Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

An Ice-Cream War

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And now for something completely different.

First, a bit of context. While thousands were being slaughtered in Europe, a small offshoot of the war was taking place in the colonized areas of East Africa. A small but vital force led by German commander Lettow-Vorbeck managed to outflank Allied troops about 20 times in number for the duration of the war. The plan was to divert as many Allied forces as possible from the Western front.

In An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd pokes a bayonet of satire into the East Africa war and twists the knife.

The action happens mostly in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and British East Africa (now Kenya), with some stops in Kent, London and Oxford in the UK. The story is filled with mostly unsympathetic yet delightfully dysfunctional characters – all a study of contrasts.

Neighbours Walter Smith (an American expat farmer on the British side of Mount Kilimanjaro) and Erich von Bishop (half German, half British, farming on the German side) – amiable yet competitive – are suddenly enemies. Von Bishop smiles cordially as he raids and destroys Smith’s farm. Smith is obsessed with claiming the reparations to which he feels entitled.

Brothers Gabriel and Felix Cobb could not be more different. Having embraced the family military heritage, Gabriel is a captain serving in India. The war starts when he is back in England to be married. He is sent back to India and from there to East Africa. Effete Felix eschews the family business to be cool and petulant at Oxford. He smugly collects white feathers.

About all Liesl and Charis have in common is being wives – of von Bishop and Gabriel respectively – left to fend for themselves because of the war. Liesl longs to return to Germany, but flourishes as a head nurse. Charis drowns. Figuratively and literally.

Incidents turn from comic to tragic and back again.

British officers cannot communicate with their indigenous troops. Again and again they seek local intelligence and then openly dismiss it as wrong.

Half of Gabriel’s battalion lands in Tanga, figure out they are in the wrong place, then push forward anyway, even though their supply carriers are still on the ship. “Nothing in his education or training had prepared him for the utter randomness and total contingency of events.” (p 179)

A mid-level colonial functionary rises (who rises to ever higher levels of incompetence) and a manic, masterful spy both leave incidental death in their wake.

Felix and Walter find that revenge is not as sweet when their goal is realized without their intervention.

With black humour, Boyd spins the different stories together to show the absurdity of war.

Small ironies

Why exactly an “ice-cream” war? The UK version of the book starts with a letter of the time suggesting that the fighting in Africa will not last long, “as we will all melt like ice-cream in the sun.” The letter is not in the US version, leaving readers to guess at the source of the title.

Found my copy in a used bookshop … a discard from a library on Colonial Drive.

Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

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