An Ice-cream War Study Guide

An Ice-cream War

An Ice-cream War by William Boyd

An Ice-cream War is a 1982 novel by William Boyd that satirizes the battles between the Germans and British in East Africa during World War I. One part of the novel follows a feud between the American Temple Smith and the German Erich von Bishop. Once friends, Bishop sabotages Smith's plantation, sending him into poverty and Smith swears vengeance. The second part of the novel follows Gabriel, the son in an aristocratic family who must leave his new wife to fight in Africa, where he is wounded.

The story focuses on the East African Campaign fought between British and German forces during World War I, and how it affects several individual people whose paths converge.

The first character introduced is Temple Smith (Walter Smith in the US edition), an American expatriate farm-owner/mechanic/engineer who runs a successful sisal plantation in British East Africa near Mount Kilimanjaro. Before war breaks out in August 1914, Smith is on cordial terms with his German half-English neighbour, Erich von Bishop. Smith even shops for coffee plant seedlings at the botanical garden in the capital of German East Africa, Dar es Salaam. Major von Bishop burns Smith's sisal and linseed plantation in the opening campaign of the Great War, and then dismantles the massive decorticator, the industrial centrepiece of Smith's sisal farm operations. Now made a penniless refugee, and unable to secure any war reparations from the colonial British bureaucracy, Smith places his wife and children with his missionary father-in-law and joins the British military forces in Nairobi, pursuing personal vengeance against von Bishop over the next four years of the war in East Africa.

The second narrative strand involves Felix Cobb, the studious youngest son of an aristocratic and traditional British military family, everyone of whom he despises apart from his older brother Gabriel, a captain. The latter soon marries his sweetheart Charis (inspiring a certain jealousy in Felix), but war breaks out while Gabriel is on his honeymoon in Normandy, and he makes haste back to his regiment. Gabriel is posted to Africa, where he befriends psychotic fellow soldier Bilderbeck and is wounded the Battle of Tanga. Whilst recovering in a Prisoner of War hospital, he develops an infatuation for Erich von Bishop's plump, stubborn wife Liesl, who works there as a nurse.

The novel could be considered a satire on the ineptitude of authority in wartime. A recurring character, District Officer Wheech-Browning, spreads chaos wherever he goes, such that Smith observes that every time he goes somewhere with Wheech-Browning, someone in their company meets an unfortunate death.

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