Finding Smuts’ essence!

Book Review: Jan Smuts and his First World War (1914-1917) by David Brock Katz

Finally, a refreshing new look at Jan Smuts, and not a popularist novel, a proper historical treatise, so well researched it stands up to strong academic scrutiny and it will stand for some time to come.

Jan Smuts and his First World War 1914-1917 by Dr David Bock Katz is a revelation, it seeks out and finds Smuts’ essence in his military campaigning, not previously achieved by earlier historians.

It can often be said of Jan Smuts, that a Canadian student will have a better understanding of the man than a South African one. That is because Smuts has been vilified in his own country by an endless tirade of politically driven one-upmanship whether it be from far right or the far left of the political spectrum, an unabated tirade, especially from a very small but very vocal white Afrikaner right fuelled with propaganda and unhinged over the Apartheid epoch. Whereas internationally he is seen as a champion of global peace post both World Wars and a founder of the United Nations, he still stands on Parliament Square in London and in Canada even a mountain is named after him. 

The political quagmire surrounding Smuts makes a new study of Smuts very difficult, the historian must ‘peel the onion’ and discard all the politically inspirated bias. Bill Nasson, one of South Africa’s most respected historians said the only way for us to understand Jan Smuts is to understand what he amounted to and to define Smuts’ essence, i.e., get to what he is all about, what made him tick and identify what he was always striving toward. Happy to report that Dr David Katz in his new book on Jan Smuts and his First World War 1914–1917 does exactly that.

Smuts was born and lived in an era of colonial expansionism, an era where Imperialism was normative and in fact a value for which European’s fought over in great life and death struggles, in Europe and across the Globe. David Katz examines Smuts in his context and removes the urge to suddenly apply a modern critical race theory bias. In doing this Katz gets to the essence of the man. He does this by drawing attention to Smuts’ plans for a ‘Greater South Africa’ one in which South Africa’s borders are drawn as high as the equator including south Angola, bits of modern day Central African Republic and the entire states of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. This idea of ‘sphere of influence’ whether under the control of an Afrikaner or a British ideal on the back of conquest and expansion, is central to ‘white’ politics of Southern Africa, pre and post The South African War (1899-1902).  

A ‘man of his time’, Smuts’ philosophy of holism, basically the sum (union) of parts is greater than the whole, drives Smuts’ ideal for the union of nation states, not only South Africa as we know it, but also Southern Africa with his plans of a ‘Greater South Africa’, his concept of ‘union’ eventually extends globally with the establishment of the British Commonwealth, the League of Nations and its modern-day manifestation, the United Nations. Here, as David Katz shows extensively and rather refreshingly in his work, we see the true ‘essence’ of Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, South Africa’s most decorated General.

It also gives us the context for the Union of South Africa’s eagerness to move its borders northwards, the First World War provided both Louis Botha and Jan Smuts with the ideal vehicle, starting with the German South West African campaign (GSWA) and then the German East Africa campaign (GEA).

In these campaigns David Katz starts to shake up some preconceived beliefs about Smuts’ abilities as a General, detailing and outlining his abilities to strategise outcomes and also his ability to tactically apply them. Many commentators and historians chose to highly criticise Smuts, but usually in the context of political expediency, both in the United Kingdom and in South Africa, but here Katz exposes their ‘bias’ and even at times exposes some blatant mistruths previously held up as fact, he does this by examining the ‘primary documentation’, the boring, dusty, daunting, and rather vital extensive archives – here in South Africa and in the United Kingdom. In this primary documentation, without a political agenda, he finds the real Smuts, a true reflection of the military strategist and field commander. David’s work in this respect is extensive, it was the backbone of his Doctorate in Military History (cum laude), and it shows. 

It is almost impossible to write a ‘complete’ history on Smuts in a single book, he was a man who dominated South African politics from 1890 to 1950, seven decades which see a man and his outlook change over time along with changing world orders and philosophies of governance and even warfare. This can make the subject of Smuts extremely daunting, and even impossible – where do you start, Smuts the academic, the philosopher, the botanist, the lawyer, the author, the politician, the stateman, the peacemaker, the privy councillor and finally Smuts the miliary General? 

It is with some relief that David Katz hones in on only one aspect, Smuts’ First World War, it gives him the opportunity to really challenge Smuts in one sector of his life, the outcome of which is a detailed account of this one facet which reaches completely new conclusions and views.

Rightly in establishing a view on Smuts’ Generalship in World War 1, Katz also looks at the root of Smuts’ abilities as a General, forged in the South African War (1899-1902) under General Koos de la Rey and General Louis Botha.  Katz then examines the complexities and challenges facing Smuts in amalgamating Colonial British and Boer Forces into a unified fighting entity and the development of a distinctively South African ‘style’ of combat fighting, a manoeuvrability ‘style’ which even our modern-day defence force still holds as a central doctrine. 

Katz also reviews the Maritz Rebellion of 1914 in its correct context, as an opening act of internal aggression in South Africa’s First World War and how it strategically and even morally affected the GSWA campaign. Also, refreshingly he focusses on the cause and effect of the revolt militarily speaking and is not guided by the political fallout and resultant bias in examining Smuts’ ability as a wartime General.

Smuts’ GEA campaign often comes in for a lot of criticism, and here Katz again applies a military mind and scours the primary source material in evaluating Smuts’ effectiveness as a General, reasoning that Smuts effectively attained his objectives, reduced casualties and delivered an Allied victory and didn’t chase General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck around aimlessly as has been suggested by past historians.

It’s a very long overdue re-assessment of Jan Smuts and his ability as a General. David Katz also wrote a book called ‘South Africans versus Rommel’ which covers Smuts in World War 2 to a degree, but we look forward to the next historical account which looks at Smuts and his Second World War 1939-1945 in its complete entity, as the next ‘bite sized’ chunk of this most extraordinary man. 

In the end, the Afrikaner National Party and their opposition rhetoric aside, we may find that when it is all added together, Smuts’ 2nd Anglo-Boer War command, his First World War command, his Second World War Command, and Smuts’ net success in all three of these wars, his structure of South Africa’s defence force and doctrine, his pioneering work on structuring air-arms, air combat and air defences, his contribution as part of the British War Cabinet and the Imperial War Cabinet during World War 1 and then again in the King’s Privy Council and as Winston Churchill’s confidant and councillor during World War 2, and even his extensive role in Operation Overlord, all concluding with his role in the establishment of the United Nations, we may very well be looking at a Afrikaner farm boy with one of the greatest military minds of the 20th Century and beyond. 

No small statement, you’ll find Jan Smuts’ fingerprints in just about every theatre of operations in the South African War (1899-1902), in the GSWA, GEA and Western Front theatres of World War 1 (1914-1918), and again in the East African, North African, Italy, Atlantic and European campaigns to conclude World War 2 (1939-1945) and in just about every major modern military development in between. Dr David Brock Katz’ book on Jan Smuts First World War (1914-1918) goes a long way to establishing a solid foundation on which to begin to challenge this conclusion or at the very least he gives Smuts a well-earned balanced perspective and insight.

By: Peter Dickens

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