Africana Votes & Views #12
Men have this fascination with war. The noble pursuit of one’s fellow-man with lethal intent must have a similar fascination to driving a thundering behemoth of a machine down the railway or racing track, launching oneself into a melée consisting of thirty grown men and one oval ball with possible fatal consequences, scaling impossibly high pieces of frozen rock while suffering semi-permanent damage to extremities from cold and to the brain from anoxia – or sneaking up to elephants’ backsides in the bush to tweak a hair from their tails and chalk a cross on their haunches (I kid you not – I know such a band of foolhardy knaves). So what is it that so enchants the male persona with dangerous pursuits? The presence of testosterone is popularly blamed for this thraldom to the pursuits of Mars – is it then the presence of periodical quantities of progesterone or estrogen that leads the fair sex to queue up for their dose of Mills and Boone romances?
For those putative warriors who have either laid down their armoury or have never been fortunate enough to get within smelling distance of burning cordite, there are books on the ‘Art of War’, such as written by one Chinese sage, Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC – and still acclaimed as one of the most influential works on military strategy; in addition to tens of thousands more volumes, offering the vicarious (and safe) enjoyment of the thunder of battle, the niceties of strategies, glorious feats of courage and self sacrifice – all without the attendant stench of death. As the good Horace wrote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori... – yeah, well tell that to the fatherless children and the widows – not to mention the scarred souls and bodies that survive the turmoil. My one parent had survived the Russian campaign as a mental and physical wreck; the other had squeaked through the relentless bombing of the German cities; I remember living in a cellar in an entirely flattened suburb of Hamburg just after the end of the war. During the next half century or so, I was part of a relatively fortunate generation, most of whom did not have to go to war. Even that grizzled old warrior, Papa Hemingway, conceded that ‘he knew how boring any man’s war is to any other man’ (Across the River and into the Trees, Scribner 1998), and so it was with me. I must confess to having lost my taste for war-books of any kind by the time I was about fifteen, which is not to say that I haven’t read the odd volume touching on the genre every now and again.
So how about the conflicts that have raged about this continent of ours? One could start at the very beginning of the European presence at the Cape, when the august Viceroy of India, Francisco D’Almeida, conqueror of Kilwa and Mombasa on the east coast, got more than a bloody nose from the local Khoi tribesmen. Despite their armour and superior weapons, his trading/raiding expedition ran into trouble in a village near the estuary of the Salt River when they tried taking stock and hostages. The unsportsmanlike Khoi retaliated using their cattle as living shields, and managed to stone, spear and club the good Viceroy and some fifty to sixty of his men (depending on which source one takes) to death. Apparently the 1510 episode left a bad taste with the Portuguese, and they tended to give the Cape a wide berth, so leaving a vacuum which the Dutch and English were prepared to fill.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years during which period the Dutch had established themselves at the Cape (not entirely unopposed by the Khoi tribes), and the wars and alliances between the European powers started to make themselves felt as the French, Dutch, Spanish and English took irritating turns at allying themselves with each other and against each other. Saldanha Bay became the theatre of a number of such confrontations, which are ably chronicled in Jose Burman’s Saldanha Bay Story (Human & Rossouw, 1974), but none of these skirmishes were battles in the true sense – except to those few unfortunate souls that perished in them, and the main loss was ships and cargo. The next battle worthy of the name was in 1806 when the British under Baird and Popham sailed into view to wrest the Cape from the Dutch under the command of Janssens. This was a properly planned, well executed expedition consisting of a whole fleet with some six and a half thousand men, and was focussed on a stretch of sandy coast a few miles north-west of Cape Town. Here the Brits landed at Lospersbaai (nowadays Melkbosstrand) and a short, sharp battle followed, lasting about half the day. The motley aggregation of German, French, Dutch, Javanese, Khoi and burghers, numbering less than two thousand souls, was outgunned and withdrawn by Janssens, little knowing that he actually had the upper hand in that the British were in dire straits from the heavy going in the deep sand and lack of water. According to a number of accounts I haven’t read, like D W Krynauw’s Beslissing by Blouberg (Tafelberg, 1999), which is a very thorough archivist’s take on the event, and M R D Anderson’s Blue Berg – Britain takes the Cape (Privately published, 2008) which comes complete with dialogue; this conflict had all the elements of classic battle, and it certainly was one of the deciding moments in the history of European involvement in the subcontinent.
