Book review – Tony Garcia and Ian Van Der Waag, Botha, Smuts and the Great War (Solihul: Helion, 2023)

I had the privilege of interviewing Tony Garcia and Ian Van Der Waag for the Western Front Association’s Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD) podcast on Louis Botha (1862-1919), Jan Smuts (1870-1950) and the Great War (see episodes 125, 170, 201, 315). Eagerly anticipating this book, I was not disappointed.

Smuts and Botha were prominent Boer military leaders during the Second South African or ‘Boer War’ (1899-1902) fighting against the British. After the conflict, both reconciled with British rule and assumed key roles in the new British Empire dominion, the Union of South Africa. During the Great War, Smuts served as a general in the British Army, engaging German forces in German East Africa (now Tanzania), while Botha assumed the role of Prime Minister.

The book’s first strength lies in its nuanced portrayal of Botha and Smuts, revealing the complexity of their roles and personalities. The authors adeptly navigate the historical terrain, presenting a multifaceted perspective on these iconic figures. They include testimony from beyond the White community, including the perspectives of Black and Indian South Africans. The narrative seamlessly transitions between the domestic political scene in South Africa and the various theatres where Smuts served, such as South West Africa (now Namibia), German East Africa and Europe.

Secondly, the book confronts the divisive nature of Botha and Smuts, both in historical context and contemporary discussions. While their contributions to the Allied cause during the war earned them admiration and hero status among the British public, they were and are undeniably divisive figures. The enactment of the 1913 Land Act, prohibiting black South Africans from owning or acquiring land in areas designated for white ownership, underscored their role in reinforcing racial segregation, economic disparities and eventually, creating apartheid. Furthermore, their cooperation with the British and the suppression of the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion garnered disapproval from Afrikaner nationalists. Even today, their legacies spark tensions; recent events in South Africa witnessed calls for the removal of statues of Smuts and effigies of Botha have been vandalised. The book sheds light on the intricate legacies of these figures and their enduring impact on South Africa.

The book’s academic depth, while commendable, may prove demanding for readers seeking a more straightforward, narrative-driven historical account. Though clearly written, engaging with intricate details and multifaceted aspects of Botha’s and Smuts’ lives requires a certain level of patience and commitment. Expanded coverage providing background on Smuts and Botha, their roles in the Second South African War and the socio-political landscape of South Africa in the decade preceding the Great War would have been helpful. Nevertheless, these are minor concerns and the book stands as a compelling exploration of South Africa’s contributions to World War I and the intricate legacies of these iconic figures. It caters to history enthusiasts, scholars and anyone intrigued by this period in South African and the British Empire and their enduring impact on our understanding of the past and the present.