Not so much a white man’s war

Review: Archie Henderson

The First Campaign Victory of the Great War, by Antonio Garcia (Hellion & Company)

When the centenary of the start of World War I came round a few years back, there was a scramble for heroes. The ANC government recalled there had been a tragedy called the SS Mendi; older English-speaking whites again remembered Delville Wood; and Afrikaners quietly recalled the Rebellion.

I doubt that the Afrikaner Rebellion of 1914 was openly commemorated. Frankly few, if any, give a damn about it today. Even in Memel in the Free State, once the home ground of Christiaan de Wet, a volksheld of the Boer War and the Rebellion, and where there is the country’s only monument to the Volksopstand, there was not a murmur, as far as I am aware. Not even a biddag.

Sadly, no one remembered to remember the 3 000 black soldiers who fought in the invasion of German South West Africa (now Namibia). Even today, and even with an ANC government which is always conscious of a lack of military heroes, are they remembered. But without them, as Antonio Garcia hints at in his book, the South African victory might have been more difficult to achieve. They were used mostly as labourers, but even when they performed acts of heroism, such as when a South African artillery commander was rewarded with the DSO for one action, his black comrades, who had performed crucial support roles, went unacknowledged.Anne Samson, an independent historian whose field is East Africa in the Great War, is even more emphatic. She has written that without black support troops the Union Defence Force would never have accomplished what it did in German East Africa against the wily German commander Lettow von Vorbeck.

And to think that Louis Botha, who arranged for Parliament to appoint him commander-in-chief during the German South West campaign, refused the help of the Basters because he wanted to keep it a “white man’s war”.

Garcia does not make a big deal about this, but gently – and often – prods the reader to consider such unfair treatment of South African disenfranchised combatants.

Mostly this is a scholarly book for Garcia is, among his many accomplishments, a military scholar. He served in the South African National Defence Force, reaching the rank of major and serving with SA troops in UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur. He is currently working on a PhD at Stellenbosch University and is also a visiting scholar at New York University Center on International Cooperation. His wife, Tara Lyle, is a human-rights lawyer.

Garcia has taught at Durham University in the UK and New York University, as well as various military colleges and schools. He holds degrees in military science, geography and history, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society as well as a chartered geographer. 

So don’t expect a racy war book. This is more a measured study of a campaign that brought the British Empire its first victory over Germany in World War I. 

Garcia first covers the Afrikaner Rebellion, an uprising of Boer War bittereinders and impressionable young Afrikaners, who believed they could use South Africa’s entry into the war on the side of Britain as a way to re-establish the old Boer republics. 

There was certainly a nostalgia for the Boer War among the rebels, who thought that by going on commando by horse, they could relive some of the glories of the struggle against the English. Botha and Jan Smuts were more realistic, and more modern. They employed modern technology, such as the motorcar and telephone, along with the railways and mounted infantry, to ruthlessly crush the rebellion. Once it was out the way, the Union Defence Force could focus on the war in South West, which takes up the second half of the book.

Among all the seriousness, there are some charming vignettes. Did you know, for example, that the Royal Navy performed vital roles in the campaign? One was at sea (of course) and the other was providing an armoured car squadron, commanded by a Royal Naval lieutenant. That could even be a good Trivial Pursuit question.


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