Although the first three ‘Frontier Wars’ in the Eastern Cape occurred during Dutch rule between 1779 and 1803, these were relatively minor affairs occasioned by European farmers expanding eastward and being resisted and raided by the various Xhosa-related tribes. The forces deployed were mainly burgher commandos, and their effectiveness was not decisive enough to put an end to tribal excursions for any length of time. The nineteenth century imposed the pax Brittanica on the Cape, as noted above – on the other hand, maybe it didn’t, since the Eastern Frontier continued to be a festering sore on the flank of the colony. The 4th war broke out in 1811, bringing British troops and military science into the fray alongside the commandos, and a number of forts were established. The conduct of these wars, the military manoeuvres, the fine soldierly activities (interspersed with hunting episodes) have been written about in great detail. A few books I have read include some material on these wars, such as J E Alexander’s Voyage Round the West Coast, and a Visit to the Colonies of Africa… in which he includes some of his war experiences on the frontier, before departing up the West Coast through Namaqualand; E E Napier’s Excursions in South Africa (William Shoberl, 1850) which work embodies the author’s experiences as a supernumerary officer in charge of irregulars during the War of the Axe; T J Lucas’s Camp Life and Sport in South Africa (Africana Reprint Library, 1975) in which he relates much ‘exciting work’ which enlivens the lot of a colonial officer in the thick of the fray. On a more serious note, A J Smithers’s work The Kaffir Wars 1779–1877 (Leo Cooper, 1973) tries to put all nine wars into perspective, including the lamentable episode of Nonquause’s prophecy and the cattle killing, which led to untold misery, starvation and the breaking of the power of the Xhosa nations, as well as the last insurgency of Kreli and Sandile, which brought to an end a century of war.
Also during this period, the Koranna wars raged along the northern frontier of the Cape. Very little glory accrued to any one during these obscure cattle-raiding skirmishes and reprisals, and once more the forces consisted mainly of burgher commandos and policemen, opposed by a bewildering array of tribal and clan alliances. The only work I have seen which endeavours to present the whole history of the eleven years of conflict between 1868–1879 is T Strauss’s War Along the Orange (UCT, 1979) – a fiendishly difficult book to get hold of – and I wrote a chapter on the main outlines of the wars in Life & Travels in the Northwest 1850–1899 (Yoshi, 2008).
A noteworthy war followed hard on the heels of the frontier wars. The Zulu War was no sporting skirmish, nor a cattle-raiding expedition. It was a full-on challenge to the might of the British Empire by a numerous and warlike nation that still had vivid memories of its military genius-founder Chaka as precedent. Some forty thousand trained warriors proceeded to give the Brits a bloody nose at Isandhlwana by overwhelming the garrison. The famous defence of Rorke’s Drift followed – where the redcoats held at bay an overwhelming force of Zulus, winning eleven VCs for gallantry. In another clash at Hlobane Mountain, the Zulus repulsed the British as well as a Boer commando, but at Kambula the fortunes of war went the other way. Finally, the battle of Ulundi, the burning of the royal kraal and the capture of King Cetshwayo signalled the end of this conflict. There are a number of works by military historians who have analysed the war in detail; or if a blow-by-blow account is required, who better to consult than the Illustrated London News of 1879. Of the more modern works, D R Morris’s Washing of the Spears (Jonathan Cape, 1966) gives some background to the rise of the Zulu nation and its fall after the war, and in a similar vein is R B Edgerton in his book Like Lions they Fought (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988). For detailed accounts of the two heroic battles, R Furneaux’s The Zulu War – Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1963) is probably your best bet.
The next lot to take a swipe at the hapless Brits were the Transvalers. They had been unceremoniously annexed through Shepstone’s machinations, and despite trying to get the decision reversed through diplomatic channels, this was not to be and the burghers decided besiege various British units to prevent them from getting reinforcements from elsewhere. Engagements at Bronkhorstspruit, Laing’s Nek and Ingogo caused heavy losses to the British, and presidents Brand of the OFS and Kruger of the Transvaal, pressed their advantage by diplomatic efforts to gain some concessions with regard to their independence while offering some face-saving clauses in exchange. Unfortunately the correspondence ran into some delays which led to the Battle of Majuba – a decisive loss and blow to the colonial power, which was now forced to back-pedal, un-annex the Transvaal within six months and leave the Boers to plough their own furrows. T F Carter’s work A Narrative of the Boer War (Remington, 1883) is probably one of the best early works, though I found it considerably more indigestible than Oliver Ransford’s Battle of Majuba Hill (John Murray, 1967).
