Review: Honour & Fidelity – Amarinder Singh

I was looking forward to this read – HOnour and Fidelity: India’s military contribution to the Great War 1914-1918, but less than a third of the way in, I was to be more than disappointed.

The chapter on East Africa (chapter 4) was short – very short: pages 64-71 of which at least 1/3 of a page was a map, and 1/2 a page on Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s life after the war.

Given a book on the Indian Army published in 2014, this can only be called a poor show. Errors abound in the chapter which readings of general accounts of the campaign would show. The focus is on Tanga and Longido – both November 1914 – nothing of the Indian Army at Salaita or its incredible longevity in the East African theatre.

Apart from supplying manpower, the Indian Army was in control of the military aspect of the theatre to 22 November 1914 when the War Office took over, but continued to supply material for the remainder of the war. Nothing is said about the Faridkot Sappers or any other Pioneer unit and the work they did in keeping the forces moving. I can’t comment on the other theatres Amarinder covers but given his research on East Africa would hesitate to recommend this.

The positives of the book are:

  • coverage of all the Expeditionary Forces in alphabetical order resulting in commentary on the Western Front, East Africa, Mesopotamia (by far the longest chapter), Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Gallipoli
  • lists of units involved at different times of the war
  • Awards made
  • some maps
  • diverse photographs, including one of Lenin. There are more photographs of the East Africa campaign than information on Indian involvement in the theatre.

The Epilogue provides a summary of India’s contribution to the war:

  • 104 Labour Corps each with 1,150 men
  • 1013 Porter Corps each with 576 men
  • 15 Syce Companies consisting of 210 men each
  • Followers/non combatants (shoesmiths, bakers, carpenters, cooks et) = 4.,737
  • 7 Expeditionary Forces with a total of 1,338,620 men serving.
  • Princely States supplied 26,099 combatants for overseas and 115,891 to the regular army
  • donations and monetary contributions totalling £146,356 million

If you are interested in discovering more about India’s involvement in the East Africa campaign, I recommend:

Review: Sideshows of the Indian Army in World War 1 – Harry Fecitt

Sideshows in the Indian Army in World War 1 by Harry Fecitt was published in India in 2017.
For those who know Harry’s writing, the 28 chapters or essays in this publication follow the same style and format as his web and other articles. Harry assumes his reader knows the military terms and structures as well as the basic context in which the action is taking place, so anyone new to the Indian Army and its role in World War 1 would do well to read a little more widely of the theatres concerned to obtain some context.

These are accounts for the military-oriented person, but are of use to social, cultural and other historians and students for a quick overview, a list of significant people involved and those who received awards.

The book for me felt a little disjointed, a random set of essays thrown together. However, a close look at the dates in the titles, suggests the book follows a broadly chronological approach. However, given that the Indian Army was active on so many fronts simultaneously, I wonder whether a regional chronological approach would have made it a more coherent read – especially for those of us who prefer to read a book cover to cover rather than to dip in, as I imagine was the logic behind this publication’s structure. Operations cover Aden, the North West Frontier, Somaliland, China, Suez and Egypt, Persia, Macedonia, East Africa, the Bolsheviks, Sinai, Kamerun, Senussi and Burma.

Some might take umbrage at the use of the term ‘sideshows’. As with the African ‘sideshow’, the fighting and experiences of those caught up in the conflict was as intense as for those in the main theatres. Although some might not have known what they were fighting for, they knew who they were fighting for and had their reasons for doing so. One could even argue that India’s involvement on the Western Front was for India a sideshow, while the actions on the North West Frontier were not… nomenclature when dealing with the wider war has its own challenges. Similarly, others might be annoyed at the use of World War 1 rather than First World War – for those working cross culturally either is acceptable. Those who seem to have issue with the use of World War 1 seem to be mainly British military historians looking at conflict from a British perspective.

At the end of the day, Harry’s book covers a wide range of actions and is a start at drawing attention to India’s wider involvement in the war in a way which George Morton-Jack’s Army of Empire: The untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 or The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to victory, the untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 (both 2018) and Alan Jeffreys’ The Indian Army in the First World War: New perspectives (2018) don’t. While Ian Cordoza in The Indian Army in World War 1, 1914-1918 (2019) gives a basic overview of the various theatres, Kaushik Roy’s Indian Army and the First World War, 1914-18 (2018), a more academic text, covers the same theatres Harry does providing a greater context and understanding of the Indian Army in the war and is probably the best current complementary text.

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: Blockade and Jungle by Christen P Christensen

Blockade and Jungle (1941, reprint 2003) by Christen P Christensen is the fictionalised story of Nis Kock who served on the German blockade runner the Kronborg which managed to get through to German East Africa in April 1915.

At the very first Great War in Africa Association Conference in 2012, Bjarne S. Bendtsen (Danish Literature lecturer) presented a paper entitled: ‘Danes’ at war in East Africa: The case of the blockade runner SS Kronborg. In his abstract he noted,

There are at least two memoirs published in Danish about Kronborg’s voyage and the crew’s participation in Lettow-Vorbeck’s safaris: Nis Kock’s Sønderjyder vender hjem fra Østafrika (1938) and Anker Nissen’s Sønderjylland Afrika tur retur (1962), and a fictionalized version of Kock’s experiences: the author Christen P. Christensen’s Sønderjyder forsvarer Østafrika 1914-18 (1937).

