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.

Review: To Complete the Jigsaw by Nicholas van der Bijl

To Complete the Jigsaw: British Military Intelligence in the First World War by Nicholas van der Bijl (The History Press, 2015) was a roller coaster read.

Having heard about the book, I eagerly waited its publication date – little has been written on military intelligence during World War 1 and even less mentioned East Africa. It’s an area I’d been thinking needs to be addressed and within months of the thought, a book was due to appear.

Opening the book, the ups and downs of the roller-coaster began.

New discoveries of the Western Front, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Of particular interest for me was the setting up of military intelligence and how it developed from the Crimean and Anglo-Boer Wars with not much done in the intervening years. However, there was a recognition that ascertaining what the other side had planned would prove invaluable during a war. How it came about and evolved during the war and around the different circumstances or contexts was fascinating.

Then came the downers. Although the discussion below my suggest they outweigh the uppers, don’t be mislead. This book is definitely worth reading and provides a valuable overview of military intelligence in World War 1. There are, however, a few aspects readers should be aware of.

The first is the poor editing of the book. A basic proofread seems to have been missed, and although generally not a problem, there are one or two instances where a significant word has been missed. Another challenge has been the structure of the writing/content. Thoughts/claims are strung together with no obvious link being made or context set. Where people feature in different parts of the war, no link is made to their other role – the obvious one being Meintertzhagen. The impression is that this is a book wich was put together and published in haste. The sad thing about the haste is that it detracts from what is a significant contribution to the historiography of First World War.

Closer to home, I was rather disappointed in what was written about intelligence in the East Africa campaign. It seemed out of date and a perusal of the books consulted, even Ed Paice’s excellent Tip and Run, proved they were. Much more first hand information is available – by those mentioned in the book – yet Nick has relied on second hand accounts rather than going to Weinholt’s The lion hunt (reprint of 1922 book) and Philip (not Pieter) Pretorius’ Jungle Man to name but two. In some ways, this is understandable. A book of this nature relies on overviews and even those take a long while to work through. To delve into each aspect in depth and detail would take years and would produce a very different book.

Nick has followed the mainstream, again not surprising given the (until very recently) little published on the Great War in East Africa. One of his main sources is Charles Miller’s Battle for the Bundu. Again, I’m not surprised given how many people rate the book. I, too, rate it as an  overview/starting point, but it is not enough anymore. With the information we have today, it is superficial, contains errors and is very Anglo-centric. It provides the basics.

Intelligence bridges the divide between the military, political and social spheres, and apart from chapters dealing with Mesopotamia and Palestine (and even then superficially) the political and social have been largely ignored – despite information having been available at the time the book was being written, albeit not that easy to identify.

My final issue is a related one – that of perpetuating myths. Unfortunately in a book such as this – an overview relying on secondary sources – myths have a tendency to be perpetuated unless challenged in a forthright manner such as Brian Garfield did about Meinertzhagen. I wonder how the narrative of To Complete the Jigsaw would have gone had Nick been aware of Lord Kitchener having completed the first thorough mapping of Palestine. Nick mentions the mapping in passing, focusing rather on the 1913 exercise but made no mention of Kitchener’s involvement in the first. Kitchener had also done his share of intelligence gathering – even allowing himself to be imprisoned as an Arab to obtain information and having to witness a colleague be tortured and killed once found to be a spy. Although Kitchener never spoke Hindi, he had learnt the language allowing him to follow conversations during his time in India before the infomation was translated into English for him. These are just a few points which provide a different image of Kitchener to that portrayed in To Complete the Jigsaw.

I have been overcritical – on areas I have some detailed knowledge. This is not meant to detract from what Nick has done but rather to spur others on to take this first stage further and to delve more deeply into specific areas so that a more complete picture can be put together of the role of intelligence during the First World War. Together with the 1914-1918 Online encylcopedia entry which looks at Europe and the Eastern Front we have the first holistic overview of military intelligence in World War 1.

Thank you Nick for identifying this gap in the historiography and for doing something about it. You’ve laid the foundation for others to build on.


How the Raid dominates…

I don’t dispute the significance of the Jameson Raid in the lead up to the Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1902, but I do wonder if by just focusing on the Raid without looking at what went before and after we are missing something.

I have started to question emphasis being placed on specific events to the exclusion of almost everything else when it comes to understanding or looking at an individual. Jameson is the most recent case in point, although it is by delving behind Kitchener’s avenging of Gordon‘s death at Khartoum, the Boer War concentration camps and Paardeberg that I’ve set myself the challenge of completing a biography of the man on the poster. There is so much more than what meets the eye.

This was brought home to me again by a reading of Chris Ash’s The ‘If’ Man – a biography on Jameson which by all accounts has had some mixed reactions.

What I did find intriguing in The If man is that there was no mention (or perhaps I missed it) of those others who were initially sentenced to death with Jameson – JG Farrar springs to mind. I would have expected some mention of Jameson and Fitzpatrick in terms of the court hearings and their fate especially as they were involved in organising the Uitlanders in Johannesburg. These men were also Members of Parliament and being in the mining world, their paths clearly crossed with Jameson’s.

There are numerous publications on the Jameson Raid – I wonder how many of them really have new insights into the events and how many just repeat the generally accepted views? One day I’ll get round to reading at least some of them… I might be as pleasantly surprised as what I have been reading the biographies on Kitchener.