Swakopmund leads to …

A chance encounter at the OMRS Medal Convention in Nottingham, led me to see what was available online about Swakopmund and World War 1 museum displays. On a visit to the town in 2016, David had spotted some military uniforms and medals in the local museum. We had not picked up on this when we visited a few years before, leading to the thought that this might have been added for the centenary commemorations. It’s not clear whether this is the case or not, but a new exhibition was opened in 2015 in Windhoek.

Swakopmund has a rather interesting history dating back to 1892 and a rather interesting/unusual war memorial. Having been the launch spot, once captured, for the South African forces arriving by sea in 1914, the troops eventually moved inland, with Aus becoming a main focus. Gordon McGregor’s co-authored book on the campaign has some informative photos. In time, Luderitzbucht was to become the base port. The South Africans continued to use their base at Walvis Bay – according to the South African gazette of 1916 never to be called Walfish Bay.

The Museums Association of Namibia has information on a range of exhibitions linked to the German colonial period – scroll down past all the vacancy adverts.

And for some other books on the First World War in South West Africa, see Antonio Garcia’s useful military commentary in The First Campaign Victory and Jan Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast.

Zam-Buk in the GSWA campaign

Researching some background to the Legion of Frontiersmen, I discovered an article in The Mafeking Mail and Protectorate Guardian, Tuesday, March 30, 1915 (available BL eresources), entitled:

Censored Letter from German West
Severe Sunburn Cured
More Zam-Buk wanted

I’m a great believer in Zam-Buk – it’s my first port of call for virtually any ailment but the last thing I thought I’d come across was an article – not an advert – extolling the virtues of it. And surprisingly, it’s not a South African product.

Sergeant EA Andrews, Legion of Frontiersmen, Pretoria Regiment, GSWA, writing from Ischankaib, says: “During the time we were dodging around after the rebels in Pretoria District the order came that we could cut down our trousers. I cut mine down with the result that the sun burnt my knees simply awful. Fortunately I had a tin of Zam-buk in my kit, so applied it, and in a day or two my knees were quite better again. We have now all been served out with short trousers, and consequently all the boys have sunburnt knees, adn had it not been that I brought a few tins of Zam-Buk to German West with me my brother soldiers would be caused much pain and inconvenience. I supplied Zam-Buk with surprising good results. All the boys are high in their praise of Zam-Buk, and swear by it.”

Zam-Buk is unequalled for Sore Feet, Poisoned Wounds, Insect Bites, Chafing, Strains and Stiffness as well as for Sunburn.
Post one, two or even three 1 6d or 3s 9d tins today to your soldier friends, or on receipt of price the Zam-Buk Manufacturing Co, 9 Long Street, Cape Town, will send post free. Write plainly name, number, rank, Regiment, and where stationed.

An article turned into an advert supporting the troops. That though, was not all.

A translation of the article appeared in Xhosa in Ilange Lase Natal on 30 July 1915 – Ukuba pambili kuka Zam-Buk; Into Enkulu Efanele Abase Mpini.

I wonder what the take-up was.

For more on Zam-Buk, see the references at the end of the Wikipedia article. And apparently Houdini used the ointment as well.

The Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi Strip or Caprivi Zipfel, for those who don’t know of it, is a strip of land between Namibia, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was named after German Count Caprivi, the German colonial minister between 1890 and 1894.

This little strip has been a fascination since I started work on my thesis in the previous century and discovered a reference to it having been loaned by Britain to Germany: a statement which appeared in Silvestre’s edited volume on Namibia. It was also one of the first victories of the First World War for the Rhodesian forces – Schuckmannsberg surrendered to Major A Essex Capell on 21 September 1914 after a two-hour negotiation. The German commanders responsible for the German town were Hans Kaufmann and Viktor von Frankenberg. In 2013, Schuckmannsberg, named after the Governor of SWA Bruno von Schuckmann in 1909, was renamed Luhonono.

The contentious nature of the strip continues. In researching material for a paper on the end of the First World War, I discovered that a petition was put to the UN in 2014 objecting to the treatment of the territory by Namibia. The petition argues that in essence this little piece of land is still under control of Her Majesty’s Government. It had its own agreement at Versailles separate to the South West Africa mandate which meant that when Namibia gained its independence in 1990, it was only the South West Africa mandate which was affected, not the Caprivi mandate.

