Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

Where to start? I found this book challenging to read, I didn’t like the style of writing and I had been annoyed before I began reading when a glance at the bibliography showed that once again we have a memoir of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck where German texts have been ignored other than those by Lettow-Vorbeck himself. In addition, all the myths of the First World War in Africa have been perpetuated as no primary or archival research was undertaken. How very frustrating, but thankfully all was not lost …

I always try and find something positive and for this book, it was a timely read as it reminded me of certain aspects of the campaign I had forgotten about and which were necessary for a paper or two I was writing. The basics are there.

Mixed feelings abound over Gaudi’s sidetracking – the opening scene for example is a long drawn out account of how Britain got the German codebook which eventually allowed it to pick up on the Konigsberg. And there are many others besides. The pros of this approach include new info and ideas, widening the scope of the war, showing how inter-related it was but on the con side, I just couldn’t help thinking the author was showing off.

It seems I am not the only one to have mixed feelings about this book. Mark Thatcher posted on Facebook (and I purposefully ignored it until I read the book) as follows:

Mark Thatcher So far so good with a couple of exceptions. I love the LOTR and all things Tolkien but mixing fantasy and History…hmmmm ….maybe on HBO. Also the author describes the Pour le Merite as a ‘metal’. It may be comprised of metal but the Pour le Merite is a ‘Medal’, as in medallion not metallion. Ugh.

For those not sure, LOTR = Lord of the Rings. I have no issue with including fiction in a history book – I do it myself, it’s more about how it’s done and which fiction is being referred to.

A librarian friend sent the Spectator review to me coincidentally just as I was starting the book – it must have been something in the ether – the copy I had was marked ‘Uncorrected proof, not for resale’ – it appears as though the Spectator reviewer had a similar copy. I sincerely hope that the errors, typos and other gremlins were all sorted for the release. Many of the major errors are listed in the Spectator review and I’m really pleased to see that one of the myths I had fallen for and have been trying to unravel, has been confirmed or at least sufficient evidence has been supplied for me to double check – that Max Aitken (newspaper mogul) and Arthur Aitken (Tanga fiasco) are not related:

And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).

The Spectator refers to the Washington Post review – I can only agree with what was said in the Spectator, but I can understand where the Washington Post reviewer is coming from. If this is the first you’re reading about the East Africa campaign or von Lettow-Vorbeck, then it will be rivetting and an eye-opener, and the writing style – well, that may be a matter of taste. This is not the first American write-up I’ve seen on the campaigns in Africa which show a general ignorance of Africa and what was happening there.

Would I recommend this book? I think on balance I would, just, but with lots of cautions. The main one being to double check everything before you use it.

Trust

The topic at one Friday prayers I attended (there’s no better way to learn about another group than to join them), was trust. Over the Christmas period, the young preacher had supported five couples looking to get divorced. That is a huge number in any community, and for me is indicative of the pressures we find ourselves in. This was his introduction to the topic of trust – for various reasons the trust between couples had been broken, gossip had been allowed to fester (a topic covered some time earlier) and before anyone was aware – divorce was on the cards.

Trust is delicate. It needs to be nurtured, like a plant. Mixing with other faith groups has reinforced how precious this value/ethic is and how it crosses cultures, religions and communities. We need to be reminded of our responsibilities and how to keep true to each other.

What the young preacher was saying resonated with a dissertation I was reading at the time about the Cape Corps of South Africa in World War 1. Men of the South African Coloured community who volunteered to fight for Empire and serve under white commanders. What was clear from the dissertation was the emphasis the white officers put on developing relations with their men – they recognised the trust and would not let outside influences affect it.

This was most obviously seen in appointing NCOs based on skill, not age, after only a few weeks of forming the regiment. Whether there were any Muslims in the Cape Corps will be really difficult, if not impossible to determine, as according to the regulations, the men had to be Christian (for dietary purposes). How many surrendered the label Muslim in order to serve, yet retained their Islamic beliefs and habits as far as they could? We know that Muslims in other countries, such as Canada and the USA did this (Forgotten Heroes).

The trust between commanding officers and their men irrespective of background, race or religion is prevalent in many of the battlefield encounters we read abut. However, at officer level, it seemed to be more fluid. Smuts appointed South Africans to his General Staff – he had more trust in them than the British oficers Smith-Dorrien had appointed, and he was known for clearing out – Malleson, Stewart, and Tighe more gently. All returned to India because he had no faith in their abilities. Sheppard was allowed to stay and later became van Deventer’s number 2.

The loyalty of the Askari is a tribute to the trust the men had in their commanders – on both sides. They stayed with their leaders so long as they believed they would see them through and safeguard their interests.  Those who changed sides must have had an incredible trust in those they moved to especially if they did so of their own accord and not as an alternative to being a carrier once captured. Similarly, there must have been a special trust between those who formed 6 KAR and their commanders.

Trust comes from taking risks – the risk to get to know someone and then the risk of continuing to believe in them and understand them. The risk von Lettow-Vorbeck took at Tanga in overriding Governor Schnee was great, but it paid off in terms of cementing the trust between the military commander and (most of) his men for the duration of the war.

Von and Van – what’s in a name?

I’ve recently read two accounts of World War 1 in Africa – one a novel, Dust Clouds of War by John Wilcox and the other a memoir to be published in 2018. In both of these texts, the British Allied commander, South African Jaap (Jacob) van Deventer, has been referred to as Deventer. Both books are by British English authors who do not fully understand naming constructions.

I’m being a little harsh here – my dad had to correct me on the pronunciation of van Deventer’s name years ago. I used to call him “van de Venter” splitting his name in keeping with many other South African names: van der Merwe, van der Westhuizen etc. Put the “de” onto the “venter” and you have “Deventer” pronounced “dear-venter”. And I’ve been known to mis-pronounce other significant names too: Tighe (“Tie” for those wondering I used to call “Tigga”), Caligula (a little before my time, was pronounced “Ka-li-goo-la”) and of course Beit (should be “bite” rather than “bate”). These are easy mistakes for readers who haven’t hear the names pronounced.So, I suppose it is not surprising that authors apply what they know of one culture to another related one.

With German names, “von” is a title added to a name in much the same way “sir” is added to British names. It’s recognition and status. For the Afrikaans South African name, the “van” or “von” is part of the name translating to “of” or “from” and specifically being lower case “v” – van Deventer originates from the Dutch for someone from Deventer in Overijssel (Ancestry).

This means that when writing German names like von Lettow-Vorbeck the “von” can be safely dropped and we can talk about Lettow-Vorbeck, but we cannot do the same with van Deventer – it’s the equivalent of calling Smith, “ith”.

Another name Wilcox gets wrong in his account is Phillip Pretorius, Smuts’ lead scout. As many have done before, he incorrectly refers to Phillip as Piet. This is in the acknowledgements noting that Simon Fonthill’s escapades were based partly on Pretorius’ search for the Konigsberg. I’m also a little puzzled as to how men could have been involved in both the Boer War (11 Oct 1899 – 31 May 1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (2 Nov 1899 – 7 Sep 1901). There is a window between Sep 1901 and May 1902 but I’ve not come across anyone of note having moved between the theatres. (Please let me know if you know of anyone). Lettow-Vorbeck is often mistakenly said to have fought in both, but before he was posted to China, he was in the German War Office studying the actions of the Boer War to assist the German military.
Wilcox further makes the fundamental error of referring to the Smuts raiding into the Union of South Africa during the Boer War when he should be referring to Smuts’ raid into the Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa only came into being in 1910

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…