Review: General Jan Smuts – David Brock Katz

Having waited patiently and expectantly since about 2016 for this study on Smuts as a military commander in World War 1 to come out, I have to say upfront that I’m disappointed in General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917 by David Brock Katz.

In short, David has sadly missed, or ignored, the complexity of Smuts, and by not taking the political context into account, has misinterpreted some of Smuts’ motives and actions. In addition, there are numerous inaccuracies and contradictions throughout the book – most of which should have been picked up in the proofing stage. There are also far too many typographical errors for my liking. While the book appears to be well referenced, this belies the selectivity of sources and omission of some such as War Diaries (other than two concerning Salaita Hill in February 1916), reports in the London Gazette and papers in the UK Parliamentary and Imperial War Museum archives as well as the British Library (India Office collection). Finally, I felt there was an imbalance in content – for a book touting an assessment of Smuts’ World War 1 experience, of the 260 pages of text, 50 concerned his pre-WW1 life and involvement in politics with no links made as to how this would play out in the years 1914-1918. Similarly, a whole chapter is allocated to the battle of Salaita Hill which occurred before Smuts arrived as commander in the theatre. Although the title of this chapter suggests a discussion on a clash of military doctrine, it fails to link with Smuts’ later actions, or what had happened in German South West Africa. The conclusion of the book reads like an academic assignment, telling the reader what the book covered through repetition of what had been said before, effectively a narrative summary, with little development of argument or new areas for investigation.

The most fluid read were the few chapters on the campaign in East Africa. However, this also contains somewhat heavy-handed criticism of the  works of Ross Anderson and Hew Strachan. Elsewhere in the text, there is criticism of Ian van der Waag and Rodney Warwick who are challenged on their interpretations of the battle of Sandfontein. While some of the criticisms against all four might be justified, there has been a failure to adequately contextualise these works and they ways in which they challenged the existing historiography. All the texts are nearly 20 years old. They were researched and published at a time when access to foreign archives was not as easy as today and while the internet was available, the rich links to archival material did not yet exist. In criticising these historians for being selective in their source material, David opens himself to the same criticism. Concerning criticism and evidence of his source selectivity, it was rather surprising not to see my own work challenged, especially as I have written a fair amount on the leadership of the campaign and generally agree with statements made by all four mentioned historians. But then, I’m a student of war, not a specialist of military strategy or tactics and this appears to be a significant divide for David. ‘Many contemporary historians’ are referred to – who they are, we are not told. His decision to not engage with contemporary material (except for one or two texts) has led to major gaps in his work and misinterpretation.

To address all the weaknesses in the book would lead to another book and would appear nit-picky. So, I touch on only a few. I have also limited my comments to East Africa, as my concerns regarding South West Africa and Palestine would require much longer contextual explanations.

In discussing the leadership of the East Africa campaign, David has regarded the commanding officers pre-Smuts’ arrival as British Army. What has been missed, is that they were all Indian Army, who although trained in British military fashion had adapted their ways to the Indian Army where officers tended to lead from the front. (George Morton Jack refers amongst others) In addition, the Indian Army was the first port of call for additional troops in Africa rather than British troops. They therefore had a history and some inherent knowledge of the theatre they were engaging in. Little was said about Charles Callwell’s Small wars in relation to how the East Africa campaign was fought, yet Richard Meinterzhagen‘s views are regularly considered (it is only acknowledged in the conclusion that questions have been raised about his reliability as a source).

Many questions remain unanswered in the book. Smuts seemed to fall into the same trap in chasing von Lettow-Vorbeck across East Africa that Kitchener fell into in trying to stop Smuts’ raid into the Cape. How was this? Why did Smuts think von Lettow-Vorbeck would surrender at the end of 1916 when Smuts knew that if he’d been in the same position, he would not have done so? On p169 there is mention of Lettow-Vorbeck and the Boers operating together to suppress uprisings in GSWA. This is incorrectly dated to 1900-1901 which is during the Boer War when Lettow-Vorbeck was first in the German Colonial Office and then China. Lettow-Vorbeck was in GSWA with von Trotha and the Herero uprising of 1904-1907. Who is the von Botha referred to in his memoir? Would Lord Milner really have allowed senior Boer commando leaders who would not co-operate in his government to join the Germans to suppress an uprising? Why has Smuts not said anything about this in any of his letters?

While I promote, the use of primary sources in historical writing, particularly when writing about the campaigns in Africa during WW1, there is great value in using secondary sources to verify interpretations and criticisms but also to open new windows onto situations and sources. Two missing texts which spring to mind are the Regimental History of the Durban Light Infantry (vol 1) by AC Martin especially as they were one of the South African units caught at Salaita, and James Willson’s Guerrillas of Tsavo. While this last is not an academic study, its value lies in the fact that James has walked the battlefield, uncovering numerous bases – Mbuyuni, Mashoti, Serengeti, Hill 930 etc and together with material available in Kenya, has pieced together the events around Salaita and Latema-Reata. It was my having visited the battlefields with James and time spent in the area around Kilimanjaro that got me looking at the maps in General Smuts – based on existing maps, they do little to illustrate the case put forward especially as border markings were left out making it unclear what was in British or German territory. Similarly, in a number of maps, adding the position of Kilimanjaro, a significant landmark, would have given a clearer visual of the area under discussion.

