Recording the Great War: military archives and the South African official history programme, 1914-1939

  • Ian van der Waag


The First World War marked a revolt against the traditional mode of official history as conceived and written by the General Staffs and taught at the Staff Colleges. After 1918, the publics in various countries, having experienced massed mobilisation and the impact of total warfare, demanded an explanation for the sacrifices so many had been called on to make. This more inclusive approach rejected the nineteenth-century, Staff College predilection for campaign narratives focussing narrowly on “lessons learned”. The South African tradition of official history dates from this period. This article outlines the creation of the first military archival organisation in Pretoria and analyses the South African First World War official history programme. It explores the apparent motives behind the programme and reveals the often-difficult relationships between the historians and their principals at Defence Headquarters and the tensions between the two modes of official history.