Remembering the war dead

As some readers might be aware, I maintain a few spreadsheets on the Great War in Africa Association listing names of those caught up in the First World War in Africa irrespective of gender, age, culture etc. The focus is predominantly sub-Saharan Africa with Egypt as a tag-on, the info gleaned as my research takes me, so unfortunately French records have little influence. Whilst many sites focus on those who died, the GWAA does not – it aims to record the names of all those involved – whilst those who died are said to have ‘made the final sacrifice’, a large part of me wonders whether those who survived and had to live with the horrors of all they’d seen and experienced didn’t ‘pay the higher price’. Today we know far more about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than they did then and I’ve been astounded at the number of war-time suicides (not recognised as such) for the African theatres suggesting there were far vaster pressures than memoirs and accounts suggest. These men and women deserve to be recognised as much as those who died in serving their country. And then what about those children born in captivity or discovering themselves in camps because their parents were suddenly regarded as a threat to communities they’d been part of for years? What impact did the war have on them? Child evacuees have recalled their experiences, but I can’t recall seeing any of internee children – either in Europe or Africa (but then I haven’t gone out of my way to look for them).

With the lists centering around areas of my own research interests and those of GWAA members (some of whom have kindly supplied lists), it’s not surprising that most records are British and South African. The National Archives allows for lists of medal cards to be downloaded saving many hours of tedious transcribing although most of the smaller forces and African recruited are on lists which are in process of being transcribed. Regimental Nominal Rolls are another great source also requiring transcription as do the records from South Africa as they have not been digitised, the exception being those who have British medal cards which survived the World War Two bombing and fire and those who died, being listed on the CWGC database. The War Graves Project has identified others who potentially should be on the list and once further information has been found, this will be considered.

Astute visitors to the GWAA listings might well have noted the inclusion of Belgian and German dead – thanks to these countries having over the past while made these lists publicly available. During the centenary years the Belgian lists have been tidied up which means the GWAA lists need to be checked and corrected. But what has prompted this post is the discovery of the Portuguese list – still to be incorporated into the GWAA lists.

Comparing the lists, it is intriguing to note that it’s the British and Belgian lists that include their African dead – these lists might well be incomplete, but they at least give a flavour of the range of culture and nationality involved in the war. The German and Portuguese lists only include white or European names. Another striking discovery is the large number of Portuguese dead – for Angola as well as Mozambique. The numbers for Mozambique although high as a proportion of the expeditionary forces who served there, it was the number of Angolan deaths which caused surprise – the only encounter one generally knows about in that theatre is the attack at Naulila where some lives were lost (16 dead on the German side). The 486 names suggest something more was happening, the death spanning the war years 1914 to 1919. The German lists cover the whole of the German colonial period with 232 names recorded and 6 unknown for the East Africa campaign of World War One. Namibia and Cameroons are also included. Interestingly, while German South West Africa was under mandate to the Union of South Africa, approximately 49 names are recorded for World War Two service with the German forces. The number of deaths for 1904 seems to far outweigh any other year in GSWA. At the other extreme only 4 names are listed of German dead in Cameroon/Kamerun (1914-1915).

Anyone visiting the GWAA lists should be aware that these are works in progress and are regularly added to. Gremlins sometimes creep in and can take a while to resolve, however, all is referenced so can be checked and followed up. If you have names or sources of names to be included, please get in touch.

Von and Van – what’s in a name?

I’ve recently read two accounts of World War 1 in Africa – one a novel, Dust Clouds of War by John Wilcox and the other a memoir to be published in 2018. In both of these texts, the British Allied commander, South African Jaap (Jacob) van Deventer, has been referred to as Deventer. Both books are by British English authors who do not fully understand naming constructions.

I’m being a little harsh here – my dad had to correct me on the pronunciation of van Deventer’s name years ago. I used to call him “van de Venter” splitting his name in keeping with many other South African names: van der Merwe, van der Westhuizen etc. Put the “de” onto the “venter” and you have “Deventer” pronounced “dear-venter”. And I’ve been known to mis-pronounce other significant names too: Tighe (“Tie” for those wondering I used to call “Tigga”), Caligula (a little before my time, was pronounced “Ka-li-goo-la”) and of course Beit (should be “bite” rather than “bate”). These are easy mistakes for readers who haven’t hear the names pronounced.So, I suppose it is not surprising that authors apply what they know of one culture to another related one.

With German names, “von” is a title added to a name in much the same way “sir” is added to British names. It’s recognition and status. For the Afrikaans South African name, the “van” or “von” is part of the name translating to “of” or “from” and specifically being lower case “v” – van Deventer originates from the Dutch for someone from Deventer in Overijssel (Ancestry).

This means that when writing German names like von Lettow-Vorbeck the “von” can be safely dropped and we can talk about Lettow-Vorbeck, but we cannot do the same with van Deventer – it’s the equivalent of calling Smith, “ith”.