Statements along the lines of “Salaita, deep inside British territory” alerted me to the fact that David hadn’t experienced the battlefields there, the same applies to his comments about Stewart’s march through Longido. On Stewart’s advance, had mention been made of his poor leadership at Bukoba in early 1915, the argument would hold greater sway than the single assessment of his progress around Kilimanjaro – it’s challenging enough today in a vehicle on tarred roads, let alone in uncut bush, not knowing where Germans were hiding. It was also striking that little has been said of the removal of Stewart’s mounted unit before he embarked on his march.

A feature running throughout the book is the split in the Union Defence Force between mounted Boer and infantry English forces and how the former differs to British fighting strategy with regards encirclement and frontal attack. Yet, the fact that the South African forces mainly involved at Salaita are SA infantry is missed. Having recently worked through Ludwig Boell’s history* of the campaign from the German perspective, it was rather intriguing to read of the German tendency to use encirclement where possible. Yet, I did not pick up on this in David’s discussion of the clash in military doctrines despite his having used Boell.

For all I’ve said and could say, there is still value in General Jan Smuts. It will certainly start a new discussion on Smuts and leadership of the African campaigns. I learnt that Smuts joined the Victoria College Rifle Association whilst a student there – before he went to Cambridge – and a little more about the Anglo-Boer War. There are also numerous potentially useful references to follow up on. I may have used some in the past for different purposes but will now be going back to assess my initial interpretation.

In conclusion, however, the potential strengths of this book are outweighed by the points mentioned above. I would therefore only recommend General Jan Smuts if you are doing an academic study and need it for your historiography or literature review. In the meantime, I look forward to the next book investigating Smuts (and Botha) as commanders in World War 1 – by Antonio Garcia and Ian van der Waag.

* An English translation of Boell’s history is soon to be published by the Great War in Africa Association.

Pure duty – An irony of history

Jan Smuts in September 1919 was returning for the first time to the area he had raided eighteen years before when fighting for the Boer republic. He wrote to Issie, his wife, telling her that ‘Now I go there to ask them to let the republic go. That is the irony of history, apparently contradictory; and yet both are in the way of pure duty. But people do not easily understand such choices.’

How do leaders of all kinds convince their followers that circumstances and situations have changed, requiring a different approach? Unfortunately, Smuts doesn’t give any suggestions and judging by the fact that he lost the election in 1924, he wasn’t very successful in his attempts. 

I can’t help but recollect when thinking about human behaviour and change that Marthe Kiley-Worthington believes it takes two generations of elephants for them to overcome the effects of a traumatic experience. Is it the same for humans? Or are we more selective in our forgetting? How is it that many of the youth in South Africa today have little or no recollection of the struggles their parents went through in the ending of Apartheid? As far back as 2003 when teaching A level students in the UK about the Cold War etc, none of my students from Eastern Europe had any idea of life before 1991 – did their parents purposefully not share what they had been through?

This contrasts with friends across the globe who have come through the tail end of civil upheavals – comparing notes is fascinating and insightful. Yet our reactions and responses can be quite different to those of our parents’ generation. Some have struggled to make the transition to a more free and equal society while others have embraced the new world, with all variations in between. And yet, despite all this wealth of experience and first hand knowledge, we don’t always see (or want to see) the warning signs of society and countries getting themselves into similar twists… this strange amalgamation of past, present and future seem to play a part in how we respond to being warned of changed and changing circumstances. 

Bringing about lasting change is a slow process which many experts have written about. Yet, it still seems that a catalyst is needed to jolt us (some at any rate) to action. I wonder how elephants work through the process of overcoming the trauma their ancestors experienced?

Letters – a lifeline for historians

One of the reasons I stuck to 20th century history was because of the abundance of paper – in fact for some things there could be too much paper whilst for others finding the papers to open a window on the past is a real challenge. The thought of trying to compile history from a fragment or two of parchment was (and remains) incomprehensible. Now I wonder how historians of the future are going to cope. All these emails under password protection, that is if they haven’t been deleted, tweets on Twitter, Facebook… the options are almost endless – have you tried to find something on social media you saw some time ago and didn’t manage to download or save somehow? It’s almost impossible – but then perhaps I’m not looking properly… who knows…

But back to letters. The correspondence of Jan Smuts was published in 7 volumes by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel. These published letters are not everything as they selected what they felt was the most important – not much on the East Africa campaign. You’ll have to go into the unpublished letters for that info. And then there are the letters in other collections. One interesting collection I happened across was after reading about May Hobbs in volume 4 of the Smuts Papers. A quick internet search revealed this on May Hobbs by Liz Stanley. On inspection it suggests these letters are in the Smuts collection in Pretoria.

