Evolving language

I’m sure you know a few people who are very pedantic about the English language – the only right English being that spoken in England and the antithesis being American. However, those of us from the old colonies and dominions know that our English is just as valid and has evolved and become enriched through the other languages in our environments. Jewish friends in the UK are often surprised at the range of Yiddish words which feature in South African English (Yiddish poet Frankel Fram; SA literature). And then we have that wonderful language spoken on the mines but which never fully developed – Fanagalo. (song by Thys giving a basic flavour of the language, and for those looking for something a bit more serious as an example, I was surprised to find the Story of Jesus according to Luke all in Fanagalo.)

I’m a great one for coming up with new words. One of my favourite is ‘stoven’ – a combination of ‘stove’ and ‘oven’. I fell into the word accidently when we were having our kitchen refurbished and in talking to the builders got myself so confused as to which item I was referring that it seemed easiest to combine the words. Ten years later, we still refer to the stoven. More recently, I’ve discovered the word ‘niblings‘ to refer collectively to nieces and nephews. Again, it’s a new word yet to move into common usage and I hope it does. This makes me realise I’m quite lazy, happy to find short cuts, which remain meaningful – text speak is completely out in my book.

It’s unlikely that any words I come up with will end up in the Oxford, Collins or other reputable dictionaries in the same way that Roald Dahl has had words acknowledged. I’m not sure how many of these six words I’ll be using regularly. I think I’m more likely to use transvaalitis, perhaps tweaking its meaning slightly as I do like the image it conveys.

The evolution of language is important. It allows us to reflect our time and societies more effectively. Micro-nation, a term made popular by Wangari Maathai in The Challenge for Africa to describe the various ethnic groups found in Africa today.

Another significant term to come out of Africa, from an earlier time is holism. This was one of Jan Smuts’ contributions to philosophy. The word, originating from the Greek, was brought to prominence by Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution. Smuts developed on Darwin’s theory explaining how everything is interconnected. Many rejected Smuts’ theory at the time, taking this to be against Christian beliefs. In doing so, they ignore Smuts’ deep spirituality – it all fits together, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, it transcends Christianity to be all encompassing, irrespective of belief. (Nature’s Holism; Callie Joubert)

Finally, I think we need to start reclaiming certain words for their original and varied meaning rather than having their use narrowly restricted. Words such as gay and aid(e) immediately come to mind. Then there are those words which are acceptable in some communities but not in others – rubber vs eraser, pants vs trousers – while others have different meanings: now, just now and now now. This post might also be of assistance for someone trying to understand South African English. And then of course, there’s always Jeremy Taylor’s Ag pleez daddy (not quite politically correct today, but definitely reflective of its time).

 

 

Transvaalitis – how do we overcome?

You’d be forgiven thinking this was a new disease – medical disease that is. Trying to find some clear background to the term has proven quite a challenge – Yahoo doesn’t want to know it (really) and Google gives a few book references. As soon as you add ‘origin’ or ‘meaning’ to your search you get results such as ‘Transvaal. It is…’ – not very helpful for someone like me trying to find an author who has tried to engage with the term and not just repeat what everyone else has said before.

I came across the term reading Richard Holmes’ chapter ‘The last hurrah: cavalry on the Western Front, August-September 1914’ in Facing Armageddon The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddel (1996, 2003) p281 – this book had been recommended by Jennie Upton some time back and it’s taken me about three years to get to where I have: it’s not a book to take on the tube or in handluggage due to its length (900 pages) so has to wait for opportune moments to be read at home. Having said that, it’s a worthwhile read (most of it so far) as it opens up insights into aspects of the war few have considered before. For a non-Western Front student like myself, this is rather refreshing. There’s not a great amount on the African campaigns, but it’s definitely worth seeing how other small groups and minorities compare. It’s a great attempt at breaking the myths.

Back to Transvaalitis. It’s best to quote from p281 after some context. Holmes is talking about infantry assaults on ‘others in a position which favoured defence’ looking back to what was learned from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870s.

‘From the 1880s till the outbreak of war infantry theorists grappled with this problem. Many concluded that the answer was to weld men together just as tightly as in the past, throwing them into battle shoulder to shoulder to the sound of drum and bugle. This would result in appaling losses in the short term – but it would at least produce a decision, not sterile butchery. And it would avoid what one caustic French officer described a ‘acute Transvaalitis‘ – paralysis by fire.

Even the British army, which had, after all, studied the epidemology of Transvaalitis at some collective cost, concluded in Infantry Training 1914 that ‘The object of infantry in the attack is … to get to close quarters as quickly as possible.’ Once there, the commander on the spot was to judge when superiority of fire had been achieved and then order the assault. And now, believe it or not, I quote.