Then came the second Anglo-Boer War. No half-hearted regional scrimmage this time, but instead what was to become the first ‘modern’ war, pitting the military might of the most powerful empire of the age against the local knowledge, bushcraft, speed and marksmanship of the burghers of two small republics. The conventional phase of the war was soon over. The republics just couldn’t defend their towns and cities, nor could they consistently defeat the ‘Khakies’ in pitched battle, and their laying siege to a number of towns occupied by British forces just diluted their efforts. The latter phase of the war, the guerilla-war, was to become an epic struggle between will-o’-the-wisp bands of ragged and ill-supplied men, and the ever-growing forces that tried to shut them down. I don’t know just how many books have been written on this war – and are still being penned or revived, or excavated out of old diaries and reports; it could run into the thousands. I have no intention of reading them, so you, good reader, are on your own. There are regimental histories, there are officers’ accounts of their exploits, there are military experts who dissect every tactic and deployment, there are voluminous histories which attempt to cover every phase and every theatre of the conflict, there are technical treatises on munitions and armaments, on communications, or medical advances – and then there are some truly touching personal documents.
One of these is Deneys Reitz’s Commando (Faber & Faber, 1929). A remarkably well-written personal experience of the entire war from the perspective of a callow youth, scarcely off the schoolbench, straight into the barrage of shells at Talana. From then on the reader follows almost every major event of the war, often under some of the most charismatic and able leaders, like Smuts’s great ride across the Cape, and the war in Namaqualand in the company of berserkers like Maritz. Certainly the work deserves its reputation as one of the best narratives of war and adventure in the English language. A number of young foreigners joined the ranks of the Boers, mainly for the adventure a war promised, one suspects. One of these was the Frenchman Robert de Kersauson de Pennendreff, who was sworn in as a burgher of the ZAR by the old president himself. Though full of enthusiasm to get to grips with the war, he was soon disillusioned as he failed to gain acceptance from his co-belligerents until he managed to learn the taal. He took part in many of the major battles and was even entrusted with a personal mission to inform president Kruger in exile in Holland of the state of the war back home. No great literary work this book, Ek en die Vierkleur (Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel, ca. 1950) but rather a day by day diary of a young adventurer. A slim volume, Woman’s Endurance by A D L (A D Luckhoff), published by SA News Co, 1904, brought home to me the horrendous conditions in the Bethulie concentration camp for women and children, where the author was chaplain to the inmates. The worthy padre recounts the suffering of mothers and their dying offspring with such empathy that I had a hard time getting through the sixty-odd pages, even with a wad of tissues to hand. No wonder then that the poor man couldn’t last longer than six months in his position. There are several other good books on the same subject, but I haven’t felt an urge to tackle them. Bill Nasson’s work, Abraham Esau’s War (Cambridge, 1991) examines the lot of the ‘coloured’ people in the Western Cape, who tended to be used as auxiliaries by one side – and as traitors by the other. They lost out during the war, and they did not benefit by the peace. I can claim to have read all books that were written about the war in Namaqualand, Bushmanland and the West Coast, but that is because of my general interest in the history of the region.
Sieges tend to form the subject of some interesting writing – possibly because adversity brings out the best in humanity. The Siege of Kimberley by T Phelan (M H Gill, 1913) is such a title; chronicling the lighter humorous moments and disasters that afflicted mainly the civilian population, while the technicians and engineers of the diamond mines cobbled together the Long Cecil cannon, with which they could reply to the Boers’ artillery. P Burke’s Siege of O’okiep (War Museum, 1995) is more of a military evaluation of the Boers’ siegecraft, though not devoid of its lighter moments, such as Maritz attempting to blow up the whole town with the aid of a train loaded with dynamite (which derailed and burnt instead of exploding), or the boys having a little fun with jam-tins full of dynamite being lobbed onto blockhouses’ and forts’ roofs. The siege of Ladysmith was also the subject of a whole shelf of books, of which I have only read one a while back, by H Watkins-Pitchford, Besieged in Ladysmith (Shuter & Shooter, 1964). The author was a renowned veterinary surgeon, and the book offers a different view in his letters from the besieged city to his wife; an interesting personal document.
A few novels dealing with aspects of the war have also come to my notice. C L Leipoldt’s Stormwrack (David Philip, 1980) portrays the ramifications the war has on the different elements of the population in the Cederberg village of Clanwilliam, which was only quite peripheral to the main conflict. W C Scully was so enraged at the treatment meted out to townspeople in the Cape by their own government who saw rebellion and collaborators round every corner, that he went on a crusade which bordered on treason. He wrote a thinly disguised novel, The Harrow (Nasionale Pers, 1921), the MS of which he hung on to until almost twenty years after the end of the war – because of his bitterness against his own countrymen and government. But enough of this war – there are plenty to follow.