What is remarkable too, in this petition is a note (p4) which reads:

The eight objective of this legal document is to demonstrate that Caprivi Strip is
inhabited by a people as defined under general international law and that all peoples inhabiting mandated and trust territories and colonies (i.e. sacred trusts of civilization) are entitled to be enabled by administering States to freely and without interference from any quarter, whatsoever, to exercise their inalienable and universal right to self-determination, failing which they have the right, including by means of armed struggle, to fight for independence as a last resort* as envisaged under inter alia UNGA resolutions 2105 (XX) of December 20 1965; 3070 (XXVIII) of November 30 1973; 3382 (XXX) of November 10 1975.

* This doctrine is based on the provisions of paragraph 3 of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”

I had never realised that today it is acceptable/legal for a micro-nation (peoples) to take up arms and fight for their independence.

Writing this post on 11 November 2017 seems appropriate – the end of the war to end all wars and to give the rights of determination to small nations is something some are still struggling for, more than 100 years later.

Review: Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 by Adam Cruise

I came across Adam Cruise’s Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 as a number of colleagues asked if I had read it, mentioning in passing that my name featured in the bibliography. Having covered a fair bit of Botha’s politics and involvement in the war in my thesis (published as Britain, South Africa and the East Africa campaign, 1914-1918: The Union comes of Age), I was intrigued to see what Cruise had used, naturally assuming it would have been this publication. It wasn’t – it was a summary of a talk I had given in Boksburg on the Mining Magnates, the full talk being available on academia.edu and on Brenthurst Library‘s site. My curiousity was raised – what had he used?

By page xvi, I was aware that my expectation of discovering something new was not likely to be fulfilled. Ignoring the repeated myth that the South West Africa campaign was the first to ‘be brought to a conclusion in the Great War’, it was the statement that read ‘Only recently, after trawling the internet, did I discover more about Botha…’, followed soon after by ‘The only published account of Botha’s life’ referring to the ‘long out of print General Louis Botha: A Biography‘. In contrast to Cruise’s claim, there have been a few biographies on Botha: apart from that by Meintjies, Sydney Buxton Governor General of South Africa during World War 1, FD Engelenberg, Botha’s secretary and H Spender have all written biographies on the man. OpenLibrary, provides the clue to Cruise’s statement ‘only published account’ – online, although Spender’s account is also available online as is Engelenberg’s if you register for the site.

My concerns with the book resonated with those of colleagues whose specialist interests are more military in nature, and unlike the book by Tim Couzens where most of the errors can be explained, those in Louis Botha’s War seem to be the result of poor and speedy research and for that reason I’m not going to go into detail on them.

This has been a difficult review to write, and I’ve probably spent as much time pondering over these few words that I’ve written as what I did reading the book. It’s important to recognise the toil and effort which has gone into the production of a book and I am grateful to Cruise for putting the spotlight onto Botha – something which desperately needs to be done.

Overall, I’m definitely disappointed in the book and am concerned that it’s going to be seen as a significant text on Botha – which unfortunately it’s not. Cruise has ably pulled together various secondary sources on the campaign which, disappointingly, has resulted in generalised statements and myths being perpetuated. The result is another book narrating the events of the South West Africa campaign and the Rebellion. It provides very little insight into Botha’s conduct and role as Commander in Chief of the UDF and Premier of South Africa.

Having been so critical, there are some positives which need to be recognised. The book is very readable and provides an introductory overview of the campaign in South West Africa. It has some good photos as well as little titbits such as that about feral horses. Importantly, as mentioned above, it rightly raises the profile of one of South Africa’s greatest generals and politicians and all I can hope for is that it inspires a more indepth and rigorous study into the man (in the same way that Lindie Koorts has looked at DF Malan).

Review: The Great Silence by Tim Couzens

One of the joys of visiting South Africa is that I stock up on history books not easily obtainable in Britain. And, being the centenary of the Great War, there has been opportunity to invest in a number of relevant texts. The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One was one I collected for review.

As with Bill Nasson’s WW1 and the people of South Africa, Couzens’s book is not an academic text and has a few significant errors. Highlighting these errors in the review is not meant to put people off reading the book. In fact, as accessible overviews of South Africa’s involvement in WW1 go, this is pretty comprehensive and an easy read – one I would recommend with a health warning to double check obscure-sounding facts before quoting (always good practice, I’m learning). Tim, himself in his introduction raises some of the hurdles he had to overcome in researching and writing this book, indicating that he is well aware there may be some inaccuracies.