‘The commander who decides to order the assault will order the charge to be sounded, the cal will at once be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the assault the men will cheer, bugles will be sounded, and pipes played.’

This looks to me no different in principle to the infantry tactics in vogue when the line was red rather than khaki.

The reference given for Transvaalitis is ‘General Langlois, founder of the Revue militaire generale, quoted in Joseph C Arnold ‘French tactical Doctrine 1870-1914’, Military Affairs vol 42 no 2 (April 1978).

I assume one will have to get into Langlois’ writings in French to see what and why he came up with the term as Holmes and a few other authors who have used the term don’t go much further than noting ‘paralysis’ or an ‘abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield‘.

The Australian Light Horse Study Centre website has the following:

Theorists and practitioners were unsure whether firepower favoured attack or defence. The Polish banker, Jan Bloch, author of the perceptive Future War, declared that it simply ruled out frontal attack, and British experience in South Africa seemed to prove that Bloch was right: both British and French infantry regulations were modified to reflect the reality of the fire-swept battlefield. But it was not that simple. The weight of military opinion believed that wars were won by offensive action, and it followed that an army which allowed itself to be paralysed by firepower –‘acute transvaalitis‘ – could not expect to win. Moreover, as Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq had acutely observed even before the Franco-Prussian War, on the new battlefield `cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation’. What would happen if these loose, flexible formations met the enemy’s fire? Officers would be unable to lead effectively, and soldiers’ courage would not be buttressed by the close physical proximity of comrades. Men – short-term conscripts, most of them – would go to ground and not get up again; impulsion would be gone and stalemate would result.

Simon Anglim in his KCL Dept of War Studies seminar notes, has

Howard: Commanders were unquestionably obtuse about the lessons of the wars of 1861-1905. The French had abandoned mass assaults in the 1870s, but then, under what he sees as the malign influence of du Picq, in 1894 returned to “elbow to elbow” assaults accompanied by bugles and drums. Foch, in a lecture of 1900, advocated the use of the bayonet to achieve victory, rooted in a faith in aggression, elan vital, Furia Frachese, etc. Yet, in 1904, they returned to the use of loose skirmish lines, against the wishes of certain generals, who spoke of Transvaalitis. The Russo-Japanese War was misread universally – true, the Japanese had carried Russian positions with the bayonet, but only through suffering horrendous casualties. Yet, the bayonet, and morale, were the lessons drawn; the German du Picq was Bernhardi, who saw the new tactics as a sign of national spiritual weakness. Joffre, the French chief of staff from 1911, oversaw the publication of a new set of regulations for handling large formations in1911, which emphasised the offensive. In England, Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of war as a clash of wills in which attack was the best form of defence, while FN Maude claimed that casualty conservation might weaken an army’s resolve. By comparison, Haig emerges as not so much “stupid” as a coldly ruthless pragmatist, occasionally prone to over confidence (qv. his views onthe Royal Artillery)

I assume (not a wise thing to do, but needs must) therefore that Tranvaalitis was a term derived from the British response to the Boer defence (a rather strong term some might think) of the Zuid Afrikanse Republiek (ZAR) or Paul Kruger’s Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War on 1899-1902. Did this arise from Tommy’s reluctance to move forward unsure of where Boer snipers were hiding? The Boers had a reputation for being crack shots – whether this reputation was well-grounded in fact or not, the point is their reputation was enough to stop a larger force in its tracks. Overcoming the fear instilled by this reputation would have been challenging for any commander until there was a complete rethink and break in traditional approaches to the fight: the blockade and concentration camp system that was then introduced by Lords Roberts and Kitchener.

Interestingly, these lessons do not appear to have been learnt by the high commands in exploring options for future wars. Men fell back on what they were comfortable with and what they’d been taught. Those who tried to break the mould were sidelined and ostracised. As in many cases, the victor wrote the history and men like Haig and Kitchener who did try to do things differently whilst keeping their men alive, were maligned and labelled along wiht the majority. Perhaps Smuts’ encircling movements in East Africa was part of his attempt to avoid Transvaalitis…

Today, we still struggle to think outside the box and find innovative, non-violent solutions (where possible) to many problems. We all suffer from Trasvaalitis – paralysis of fire – in some way.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if Langlois came up with the term after seeing this little fellow: the Transvaal fat-tailed scorpion aka parabuthus transvaalicus. It would definitely stop me in my tracks, and that’s without knowing about its firepower.

Practise what you preach or Do as I say…?

