What’s going on with book reviews? Here is the Pulitizer prizewinning (for ‘criticism’) Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, on this book’s cover:
Let me say straight out that if all military histories were as thrilling and well written as Robert Gaudi’s African Kaiser, I might give up reading fiction and literary bio-graphy… Gaudi writes with the flair of a latter-day Macaulay. He sets his scenes carefully and describes naval and military action like a novelist.
Leaving aside the extraordinary comparison with Macaulay for the moment, most naval and military novels that I’ve read get the historical detail right. Robert Gaudi’s book is so error-strewn that it would fail to qualify even as historical fiction.
His subject is a promising one. Oberstleutnant (later Generalmajor) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was sent to German East Africa (now part of Tanzania) just before the outbreak of the first world war to take command of the Schutztruppe — defence forces — comprising German officers, NCOs and African levies — ‘askaris’ (‘soldiers’, from the Arabic). In November 1914, Lettow and his men gave a bloody nose to a scratch expeditionary force sent from India, and then for the next four years proceeded to lead all comers — British, South African and Portuguese — a merry dance until ordered by Berlin to surrender after the Armistice in 1918. Lettow and his 200-odd officers and NCOs, as an ‘undefeated army’ (which never numbered more than 11,000, including camp-followers), were accorded the privilege of parading along the Unter den Linden the following year.
Without intending to, he therefore served the myth of the ‘stab in the back’ — the notion that the German army had not been defeated (specifically in France) but prevented from continuing the war because of unpatriotic, socialist defeatism at home. The myth was a powerful element in the rise of Hitler, though Lettow himself was not seduced by either the myth or by Hitler’s blandishments. The story goes that in 1935 he was offered the ambassadorship in London, where he was held in grudging regard, but ‘declined with frigid hauteur’ and that after his death in 1964, at the age of 93, one of his biographers asked Lettow’s nephew if it were true that der Löwe von Afrika had told Hitler ‘to go fuck himself’. The nephew said, ‘I don’t think he put it that politely.’ After the war his standing as ‘a good German’ helped give respectability to the nascent Bundeswehr, which named three barracks after him.
Lettow was never a rising star, however. It was more a case of time and circumstance. His was the usual Junker background, entry into the army almost preordained. Possibly lacking the financial means for a smart regiment at home, he became something of a colonial soldier, taking part in the suppression of the Boxer rebellion in China, where his Prussian military sensibilities were offended by fighting against guerrillas, which he considered corrosive of discipline.
Dealing with the insurrections in German south-west Africa subsequently did nothing to change his opinion. He qualified for the Grosser Generalstab, however, and in 1909 took command of a battalion of marines — again, not the most prestigious of appointments, even during the time of the ‘Dreadnought Race’. Only in retrospect could his appointment to command the rag, tag and bobtail force in German East Africa be seen as a plum one.
His story has often been told, and Gaudi — an American ‘freelance writer and historian’ — appears to have consulted only these secondary sources, so reveals nothing new. Furthermore, he frequently misunderstands the sources and repeats their errors.
He is certainly not au fait with military detail. Trivial though it is, to read of a ‘major’s pips on his collar’ is not reassuring. Worse is to read that ‘the Loyal North Lancs [were] raised from white European residents of India’. The ‘Loyal North Lancs’ feature large in the story, but the author seems not to have twigged that ‘Lancs’ is not a place in India, or a white residents’ club, but the abbreviation for ‘Lancashire’. The 2nd Loyals, whose depot was in Preston, were a regular army battalion stationed in India. Besides the risibility, the significance of their being the sole regular British battalion in the force is thereby lost. Likewise, the soldiers of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, whose maharajah put his troops at the service of the King in 1914, and whose Kashmir Rifles fought alongside the Loyals, would have been surprised to find themselves referred to as ‘Gurkha mercenaries’. Gaudi has confused Kashmir with Nepal.
His grasp of terminology is similarly amateurish. He writes of British ‘battleships’ in the Rufigi delta, ‘cables from the First Sea Lord’ and radio signals sent ‘in the all-clear’.He is equally confused about the mechanics of operations, writing at one point about officers ‘anxious over the embarkation [sic] of 8,000 on a hostile shore’ which he believes is ‘logistics’. And so it goes on.
These are tiresome errors which might not disqualify the book from being ‘thrilling’, even if they are indicative of its overall historical unreliability, but there are worse faults. One is the treatment of Major General Arthur Aitken, commander of ‘Expeditionary Force B’. Gaudi describes him as ‘a soft, portly man’ (although photographs suggest rather the opposite): ‘Aitken had served with the British Army in India for the previous 35 years, his record blameless but entirely undistinguished.’ He was promoted, says Gaudi, though he cites no evidence, ‘perhaps because of his powerfully connected brother… the famous press mogul Lord Beaverbrook, friend of Winston Churchill’s and well-connected in Parliament’.
Just how Sir Max Aitken, as he then was, is supposed to have exerted influence on the Commander-in-Chief India is not explained. While Arthur Aitken undoubtedly underestimated his enemy, resulting in the bloody nose at Tanga, it would have been more profitable to try to analyse why he underestimated them, rather than suggesting merely that reading a novel as his ship neared the coast indicated stupidity. Wolfe read poetry before Quebec, and Eisenhower read westerns before D-Day. Sangfroid is a virtue, though it does of course have to be followed by success.
And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).
Is there any point in reading on — perhaps for the ‘flair of a latter-day Macaulay’? But Macaulay would never have begun a sentence ‘For starters’; or written ‘fished out of the drink’; or ‘the tropical sun, always overhead, blazed down…’ Nor would he have pluralised Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, or translated Erinnerungen as ‘campaigns’.
Michael Dirda would have done better to read The African Queen.