REVIEW: The first campaign victory of the Great War – Antonio Garcia

The first campaign victory of the Great War: South Africa, Manoeuvre Warfare, The Afrikaner Rebellion and the German South West Africa campaign, 1914-1915 by Antonio Garcia, Helion, 2019

Where does one start? There is so much in this short book on the first victory of World War 1. The first striking feature is the title – today without being in inverted commas, it’s inaccurate as the book covers the second Allied African victory of the Great War, the first being Togoland in August 1914. Although a short conflict, Togoland is regarded as a campaign. However, at the time, the scoop in Britain was that this was the first victory by a white African army of the war and that, no less, by a country which had previously fought against Britain. It is only recently that the historiography is correcting this technicality.

The second feature is the book’s approach – assessing the campaign through the theory of ‘manoeuvre warfare’. At a time where historians are tending to focus on the social and cultural aspects, consideration of a conflict from a military theory perspective is different and rather refreshing. However, what is not mentioned on the cover is that another theory features to explain the Boer Rebellion: relative deprivation theory. Tony is one of the first authors to try and integrate the rebellion and the fighting in German South West from a military point of view. Most authors tend to put the SWA campaign on hold to discuss the rebellion and then return to the campaign, while others ignore the first days of the campaign and go straight to January 1915 seeing it as completely unrelated to the rebellion. One day an historian might well address the question of why the Germans didn’t take the opportunity of the rebellion to safeguard their colony – this may have been addressed in German accounts but I am yet to see anything in English or Afrikaans.

A third striking feature is the seemingly tick-box approach to including people of colour in the text. Labour was an important feature of this campaign and in line with South African social and employment culture, was mainly undertaken by people who were not white. Black and Coloured labour was employed to build and repair railways, load and unload ships in dock, groom horses, look after transport animals amongst other tasks. Tony emphasises that the white soldiers would not have achieved what they did without the support and contribution of these men but does not take it further as they are militarily peripheral to the topic under discussion – manoeuvre warfare. It is in this regard that the weakness of the book is to be found. It reads and feels like an academic dissertation and knowing the academics involved, it is out of keeping with their own approaches reinforcing the text’s meeting of academic requirements. Although I believe the book’s editor should have worked with Tony to reconfigure the text for general consumption, its present form provides an insight into the academic approach and how this differs in SA to say the UK. The approach taken by Tony going back in time to set the context resonates with my own experience which was challenged by my UK supervisors as not necessary and that readers, if they want more background, can find it out themselves. The need we South Africans have to ground the past seems to be part of our nation building and national memory formation. The first campaign victory provides a good example for comparison with similar academic outputs, dissertations and theses, in other countries. This is something students studying in another country experience and have to deal with, as I know through personal experience and in supporting overseas students settling into the UK, but I am not sure anyone has seen this as an area to research either educationally or from a cultural historical perspective.

With these striking features out of the way, what about the rest of the book? As alluded to earlier, Tony looks at the South West Africa campaign using a modern theory of warfare. Rather than trying to understand why decisions were made at the time, he considers how effective those decisions were in retrospect. I was left wanting more, purely because Tony’s clear and succinct explanations prompted deeper thinking. Here, again, circumstances conspired against him. With few specialists available on the campaign, opportunities for greater interrogation of the material available was missed. But what is here is tantalising and sets a good solid foundation for future work either by Tony himself or others. The inclusion of relative deprivation theory and attempts to understand the human motivations for becoming involved in the war, or not, is another valuable contribution and had this not been the academic study it is, I’m sure would have led to greater integration, analysis and linkage between the two theories, and an easier inclusion of all forces, armed and otherwise, in the discussion. Tony has gone some way to showing the complexity of war through his theoretical approach and, for a theatre which is as understudied as German South West Africa is, is to be commended for opening new windows and bringing it to wider attention. Together with James Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast which looks at the conflict from the battlefield-archeological perspective, The first campaign victory provides historians of all flavours with rich, new insights.

Review: The First World War in Namibia 1914-1915 by Gordon McGregor & Mannfred Goldbeck

Many regard the East Africa campaign as the ‘forgotten’ campaign. Relatively speaking, it is no longer forgotten. And in any event there are other more forgotten, if that is possible, or rather ‘ignored’ or ‘invisible’ campaigns. Here, I think of Cameroon and Togo, the Senusi in Egypt and German South West Africa (today’s Namibia).

That South African forces captured GSWA in what is, mistakenly, believed to be the first Allied victory of the war completed in six months, is generally well known. So much so, that scholars do not think there is any reason to revisit the theatre as they do East Africa leading to my reference to it as the ‘Done’ campaign at the recent SCOLMA conference.

However, a few of us know differently and none more so than people who reside or have lived in Namibia. This is leading to more becoming known about this ‘little’ campaign which will hopefully inspire more detailed research to be undertaken.

After some struggles with South African post, I finally got a copy of Gordon McGregor and Mannfred Goldbeck’s The First World War in Namibia, 1914-1915 (published by Gondwana History in 2014).

This is a slim book, and as with James Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast has numerous photos from the Namibia Archive. Of particular note is the Battle Calendar of the campaign from mobilisation to the surrender of the German forces at Kilometre 500 and a chronology of the war as it affected Namibia. The bibliography, whilst using various known texts in South Africa lists some less well-known German and Namibian publications. Disappointing, however, is a reference to Wikipedia – various articles (not listed). Whilst it’s important to list all sources used, the inclusion of Wikipedia in the Bibliography confirmed that there is not much new in this overview of the First World War in Namibia.

