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Author Topic: Seventeen Letters to Tatham {Book Review}  (Read 1878 times)
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« on: August 03, 2007, 07:38:01 PM »

I am posting this book review : I have not read this book and opinions expressed are not my own.

Tales of World War I.

In early August 1914, there was no sign that the East African region, would become one of the fiercest theatres of the World War I, writes CIUGU MWAGIRU

SEVENTEEN LETTERS TO TATHAM ? a book by Ann Crichton-Harris captures aspects of the World War I in East Africa which had either been largely ignored by biased war historians or been forgotten altogether.
Ms Crichton-Harris ? a granddaughter of a surgeon, Dr Edward Temple Harris, who served in the British army at the time ? has ably reconstructed the momentous events that unfolded in the war.  
Dr Harris was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his contribution to the war effort, particularly during the first battle of Tanga, fought between November 1-5, 1914.  
During the war, Dr Harris corresponded regularly with his elder brother, Tatham Harris, then serving as a judge in India. Seventeen of the letters he wrote to his brother over the years came to the possession of Ms Crichton-Harris many years after his death.  
Fascinated by some of the details in the letters, she embarked on a spirited and long-drawn mission of recreating the events during World War I in German East Africa that her grandfather had witnessed. She visited many of the places he had served in and researched on the characters central to the drama of the war, many of whom Dr Harris had personally interacted with. But she went even further, extending her research over several continents and rummaging through war archives to reconstruct the war itself in the east African region.  
After visiting the battlefields and inspecting the invasion beaches, she compiled the events of the war in her book.
At the beginning of August 1914, the British cruiser HMS Astrea was patrolling off the coast of Dar es Salaam. The First World War had been declared at 11pm on August 4, 1914 but there were as yet no indications that hostilities would rapidly spread to East Africa, where the Germans and the British had already set up administrative structures for their respective colonies, then referred to as German East Africa (renamed Tanganyika in 1920 but currently Tanzania) and British East Africa (currently Kenya).
There was in fact no sign that the region would become one of the fiercest, albeit far-flung, theatres of the war.
?It was a war of movement, of absurd adventure, of persistent guerrilla activity (on the side of the Germans) and fought over a vast area (unlike Europe). It actually endured some two weeks longer than the war in Europe because the two armies could not be found in the bush, so far were they from the usual means of communication?? observed the British novelist William Boyd.  
BOYD, HIMSELF THE AUTHOR of a novel based on the same war ? An Ice Cream War, described Ann?s book as a ?fascinating and beguiling account?. The book is one of the most vivid recreations of World War I in East Africa.  
Taking us step by step from its origins to its sudden conclusion in 1918, the author opens vistas into many fascinating episodes that marked the combat in what was at the time extremely forbidding territory.
At first there had been no signs that the war would spread to the far-away colonies of the protagonists. Then on August 8, 1914, just four days after the declaration of the war in Europe, HMS Astraea shelled the German wireless station in Dar es Salaam. According to the official history of the war, written by Lt. Col. Charles Horden and published in 1941, that shelling was the first recorded act of war during World War I. That notion may not be entirely correct, however, as researchers on the war have pointed out that on August 6, 1914, two days after the declaration of war and two days before the shelling of the station, the famed German warship, the K?nigsberg, had captured a British steamer, City of Winchester, in the Gulf of Aden, in what was arguably the very first act of aggression in the war. Some analysts actually believe that news of the arrest of the steamer could have reached the captain of the Astraea, and that the Dar es Salaam shelling could have been an act of revenge.
ALTHOUGH CRICHTON-HARRIS? story is woven around the letters her grandfather wrote to his brother, the real merit of her book lies in the carefully researched details on the military campaign that it vividly brings out. Particularly poignant are the unusually grim and hostile conditions in which the war is fought. She brings out the discomforts endured by combatants on all sides in such a way that the reader is all too aware that they were more terrified by the ubiquitous flies, mosquitoes, fleas and lions, than they were by the constant necessity to go into vicious combat. That the combatants were just as likely to be grounded by recurrent bouts of malaria, dysentery or blackwater fever as they were by war injuries aptly brings out the unforgiving environment of the vast war zone. Even Dr Harris, depicted as a loyal, uncomplaining Englishman, once in a while finds his spirit of dedicated sacrifice in the service of the sick and wounded beginning to flag.  
