Non-fiction review

It may be envy, it’s certainly admiration, but one must observe: Bill Nasson, it seems, cannot write a dull sentence. Even in a subject that evokes historical nightmares of ponderous regimental histories and shell by shell accounts of pitched battles, he presents an analysis of South African involvement in World War I that is concise, ironic and ultimately compassionate.

One great advantage of this new book is that Nasson writes holistically (pace General Smuts!) about his subject. Though we have comprehensive chapters on the South African campaigns in German South West Africa and Tanganyika, in the Middle East and on the Western Front, Nasson is as concerned with the war’s impact ‘at home” as in ‘Flanders’ fields” or Lüderitz. As in all wars, the effects on the domestic economy, for one, was mixed. Profits for some, losses for others. Ultimately perhaps the war sowed the seeds for the economic depressions that would follow, culminating in the 1929 Great Depression.

He brings out the ambivalence of many South Africans towards the war beneath the surface pro- and anti-war polarisation. Many Afrikaners, he points out, supported the war, while many English-speaking unionised workers were against. Black South Africans largely expressed support for the war, hoping (mistakenly) that their imperial patriotism would win them political reforms.

Imperialism of another type, Nasson suggests, motivated the enthusiasm of folk like prime minister Louis Botha and General Smuts. By conquering the German territories in South West (now Namibia) and Tanganyika (Tanzania) they hoped to expend the territory of the Union of South Africa.

The campaigns themselves, Nasson recounts, were mixed. After putting down the rebellion within South Africa, South African forces moved into South West Africa. This proved a much easier campaign than East Africa, which, to put it mildly, reads like a war conducted by the Monty Python team — a jumble of British and ‘colonial” forces battling Germans and askaris (local African soldiers) in a thoroughly unpleasant terrain led by generals lacking coordination.

Less shambolic perhaps, but by far no less painful was the Western Front. Nasson focuses on the South African contribution to the battle of Delville Wood, and reflects later on how it has become in a sense the persistent (though frequently contested) symbol of the country’s contribution to the war.

Much more could be said. Nasson has produced perhaps the most accessible one-volume history on South Africa in the Great War. Though short (257 pages) it manages both to narrate and to analyse this involvement. Nasson’s profoundly ironic sense of humour that pervades these pages is not only entertaining but also welcome. Yet beneath the irony is a compassion for those who fought in what was, politically speaking, a stupid and pointless war. On behalf of many descendants of such Springboks on the Somme and elsewhere, for this he deserves our thanks.

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