Review: In search of Willie Patterson by Frank Reid

In search of Willie Patterson: A Scottish soldier in the age of imperialism by Frank Reid is a short and intense read.

Initially I wasn’t sure this book had anything to do with World War 1 in Africa, but it clearly does. Frank Reid goes on an exploration of his grandfather in an attempt to discover what he did that was so bad his, Frank’s, mother wanted nothing to do with her father. The result is a case study shedding light into growing up in Glasgow at the turn of the last century, why a young man enlisted in the same year, but at the end, of the Anglo-Boer War, and the consequences of actions.

For the student of the First World War in East Africa, this genealogical account opens up some fascinating doors to explore further. Of particular and current interest is a medical reference. Willie had contracted VD in his early army life which impacted on his military career. Despite having been cured of the ‘disease’ in 1911, he struggled to complete his army service with his home regiment, the Connought Rangers. Having been discharged, he refused to sign up again until he was conscripted – at this point he was felt to be medically unfit for the Western Front but suitable for service in East Africa! This raises some interesting questions regarding the War Office perception of the war in Africa.

Willie arrived at Dar-es-Salaam on 26 February 1917 (I write this 26 Feb 2018) – this is before the Pike Report into medical conditions is commissioned but after the official complaint into the treatment of soldiers by Colonel Kirkpatrick of 9 South African Infantry. The War Office clearly knew about the poor conditions in Africa, so why were they sending out men whose health was not the best? In addition to Willie’s VD complications, he had served in India before the war and had suffered from Malaria. The decision to send him to serve in East Africa as a Royal Engineer Signaller seems irresponsible to me.

On a related note, Frank points out that Willie was awarded the Military Medal for action at Medo and apart from a time soon after arrival in Dar when he went AWOL, he was a model soldier. How many others with a similar background to Willie were sent to East Africa and how does this link with the statement by Dr Pike that VD cases in the theatre were below average? Were the men so busy, as Frank implies, that there wasn’t time for socialising? Or were the men too remote to encounter women?

Apart from these fascinating questions about health and the attitude of the War Office, Frank’s little book provides a vivid account of his own experience in trying to locate the site of the battle of Medo in which Willie won his Military Medal. This sheds light on how ground mapping and air mapping differ as well as how subtle changes to the terrain can impact on perceptions. What is absolutely remarkable with this account, is that Frank is blind and totally reliant on the Zimbabwean Karl Wolf who is his guide into Mozambique.

And of final interest to the student of World War 1 in Africa, is the role and function of the signaller – Frank provides some insight into how this worked in practice – who would have thought that the Germans tracked the British allied forces by following copper telegraph wire? (p120).


Buildings – a sign of community

WW1EAfricaCampaign regularly tweets items from the East African Standard telling us about auction sales and other daily events which continued despite the war being fought a bit further south in German East Africa. It’s also been rather insightful looking into the lives of Indian (that is the sub-continent – today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) settlers in East Africa and their war-time involvement. It appears to be very little. The Indians who served in East Africa were contingents which had been raised on the sub-continent specifically for service in East Africa once it had been determined they were not needed in Europe. The Indians in East Africa were building businesses and running the railways, although there is an indication in Pandit Shanti’s (1963) The Asians of East and Central Africa that a handful did get involved in wartime service.

Further south, in South Africa I’ve been working on various histories of Presbyterianism. One concerns the denomination as a whole and its position in South Africa, but another is more local – to the town I grew up in. There the Presbyterian Church building turned 100 years old on 25 November 1916 – well, that’s the date the foundation stones were laid. In the more general history, comment is made about a church in Meikle Street Johannesburg having its foundation stone laid on 20 May 1917.

I’ve often wondered about church buildings. I love the one in Boksburg. It’s an old friend – one I was baptised, confirmed and married in (and the image I use for Minority Historian). The names on the walls are family and friends. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral in the week before Easter to listen to a friend play in Bach’s St John’s Passion. A beautiful building but with awful acoustics and a little ostentatious for my Calvinist background. Then there’s Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The former is my preferred building – the inside, at the time I last visited, still needing to be completed because they’d run out of money so the ceilings were painted black rather than be covered with colourful mosaics. Yet, the two places of worship that top my list are a tiny wooden church in a village in Senegal and one of the oldest mosques in Kenya. I happened to visit the church in Senegal one Christmas Day. The rough branches that had been used to create the structure were lopsided and the gaps between enough to allow enough light (and rain) through whilst keeping the heat of the day away. A hewn piece of wood resting on two stumps formed the communion table decorated with a jam jar filled with a few cut wild flowers. The pews were rough wooden boards resting on stumps and a goat stood on the dusty sand floor looking round the door.

