Field Marshal Ironside in Africa

I was asked a little while ago about General Ironside having served in South West Africa as a spy. The result was some investigation as surely I would have registered on such a notable having been involved in the 1914-1918 GSWA campaign. That we had a Goebels and a Goering serve in EA as well as a Trapp (but not related to the Sound of Music von Trapp), and Edward Grey’s brother…a name like Ironside should have stuck. But it also didn’t sound quite right. There would have been a lot said about such a personage serving in Africa during World War One – it must have been at a different time he was there, if he was…

All was revealed by discovering Edmund Ironside’s biography of his father Ironside: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Lord Ironside (2018). Ironside had served during the 1899-1902 war in southern Africa and had gone into the neighbouring German colony as a spy, working with John Buchan. However, a little more searching revealed that others knew this before 2018.

Already in 1987, an article in History Today discusses John Buchan using Ironside as one of his inspirations for Richard Hannay. According to Roderick (Rory) Macleod’s entry at King’s College London Liddell Hart Military Archives, Ironside was in South-West Africa until 1904. Macleod edited Ironside’s Diaries published in 1962. His exploits in GSWA are also mentioned in Brian Parritt, The Intelligencers: British Military Intelligence from the Middle Ages to 1929 (2011) and Nicholas Rankin’s Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for deception, 1914-1945 (2008).

Find a Grave has a summary of his service – I wondered how realistic his disguise as an Afrikaans Boer would have been, but this given his fluency in seven languages and having learnt them from a young age, this is plausible. Kitchener managed to disguise himself as an Arab in Sudan.

This little snippet prompts more questions about Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck having met Louis Botha around the time… (foreword by Thomas Ofcansky in reprint of East African Reminiscences) although I still cannot see Milner allowing an erstwhile enemy to meet a future enemy,

Bridging the generations

The other day I had a lovely discussion with my teenage (15yo) nephew on history. Being on different continents and only seeing him on occasion I suggested we connect for a chat, just the two of us without all the family. He’s an avid reader with a broad range of interest, far wider than my WW1 Africa focus.

Shock horror – he, in consultation with mom, decided on a history book: North of the Limpopo: Africa since 1800 by Ken Smith and AJ Nothling… a book she knew I’d have, it having been a text book for undergraduate history at Pretoria University in the 1990s. Here I was, thinking I’d be challenged with Tolkien or Percy Jackson or some such fantasy read!

Our discussion on the first 30 pages proved rather insightful. What struck me was his opening take on how the account differs to what they’re taught. This centred around the themes of trade and religion and how they are still influencing interactions today. Further discussion elicited the connection between his knowledge of the Bible/Hebrew scriptures with the secular historical account – this was new. Precious metals vs cowrie shells for trade, the Zimbabwe ruins in relation to bronze smelting, slavery then and now, issues of equality and Prester John. This last, the short novel by John Buchan will be an interim read before we continue with North of the Limpopo.

The detail is not important (except to us) but what I take from our discussion is how looking at the past can unite generations. Some might question the efficacy of the text we were looking at, irrespective it opened windows and doors when placed alongside existing knowledge with us both exploring new avenues of thinking and future discovery. What more can an historian (and aunt) ask for?

Our next date is set – Prester John, here we come… and don’t forget The Hobbit (I’m breaking into the world of fantasy). At this rate it’s going to take some time to work through North of the Limpopo but I’m confident we’ll both be discovering much more along the way.

And for those who weren’t aware, Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892, although he left aged 3.