1914 was the year the world went mad; and for very confused reasons, not quite evident to my unmilitaristic mind. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany went to war against his cousin George V of England, because some crazed bloke had shot one of his Austrian archducal buddies in a foreign country, i.e. Serbia. Before you knew what was happening, the entire extended family of both monarchs had joined the fray on one side or another, as well as a gross of other countries who weren’t even related by marriage. So it was on this subcontinent; a portion of the populace supported old Blighty, while the other half harboured grudges from the Boer War and reckoned we should have joined hands with the Germans in South-West. Before you know what, you have the 1914 Rebellion going at full tilt and men are shooting at brother, father or uncle along the northern border. Strangely enough, only the Afrikaans writers seem to feel strongly about this domestic squabble, and I have yet to find a book which gives all the details in English. So I am left at the tender mercies of the doughty Gen. J C G Kemp, who is not exactly an impartial observer in his book Die Pad van die Veroweraar (Nasionale Pers, 1942) to guide me through the sands of the Kalahari towards the German forces. Once the South Africans have been committed to wresting their colony from the Germans, there is much more material available – some of it quite readable if one likes to hear the whine of Mauser bullets and feel the grit of sand between the teeth. Books like E M Ritchie’s With Botha in the Field (Longmans Green, 1915), H F Trew’s Botha Treks (Blackie & Son, 1916) and W S Rayner & W W O’Shaughnessy’s How Botha and Smuts Conquered German South West (Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1916) should satisfy the most ardent war historian’s appetite, especially since they cover the southern as well as the northern campaigns.
Once South-West had fallen, our local generals turned their attention to Tanganyika, where the renowned general P E von Lettow-Vorbeck was showing more talent than was deemed prudent to be on the loose in the East African bush. Although his book My Reminiscences of East Africa (Hurst & Blackett, 1919) consists of mainly the military niceties of his campaign, it is eminently readable, and I suspect that many of his opponents appreciated reading of his exploits as I did. There are a number of semi-arid to dry histories of this part of WWI, and I can only claim to have read two small contributions entitled inaptly On Safari by one F C (F Cooper, Juta, 1917) in which he sketches the discomforts of bush warfare as a gunner under the generalship of Smuts, and C Martin’s Corporal Haussman Goes to War (Privately published, 2000) in which charming little account said corporal betook himself and his Triumph motorcycle to ride in the war against the Germans.
World War II was an entirely different kettle of submarines. Yes, we do believe some German subs cruised off our shores, and it was rumoured that German seamen came ashore for smokes and a drink now and then, but that was about as close as the action got. Our troops were shipped off in large numbers to East and North Africa, where they fought talented generals like the Duc de Aosta and Rommel, among other redoubtable warriors; got hammered at Tobruk; flew in the Battle of Britain and escaped from various Italian concentration camps. Naturally there is a large body of literature concerning such important events; however, since I had a brother-in-law who had been party to some of the above actions ‘up north’, I was quite happy to listen to his tales of hair-raising escapades and improbable anecdotes, and I have somehow never had the urge to read a single book on the South African involvement in the war. Once again, gentle reader, you must pilot your own way through this literary minefield.
Lastly we come to what I classify as the ‘Bush Wars’ in my catalogues. They include everything warlike from the beginning of the end of the colonial era in Africa until the present civil wars raging up and down the continent with monotonous regularity. A number of my schoolmates could hardly wait to finish their matrics before they rushed off to join some bunch of ‘dogs of war’ led by one or other psychopath; to make unreal amounts of money in return for unspeakable deeds – or so I had it verbatim from one I met after he returned a haunted and shivering wreck from the Congo. Then, too, I had colleagues at work later on, men who had been sent to the Caprivi, and on into Angola – who would confide in me after a few drinks, some of the inhumanities than men do to other men in the heat of battle or in the cold fever of revenge. None of these encounters awoke any interest or vicarious enjoyment of what they had experienced, so I have read none of the Contacts, nor Mr Stiff’s offerings, nor ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare’s or dozens of other worthy additions to the genre – with one exception – a little book entitled Pionne, by one Bertie Cloete, who happened to be a neighbour of one of my friends. He relates his experiences as a young ‘Troopie’ in training camp and at the front in the north of Namibia; the traumatic Bush War against unseen enemies, and the horrendous things that were witnessed. A gripping read – but quite sufficient for my needs.
This was a difficult subject for me to write on and I hope any shortcomings will be excused. I have chosen to end this year, the first twelve numbers of Africana Votes and Views, with a subject I do not appreciate, but which will be with us as history and possibly future fact unless mankind undergoes a fundamental change.