The mosque was just as simple. A small white-washed rectangular building split in two – one side for men and the other for women. The building not big enough to cater for all its adherents.

Another church building I have close connections with is one in Northwood, UK. This church building was completed in 1915, the foundation stone being laid in March 1914. On the outbreak of war, the community offered the building, then a tin tabernacle as a VAD Hospital. This was accepted in November 1914 and by the time of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the newly constructed sanctuary was also turned over to the War Office becoming a hospital. The mother of artist Roger Hilton, Louisa Simpson, captured the interior in a watercolour she painted whilst working at the hospital where her husband was the senior doctor.

Why was there this need to continue building religious buildings during war? As indicated by WW1EAfricanCampaign’s tweets, life goes on and people in uncertain times look for sanctuary.  But is a building necessary? On a previous visit to SA, I was told by a young Malawian that his community back home was desperate for a church building. They were currently meeting under the trees. Given the poverty of the area, I wondered, what will a building help? Yes, it will provide shade, but the trees already do that… It will keep people dry if it rains, but that happens so seldom, I wonder if it’s worth the community investing the amount of money required.

Having asked the question on numerous occasions before and since my Malawian encounter, what is the purpose of a church (or equivalent), I came across an answer in Calvin Cook’s history of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. He says, ‘Buildings are a sign of community.’ It’s a thought provoking statement. They’re a place communities can come together, passers-by recognise and assume they know what goes on in buildings of a certain look – there’s a logic behind a church building’s construction as noted in How to read a church (wikipedia; video). The same with a mosque and synagogue. The latter I was told in South Africa only being allowed if there were ten or more Jewish families in the area.

The interior often tells you much about that community – the people who contributed much to its development or who are significant to its identity. I can’t help but think of the Rand Club, set up by Cecil Rhodes and others, which has recently gone through some financial struggles and uncertainty regarding its future as a result of the mining houses undergoing various changes since the end of Apartheid. Parliamentary buildings too, tell a story about the communities they represent (or try to control). Many of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose, yet many are reluctant to see any changes – the historian in me rails against removing bits of our past – I’m often caught by visitors who say things like ‘it’s good to see there are still pews’, ‘oh, and that’s a real organ, wonderful!’ Churchill too, was reluctant to change the set-up of the British Parliament in 1945. Nostaligia reigns.

I wonder what an all-inclusive, genuinely equal, building would really look like? I already see a difference in approach: Africa vs Europe vs Asian …

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.

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.


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.

A guide dog in training: building trust

A young dog arrived next to me whilst I was waiting for a tube in central London. It was not just any dog but a youngish one being praised for good behaviour. This caught my attention and a glance out the corner of my eye indicated it was a guide dog – one in training. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t help but watch the special relationship be forged between trainer and trainee. The youngster was clearly being taught how to wait for trains and cope with the crowds getting on and off. I wasn’t around long enough to work out how and when specifically the pup was rewarded with a treat but I wondered at what point the treats would no longer be needed and how this would be achieved. And then there would be all the training for the newly qualified guide and its blind owner to get to know and trust one another.

Generally, this is a very similar process to what humans go through when learning new skills – we put our trust in the trainer but rather than being rewarded with treats, grades, praise and encouragement build confidence and trust in our abilities to perform the skill.

This was no different during World War 1. The issue of training was one of the arguments against Kitchener’s New Armies – the new recruits wouldn’t have time to master the skills required for combat before being sent to the front. In the Pal’s Battalions, the reduced training time was partially compensated for by the trust between friends who served in the same units. Trust was a significant factor in the Indian forces. The Indian rank and file would follow where their commanders went – which accounts for the higher death rate amongst Indian officers compared to British officers.

In East Africa, both these elements of training and trust were also evident and was a noticeable difference between the British Allied forces and the German. Mzee Ali, a German askari recalled:

Breathing deeply to control my nervousness I determined to put my faith and indeed my life in my training and in our officers.

My platoon consisted mostly of men with whom I had worked alongside for many years. There were a few new recruits but they seemed confident and capable. Our commanding officer was a man I respected and trusted. With this new resolve I was able to sleep more easily in the late afternoon sun.

(Bror MacDonell, Mzee Ali,2006)

The diversity of the British forces was, on occasion, to hinder co-operation until each group had proved itself to the other such as the Indians to the South Africans at Salaita Hill in February 1916. It was also acknowledged that the newly formed King’s African Rifle battalions were at a disadvantage against the seasoned German askari as they hadn’t had the time to forge relations of trust. The lack of training and short time together, with an element of arrogance, was also given as reason for the poor performance of the South Africans at the Battle of Salaita Hill.