My significant other recently told me, in answer to a question, that I have a tendency to overreact. This, I know I do when I’m stretched and overworked (all my own doing of course) and in all honesty, overreaction has been the order of the day for the past few months. But as with those annoyingly wonderful ruts in the road, finding a way out of it has taken some creative manoeuvring, not least a change in perspective.

This was reinforced recently on a semi-planned visit to the one of my regular haunts and a place to really get me overreacting. We’ve had a love-hate relationship since I first started researching there twenty years ago. The pedantic non-user-friendly manuscript ordering rules and myself came to a functional working arrangement years ago, thank goodness, so what still irks me every time I visit? The inconsistencies around security. And it’s not just at the B that I suffer this irksome practice.

I’ve no issue with being checked when I enter a building but please, do it properly if you’re serious about it nor not at all. Don’t waste my time by making me take my bag off my back, open it for you to just glance in it and tell me to go through and then when I question the action tell me it’s for my safety. Usually, I end up in a little altercation with the poor security guard on duty who is just ‘doing as he’s been told to do’. But on my last visit, I happened to be there on a day they were trialling a new system (couldn’t see anything different other than more men in suits around, but hey-ho), so happened to raise the point with the guard checking my bag telling him about the need for him to do a thorough check of my bag if the B was serious about my security. He thought I had a good point to make and would take it up with his manager standing behind him. On my more recent visit, arriving at 9.44 in the rain, the queue was wound round the side under cover to past the Conference Centre. Entering the building, I calmly said to the guard (the same one I had previously encountered), ‘I hope you’re going to do a proper search today’ and proceeded to open all the zips on my bag whilst apologising for insisting despite there being a queue. To his credit, he acknowledged the queue and thanked me for insisting and assisting him to do a thorough search of my bag. For the first time in ages, I’ve managed to get into the B without my blood pressure rising or overreacting. I wondered how many others insist on having their bags searched properly?

The significance of this more pleasant encounter was that when Social Sciences couldn’t find the publication I’d ordered, I was in a much better frame of mind to deal with it – an African adventure approach was what the doctor had ordered on this occasion (I don’t usually visit Social Sciences, but this is where you find Session Papers), it worked. It turned out the person serving me was new on the counter usually being in another reading room so together we both learnt something about the room. Sad to say, the document all this was over didn’t contain what I’d hoped it would. At least I can tick it off the list.

Back to practising though… it’s the inconsistencies that annoy me most. Not the policy providing it is based on common sense and this I think is where we go wrong today. The tickbox dictates how we practise as do our traditions. How are we to create a world where people are people and respect each other for being people irrespective of their beliefs if we don’t compromise? As an historian, looking back, I distinguish between ethnic groups and micro-nations to explain the interactions and consequences of the past, but looking forward and being in the present, we’re all people bringing our rich heritage with us.

Recently, a group I’m involved with invited another group to join us – we had slightly different practises and in getting the two groups together, compromise had to be made. However, at the final preparation meeting which I couldn’t attend, some dogmatic thoughts dominated and the compromise solution was done away with. For me, as I explained to someone afterwards, it was as though I’d invited a vegetarian to dinner and purposefully fed them meat. The group having professed to be open, turned out to be as closed as other groups in terms of accommodating peoples of different beliefs. I probably did overreact to this situation but thankfully before taking any action sought the wisdom of others. It’s still got me thinking though about practising what we preach and how we get there when people are coming from such different starting points. (cf review Tim Butcher).

Practising what one preaches has its challenges as Jan Smuts discovered during his command in East Africa. Not one to sit still at headquarters behind the lines, he pushed forward sleeping out in the open with the men, reconnoitring himself much to the horror of his British staff and concern of his South African staff. But, putting himself in this position, he won the respect and admiration of the rank and file. One can’t say the same about the officers though. The downside of Smuts being ‘on the ground’ meant he often missed the big picture and the strategic overview, didn’t pay enough attention to supply lines as he was coping or wasn’t aware of the real situation. It was also one of the reasons he didn’t tackle the black-white issue in South Africa. He couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between his personal beliefs and where mass white thinking was at the time. On this issue he took the political expediency of trying to stay in power in order to reduce the impact but that had its own consequences, not least his historical reputation.

It’s not always easy to practise what one preaches as the circumstances dictate otherwise, but knowing where to draw the line and being flexible enough to deal with it will go a long way to making life a little more pleasant for those on the receiving end of my overreaction and hopefully me personally. My current behaviour-changing challenge is to deal with inconsistencies more cheerfully. It paid off at the B, perhaps it will elsewhere too.

