Review: Gregg Adams: KAR Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18

My first thought on staring to read Gregg Adam’s King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey, 2016) was ‘Oh my! What am I going to be able to say about this military history?’ I felt out of my depth getting into this book which takes a very (in my opinion) military look at the differences between the KAR and Schutztruppe during the years 1916 to 1918. Gregg has done well. Although I found my eyes glazing over at numbers and calibres of weapons, etc, the value of this little book (less than 80 pages of text) became apparent to the student of war.

Readers and those who know me, must be tired by now of my statement that Lettow-Vorbeck was not all he is made out to be – he was a commander with flaws, and these need to be fully reviewed amongst English-speaking historians – using more than just Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs to make an objective assessment. Gregg has just about got there. At the start of the book he comments on Lettow-Vorbeck’s status, but by the end of the book, the flaws and quirks of the man’s military strategies and tactics are apparent – if only Gregg had emphasised these more. Smuts is regularly criticised for his love of the encircling movement. Gregg’s commentary suggests that a similar criticism could be levelled against Lettow-Vorbeck for his selection of ‘battle’ grounds.

The main focus of the book though, is the difference between the fighting forces and here, Gregg achieves a good balance. Taking three major encounters between the two sides, he explains how the encounter started, developed and ended, compares the forces facing each other and gives a timeline of the encounter.

I struggle with book layouts of this kind – blocks of text interspersed in the narrative and long descriptions with photos. However, I can’t think of a better way of presenting such information and it’s great for dipping in to; just not for those of us who prefer reading narratives without interruption. In fact, one of the benefits of how this material is laid out and the repetition of certain points is that the military implications are made more accessible for those of us without that first hand experience.

For readers familiar with Harry Fecitt’s Kaisercross/Soldiers’ Burden articles, this publication is complimentary. Harry looks at specific encounters from the perspective of the British Army, explaining them in detail and acknowledging the contributions of individual soldiers within the group. There is nothing that I picked up contradictory and in fact, the snippets of military info Harry gave this student of war to help her along, was only reconfirmed in this book. Gregg brings in the German side and explains how/why the encounter progressed as it did – broadly speaking.

I was also interested to read about Gifford’s role in World War 2 – it fits perfectly with the War Office assessment of the contribution of black soldiers undertaken by the War Office in 1937. Thank you Gregg for filling in another piece of the jigsaw.

With more military studies such as this, including the Belgian and Portuguese contributions for East Africa and doing the same for West Africa, and even Egypt – the ground for social, cultural and other histories will be well and truly set, let alone a whole stack of myths being dispelled.

Review: Violent Intermediaries by Michelle Moyd

Michelle Moyd‘s book on the Askari in East Africa has been a long time coming, but at last it is here. I first met Michelle in 2000 when she was starting out on her study, not long after I’d started on mine. Over the years, she’s produced various articles and chapters on her research and, now, we have the definitive output. It’s definitely been worth the wait!

Violent Intermediaries: African soldiers, conquest and everyday colonialism in German East Africa, 2014, is an informative and accessible journey through the history of the askari from their formation in the 1890s through to their experiences during World War 1. Michelle explores the askari relationship with their kinfolk and the role of the camp follower as well as dispelling some of the myths about the loyalty of the askari to German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

This book has a wide ranging interest for scholars and enthusiasts from across the spectrum as noted by the reviews by Joanna Lewis for Africa at LSE and H-Net. In addition you can hear an interview with Michelle (1 hour) about the book.

As an historian of WW1 in East, Centrals and Southern Africa, I found the book particulary informative on the issues of recruitment, camp followers and relationship with their officers. It helps contribute towards a more balanced assessment of the war and the experience of the German side. Michelle’s discoveries concerning the askari accord with experiences documented in various English texts/interviews in respect of recruitment and loyalty which confirms that Africa had a different concept of loyalty during the war and it was not to do with nation or state.

A companion study is that by Myles Osborne, which also took a while to reach us, on the Kikamba. Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba c1800 to the present covers similar ground to Michelle and together these books provide the most holistic account we have to date on the development of the modern black soldier in East Africa in the early twentieth century.

Michelle’s next study as alluded to at the Great War in Africa conference in Stellenbosch promises to be just as illuminating and even more challenging – that of the role of women in the East African military. I wait in anticipation…