Book Review: The First Victory
The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign
by Andrew Stewart
Yale University Press, 2016
It’s astonishing that even after nearly a full century of the most intense scrutiny ever allotted to any historical event, important new studies of the Second World War appear regularly in almost every publishing season. Late 2016 shows a perfect case in point: historian Andrew Stewart has combed through previously-ignored or overlooked primary sources in order to revisit the 1941 campaign in West Africa in which 300,000 Italian and African troops faced a British-led invasion force one-quarter of that strength and were rolled up like a summer carpet. “While it was one of the Second World War’s most overlooked campaign at the time and has largely remained so ever since,” Stewart writes, “the fighting that began in early July 1940 in eastern Africa should have featured much more prominently in the crowded literature of the conflict.”
The fighting in East Africa is of course overshadowed by the far more famous fighting that happened later in North Africa, but Stewart is true to his goal: he brings the East Africa battles, politics, and personalities out of the footnotes and squarely center-stage. He threads through his book the tensions that arose from the sheer newness of the conflict for both sides, the sudden realization of the stakes for both warfare and empire. Several aspects of the East Africa campaign prefigured not just the rest of the Allied effort to drive the Axis powers off the continent but also the rest of the war, and Stewart is alive to these elements and expertly uses them to keep his story tense despite its well-known larger outcomes.
One reliable source of such tension – in this theater and all others – was Winston Churchill, who can always be relied upon in histories such as these to be found pointlessly squabbling with his commanders and harrying their efforts from distant London. This was predictably the case with the man who was eventually appointed to take overall command in East Africa, Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell (“taciturn to the point of using words as if they cost a guinea each,” as one colleague wrote) who’s captured memorably by Stewart:
His tremendous intellect was perhaps his greatest strength, incorporating a knowledge of history, literature, geography and contemporary affairs. According to another of those officers who knew him well, Wavell had an extremely quick and logical brain which he used to solve problems as they emerged, while at the same time thinking in great detail about what might lie ahead. This process was quite – when he was described as being ‘in one of his dumb moods’ – his friends recognised that this meant he was working through one.
The less heroic scenes of East Africa are all here too, the cowardice, the treachery, and, as in the case of the Battle of Argodat and its sordid aftermath, the lawless pillaging:
The men from the Royal Fusiliers who had taken part in the attack were, however, allowed to keep the Chianti, brandy, mineral water, sugar and tinned tomatoes they found, which made an excellent change from their normal diet of tea, biscuits and bully beef. At Barentu the post-battle phase was not so orgnised and the town was systematically looted, first by the Italian troops, then by the local population but finally by the British, a rare example of ill-discipline which lasted for the best part of twenty-four hours. The civilians who were caught looting were flogged on the spot but nothing could be done about the British offenders because they included some of the junior officers, so news of what had happened was suppressed.
The First Victory is that rarity of military history: groundbreaking research combined with first-rate narrative skills. The critical neglect suffered by the East Africa campaign in volumes of popular history is now significantly redresssed.