Review: They, said we could not do it – M Adeel Carelse

They, said we could not do it (based on the true story of the men of 1SACC who fought valiantly in German East Africa and in Palestine during WW1) by M Adeel Carelse is a book I have waited patiently to get. It is only available from the author in South Africa (copies will soon be available through the GWAA though), and after various hiccups the book was waiting for me on arrival after a 3.5 year gap.

In the book, Adeel imagines and describes his grandfather’s military experience in the First World War. With much information being scarce, he turned to the novel as the medium for telling his grandfather’s story. Because of this, the numerous editing and proofing issues can be forgiven. One of the most telling is the use of HMSAS – this is a World War 2 designation – in World War 1 South Africa was completely reliant on the British navy for its sea/coastal protection. Similarly reference to Task Force 344 on Durban beachfront – cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, gunboats and minesweepers and the German Surface Action Group are post-World War 1, although ships in the 1914-18 war were convoyed where possible.

At the end of the book, Adeel sets out what he used to compile the account: his own military naval experience. This explains the real sense of being there – the training and conditioning of soldiers to survive on the battlefield is palpable. So who is or was Adeel’s grandfather and why is his story important.
688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse served in the 1st Cape Corps in the 1914-1918 war in East Africa, Palestine and Egypt. In addition to surviving the war,  young Carelse was awarded the DCM for bravery on the Rufigi Delta in December 1916.

His citation in the London Gazette of 3 October 1918 reads:
88 Pte. C. Carlse [sic], Cape Corps.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When severely wounded he remained with and kept in action hie machine gun until relieved, and when his comrades wanted to carry him out of action he refused their assistance, telling them to remain with the
gun.

https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30932/data.pdf

The tale traces the family and social experiences of – Carelse, his brother and friends as they leave school and decide to enlist.

We join them on the training ground with all its harshness and deploy with them to the realities of war – death is and maiming are not avoided. How the families and friends, at home and on the battlefield, deal with the loss and home comings are raw – one reads so many clinical histories or accounts of war, that when one is brought face to face with the human element, it hits home – hard. This is one of the strengths of Adeel”s book.

There are numerous factual inaccuracies about the Cape Corps in the text, so for anyone wanting to find out more about the role of the Cape Corps, the following texts are the best to date.

Original documents can be accessed at:

  • The National Archives, London: (search on Cape Coloured)
  • SANDF Doc Centre, Irene

Personnel records. The following Carelse are listed at the SANDF Doc Centre, in Irene – CH Carelse’s card was not included in those I saw (must check the spelling given the London Gazette spelling and on his medal card WO 372/23/50401).

194 John Carelse, B Coy, 1 Cape Corps, Oudtshoorn
798 C Yster Carelse, D Coy, Cape Corps EAEF, Robertson
916 James Errol Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (none religion), Tulbach
951 Mones Carelse, Cape Corps 20th Coy, EAEF, Vredesdorp
1215 Lawrence Carelse, Reinforce Coy, Cape Corps, 1 Cape Corps, Woodstock
2348 Hewuf Carelse, G Coy, Reinforce Cape Corps (C of E), Worcester
2389 Abel Carelse, G Coy, Reinforce Cape Corps (C of E), Belvue Estate, Cape Town
6051 Stephan Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (Dutch Reformed), Phillipstown
6198 Johannes Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (none religion), Tulbach
6468 Adrian Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (Dutch Reformed) Wynberg, Cape Province
6481 Raymond AG Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (C of E), Caledon

They, said we could not do it, is an important novel in that it highlights a population group in South Africa who are often neglected and ignored.

South Africa saw men serve in the two Cape Corps units in East Africa, Palestine and Egypt. In addition men served in the Cape Corps Labour Battalion in myriad roles, and in the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Company (see https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/south_african_troops_in_europe_and_the_middle_east_union_of_south_africa.)

457 lost their lives in East Africa (163) and Palestine, mainly at Square Hill (51 on 20 September 1918).
9 were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals for bravery in East Africa and 1 Military Medal. 1 DSO and  6 Military Crosses to officers
1 Military Cross, 6 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 2 Military Medals for Palestine.
This out of a total ____ armed South Africans to serve in all capacities. The book contains the following lists:

  • 1SACC Roll of Honour (20 officers, 14 NCOs, 423 other ranks)
  • Decorations and awards, including Mentioned in Despatches for East Africa and Palestine

The role of the Cape Corps in the Middle East was recognised in early December 2022. Adeel unveiled the plaque commemorating the Cape Corps’ service.

Quiet recognition

Recently, I’ve been discovering acknowledgements to various forces which have tended to be kept out of the media spotlight.

The first was an article on Johannesburg’s oldest war memorial – one to Indian troops. It dates back to 31 October 1902.

And by the time I got to visit Delville Wood on Friday 16 March 2018, I had discovered that when the memorial was opened in 1926, there were three acknowledgements which didn’t make it into the white press. Thanks to Bill Nasson who discovered a newspaper record of it and referenced it in an article entitled Delville Wood and South African Great War Commemoration (English Historical Review, 2004).

  • Leo Walmseley laid a wreath to the carriers and labourers who served in Europe and Africa. Leo himself had been a pilot in the East Africa campaign.
  • Petals were thrown to remember the 250 Indian Stretcher Bearers from South Africa who served and
  • Major William Cunningham remembered the Cape Corps who had served in East Africa and Palestine.

The newspaper which carried the info was African World Supplement, xi Abantu-Batho, 1 October 1926.

It’s a pity such remembrance was done on the quiet but it shows that there are always some who stand out from the crowd.

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.