Review: World War 1 Reads and finds of 2015

This year has been a bumper year for books related to World War 1 in Africa. This is not too surprising given the centenary commemorations which has brought the little known campaigns in Africa to a wider audience.

Highlights of texts I became aware of this year include fiction and non-fiction and not all produced during this year. I’ve taken the opportunity of reflecting on the year’s finds to comment on those books I’ve not reviewed on the site.

On the non-fiction side, Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis broke away from the traditional military related accounts of the campaign in East Africa. Ed’s book sheds light on the relationships between the British metropole, the British South Africa Company, missionaries, settlers and local communities in a way reminiscent of Mel Page’s 1977 ground breaking work on Malawi and the First World War. I’m not going to say much more about Ed’s book here as I’m reviewing the book for an academic journal (details to follow in due course).

In a related vein, we have Albert Grundlingh’s War and Society: Participation and Remembrance. This is an updated and expanded account of Albert’s account of black South African involvement during World War 1. Many will be familiar with his Fighting their own war; however War and Society takes the story a bit further to include coloured involvement and the development of memory amongst black and coloured South Africans over the past 100 years. He pays special attention to the SS Mendi and the part it has played in South Africa’s remembrance of the war. Although I’m really pleased Albert released this publication, it’s a pity he left out the Indian involvement. As with Mel’s thesis being ground breaking, so was Albert’s – upon which both these books are based (and a recommended read if you can track down a copy and read Afrikaans).

Another two similarly ground breaking publications this year include Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries and Myles Osborne’s Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c.1800 to the present. This book, as I note in a forthcoming review soon to be published by New Contree, compliments that of Michelle’s.

Moving away from the ‘big’ picture, I was given a copy of Your Loving Son, Yum (available through GWAA for people outside South Africa), the story of Grahame Munro of Grahamstown who saw service in East Africa. His World War 1 letters, edited by Kathleen Satchwell, open up the war on a personal level with discussions about farming back home.

Another which gives more personal accounts of Belgians, Germans and British, and which has been available for a year now, is The Fate of the Prisoners during the East Africa Campaign. This translation of the 1919 Belgian report on prisoners contains amongst other accounts that of Ada Schnee, the German Governor’s wife. The accounts are of prisoners and guards who were captured and released when the Belgians occupied Tabora in 1917.

2015 saw the centenary of the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland, now Malawi and in commemoration of the uprising, the Society of Malawi dedicated an edition (vol 68, no 1) of its journal, The Society of Malawi Journal, to the event. Contributors included George Shepperson, David Bone, David Stuart-Mogg and Brian Morris. The publication provides a useful summary of the events which took place in 1915, adding some additional context to the general accounts and some reflections on the impact of the uprising on later generations.

An autobiographical account linking non-fiction and fiction was MJ Vassanji’s And Home was Kariakoo: A memoir of East Africa. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel The Book of Secrets.

It also proved a year of discovery on the fiction side with a number of novels coming to light. As I wrote last week, there is Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband drawing on the experiences of Karen Blixen and other settlers in the early years of the war. Margeurite Poland’s 2009 Iron Love starting in South Africa in 1913 and covering the campaign in East Africa, Escott Lynne’s 1921 Comrades Ever based on diary jottings of an unnamed person who served in the East Africa and finally regarding the war in East Africa, Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan alive: A definitive biography of Lord Greystoke which contains a couple of chapters (18-19) on the war.

My best novel discovery, which took place this week, must be my first novel mentioning a theatre other than East Africa and that is Roelof Steenbeek’s The Black Knight: The loss of innocence which mentions the West African campaign. It appears that this is a translation from Norwegian and a paper copy will set you back £30 but there is a e-version available through Amazon or Google Books.

I am yet to read all of these, other than Maya’s, so keep an eye on this site for updates on what I discover.

Looking ahead, 2016 promises to be another bumper year of publications making their way into my library (oh for more time to indulge in reading!). I’m waiting with eager anticipation for Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa which will contain some information on the First World War, and Ross Anderson’s soon to be released book on the King’s African Rifles. Norman Jewell’s On Call in Africa 1910-1932 which I was involved in editing should also be out in the new year bringing to light the life of a doctor who served with the East Africa Field Ambulance. Norman served for a time with Edward Temple Harris whose 17 Letters to his brother Temple have been around for a few years already (copies are available here). If all goes to plan, we should be seeing a range of memoirs and other official accounts of men who served in the King’s African Rifles, German forces, transport corps and so forth coming into the public domain – all on the East African theatre.

Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War as there are constantly new articles being added. They provide a broad introduction to aspects of World War 1. A lot of effort by the expert editors (those on the African front include Bill Nasson, Richard Foggarty, Mel Page, Michelle Moyd and Tim Stapleton) has gone into sourcing the contributors and to ensure they meet a minimum academic standard yet are accessible to a general audience.

Thank you to all who brought publications to my attention and for helping to keep the memory of all those involved in the Great War in Africa alive. May their experiences, positive and negative, help us to make the world a better place for all to live. We will remember them!

WW1 East Africa: A new female novelist

For those of you who know me, I’m not one to play the gender card (except when I’m pleading ignorance on military hardware and hierarchy issues). But being one to promote the minority voice (of all kinds), I couldn’t help but notice the lack of female novelists writing about the campaign in East Africa during World War 1.

Talking of minority voices, there are no authors of colour who have written on the campaign and even more surprising, the campaign in East Africa seems to be the only one in Africa written about – I am yet to find a novel mentioning German South West Africa (other than Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake which covers East Africa too), Cameroon, Togo or Belgian Congo. Egypt features but in connection with the wider war in Europe, Gallipoli and the war on the sea.

I came across Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband about three years ago when it was in draft form and I was writing an academic paper on Fictional Accounts of the East Africa campaign. For some reason, the editors didn’t like my original title of A Novel East Africa campaign (watch this space…). But it was only earlier this year that I managed to track a copy down and had the privilege of reading before it was published.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and was pleasantly surprised that the changed details didn’t result in the same reaction I had when I read my first ever novel of the campaign – Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil. I won’t go into the reasons for my outburst, save to say I have not been the only one to have issues with Smith’s book. Maya has changed the order of battles around and although some characters are named and others purposefully identifiable, the situations and personalities described are such that they hold together for a good read.

I’d like to think I’ve also matured a bit in terms of seeing how historians and historical novelists approach their topic with the same seriousness but for different purposes. And in this regard I was pleased to come across a tweet by the Guardian about this very issue. Over the years, various people, now researching the East Africa campaign, have told me they discovered it through novels such as Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil, but more often it’s William Boyd’s An Ice-cream War; so there’s got to be something in changing facts around under the auspices of literary licence.

Did you know?
Of the 43 novels on the campaign in East Africa, Maya is the third woman to produce one. She shares the stage with Gertrude Page, “The Kipling of Rhodesia” who published Follow After in 1915 and Far from the Limelight (and other tales) in 1918 and Elspeth Huxley whose novel Red Strangers (1939) contains a chapter dealing with the war.

Other novels covering related themes to The Celebration Husband:
William Stevenson The Ghosts of Africa (1994) – relationship between Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and Karen Blixen
Hamilton Wende The King’s Shilling: A novel (2005) – early days of the war in Kenya (British East Africa)
Balder Olden Kilimandsharo (1922) aka On Virgin Soil – A German transport rider caught up in the war on the border of British and German East Africa
Wilbur Smith Assegai (2009) – love, intrigue, intelligence and aeroplanes

In conclusion, I can honestly say that The Celebration Husband ranks amongst my top fiction reads of the East Africa campaign, and I’ve read nearly every one of the English novels. For those of you wondering, my others are CS Forester The African Queen (the book, the film is good too but it’s different), William Boyd An Ice-cream War, Alex Capus A Matter of Time, Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake and Balder Olden On Virgin Soil (the last two written by men who served in the East Africa campaign).

PS: Since writing this blog a month ago, I have discovered, thanks to Gerald Rilling, Marguerete Poland’s Iron Love: a novel (1999). I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it starts in South Africa in 1913 and involves the campaign in East Africa with at least a mention of South West Africa. This discovery makes Maya the 4th female novelist covering East Africa and 44 books. I’ll be sure to mention Iron Love in due course…