I didn’t specify the errors in the review I did of Bill’s book as the errors there are minor (most scholars of the theatre will pick up on them) or form part of the historiography, but I will with Tim’s due to their significance as they have been perpetuated in a few other texts which is where Tim likely sourced them – one of the downfalls with general, accessible histories which are not referenced is that a misconception, myth or error cannot easily be sourced. Another reason for doing so is that they highlight the pitfalls authors suffer when having to write to tight deadlines and will hopefully serve as a lesson to others (it’s one I’ve learnt by experience and hope not to repeat in future publications). This blog could almost have been entitled ‘confessions of an historian’.

I deal with the points in the order they appear in the book which makes the next part rather listy, I’m afraid to say, but it seems the best way to cover them.

WG Grace’s brother, a doctor was killed during the same roadblock in which General Koos de la Rey lost his life (p35). It wasn’t Grace’s brother, but his nephew Gerald Grace, who was a doctor rushing back to Springs for a medical emergency. I don’t hold it against Tim for getting this one wrong, I had myself until recently and it was only through Andrew Samson questioning my statements that I tracked down the most reliable account.

p63 has Rebel Maritz escaping to Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique whereas he went to Angola where he was captured. This is probably a simple proofreading slip – easily done when a book is written to a short deadline. I know because of a similar failing (about the dates of the Anglo-Boer War) in my own book.

A commonly perpetuated myth and one I was also prone to believe until I really thought about it (and started reading more widely about World War 1 in Africa) is the idea that The conquest of German South West Africa was the first Allied victory in the Great War (p111). The first allied victory was in fact Togoland

To show that accurate history writing is a challenge, we look to Mkwawa’s skull that Tom von Prince took from the Wahehe tribe when he subdued that people in Iringa. The skull was returned in 1954 whilst the tooth was returned in 2014 (personal correspondence with von Prince family).

Another challenge is the use of terms. On page 114, Tim challenges the claim that Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German to occupy British territory and that in East Africa. He suggests there was German occupation of South African territory from South West Africa (GSWA). Personally, I don’t tend to see the incursions from GSWA as occupation and neither do I see Lettow-Vorbeck’s moves into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), Nyasaland (Malawi) or Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as occupation. These were incursions which lasted a day or a few months. The Germans were continually on the move. However, there was German occupation of the Tsavo-Taveta area of Kenya where Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces took over British forts and buildings and made them their own for at least nine months.

A reference I would really like to know is the one for the glue holding the Sopworth planes photographing the Konigsberg melting. I don’t recall reading this before and although I know there were challenges facing the pilots and their crews, this is new to me.

The Battle of the Bees (p 121) – mention of the bees always brings a smile when I come across it. I recall including it in an early draft of my thesis only for one of my supervisors to insist on it coming out as although it was a good story, it was flawed. And so it proved to be. Tim suggests the Germans must have been affected and so they were. According to Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs, the Germans suffered as much from the angry bees as did the British and Indians at Tanga. And, there was more than one battle in East Africa in which the bees featured (and most likely won).

Some other aspects Tim raises which need, and are now receiving, specific study concern Jan Smuts’s role as commander and the failure of the South Africans at Salaita. Salaita was fought according to the battle plan drawn up by Smith-Dorrien and put into action by Michael Tighe (not Malleson) who was acting Commander-in-Chief East Africa pending Smith-Dorrien’s arrival. But before this could happen, Smuts had beeen appointed instead as Smith-Dorrien required extra time to recuperate from ill-health. Related to this was Smuts’s attitude to the Indians (p122) which Tim puts down to their performance at the Battle of Tanga. White South Africans generally had a poor perception of Indians as noted by Hughes and van Deventer’s report on South Africans going to serve in East Africa and Smuts’s encounters with Gandhi from before 1900.

Page 133 has an error I myself made in my book and which has only this year (2015) been corrected thanks to a discussion with Archie Henderson of the SA Sunday Times. Tim makes reference to Pieter Pretorius the Intelligence Officer who served with Smuts. His real name was actually Phillip. How he came to be known as Piet Pretorius in the texts is another story which needs to be uncovered. In the same piece where Tim mentions Pretorius, he is discussing Richard Meinertzhagen whom he rightly identifies as ‘one of the most interesing and eccentric of the characters in the East Africa campaign’. What was surprising about this piece is Tim’s failure to mention the controversy surrounding the truth of what Meinertzhagen wrote/claimed as identified by Brian Garfield.

There may well be a few other points I’ve missed and that would not be surprising as a reviewer can only comment on their own area of expertise. However, I really want to stress that despite the few errors identified above, this is a book worth reading especially if you’re new to South Africa’s involvement in World War 1.