I had noticed in my general browsing of the web that a new book associated with the East Africa Campaign of World War I had been published, strongly titled I Can never Say Enough About the Men. It did not drift into my orbit, however, and I found no opportunity to read it until I was contacted by Andrew Kerr, the author of the book, with a request to review it on behalf of the Great War in East Africa Association. This I gladly agreed to do and shortly afterwards a copy arrived in the post.
At a glance I found a richly illustrated narrative configured along the lines of a standard regimental history that dealt, it seemed, with the East African experience of the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles. It was not until a few days later that I was able to settle down to read it in earnest.Despite a few production issues this is an immediately engaging narrative for two reasons: firstly because it is well and thoughtfully written and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because it is clearly a labour of love composed by a man with a deep personal interest in the subject. The story is ostensibly that of the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles, but it is also that of Captain Alec Kerr, the author’s grandfather, who had the great good fortune to have lived through one of the most enterprising and rewarding periods of human history.
Now having said that I have no interest in provoking a debate about the moral landscape of either the British Empire as a whole or the British Raj in particular. I am simply making the point that the period straddling the turn of the 19th century offered individual Britons of wit and caliber almost unlimited scope for travel and enterprise across the globe. It was the zenith of the English speaking races and as such it was an excellent period of history to be British.
As Andrew Kerr himself points out of this project: ‘The history that follows is what I discovered, and to start with was written in memory of the six generations of my family who served India, but became a tribute to the uncomplaining courage and fortitude of the Kashmir Rifles.’
Clearly Andrew Kerr succeeded in both with the production of this superb book.
Alexander (Alec) Nairne Kerr was born to Scottish parents on 7 June 1882 in Secunderabad, Madras. His early influences were steeply cross-cultural and infused with a deep interest in India. He was a scion of the British upper-middle classes, evident by the fact that he was later educated at Marlborough College, which, incidentally, was the alma mater of the most famous British ‘commoner’ of the moment, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. He was inducted into the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst from which he emerged with the rank of 2nd Lt. From there he went directly to India on attachment first to the Royal Sussex Regiment and later to the Kings Royal Rifles. He then joined the Dogra Regiment before finally volunteering for service with the Kashmir Rifles.
This took him to the wild and beautiful northern frontier of India and a period of idyllic and almost surreal exposure to one of the most remote outposts of the British Empire and a still-functioning principality of the Raj.
The Jammu & Kashmir Rifles existed, as it had done since the early 19th century, as the largest of the many private armies maintained by the various Indian princes who ruled their individual states under the overall tutelage of the British Raj. It was customary for a British officer such as Alec Kerr to act as a Military Adviser with other officers acting as Assistant Military Advisers. Most of these minor private armies played a strictly ceremonial role within the military patchwork of the time, although the Kashmir Rifles was something of an exception to this, having a real military purpose for both local and regional defense.
The key to this story, however, is the role played by the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles in the East African Campaign of 1014/1918, during which the unit was exposed to authentic campaigning in one of the lesser known but more dramatic military theatres of the period.
It is evident throughout the book that Andrew Kerr has made a detailed study of this campaign, projecting a three dimensional understanding of it that betrays his own origins as a military man. The service to the Empire of the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles is placed neatly in the context of the overall East African Campaign which is itself treated lightly but comprehensively, revealing many nuances of interpretation that will educated somewhat even the most educated on this subject, notwithstanding the main theme which is of course essential reading for any serious student of the War.
Woven throughout the narrative are the experiences of Captain Alec Kerr who is revealed as being one of the more enlightened sons of the Empire. Indeed the essence of military service in the British Empire is revealed clearly in this book from a very human perspective. Andrew Kerr states almost casually that: ‘Through 1915 he learned the the language and cultures of his men – this was a key theme of the Indian Army: the British officer learned, enjoyed and took pride in the language, customs and traditions of their regiment, and if he couldn’t or didn’t then his military career was unlikely to develop and his card was marked as not suitable.’
The British imprint on the Indian military culture was very deep, a fact which the traditions and ceremonies of the Indian Army continue to reflect.
The Jammu & Kashmir Rifles were active primarily during the middle phases of the East Africa Campaign, arriving prior to the British entry into German East Africa and withdrawn prior to the end of hostilities. The East Africa Campaign was ongoing from 1914 to 1918 and proved to be a battle as much against nature and climate as the German Schutztruppe. The force compliment used by Lt. Gen. Jan Smuts was highly diverse representing at one time or another almost every race represented by the Crown. It was a torrid affair, however, and the Kashmiris suffered accordingly. The Campaign was concluded by native contingents drawn from tropical Africa which it was believed would ameliorate the shocking losses attributable to disease and deprivation. The Campaign was never comprehensively decided and ended only with the general armistice.
The book concludes with a review of some personal correspondence and reflections on the Campaign by those whose archives Andrew Kerr researched, most notably Alec Kerr himself, with other sundry observations.
All in all this is an excellent addition to the accumulated body of knowledge of Indian and African Imperial history, perhaps the latter most importantly, and a book that will be read by anyone with a deeper than average interest in the East African Campaign of World War I. My thanks to Andrew Kerr for offering me the opportunity to review it, and I congratulate him on a job very well done.