Review: Memoirs of the Boer War by Jan Smuts

I set myself the challenge ot read through Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel’s 7 volume Selections from the Smuts’ Papers. So far, I’ve completed volume 1. As a specialist of WW1, I thought it would be interesting to see what documents and thoughts he’d written prior to the 1914-1918 war and to see how his younger days influenced his later…

What I didn’t expect to find though was a draft memoir of his Boer War experiences. Part V of volume 1 is the start of what was to be a book but which was never finished due to his getting more involved in politics from 1904. These almost 130 pages tell Smuts’s story from the Fall of Pretoria [*] June 1900 through to the start of The Potchefstoom Campaign in early 1901.

[* you can see some of the pages on Google books (the first page is 536)]

This is not a military account, I wouldn’t expect anything like that from Smuts; it is rather a personal reflection on how he saw the war (and no doubt how he wanted the public to see the war – compare this with his reports to the War Office which were published in the Gazettes in 1916 and 1917). Tucked within these pages, and the earlier part dealing with his correspondence during the Boer War, are insights into his views on military strategy and how these were received by others. For those with the patience to tackle military strategy, this should provide some good material for understanding (or confusing) what he did during the East Africa campaign. I couldn’t help but be struck by his comments about organisation and his take on small forces being chased by a force much larger than the numbers they were chasing.

Interspersed are accounts of meeting with his wife, how he got letters through to her and other family members on occasion, humour, and frustration. He explains the Boer take on fighting (or rather retreating) and their fear of being captured – one group being found reciting prayers aloud in the hope that they would not be mistaken for fighters. And to top it all we get some history lessons from Smuts – not least the significance of Dingaan’s Day (Day of the Covenant and now Day of Reconciliation) and the Great Trek – all in the context of the Anglo-Boer War. It was the day after 16 December 1899, a day of solemn reflection and rejoicing in the progress of the war, that things started to go awry. Smuts gives credit where it is due – I was surprised at the number of British officers he commented on: favourably. Another striking point was his regular references to Kitchener allowing the Boers to cross the lines to meet with fellow Boers or get messages to Europe where President Kruger was in exile. Surely, if one is at war, you don’t rely on the favour of the enemy to let you communicate with your own side which is positioned on the other side of the enemy? It clearly was a war with a difference…

It’s not the most gripping and exciting of reads, if I’m honest, but it is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding Smuts’s behaviour and actions during the East Africa campaign of 1916-1917.

Is this the reason Boers and Australians (white) love their country so much?

I return to Jan Smuts commenting on a piece written by Olive Schreiner in answer to the above question. Well, rather, it was reading the following which gave rise to the question. The reference for the quotes below is Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers vol 1, pp117-9.

She points out very truly that while the English Colonist, even he who settled in this country as far back as 1820, still continues to think fondly of, and feel sympathetically of his parents, and the great race to which he belongs, the Boer has become of the soil, soily; he has cut himself completely adrift from Europe and his progenitors, and their traditions and ideals over there; he has come to look upon South Africa, not merely as the land of his birth, but also as the source of all that is most dear and hallowed in his memory, as the object of his tenderest sympathies and aspirations. Why is the Boer in this respect so different, not only from his English fellow colonist, but also all the previous recorded types of colonist? The writer [Schreiner] points to the following facts as furning some explanation of this obscure and difficult subject. In the first place, the original population of the Colony consisted almost solely of males of very mixed nationalities; and the wives which the Company sent out for them were orphans from the philanthropic institutions of the mother country. They had no hallowed and enduring memories to cherish of the land of their birth, no parents’ homes to think of, with their thousand little trifling details which yet influence the hearts and thoughts of generations; this country was the first glimpse of ‘Good Hope’ which they ever had. No wonder, therefore, that they and their offspring cherished no sentimental regard for the mother country…’

Schreiner explains that the French refugees ‘did not bring any pleasant memories from their mother country’ as they were

‘separated from the bulk of the French population by great differences of religious belief and social aims, persecuted by their Government, and goaded by a nameless tyranny to rebellion and exile, they taught their children to love the land of refuge which providence had marked out for them, and themselves tried to forget the harsh stepmother of France.’

To this, Smuts counteracts using the letters by Bernardin de St Pierre who visited the Cape in 1771, in which he noted that ‘the one thing which struck him’ about the Dutch and the French colonists ‘was their strong sentimental attachment to the mother countries. He says the French always cried when the name of France was mentioned.’

Finally, a common language – Afrikaans – was a binding factor for the Boers.

One’s experiences clearly influences the way one sees and reacts to places. I couldn’t help but think of the views of the children/young people in Purple Hibiscus which I finished not long after reading Smuts’s commentary on Schreiner. The different responses to the worlds the children found themselves in can only be reminsicent of what the Boers and, I assume Australians as well as others, must have and continue to experience. The refugees of yesteryear are no different to those of today.