While there may not be anything ground breaking in them, they do shed some light on the social and cultural aspects of the day and show Smuts as a person rather than the politician or soldier one generally sees him as. A timely reminder that behind all great leaders, there is a person – a human one. And often through these snippets, we get to see some thinking behind the political decisions being made. Although reconciling them with the politics can be a challenge – take his correspondence with the Gilletts… I’ll leave you to read vol 4 to see for yourself.

It’s all connected

Jan Smuts wrote a book called Holism and Evolution (published 1925) explaining how we’re all connected. In February 1919 during the Paris peace talks he was writing to friends clarifying his thoughts and seeking their views:

“Life is one and universal; it is not parcelled out, divided and dissected. The individual is an organ of life universal and is as such an embodiment of the All, the Highest, the Divine. Only, in some mysterious way, an alienation may arise between the individual and the universal, which it must be the great effort in conduct to eliminate or prevent. That alienation is error, sin, or whatever else we call it.” (p59 in Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts papers vol 4)

While reading this I was reminded of two books I recently read both claiming the same end but coming at it from different directions: Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose and Sue Hampton’s Rebelling for Life. And the issues (climate, -isms), despite what we think today, are not new. It’s almost as one of “my men” said about another “he’s like a lighthouse, his light only shines on one thing at a time.” Over time we get to cover the various topics while expending inordinate amounts of energy on each. Given the interconnectedness of all, it makes sense to take a holistic approach – which effectively means working together pooling our various strengths. When I think of how the diverse troops worked together in East Africa during World War 1, I take heart that it can be done. We just need the right unifying trigger.

And then, if you’re still not convinced about the connections, there’s the geological evidence supplied by Alex du Toit on continental drift.

Can we compare?

I’ve had a number of people suggest making links between the current virus situation and that of 1918. Some saying they’re similar, others disagreeing. Many say we’re in unprecedented times, I’m not so sure. I’ve commented before on how comments in one situation are almost identical to another (the 1899-1902 2nd Anglo Boer or South Africa War and the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 in particular). This one resonates with comments circulating during 2020 across numerous countries.

On 5 November 1918, six days before the armistice, South African Governor General Lord Buxton wrote to Jan Smuts in England with news from South Africa.* Prime Minister Louis Botha was on his way to England in preparation for the peace discussions (Smuts had earlier written to friends saying he knew the Sunday before the armistice was the last Sunday of the war).

There is going to be trouble over the Epidemic. The Health Department of ‘Interior’ was extraordinarily stupid and wanting in foresight, pedantically allowing the Influenza to come in from the Transport (Native) where it had been raging; and further throughout the epidemic, it has shewn want of energy, courage, and resource, in dealing with the position.

The ‘Health’ powers of the Government are of course lamentably limited, but Watt ought to have thrown himself with energy into the affair, and done all, and indeed more than he legally could, to cope with such a grave position as that which has arisen.

At that stage in South Africa, there had been 20,000 deaths. Buxton was also lamenting the fact that the opportunity had gone to pass a Public Health Bill and to sort out Housing.

This is one of a number of instances where the Spanish flu was mentioned, all resonating with comments I’ve heard and read in recent times. I’ve also seen similar comments expressed in relation to the Ebola outbreak, the 1980s HIV/AIDS and other significant crises during the past 100 years.

How do we, as historians, therefore determine how ‘unique’ a situation is? Should we be trying to decide whether our time is worse than that experienced with the 1918/9 pandemic or the Ebola outbreaks? Where does Foot and Mouth and BSE management regimes fit in all of this? The situations prevailing for each crisis has been different, although commonalities can be identified. Does this mean that we can draw conclusions that people in 1918 felt the range of emotions we encounter today? Were there the same concerns about people flouting what was seen to be essential practice to contain the spread? I haven’t read enough of the situation 100 years ago to be able to answer this confidently, but I don’t recall having seen much documented in the diaries and memoirs I have worked with where the flu is mentioned. For those writing diaries and commentaries on the current time – how do you plan to give future readers a clearer picture of what you’ve been through so they can distinguish between your feelings and those of other similar circumstances?

Perhaps as part of the Great War in Africa Association medical project some more might come to light as doctors explain and set out what was groundbreaking for them 100 years ago. Looking back, medical knowledge had made huge leaps and bounds – Norman Jewell talks of his first x-ray machine in Africa, plastic surgery and the manufacture of artificial limbs occurred and there were discoveries around tropical diseases. When compared with complaints around medical issues in the 1899-1902 war and Kitchener’s engagements in Sudan and other conflicts dating to the Crimean war, I’m astounded as to how medical knowledge developed, yet today we find similar questions being asked and concerns raised. How is it that we find ourselves in a similar situation today?

Can we compare? or do we simply acknowledge – it was different and when explaining the past make reference to ‘in memory’ events to help our readers understand.

* From Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts Papers, vol 3, p684,