Review: World War 1 Reads and finds of 2015

This year has been a bumper year for books related to World War 1 in Africa. This is not too surprising given the centenary commemorations which has brought the little known campaigns in Africa to a wider audience.

Highlights of texts I became aware of this year include fiction and non-fiction and not all produced during this year. I’ve taken the opportunity of reflecting on the year’s finds to comment on those books I’ve not reviewed on the site.

On the non-fiction side, Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis broke away from the traditional military related accounts of the campaign in East Africa. Ed’s book sheds light on the relationships between the British metropole, the British South Africa Company, missionaries, settlers and local communities in a way reminiscent of Mel Page’s 1977 ground breaking work on Malawi and the First World War. I’m not going to say much more about Ed’s book here as I’m reviewing the book for an academic journal (details to follow in due course).

In a related vein, we have Albert Grundlingh’s War and Society: Participation and Remembrance. This is an updated and expanded account of Albert’s account of black South African involvement during World War 1. Many will be familiar with his Fighting their own war; however War and Society takes the story a bit further to include coloured involvement and the development of memory amongst black and coloured South Africans over the past 100 years. He pays special attention to the SS Mendi and the part it has played in South Africa’s remembrance of the war. Although I’m really pleased Albert released this publication, it’s a pity he left out the Indian involvement. As with Mel’s thesis being ground breaking, so was Albert’s – upon which both these books are based (and a recommended read if you can track down a copy and read Afrikaans).

Another two similarly ground breaking publications this year include Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries and Myles Osborne’s Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c.1800 to the present. This book, as I note in a forthcoming review soon to be published by New Contree, compliments that of Michelle’s.

Moving away from the ‘big’ picture, I was given a copy of Your Loving Son, Yum (available through GWAA for people outside South Africa), the story of Grahame Munro of Grahamstown who saw service in East Africa. His World War 1 letters, edited by Kathleen Satchwell, open up the war on a personal level with discussions about farming back home.

Another which gives more personal accounts of Belgians, Germans and British, and which has been available for a year now, is The Fate of the Prisoners during the East Africa Campaign. This translation of the 1919 Belgian report on prisoners contains amongst other accounts that of Ada Schnee, the German Governor’s wife. The accounts are of prisoners and guards who were captured and released when the Belgians occupied Tabora in 1917.

2015 saw the centenary of the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland, now Malawi and in commemoration of the uprising, the Society of Malawi dedicated an edition (vol 68, no 1) of its journal, The Society of Malawi Journal, to the event. Contributors included George Shepperson, David Bone, David Stuart-Mogg and Brian Morris. The publication provides a useful summary of the events which took place in 1915, adding some additional context to the general accounts and some reflections on the impact of the uprising on later generations.

An autobiographical account linking non-fiction and fiction was MJ Vassanji’s And Home was Kariakoo: A memoir of East Africa. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel The Book of Secrets.

It also proved a year of discovery on the fiction side with a number of novels coming to light. As I wrote last week, there is Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband drawing on the experiences of Karen Blixen and other settlers in the early years of the war. Margeurite Poland’s 2009 Iron Love starting in South Africa in 1913 and covering the campaign in East Africa, Escott Lynne’s 1921 Comrades Ever based on diary jottings of an unnamed person who served in the East Africa and finally regarding the war in East Africa, Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan alive: A definitive biography of Lord Greystoke which contains a couple of chapters (18-19) on the war.

My best novel discovery, which took place this week, must be my first novel mentioning a theatre other than East Africa and that is Roelof Steenbeek’s The Black Knight: The loss of innocence which mentions the West African campaign. It appears that this is a translation from Norwegian and a paper copy will set you back £30 but there is a e-version available through Amazon or Google Books.

I am yet to read all of these, other than Maya’s, so keep an eye on this site for updates on what I discover.

Looking ahead, 2016 promises to be another bumper year of publications making their way into my library (oh for more time to indulge in reading!). I’m waiting with eager anticipation for Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa which will contain some information on the First World War, and Ross Anderson’s soon to be released book on the King’s African Rifles. Norman Jewell’s On Call in Africa 1910-1932 which I was involved in editing should also be out in the new year bringing to light the life of a doctor who served with the East Africa Field Ambulance. Norman served for a time with Edward Temple Harris whose 17 Letters to his brother Temple have been around for a few years already (copies are available here). If all goes to plan, we should be seeing a range of memoirs and other official accounts of men who served in the King’s African Rifles, German forces, transport corps and so forth coming into the public domain – all on the East African theatre.

Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War as there are constantly new articles being added. They provide a broad introduction to aspects of World War 1. A lot of effort by the expert editors (those on the African front include Bill Nasson, Richard Foggarty, Mel Page, Michelle Moyd and Tim Stapleton) has gone into sourcing the contributors and to ensure they meet a minimum academic standard yet are accessible to a general audience.

Thank you to all who brought publications to my attention and for helping to keep the memory of all those involved in the Great War in Africa alive. May their experiences, positive and negative, help us to make the world a better place for all to live. We will remember them!

Encounters – of different kinds

Standing in a coffee queue recently a discussion regarding work practices led to cross-culture discussion. He was German, me a South African living in London. He a lawyer, me an historian. He an employee at the university, me attending a conference at the same venue. Despite, or because of, these differences the fifteen or so minutes it took for the queue to subside passed rather pleasantly and quickly. It was one of those chance encounters where common ground was found and new insights gained – Africa and World War 1 being the common denominator.

With this uplifting start to the day, the conference too proved a setting for rich encounters. Elizabeth Edwards set the scene. Presenting a photograph of a gathering on a beach she set out to explain the relationships between the British sailors and local men posing in the photo. Significantly, the encounter was not just between the people (‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’; ‘West’ and ‘East’ ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, ‘clothed’ and ‘naked’) in the photo but between individuals – us (viewers) – and the photo. We all brought our own experiences and interpretations to what we encountered in this and the other presentations during the day. Jay Winter brought proceedings to a close with a paper on ‘Photographing War’ exploring how photographers engaged with what they encountered.

Another moving encounter I had was reading A fortunate life by AB Facey. In this autobiography, Facey tells of his growing up in Australia with no education. The experiences he had, the challenges, betrayed trust, the separation and loss of family resonate with experiences refugees (most notably from the Middle East and parts of Africa today) and exiled must experience. Yet, despite all hurdles Facey had to face, he succeeded and learnt to write. What an accomplishment and what a life! A testimony to him and others who’ve overcome similar hardships. And here, I think of friends now back in Rwanda as well as all those injured and damaged by war who are fulfilling, and have fulfilled, their dreams.

And in all this, one should not forget the encounters we have online – I’ve met so many amazing people through the internet who have in turn led me to other incredible encounters both in researching the past and in moving forward into the future – some of which I share through these ramblings and writings. And the common denominator? Africa!

That ‘little’ place so many refer to as a country has a magnetism hard to avoid. This morning, in London, buying a suitcase suitable for a plane cabin led to a discussion about travel. I was about to head to Senegal for another conference, the cashier had been born in Kenya, her husband in Tanzania. As we walked off my husband casually said ‘Asante sana’ (Thank you)… well, what can I say but that our leaving the shop was delayed for another few minutes …


I missed posting a blog on Boxing Day, the day when servants used to be given Christmas Boxes or presents. (I wonder how much of the day’s origins also refers to those packers of boxes (boxers) with unwanted or unneeded gifts?)

Although Boxing Day is a traditional British day, it has found its place in ex-British territories such as the Dominions including South Africa. I remember the garbage collectors coming round in the week before Christmas asking for a ‘Christmas Box’ and being given a few coins as a thank you for the work they did during the year.

But that is not what inspired this blog. It was rather being struck by how many books and accounts I’d recently been reading that mentioned boxers, of the traditional kind and naturally, given its links to the Boer War and Lettow-Vorbeck, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Ever wondered how the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 came to be called such? I had and discovered it derived from the Chinese secret society called “The Harmonious Heavenly Fists”. This group objected to European intervention and did something about it.
Involved in quelling the rebellion were a few soldiers who went on to serve in Africa, notably the German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck who next served in German South West Africa against the Hereroes before ending up commanding the German forces in East Africa during World War 1. Some accounts place Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa during the Anglo-Boer War but this is incorrect. He was reporting on the war from a desk in the German Colonial/War Office before he went to China. Another soldier to see service in both the Boxer Rebellion and Africa was the British Jimmie Stewart who served with the Gloucesters, Sikhs and Gurkas on the Indian Frontier before going to China and then to East Africa in command of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘C’ in September 1914.

