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.