Over the past while, a number of books have come to light which have caused concern amongst some researchers.
Melvin Page has therefore kindly written a review (see end of the post) highlighting some of the common issues concerning publications and how to avoid them (as far as one can).
Martin Willis discusses using Colonial Office records at The National Archives, London, in researching World War 1 Africa. (There is a transcript of the podcast available on the webpage).
History Today has an article on 6 battles in Africa during World War 1.
Sources on German colonial history online.
If you happen to be in Edinburgh at the end of June, and are interested in Malawi in the war, this talk might be of interest.
Review by Melvin Page
New books about the First World War in Africa are appearing all the time. Sadly, not all of them are truly worth our attention. My recent experience with two new titles which became available in the last months of 2022 offers a case in point. The first, by Prof. Rebecca Smith, is Africa in the First World War which—as promoted online—‘tells you everything about the first world war in Africa’ claiming to be ‘the very first full record of the Great War in Africa’. The second, more limited in scope, is The East African Campaign 1913-1918 by David Smith and Graham Turner, offering instead an ‘illustrated study of the daring war in East Africa waged by German colonial forces under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’. Not merely the books themselves but also the claims made for them demand further examination.
Although sharing a common surname, the authors’ accounts share little in the way of substance. David Smith writes clearly and specifically about the campaign in East Africa. While he focuses most on the defeated German forces, he is careful to include consideration of the varied allied efforts opposing them. He makes no claims to have offered new revelations or insights for the historical record. Rather, the great strength of this small volume rests on the illustrations, including several newly recreated combat drawings by Graham Turner, and especially tactical battlefield maps overlaid on detailed topographic images involving actions at Tanga in November 1914 and Mahiwa in October 1917. These two crucial turning points in the campaign are thus much easier to grasp than through conventional military history prose.
However, Prof. Rebecca Smith’s all too brief volume falls decidedly short, not only of the claims made for its comprehensive coverage, but also of the standard set by David Smith’s much superior writing. Her prose is turgid, at best, and incomprehensible at worst, as in this sentence offered early on: ‘The powers for including German’s African belongings in the conflict were, in any case, seriously squeezing’ (12). This is but a single example in a dreadful and incomplete presentation. While Prof. Smith on occasion mentions previous studies on the topic, there is little evidence she has made a thorough investigation of her subject. In fact, works written a century ago in the aftermath of the Great War—such as John Buchan’s recently reissued account of The First World War in Africa—offers a much clearer, cogent, and complete analysis of the conflict on the continent.
Neither author provides a full bibliography or a series of notes revealing the sources they relied upon. To be fair, in a brief ‘Further Reading’ section (94) David Smith does offer some on point suggestions which suggest the direction of his research efforts. But Prof. Rebecca Smith’s all too infrequent mentions of previous historians’ efforts—such as those of Richard Rathbone (23), Jide Osuntokin (30), A.I. Asiwaju (49), and Margery Perham (68)—are neither explained nor contextualised sufficiently to provide guidance for readers in understanding the sources she has relied upon. Moreover, Prof. Smith offers no illustrations, no maps, no tables to supplement her book as does David Smith, effectively augmenting his written presentation. And he has included brief index which helps make his volume all the more valuable while Prof. Smith fails to provide such a guide.
How might a potential reader avoid acquiring and reading such an unconvincing and unhelpful book as Prof. Smith’s in the first place? Two keys may be in the identification of the responsible creators of these volumes, both the publishers and authors. In the first place, no publisher or place of publication is ever identified—either in promotional items or in the book itself—for Africa in the First World War. In fact, my copy was printed on demand in Columbia, South Carolina! There is no indication that any expected pre-publication review or editing has been undertaken which might have mitigated the most egregious errors which remain in the copy I received. In contrast, The East African Campaign 1914-1918 is published by Osprey Publishing in Oxford, one of a long series of military history and campaign volumes, including two previously released related titles on the Great War in East Africa. This publisher has established a reputation as offering well-researched, colourful, and insightful volumes. This new book—number 379 in its Campaign series—lives up to Osprey’s well-established standards.
In a similar fashion, identifying the authors may occasionally offer additional clues to the suitability of each title. While the promotional blurb for Africa in the First World War, suggests it is but a ‘key segment’ of a larger ‘authoritative investigation of the launch of the First World War’ by Prof. Rebecca Smith, no details about that larger work, nor any information about the author, are seemingly available. Nor is the institution which has awarded Ms. Smith the title of Professor mentioned at all! (Subsequent Internet searches offer no clearly certain details concerning either the author or her ‘authoritative work’. Even this small volume itself provides nary a clue!) Unfortunately details about author David Smith are similarly unclear in promotional material for his book, The East African Campaign 1914-1918. (However, Osprey Publishing does identify him in the book itself as earning a 2014 PhD in military history from the University of Chester.)
In both these cases, identifying the author at first seems of insufficient assistance in selecting a potentially useful resource. While authors certainly remain responsible for their creations, we would do well to remember that there are other variables in the process which may prove useful in assessing books and other materials we select in an effort to inform ourselves. As this example suggests, relying on the reputation of the publisher is also a useful consideration and likely would be a decisive factor when pondering acquiring either of these books—or any future titles.