Talking of World War 1 and the arrival of IEF C, brings to mind the references to the sport on board ship as mentioned in the memoirs I’m currently working on and in Floris van der Merwe’s Sporting Soldiers (review due February). Boxing seems to have been a common sport to help while away the hours between ports and invariably involved some sort of betting to keep the spectators interested. International boxing bouts were to increase in frequency during 1918. Shadow boxing too seemed popular as a means to keep fit.

However, Bill Nasson refers to shadow boxing in his WW1 and the people of South Africa (review due April) in a different context. Here, he describes the time after war was declared but before the rebellion of 1914 broke out. During this time, those who were in favour of supporting Britain during the war entered into verbal boxing against those who saw the opportunity for breaking away from British control.

Boxing has played a significant role in South African society post World War 1 too. In my hometown, the name Gerrie Coetzee was big news in the 1980s when he won the WBA Heavy Weight Title. And perhaps more famously, was Nelson Mandela, now immortalised in a statue posing as a boxer.

Mandela explained what he saw as the value of boxing – not for the violent element but for strategic and tactical reasons as well as the health benefits from training. The strategic and tactical nature as well as mind over heart was strongly brought home in the book, The Power of One by Bruce Courtenay – a book whose legacy remains with me at least six months after having finished it. This is similar to the film, The fighting spirit, which tells the story of a young Ghanaian women who becomes a boxer and which has a Boksburg (Gerrie Coetzee ref) South African link – the music composer, Erik Windrich.

I’m no fan of boxing because of the physical damage it can bring but appreciate the tenacity and focus it can and does bring. As with anything, the value is in the hands of the boxer…

Review: TNA tops bookshop survey for WW1 in Africa

For archive and museum visitors looking to break away from the Western Front to other theatres where Britain was involved, The National Archives bookshop, Kew, is the best of those I’ve sampled.

Below follows a brief overview of what is available at The National Archives Bookshop.

For starters there is Hew Strachan’s World War 1 in Africa which provides an overview of all the campaigns in Africa: from Togoland which fell in August 1914, and neighbouring Cameroons which capitulated in March 1916 through to South West Africa which surrendered in July 1915 and that in East Africa.

The latter is a theatre growing in interest and with tales fit for Boys’ Own. This was the longest running campaign of World War One: the first shot was fired on 8 August 1914 against Dar es Salaam and the war ended there on 25 November 1918 when the German forces were forced to surrender as laid down in the European Armistice agreement. It was also the only area where the Germans occupied and invaded British territory.

Edward Paice’s Tip and run and Ross Anderson’s The Forgotten Front together provide a solid overview of most aspects of the campaign. The books are self-standing but are aimed at different audiences and have used different archives, although the material held at Kew provides the base.

If two complete campaign overviews is too big a bite to start with, Giles Foden’s Mimi and Toutou go forth: the bizarre battle of Lake Tanganyika is there to whet your appetite. This is one of the most well-known expeditions of the campaign being the feature of a number of novels, no less CS Forester’s The African Queen.

For a more personal account by someone who was there, there is Francis Brett Young’s Marching on Tanga which is his 1917 account of having served in East Africa and at the Battle of Tanga in November 1914. Not in the bookshop, but worth a read if you can find a second-hand copy is Jim Redlake, Brett Young’s novel of the same in which he is far more outspoken about certain aspects of his experiences.

For a more official account of the conflict, there is JHV Crowe’s General Smuts’s campaign in East Africa. This is not an official history but it was approved by Smuts who wrote the foreword. It reflects Smuts’s optimism during the relatively short time he was in the theatre (19 February 1916 – 7 January 1917) and the drive to push the German forces out.

If you’re interested in the politics and interplay between the various main players, there’s Anne Samson’s World War 1 in Africa: the forgotten conflict of the European powers. Don’t be misled by the title, the focus of the book is East, South and Central Africa. And, I should add, it’s not my reason for rating The National Archive bookshop the best; of the other significant institutions sampled, one had none, two had one book each of which one was the novel(!) by William Boyd, An Ice-cream War – incidentally also available at Kew.