Things were not made easier by his constant worries about the welfare of his young wife Eva, and two young sons. She spent many years of loneliness as her husband dedicated himself to national duty a long way from home. Eva married Harris in 1904 in Bombay a few years after he had gone to India as a member of the Indian Medical Services (IMS). She was widowed in her middle age. The vagaries of the war in fact seem to have contributed to his death from enteric fever in Maymyo, Burma, in 1927 ? less than a decade after the end of the war ? aged only 49.  
The debilitating conditions that the players in the war endured were to be immortalised in a 1951 film, The African Queen.
Among key players in the war were legendary German commander, Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Gen. Jan Smuts, Maj. Gen. J.L. Van Deventer, Gen. Richard Meinertzhagen and Brig. Gen. M.J. Tighe.  
Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck was an astute tactician and military strategist. He had honed his skills during a lengthy career in the German army, and guerrilla warfare during the Herero uprising in present day Namibia. He was able to repeatedly humiliate the British forces.. At the battle of Tanga, for instance, his forces resoundingly defeated the British, despite the fact that his soldiers were outnumbered eight to one. By the time the armistice was declared in 1918, his forces went down in history as the only German force not defeated during the war.
The authorities in Germany kept Lettow-Vorbeck?s outnumbered force well supplied, and at one time attempted to deliver 35,800 pounds of assorted cargo in a huge Zeppelin hot-air balloon
The general was also immensely popular amongst the thousands of African askaris and porters who served under him during the war, forming the backbone of his disciplined and daring force. According to Crichton-Harris, a handful of these soldiers were still alive during the late 1990s, and regularly receiving their pensions ? unlike those who fought on the British side ? from the German government through Jane Tam?, who still lives in Tanga today. Among these survivors were Saidi Musa, and Malonde Maseru, who died in 1997.
Having fought the British earlier during the Boer wars in South Africa, Gen. Jan Smuts entered the war in 1916 with his South African forces, and was responsible for driving the Germans back from the Kilimanjaro area and also away from the Usambara railway line.  
After quickly clearing the Germans from the Tanga area, Gen. Smuts took Dar es Salaam on September 7, 1916, earning the British side the few laurels it was to lay claim to during the campaign.
Fighting alongside Smuts was Maj. Gen. J.L. Van Deventer, who led one of the three columns that sought to push the Germans out of the Usambara Mountain area and attempt to capture the town of Taveta, a key German stronghold. Gen. Smuts left for London in March 1917, summoned for consultations by the Imperial War Cabinet, and soon after returned to South Africa and politics after handing over the command of the British forces in East Africa to Major-General Reginald Hoskins. However the War Office almost immediately revoked Hoskins? appointment, and Van Deventer effectively became the Commander-in-Chief.  
IF THE BRITISH ALSO HAD SOME outstanding generals on their side, they also had characters who were roundly viewed as cranks. One of these was a gentleman named Richard Meinertzhagen, a man recognised by his colleagues as certainly brave and intelligent, but also as short-tempered and full of invective against fellow fighters on the British side. A curious combination of writer, ornithologist, soldier and spy, Meinertzhagen was often at loggerheads with those he fought alongside. He was particularly cynical towards Brig. Gen. M.J. Tighe, who by April 1915 had become the commander of the British forces, and whom he spitefully described as a man ?sodden with drink ?who allowed alcohol to ruin his health?.
Unfortunately Tighe was actually a self-confessed alcoholic, and was eventually dismissed from the army. As for Brig. ? Gen. W. Malleson, the man who had taken over command of the Mombasa area from Tighe, Meinertzhagen summed him up thus: ?Unreliable, unscrupulous, clever as a monkey and with no knowledge of command?.
Amid this kind of internal antagonism, the battles of World War I raged on for years, costing thousands of lives on all sides, including those of hapless Indian troops and African soldiers dragged into a conflagration whose essence nor conclusion they could not understand.

Joe Ransdell 

"Although our naval and air power are immense, there comes a time when power alone has reached it's limit, and men must pay for yardage with their lives" 

Robert Sherrod Time/Life Combat Reporter WWII
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