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WWI was not a White Man’s War – Tim Couzens at the Launch of The Great Silence


The Great SilenceTim Couzens’ latest book, The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One, was launched at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History recently.

In The Great Silence Couzens examines the role played by South African forces in World War I. The middle five sections of the book deal with the five “theatres of war” that South Africans were involved in: The Maritz Rebellion, the invasion of German South-West Africa, German East-Africa, Egypt, and South African troops in France leading up to the Battle of Delville Wood.

Couzens explained the structure of the book, saying: “As in most of my books I believe in never going beyond the historical evidence, but I also believe that history and life are extremely complex. So I always try to write with poetic techniques in mind. The first chapter and the last chapter are deliberately put there.”

Chapter 1 focuses on the Battle of Strandfontein, which Couzens says “you are unlikely to have heard of unless you are into military history”, but which he insists can be seen as a vignette of the war as a whole, fought as it was with artillery, machine guns and barbed wire.

“The book, then, begins with noise. Fantastic noise. Which is the main symbol, perhaps, of the First World War,” he said, “and ends in a different way with a discussion of the black involvement in the war. And ends in silence.”

Couzens says the description of the First World War as a “white man’s war” “couldn’t be further from the truth”.

“It was a world war. And many of the troops were coloured troops, and the South African black troops were interestingly involved.”

Couzens also spoke about the effect of the First World War on him personally, saying he has been “wounded twice” by the conflict, despite not being physically involved. According to Couzens, the scope of this affect can most accurately be described by the concept of the sublime.

“The first wound came when I stood in the cemetery of Tyne Cot at Passchendaele,” he explained. “The eighteenth century had a concept called the sublime, which it picked up from the classic Latin poet Longinus, which was an intellectual concept. It referred to both the idea of either infinity or eternity and to the mind’s reaction to that idea. The sublime is that mind-shattering feeling you get, a sort of catch in your throat, when you try to imagine the infinite. It’s the same with eternity.

“When you stand at the cemetery at Tyne Cot in front of these massed headstones of 11 000 soldiers, many of them known only to God, it is quite extraordinary, and you get to the point of almost infinity.

“And then behind the cemetery, there’s a wall with the names of 34 000 soldiers who were never found. They were probably buried in mud, or in dug-outs that collapsed, or they were blown apart.

“The Romantic poets and prose writers, like Keats and Wordsworth and Hazlitt, took the idea of the sublime and applied it to the real world in two ways: the sublime vastness of nature, and how the poet or the viewer responds to the sublime. The other way you can approach France and Flanders is through a single individual. You go and find their graves. And you’re hit by the enormity of their single death.

“And the contrast between those the vastness and the individuality also is a kind of sublime feeling of ‘God, this is truly fantastic, this is truly appalling.’”

The Great Silence is one of the first books to come out of the new Times Media publishing division. Ben Williams, Books LIVE founder and Sunday Times books editor, said he and his team were delighted to work with Couzens.

Read Wiliams’ introduction from the launch:

Welcome to the launch of Tim Couzens’ The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Troops in World War One.

It’s an apposite moment for the launch of this book, as Remembrance Day is just around the corner, and Flanders fields are on our minds again.

My name is Ben Williams. I’m the books editor of the Sunday Times, and the lucky publisher, with Brett Hilton-Barber of Art Publishers, of Tim’s book.

Over the last many months, it’s been the greatest of pleasures to work with Tim, an author who may not require introduction, but who certainly deserves one.

For Professor Tim Couzens is a towering figure on the landscape of South African scholarship, an internationally esteemed social historian with a fistful of awards, including the prestigious Alan Paton Award for his book Tramp Royal: The True Story of Trader Horn.

Other books of Tim’s include Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery, and Tragedy on an African Mission; The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of HIE Dhlomo; and the recently-published South African Battles, which quickly became a bestseller.

What sets Tim apart from his colleagues is his matchless skill for storytelling. He has an unerring eye for the people who make history, for odd anecdotes and telling detail.

For example, in this book you’ll find the tale of Jackie the Baboon, who accompanied South African troops to the Western Front, took shrapnel and returned home a war hero who had lost his leg. You’ll also find insets on seven other of the war’s more extraordinary characters, plus over 150 photographs, maps and graphics – and archival material from the Sunday Times, which of course was well-established when war broke out in 1914.

When we decided, at the Sunday Times, to publish a book on South Africa’s involvement in this war, there was only one person we wanted to write it, and, as we hoped, to impeccable research Tim has added his trademark humaneness, turning out an astonishing read. The Great Silence takes us, across five theatres, into the dark heart of the Great War and its echo chamber in Africa.

Few historians can truly make the past live, or teach us something about the world today. Tim Couzens is one of them, and when you read his book you’ll find yourself haunted, first, by the sounds of war – the artillery, the Minenwerfers and the hideous whizz-bangs – and second, by the vast silences that World War I left in its wake, silences personified in the cemeteries of Nantes, Ypres and many other places haunted by the war dead.

My thanks are due to Brett Hilton-Barber and his team at Art Publishers for being our partners in what has turned out to be a marvelous publishing adventure. Thanks, too, to my colleagues Michele Magwood and Jennifer Platt, who assisted the publishing process in innumerable ways. And extra thanks to Reneé Naudé, who leads the Sunday Times publishing team and is almost as directly responsible for the publication of this book as Tim himself. Everyone, we have a book on our hands that we can be proud of.

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Jennifer Malec (@ProjectJennifer), Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) and Ben Williams (@benrwms) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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Book details

  • The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One by Tim Couzens
    EAN: 9781920380359
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