The value of this little publication is that it takes a holistic approach to the campaign – this in my experience is unusual. It covers the SA Rebellion of 1914 (no account of the GSWA campaign can exclude that) but more significantly it covers the role of the Rehoboth at various stages, the Cameroon company and Vrei Korps (SA forces which fought on the German side). Logistics too are covered in terms of a chapter on animals and another on insignia/badges provides insight into how the territory operated once cut off from the motherland.

I’m sure this is a little book I’m going to be dipping into a fair bit as I continue investigating the chaos of SA going to war (unlike that of Adam Cruise’s Louis Botha’s War).

Details on how to obtain a copy are on the Great War in Africa Forum

Review: Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 by Adam Cruise

I came across Adam Cruise’s Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 as a number of colleagues asked if I had read it, mentioning in passing that my name featured in the bibliography. Having covered a fair bit of Botha’s politics and involvement in the war in my thesis (published as Britain, South Africa and the East Africa campaign, 1914-1918: The Union comes of Age), I was intrigued to see what Cruise had used, naturally assuming it would have been this publication. It wasn’t – it was a summary of a talk I had given in Boksburg on the Mining Magnates, the full talk being available on academia.edu and on Brenthurst Library‘s site. My curiousity was raised – what had he used?

By page xvi, I was aware that my expectation of discovering something new was not likely to be fulfilled. Ignoring the repeated myth that the South West Africa campaign was the first to ‘be brought to a conclusion in the Great War’, it was the statement that read ‘Only recently, after trawling the internet, did I discover more about Botha…’, followed soon after by ‘The only published account of Botha’s life’ referring to the ‘long out of print General Louis Botha: A Biography‘. In contrast to Cruise’s claim, there have been a few biographies on Botha: apart from that by Meintjies, Sydney Buxton Governor General of South Africa during World War 1, FD Engelenberg, Botha’s secretary and H Spender have all written biographies on the man. OpenLibrary, provides the clue to Cruise’s statement ‘only published account’ – online, although Spender’s account is also available online as is Engelenberg’s if you register for the site.

My concerns with the book resonated with those of colleagues whose specialist interests are more military in nature, and unlike the book by Tim Couzens where most of the errors can be explained, those in Louis Botha’s War seem to be the result of poor and speedy research and for that reason I’m not going to go into detail on them.

This has been a difficult review to write, and I’ve probably spent as much time pondering over these few words that I’ve written as what I did reading the book. It’s important to recognise the toil and effort which has gone into the production of a book and I am grateful to Cruise for putting the spotlight onto Botha – something which desperately needs to be done.

Overall, I’m definitely disappointed in the book and am concerned that it’s going to be seen as a significant text on Botha – which unfortunately it’s not. Cruise has ably pulled together various secondary sources on the campaign which, disappointingly, has resulted in generalised statements and myths being perpetuated. The result is another book narrating the events of the South West Africa campaign and the Rebellion. It provides very little insight into Botha’s conduct and role as Commander in Chief of the UDF and Premier of South Africa.

Having been so critical, there are some positives which need to be recognised. The book is very readable and provides an introductory overview of the campaign in South West Africa. It has some good photos as well as little titbits such as that about feral horses. Importantly, as mentioned above, it rightly raises the profile of one of South Africa’s greatest generals and politicians and all I can hope for is that it inspires a more indepth and rigorous study into the man (in the same way that Lindie Koorts has looked at DF Malan).

Remembrance and Commemoration: a never-ending cycle

I’ve missed a few commemoration and remembrance occasions recently for various reasons and as usual, it’s provided an opportunity for reflection.

Recent commemorations as I write have included Gallipoli, Tanzania’s national day and South Africa’s Freedom Day. (April). Somewhere along the line, in May, VE Day and Dunkirk featured and whilst I was in Africa at the start of the year there was Mendi Day. The SA Military History Journal for Dec 2014 (read in late April) was full of commemorations linked to WW1: Sandfontein, Square Hill, the 1914 Rebellion at Zandfontein, and the annual 11 November parade. They also had an article on a series of films being shown at Ditsong Military Museum as part of an ongoing commemoration programme. A War and Peace Concert took place in August.

A military journal in itself suggests commemoration although I’ve focused mainly on WW1. In addition there was an article on the Anglo-Boer (AB) War, specifically looking at the work of the SA CWGC. No mention of the WW1 cemeteries at Maitland and elsewhere. This is not surprising as the AB War probably resonates more strongly amongst South Africans than World War 1. Again, not surprising as the AB War was fought on SA territory and impacted on more of the population than did WW1.

This general lack of knowledge or awareness of WW1 and SA’s involvement was brought home on 21 February when I heard a newsreader announce that in future 21 February was to be National Troops’ Day. I stopped. How did they get to that? 21 February is Mendi Day, the day the SANLC lost over 600 labourers: not troops! Before sharing my horror with the world about myth generation, I thought it best to investigate a bit. Low and behold, officially the day is National Forces Day (whew! all inclusive and appropriate) and 2015 wasn’t the inaugral day but 2012. The challenge now will be to ensure that all the forces (WW1 and other) are recognised – from labourer to soldier to medical and support services. They all played a significant role in furthering the aims they believed they were fighting for and should be remembered for their contribution to creating the country we know today. For reasons of unification and reconciliation, Mendi Day is well-chosen but it will depend on the dominant voices and how they ‘use’ the day that will determine whether it perpetuates the myths or encourages honest investigation and recognition of how all the sectors of the armed forces worked together to succeed as they did.

And the reference to VE Day, I discovered is the release of a film showing HM The Queen celebrating the news in Piccadilly Circus as one of the people. Soon after and long past by the time you get to read this, was the commemoration of VE Day by the South African Legion, whose newsletter also contained coverage of the WW1 battle of Trekkopje amongst other bits of interest.

Boxers

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…