Misconceptions of the Great War in Africa

This is the first of what will be a series shedding a little light on some misconceptions of the Great War campaigns in Africa. I have to declare guilt in having believed many of them myself until detailed study proved otherwise and I’m sure many others will come to light in due course – it’s the joy of exploring the past through original documents and first-hand accounts.

For starters:

The East Africa campaign is the ‘forgotten’ campaign of the First World War.

This may have been somewhat true a decade ago but no longer. In reality, even then, the East Africa campaign was better known than other campaigns in Africa during the 1914-1918 years. How many know who the commanders were of the German South West Africa campaign of 1914-1915, that in Togoland and Cameroons in West Africa, the German invasion of Angola in 1914 and the conflict taking place in Egypt involving Suez Canal and later the Senussi? Yet, most people can name the leading commanders of the East Africa campaign – Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck for the Germans and Jan Smuts for the British.

Yet, the myth of the East Africa campaign being ‘forgotten’ is perpetuated, not least in the title of my latest book which was only published in July 2012. Truth be told, I had no say in the title World War 1 in Africa: the forgotten conflict among the European powers, but I can see the allure in marketing terms sensitive to search engines on the world wide web. Ross Anderson started the trend with his 2004 book The forgotten front: the East Africa campaign 1914-1918, while Edward Paice’s 2007 book Tip and Run: the untold tragedy of the Great War in Africa perpetuates the idea of forgotten.

Other evidence proving that the East Africa campaign is/was not forgotten concerns the number of general histories and diaries or memoirs of the campaign, novels and film . There is growing interest in all the campaigns, yet I have only located novels and film covering the conflict in East Africa, except for Percy Westerman’s Wilmshurst of the Frontier Force which in West Africa and then moves to East Africa. A full list of the known non-fiction (currently 35 in various languages) of the First World War in Africa can be found on the Great War in Africa Association website.

Obviously, all this is relative within the context of World War 1 and as the next few years will show, there are more forgotten conflicts and peoples who were involved in the global conflict.

Over the next few months the following, and other, misconceptions will be considered:

  1. The British did not use armed black troops
  2. The Germans gave the British the run around
  3. The South West Africa campaign lasted 6 months
  4. The Indian troops were not up to scratch
  5. Blacks were commandeered to serve in Africa
  6. Men of colour were not recognised for their services
  7. There is no record of blacks who lost their lives
  8. There was no trench warfare in Africa
  9. The Belgian role was insignificant (it is if you read British accounts)
  10. The Germans deliberately used bees in their fight against the British
  11. The Lake Tanganyika Expedition consisted of 28 men

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.

Doris Lessing – a lessin (sic) learned

I had intended to go to Doris Lessing’s memorial service at St Martin’s in the Fields, London on Monday 7 April 2014. However, my discussing commemoration of the forces in East Africa with a fellow researcher was so engrossing that by the time I realised what the time was, it was too late to go.

Doris Lessing has a special place in my life as an historian – ever since I read The grass is singing (1950) whilst working on my thesis. Although she had spent time in Zimbabwe, which is where The grass is singing is set, she could well have been in South Africa. I had been looking for a way to describe race relations in South Africa since World War 1 and here, in one novel, she had hit the nail on the head. Co-incidentally, The grass is singing was her first novel and the first of hers I read. Unfortunately I cannot claim to have read her last… the nearest I get is to The Cleft (2007), her second last publication.

I was drawn to The Cleft following an interview which Lessing did on Radio 4 – I can’t believe it was 7 years ago already. It was her comment that she had annoyed the feminists which got me interested and so, despite all the other reading pressures, I succumbed, got a copy and was soon engrossed. What an amazing author! As a woman, to be able to put yourself into the shoes of a Roman male historian and write the history of the world as might have been seen at that time was something I couldn’t imagine doing, and here she had done it. She seemed to grasp the issues of then and now and, again through the novel, convey this message strongly. Although, I don’t know what it is about my take on the book, but I don’t think I’ve yet managed to convince anyone else to read about the Squirts and Clefts.

There are very few novelists who have left a profound impression on me – probably only a handful to be honest – and Lessing is one of them. For me, she captures the essence of the time, in a way few other authors can, or do, and conveys this feeling in a way I as an historian can only dream of doing. It is thanks to authors like Lessing, that I can experience and help my readers understand the social environment in which my real-life characters lived. Long may her books keep her memory alive.

It’s time to add another Lessing book to my pile of ‘must read’ soon – the only other book of hers I’ve read is Particularly Cats… and Rufus (1993). I do have a shelf of novels by her but missing volume 1 of Martha Quest has slightly delayed getting stuck into that series – excuses I know, but not for much longer…

So, what have I learned from Doris Lessing? The value of novelists to historians and to be your own person.



Karen Blixen’s “WW1 in Africa” and other stories

It came to my attention today that Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’ House is up for sale – no, I’m not looking to buy it, although it does sound idyllic, but it did spur me to recall that Karen was in Kenya during World War 1 and did her part.

She had met the German commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck in 1914 en route to East Africa. Karen was going out to marry Bror Blixen and Lettow to take command of the forces in East Africa. This is relatively well known in some circles, as William Stevenson conjured up a love-affair between Blixen and Vorbeck in his WW1 novel of the campaign – The Ghosts of Africa. However, the top two ‘love stories’ of the campaign remain William Boyd’s An ice-cream war and CS Forrester’s The African Queen.

Bror and Karen got married and shortly before war broke out. Karen doesn’t say much about the war in her book Out of Africa although she does provide some useful insights to understanding relations between the German and British colonies at the time. However, Errol Trzebinski tells Karen’s story beautifully in her biography Silence will Speak so no need for me to repeat it here.

With the outbreak of war, Bror Blixen enlisted with Lord Delamere whilst Karen remained at home – but not for long. Accounts tell of her taking off on her wagon laden with food and heading out to where Bror and his fellow scouts were based. A refreshing and welcome site for those who hadn’t been home for some time. As the war progressed, Karen took on the supervision of a number of farms as their owners were at the front. It is recorded that women were looking after up to seven farms at a time whilst the men-folk were away. The reason for the large number of farms being looked after was that there weren’t too many women in Kenya (British East Africa) and many of the farms were looked after by single men.

There isn’t much written about the home front or the role of English women during the campaigns in Africa, so what we know of Karen’s life is a rare glimpse into the African home front. German women for Empire by Laura Wildenthal is the best record yet.

Where the home front and women do have a voice in WW1 literature is in the novel as there are very few, perhaps only The King’s Shilling by Hamilton Wende and Percy Westerman’s Boy’s Own stories, which do not feature a woman. To date 35 fiction books have been identified on the campaign, including two (Follow after and Into the limelight)by Gertrude Page, the only female novelist identified to date. Karen Blixen, although being a novelist and having lived through the campaign, does not appear to have used the war in any of her fictional works, and neither has Elspeth Huxley (Delamere’s biographer) who was a young girl of about 7 living in Kenya when war broke out – I still have a few more of both their books to read to confirm this statement.

To see the complete list of books on the campaign, visit http://gweaa.com/?page_id=2134 and to hear more about the books, please get in touch.