Finally, all on its own, but supported by Strachan and Samson’s accounts is James Stejskal’s Horns of the beast: The Swakop River campaign and World War 1 in South West-Africa covering a part of the campaign which was fought over 1914 and 1915.

If after all (or some) of this the African bug has bitten, see what else is available by visiting the Great War in Africa Association at

(@UKNationalArchives) #WW1 #WW1inAfrica

Crimson Fields – an intro to the medical services of WW1

The Crimson Fields, for readers who don’t know, is a BBC docu-drama on nurses during the First World War. From what I have read and heard about it, the setting is a British front-line hospital on the Western Front. This is not surprising though, given that that’s where most British blood was spilt during the war. What attracted me to it as a concept, is that it provides an insight into a previously hidden aspect of World War 1 and an opportunity to introduce some other related hidden aspects of the war.

From the Front, wounded and ill soldiers would be transported to hospitals and recovery stations away from the fighting to destinations in Europe for those who would not take long to recover or back to the UK for those needing more specialist or long-term treatment. This required a transport system including hospital trains and ships.

Once back in England, soldiers would pass through port hospitals such as those at Dover and Southampton. The book Spike Island by Philip Hoare gives a wonderful insight into the military hospital at Netley and the early days of military nursing as it evolved after the Crimea. From the ports, the men would be transported to receiving hospitals generally in the main cities such as London and Manchester. They would be allocated to hospitals, where possible, best suited for their ailment. Initial thoughts of sending men closer to home disappeared due to the huge numbers requiring to be transported. On 7 July 1917 (1916?) there was a special rush on trains as 6,174 sick and wounded were transported in 24 hours.

From the receiving hospitals, men were then sent to convalescent hospitals, often country houses which had been converted, and in one case, the local church. St John’s Presbyterian Church in Northwood, Middlesex gave up their sanctuary a year after it had been built thereby enabling a total of 100 soldiers to be nursed on the premises. Researching this Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital has brought to light many other facets of war-time life: not all those who were called nurses were necessarily nurses – there were amongst others cooks and cleaners, messengers, drivers, entertainers, therapists, equipment packers working in the supply depots and many others. Often people did more than one thing such as the male VAD units which transported patients and then carried out bed baths in the evening and helped with the night-time nursing. The issue of logistics and keeping Britain moving was a mammoth task and one which still needs to be explored. (@NorthwoodArts)

Moving further afield to Africa, the hospitals and medical services there had quite a different challenge.

Comparatively speaking, battles were few and far between when compared with the Western Front. The challenge was being able to service a mobile front where there was little or no existing infrastructure, no defined battle field and an environment as tough, if not worse, than the opposing forces. There are records of men having to walk for 9 hours or so to access medical treatment or lying for days unattended. Comparisons have been drawn with the German forces which seemed to have a doctor in each contingent, or at least they did until the last months of the war.

Nature proved the biggest enemy to all the forces. The admission records to the Wynberg Military Hospital in Cape Town kept at the SANDF archive in Pretoria, highlights that the major ailments requiring treatment were Malaria and Blackwater fever. These are also regular features in the Medical War Diaries @UKNatArchives.

A perusal of the Medical War Diaries at The National Archives in London for East Africa again, sheds light on the extent of medical support available to the men. The information in the diaries is variable, depending on the person recording, but as a collection they provide a fascinating insight to another side of war. In addition to the men, there were women serving in both the British and German hospitals. And when transporting men back to Europe became difficult and leave was cancelled, special arrangements were made for convalescent homes to be set up in the Kenyan highlands. The Bundesarchiv gives some insight into what a field hospital looked like.

As with the Western Front, there is a great need for more work to be done on the medical aspects of all the African campaigns of the First World War, and for those interested in what is available, there is the Official History of the medical services, Francis Brett Young’s memoir Marching on Tanga and William Boyd’s fictional An ice-cream war to start. One wonders if Boyd based his story on the account of a British soldier nursed in a German hospital for 9 months as recorded in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My reminiscences of East Africa (pp45-6).