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Subtitle: A WW I. Surgeon in East Africa
This is a fascinating story of an extraordinary, yet comparatively little known, part of the First World War that took place in East Africa. Its authenticity is assured with seventeen letters written at the time by Temple Harris, the author's grandfather, to his brother Tatham in India, in which he describes quite simply and accurately, with considerable modesty in regard to his personal contribution, the grim, hostile, terrible conditions that had to be endured by the troops on the ground throughout those five years of war. The severe problems with flies, mosquitoes and fleas as well as man eating lions were greater than those of combatting the enemy, and it is hardly surprising that this theatre of war, remote from the European front, claims the dubious distinction as one of the most difficult in which large bodies of troops ever faced each other.
Interspersed within this narrative of the numerous disasters that befell the British Forces, and surgeons coping wonderfully well to keep bodies and morale alive, are splendid snapshots of astonishing historical facts. The Königsberg in the Rufiji river, the Zeppelin flying out from Bulgaria to resupply General von Lettow-Vorbeck's troops, a 4200 mile round trip, and numerous examples of the 'Gentlemen's War' when, for instance, wounded men were evacuated under parole not to serve again against the enemy. These have all been brought together by Arm Crichton-Harris' enthusiastic, enlightened pen following much detailed research. She has also produced an extensive bibliography to enable the reader whose appetite has been, unsurprisingly, whetted to follow up stories of particular interest.
Additionally, the author has visited Tanga, Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam in recent years. Her descriptions of her experiences there not only complement the narrative and bring it alive, but also make this book compelling reading.
Of all the far-flung campaigns of the First World War the conflict in East Africa, I believe, remains the most unusual and, perhaps, the most forgotten. In 1914 two colonies sat side by side: British East Africa (now Kenya) and German East Africa (now Tanzania). When their respective mother countries declared war on each other the two colonies, perforce, had to open hostillties themselves. The subsequent war in East Africa bears more resemblance to later twentieth century conflagrations such as Viet Nam or Malaya: 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.
Like the author of this fascinating and beguiling account, I too was unaware of what had taken place in East Africa in 1914-1918 until, by chance, I came across a throwaway reference in a newspaper. There, a journalist writing about his grandfather sald that this man had spent 1914-18 "chasing after General Von Lettow-Vorbeck across the whole of East Africa." Who was LettowVorbeck? What was this conflict in Africa? Intrigued, I began my researches and, slowly but surely, unearthed the story of the Great War in East Africa, a story that tumed itself inexorably in to a novel (my second), An Ice Cream War.
The two Temples could not be more different but what makes Dr. Temple Harris so intriguing is that he emerges as a character as distinct as anyone in fiction. Reserved, diplomatic, unemotional, Dr. Temple Harris nonetheless reveals himself in these letters to bis brother with a kind of guileless candour. He is very English: understatement is his forte, he does not complain, he does not moan or fret, but as we read on we come to understand what he endured in the bundu of Last Africa-how close he came to death on varlous occasions and how, as the war dragged on, bis resolve and his spirit began to flag. He survived the war, and returned to the Far Last where his medical career had begun, but he died nine years later in 1927 at the early age of forty-nine. Its not too dramatic to suggest that his experiences in Africa during the war notably the constant bouts of malaria and dysentery he endured had perhaps been the death of him.
Ann Crichton-Harris has interleaved the seventeen letters that Temple Harris (her grandfather) wrote to bis brother Tatham during the course of his service overseas with an account of the war in East Africa and, as far as she can reconstruct it, an estimation of the role Temple Harris played in it. Most fascinating, perhaps, is the retelling of the Battle of Tanga in 1914, a battle at which Temple was present and one that the British and Empire forces resoundingly lost, despite outnumberling the Germans by 8 to1.
The Battle of Tanga has been swept under the carpet of British military history but it stands, nevertheless, as one of the most inept and disastrous battles that any British army has ever fought anywhere at any time. Temple Harriss account is typically tight-lipped but Ann Crichton-Harris's analysis of what went on during those three fraught days is the best and most judicious version I have read. The fact that she has visited the battlefield and inspected the invasion beaches and established beyond doubt some of the key locations makes it particularly vivid.
Much of the appeal of this book lies in the unspoken demands of interpretation it makes on the reader. Temple Harris is the type of English military man and public servant that still exists but who rarely allows himself the pleasure or privilege of expressing bis real opinions and feelings. In bis letters to bis brother Tatham, however, despite bis sang-froid and bis reserve, Temple Harris paints a portrait of himself and an objective image of the man steadily appears "between the lines" as we follow bis progress through the war (and as Ann Crichton-Harris supplies the context) a picture of a certain type of British soldier, and a certain type of British character, emerges that is remarkably poignant.
His life, during the war in Last Africa, was clearly at times both terrifying and utterly intolerable: lonely, ill, in mortal danger, far from his family, in almost total ignorance of what he was doing in this alien land, he somehow manages to preserve in bis letters an air of normality and dogged endurance. A little bit of imagination on our part, as readers, will flesh out the picutre of a man almost at the end of bis tether, but bolstered and held-together by centuries-old concepts of duty and service and determined, somehow, not to let the side down and to see the thing through.
The real, true and exhaustive history of the First World War in East Africa has yet to be written, but Ann Crichton-Harriss fine, valuable and scholarly contribution to that enthralling story will be an essential ingredient.
Ann Crichton-Harris Keneggy