Don’t mess with me – Smuts in World War 1

Review: Attie Hendricks
General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917, by David Brock Katz (Jonathan Ball)
They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but it’s hard not to be drawn to this one: Jan Smuts stares at you from the bookshop shelves, as if challenging you to disagree with him. It’s a photograph for which the author apparently paid a hefty sum and is not a conventional picture of a man who was to become the subject of later paparazzi.
Smuts was 48 at the time and the photograph was taken in 1917, soon after he joined David Lloyd George’s imperial war cabinet in London. In the team picture, he sits in the front row, the only man in uniform, having recently returned from the frontline in East Africa.
Katz’s biography focuses on Smuts’s last military campaign in which historians have cast him in a disadvantageous light, especially against his direct opponent, Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck, the only German general to have remained undefeated in the field in World War 1.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck has often been portrayed by historians as a gallant guerrilla fighter with Smuts as his plodding pursuer. Katz finds the opposite to be true. From the time Smuts arrived in German East Africa (today’s Tanzania) he had Von Lettow-Vorbeck on the backfoot, defeating him with clever, enveloping tactics that he had learnt from the Boer War. The German was kept on the run for the rest of the war, retreating into Mozambique, then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where he finally surrendered, a few days after the official armistice.
Extensive research in Smuts archives here and in Britain brought Katz to the conclusion that his subject had been unfairly treated by historians, starting with HC Armstrong, a historian strong on opinion but weak on facts. Armstrong may also have relied on the dubious evidence of Richard Meinertzhagen, a fabulist and British intelligence officer whom Smuts had sacked.
Katz found nothing to substantiate claims that the former Boer general was a failure as a British commander. There might even have been jealousy on the part of British generals serving under him in East Africa and who were sacked by Smuts because they were not up to the job.
Smuts got the appointment as commander-in-chief of British forces in East Africa by accident. Having dealt with the Afrikaner rebellion soon after the outbreak of World War 1, then the capture of German South West (Namibia), he was assigned to his last military campaign because an old adversary from the Boer War, Horace Smith-Dorrien, fell ill en route. When it came to appointing a replacement, Smith-Dorrien preferred Smuts to a British general.
Among the contemporary historians singled out by Katz in perpetuating the disparagement of Smuts as a field general are Hew Strachan, of the University of St Andrews, and the Canadian Ross Anderson. Both men believed Smuts to have had no experience in commanding a large number of men, neglecting the South African’s campaign in the Afrikaner rebellion where thousands were under his command across vast tracts of the platteland and in wide-open spaces of German South West.

Katz has redeemed Smuts’s reputation and his book’s cover can easily be interpreted as admonition of those who pooh-poohed it in the first place.


2 thoughts on “Don’t mess with me – Smuts in World War 1

  1. Beverley Roos-Muller

    Thank you for this very interesting and perceptive review.
    I was sorry to have missed interviewing Katz on his recent trip to CT, due to illness; this piece helps fill that gap!
    Smuts was so uniquely gifted, so misunderstood and misquoted in this current era. Am now looking forward to reading the book.

  2. David Bristow

    A dean of the Cambridge college he attended marked as one the four brightest stars to ever grace those corridors: another of them being Isaac Newton! Also, Smuts was and remains the only non-British born person to attain the rank of field marshall in the British Army. Not so bad for a failed leader.


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