The fact that Blockade and Jungle is a fictional account should not detract from its usefulness, particularly in view of its having been based on Nis Kock’s account and translated into English. As with all fictional (and I would suggest factual too) accounts, details should be checked before being taken as ‘true’. Through telling the story of Nis Kock, we discover yet another ‘forgotten’ micro-nation which saw action in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. The crew of the Kronberg were mainly Danish, although in 1914 the territory was occupied by Germany, again as Bjarne explains:

The 1864 war between Denmark and Prussia/Austria, which led to Denmark’s cession of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia, meant that about 30,000 ‘Danes’ had to fight in the German army in the world war 50 years later. Among these ‘Danish’ conscripts, a handful were picked for an adventurous voyage with a supply ship, cunningly turned into the fake Danish SS Kronborg, bringing supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops in East Africa and to the German cruiser SMS Königsberg, blockaded by British men of war in the Rufiji river delta in Tanganyika.

According to Christensen, who used Nis Kock’s account to write Blockade and Jungle, there were 50 South Jutlanders who fought in German East Africa and another 30 South Jutlanders who formed the crew of the SS Kronborg. Christensen takes us through the recruitment of the men providing some insight into how the German military administration system worked, the precision planning of getting a ship through the British blockade in the North Sea and life of board a blockade runner.

Once in East Africa, the ship came under attack from the British cruiser Hyacinth and was sunk, although the crew ensured they’d be able to recover most of the equipment on board. Harry Fecitt gives an overview of the blockade runner’s arrival (as well as that of a later blockade runner, the Marie) while Hans-Martin Somer, a Research Scientist gives an account of the blockade runner in his History of Manza Bay.

Nis Kock played an instrumental role in the salvage operation and as there is no longer work for the men on the ocean, they join the land forces – Kock becoming an ammunitions’ expert. Here again, we get some lovely descriptions and insight into how the Germans managed their logistics and how carriers were used (by some). Mention is made that Nis Kock and 450 bearers cleared Morogoro of all ammunition in one day (p140). In addition to this, we get a glimpse into how the German forces were able to use the variety of weapons and ammunition they had to conduct the war and the challenges these posed (p133), including those rescued from the Konigsberg.

The account ends with Kock being one of those who had to remain behind at Nambindinga in November 1917 when Lettow-Vorbeck trimmed his force to take only the strongest into Portuguese East Africa. Instead of the expected sense of relief at no longer being involved in this trying conflict, the reader is presented with a sense of loss, rejection and guilt at not being able to continue to do one’s duty. This is an aspect I particularly valued in reading the book – perceptions and assumptions being challenged. Christensen takes things a little further with a Postscript noting that Kock was sent to Sidi Bish in Egypt before returning to Denmark in 1919. The final words again provide a contrast to how we, in the English speaking world have come to see the arrival of the GEA forces back home:

When, later on, they went to Berlin to get their papers put in order, their welcome has hardly cordial: “Communists and Warmongers!” yelled the “Imperialists” at these men who had fought in East Africa to defend Germany’s last colony.

Misconception 4: Indian troops were not up to scratch

Doesn’t it strike you as odd, that if the Indians had really performed poorly in Africa they would have been withdrawn sooner rather than later?  The record of the Indian service in East Africa speaks for itself, and should not be compared with their experiences in Europe as the conditions and circumstances under which they served were different.

The Indian forces received a bad press for their perceived performance at Tanga as they were an easy scapegoat. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect. As JM ‘Jimmy’ Stewart who commanded IEF C (which fought at Longido) recorded about the attack on Tanga when he heard about it:

“Many of us who knew India had anticipated that the troops detailed were not good enough, but this was further complicated by a want of secrecy about their intentions, undue confidence and a lack of determination.” (Jimmie Stewart: Frontiersman, p69)

The Indian troops rapidly expelled all concerns in their abilities when they held their ground and showed the raw South Africans how to fight the Germans at the Battle for Salaita Hill on 12 February 1916.

The Indian forces served through most of the campaign, only being replaced in late 1917. Harry Fecitt has written short articles on a number of the Indian contingents involved. Apart from troops, India supplied sappers and miners (for example the Faridkots) and medical forces (incuding 250 Indian stretcher-bearers from South Africa). Doctors who have written about their work with the Indian Medical Services include Temple Harris in Seventeen Letters to Tatham, NP Jewell and the author Francis Brett Young in Marching on Tanga. Andrew Kerr has written about Jammu and Kashmir involvement.

In addition to the Indians who came over from India, there were Indians resident in East Africa who played their part. Mention has already been made of the South African Stretcher Bearers. Those from British East Africa served on the railways whilst others served in a military capacity (Uganda Railway Corps). The diversity of role of the East African Goans during the War is explored by Clifford Pereira.

The centenary of the war and the focus on India has given impetus to students of the war to find out more. Watch this space as there are sure to be more accounts of Indian bravery and steadfastness. A summary of Sikh involvement has recently been published and work is being done on the Muslim contribution. India and the Great War has a few articles which mention East Africa. The most definitive publication to date, The Indian Army in East Africa by SD Pradhan (1991) is unfortunately no longer in print although limited copies can be found in the second-hand market.

Indians had served in Africa before, particularly during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), for which their services are commemorated with a memorial in Observatory, Johannesburg.