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.

Keeping an open mind

As an historian I’ve come to realise that I need an open mind especially when using original documents of the time. History is like a big jigsaw puzzle under construction; it can also be thought of in terms of GoogleMaps: you have the overview but can zoom into get the finer detail. In my jigsaw puzzle analogy, the artist has mixed layers of depth in one image. My other way of explaining the multiple versions of an historical event is to use a diamond. There are so many facets individually or severally caught by the light, all making up the whole of what is a diamond. How we look at the diamond, determines which facet(s) we see.

For me, this is an invaluable position to be in – you’re always expecting the story to evolve in ways to accommodate new information, including that which appears to be completely contradictory. Working on World War 1 in Africa, watching the story evolve can be more radical than say the war on the Western Front or other episodes of our lives which have been the focus of lengthy detailed study. How do we fit the Christmas Truce into the ‘lions led by donkey’s’ idea of the war? How does knowing Belgium was so much more active in the Lake Tanganyika diminish or add to Spicer-Simson’s achievements? What does it do for race relations knowing that white South Africa had as much trouble getting military equipment to fight in the war as carriers and soldiers of all ethnic groups had getting food in West and East Africa?

Recently (December 2016), I came across an image on Pinterest which piqued my curiosity and which demanded verification before putting into the public domain (annoyingly, I didn’t keep the Pinterest link). It was to do with the book of Barnabas of which you can read a summary on Wikipedia (most comprehensive and referenced). The latest discovery is a copy of this text in Aramaic suggesting it might be older than the other two known copies of the text. The question I have is if this book is found to be legitimate and the contents verified as far as possible, how does this impact on what many of us were taught as children? Finding a reliable source for this latest discovery has been a challenge (which in itself raises questions) but here’s a sample of reports found: Daily Mail (Feb 2016), LatinTimes, Catholic Answers. In my search for a reliable source, I discovered that this story was ‘big’ in the press in 2014 where we find a slightly more reliable account in The Guardian, but even this is challenged by views in Counter Current (2014).

My questions now are: why this revival in 2016? If the document is false, what was the purpose of putting it into the public domain? Who did so? If it is true? I go back to my earlier question: what does this mean for many brought up believing that religious texts are the absolute truth?

My cross-cultural experiences suggest that whether or not this document is proven to be true, it’s about having an open mind, allowing ourselves to be challenged in understanding why individuals (including countries) acted the way they did. By doing this we are able to shed more light on the diamond and gain a more indepth and holistic picture of the time. Experience also suggests such an approach reduces the temptation to lay blame at specific feet, something we humans tend to relish in.