must admit that I was a little anxious about how this was all going to work out, but under the guidance of Dvora Lieberman, storyteller and oral historian, and singer Vivien Ellis, I had nothing to worry about. Both artists took the stories and worked with young and old alike to mould an afternoon of theatre, poetry, song and history. Watching the process unfold made it appear seamless and although I knew what was coming, I was still taken by surprise at the little additions which put the pieces into context and rounded off the performance. Hopefully, you’ll be able to catch video snippets of the event on in due course.

This has been an incredible journey for me as an historian. I’ve a network of enthusiasts and academics who have been researching the First World War in Africa for years and whom I really value. However, we all tend to work individually. This project enabled me to watch individuals interested in the past learn how to do research (thanks to a session at the Institute of Historical Research) and come together as a team ferreting out information in order to tell the story of the VAD Hospital.

In addition to the experience of working as part of a research team, looking at a completely different aspect of the war has led to new insights and possible avenues to explore in Africa. Looking at local county papers has shed some light on men who served in Africa and even a comment that there were African (ie Black) soldiers from East Africa being treated in French hospitals in Europe – this is something that will need to be investigated as the French were not involved in fighting in East Africa and the French soldiers who fought in Europe were from West Africa. Perhaps they were from French Congo? In addition, there were hospitals in East Africa and the natural place to send those who needed to be evacuated would have been to South Africa, Egypt or Britain. Why send soldiers to hospitals in France which would have been pressed with men injured in that theatre? But all this discussion is diverting from song and theatre…

What I haven’t seen too much of concerning the wars in Africa is whether there was any entertainment for the men in hospitals, convalescent or base camps outside of South Africa and possibly Egypt. We know the men went hunting (with gun or camera), wrote poetry, diaries and on the odd occasion when paper and facilities allowed, printed local newspapers. Sport was played as recorded by Floris van der Merwe but song, theatre and other activities remain elusive.