Another name Wilcox gets wrong in his account is Phillip Pretorius, Smuts’ lead scout. As many have done before, he incorrectly refers to Phillip as Piet. This is in the acknowledgements noting that Simon Fonthill’s escapades were based partly on Pretorius’ search for the Konigsberg. I’m also a little puzzled as to how men could have been involved in both the Boer War (11 Oct 1899 – 31 May 1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (2 Nov 1899 – 7 Sep 1901). There is a window between Sep 1901 and May 1902 but I’ve not come across anyone of note having moved between the theatres. (Please let me know if you know of anyone). Lettow-Vorbeck is often mistakenly said to have fought in both, but before he was posted to China, he was in the German War Office studying the actions of the Boer War to assist the German military.
Wilcox further makes the fundamental error of referring to the Smuts raiding into the Union of South Africa during the Boer War when he should be referring to Smuts’ raid into the Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa only came into being in 1910

A Kodak Moment…

I recently wrote about things over 100 years old. Well, one I left off the list was the Kodak camera – of particular interest because it was the make used by wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton whilst on service in East Africa with the Legion of Frontiersmen during World War 1.
The inventor of Kodak was George Eastman (1854- 1932) who explains:

Kodak – This is not a foreign name or word; it was constructed by me to serve a definite purpose. It has the following merits as a trademark word. First, It is short. Second: It is not capable of mispronuncuation. Third: It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated wiht anything in the art except the Kodak.

(PBB: p24)

In 1891 the first Kodak factory was set up in the UK, on the outskirts of London.
At the time the US entered the war in 1917, Eastman was releasing what he called ‘The Soldier’s Kodak Camera’ which was small enough for men to take across to the front.
Before this, however, the company had laid off ‘about 2/3 of [its] Harrow staff’ and was preparing to ‘put the remainder on short time’. All continental branches except one in Paris had been closed. (CA: p238)

When Eastman heard at Christmas 1916 that four of his German staff had been killed, he wrote to the manager:

You may continue paying their wives what is necessary up to one half of their salaries… I shall be glad to know how you are fixed and whether you need additional money…

(CA: p.295)

The generosity of such wealthy men is often overlooked. Another was Ernest Oppenheimer who helped survivors of the torpedoed Galway Castle get back on their feet. He was on the ship himself, returning to South Africa, when it was hit on 12 September 1918.

Carl William Ackerman: George Eastman, 1930
Peter Brooke-Ball: George Eastman and Kodak, 1994
Harry Oppenheimer: Sir Ernest Oppenheimer

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.

Smuts – a good teacher?

I’ve recently been reading a book on Lord Kitchener which has the following to say about Boer General CR de Wet:

“He had failed, but his miraculous escape increased rather than lessened his reputation. Wherever he moved he brought large bodies of British troops after him, and he kept under arms many a burgher whose spirit of resistance was drawn from him. His influence losing nothing by report of his deeds, spread to the most distant parts, and had its effect not merely on the burghers, who were ready to join him whenever he elected to try again, but on Botha and De la Rey.”
(Edwin Sharpe Grew, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener: his life and work for the Empire)

How similar to what people said about Lettow-Vorbeck in the next great war Britain was involved in. I’m probably going to put my foot in it as far as concerns my military colleagues but it is striking how similar the mobile ways of fighting in the Boer War and East African campaign were.

It also got me thinking that the Smuts/van Deventer-Lettow encounter was in some ways an extension of the Anglo-Boer war but with the tables slightly turned.

By all accounts, the Boers had a novel way of fighting which led to Kitchener and other generally competent generals fumbling for ways to bring this small number of Boers to book. Lettow knew about this as he had studied the Boer tactics in his advisory role in Germany. He later put into practice some of his skills in the field in German South West Africa learning how to survive in harsh conditions. How much contact he actually had with any of the Boer leaders is still not fully known but he would have likely had some contact with the peoples of South Africa during his stay.

Thus, by the time he got to face Smuts in East Africa, the student had become the master. And unlike Kitchener who had strong political/military backing in the south (Cape), Smuts et al could not rely on the Portuguese to apply pressure from that direction (Mozambique).

Having had to adjust to more British ways of conducting a war in 1915 South West Africa, Smuts was caught on the back foot when he got to East Africa – a position from which he couldn’t recover.

It is clearly one skill to be able to conduct a successful mobile war as seen by Smuts, de Wet in 1901/2 and Lettow 1916-8, but definitely another to contain and bring the force to book (Kitchener, 1901/2 and Smuts/van Deventer in 1916-8).

These are by no means the only examples one can draw on but they are the ones I feel most comfortable talking about.
So, at the end of the day, can one suggest that Lettow’s success was from having had a good teacher: his arch adversary in WW1?

Regardless, the encounter between Lettow and Smuts has been, and remains, an enduring and dominating feature of the campaign in East Africa.