Monday, November 10, 2014

The Great War in German Africa

World War I was a truly global conflict. Although the western front dominates the popular imagination with its frustrating, static trench warfare, the conflict raged from Finland to Greece, from the Caucasus to Arabia and from Turkey to the coast of China. It is not often given much attention but the Great War also raged across the entire continent of Africa as well, north to south and east to west. The Turks launched attacks on Egypt and Turkish forces supported guerilla attacks against the Allies there and in Libya as well as in Somalia where local rebels and  Ethiopians joined with Turkish support against the Italian presence on the Horn of Africa (previously covered here). The French also did battle with rebel forces in Morocco and Algeria that were supported by the Central Powers. South of the Sahara, however, it was the Germans who were on the defensive and the Allies who were on the attack as the German colonies of Togoland (Togo), Kamerun (Cameroon), German Southwest Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (Tanzania) were early targets for the Allies, Great Britain in particular. In fact, unknown to most, the first British shot of the war was fired, not by a Tommy of the BEF in Belgium but by an unknown African soldier in the British colonial army in Togoland.

Whereas the fighting on the western front in Europe involved hundreds of thousands of men struggling over mere yards of devastated terrain, in Africa relatively small armies fought for control of vast territories. It was also fought with all of the latest technological advancements seen elsewhere. Alongside native African scouts armed with spears and shields of animal hide were employed modern rifles, machine guns, airplanes and artillery. The conflict in Africa was also just as deadly. When considering the much smaller size of the armies involved and taking into account the immense number of deaths due to disease, the African front was just as deadly as that in Europe. Also, like the fighting in Europe and the Middle East, the war in Africa would have very far-reaching consequences. Territory would change hands, new governments and new policies, the rekindling of old hatreds and the emergence of a new African nationalism and confidence all had their roots in the Great War. A number of important figures emerged from the war or gained a new type of notoriety from it. For the British, Jan Smuts, once a Boer enemy of the British Empire, would be cast in a new light as one of its greatest heroes. On the German side, none would match the rise to fame of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a relatively unknown Prussian colonial officer who would make his name as arguably the greatest master of irregular warfare in history, sometimes referred to (a few decades later) as the “Rommel of World War One”. The clash of Rommel and Montgomery in the deserts of Libya and Egypt in the Second World War may be more famous but it was certainly not the first time that German and British armies did battle on the continent of Africa.

For the German Empire, Africa was not to be a priority. Any war would be fought and won in Europe and regardless of what happened in Africa, the map could be redrawn afterwards accordingly, and the Germans did hope to make extensive gains in Africa. They would leave North Africa to their Turkish allies while Germany would dominate most of the rest, linking their 1914 colonies together to create a massive “German Central Africa” sprawling across the continent. This was to be done after Germany won the war in Europe at the negotiating table. As such, the German colonies in Africa were not heavily defended at all. Togoland possessed only a military-police force and Kamerun had only a small garrison. German Southwest Africa had earlier seen a native rebellion and was the one colony where native Africans were not trusted to bear arms so that the garrison was entirely German, very professional but quite small. The most important colony, German East Africa, had a colonial military force made up mostly of Africans under German command and was the most substantial but still far from being considered a significant force. The German colonies were all separated from each other by vast distances and surrounded by enemy territory. Once war began no help was to be expected to reach Africa from Germany due to the dominance of the British Royal Navy and both sides expected the German colonies to be picked off one by one with relative ease.

Togoland police troops
Of course, this was not to be the case. As soon as war was declared the Allies began moving in on German Africa, starting with the colony of Togoland. British colonial troops invaded from the Gold Coast and a French colonial force invaded from Dahomey (Benin). Togoland was the only west African colony with no army to defend it. The only force on hand was the military-police force which consisted of two German army officers, six German policemen and 560 African personnel. The German governor, Duke Adolf Friedrich zu Mecklenberg, tried to make peace with the Allies, saying that not to do so would only cause needless deaths among the Africans and be an unseemly spectacle of Europeans fighting against each other in a continent where they were vastly outnumbered. This was not an uncommon sentiment. The Belgians had hoped to keep the war away from their massive colony but German attacks on Belgian shipping on Lake Tanganyika put a stop to that. Also in German East Africa the governor, Heinrich Schnee, also hoped to avoid fighting but his own local military commander, Lt. Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was having none of that and determined to fight (the two never got on well). But, even before the war, the British decided that keeping Africa out of it would not be in their best interests. There was too much to gain by going in and there was, throughout the conflict, quite a competition among the Allies to see who could gain the most territory since, correctly as it turned out, what an army held they were most likely to keep when it was over.

In Togoland, despite being vastly outmatched, the small German police force put up a spirited resistance. They carried out what was basically a slow, fighting-retreat until finally surrendering to the Allies on August 26, 1914. Togoland was subsequently divided up between Britain and France. The only non-territorial goal that could be pointed to in these opening campaigns were the wireless stations in Togoland and Kamerun. In Kamerun there was a small German colonial army expanded to about 6,000 men but which was totally outmatched by the tens of thousands of Allied troops surrounding them and they were soon beset by a joint Anglo-French-Belgian invasion force. After an initial victory the Allied attack stalled at German forts in Mora and Garua. At one point the Germans even went on the offensive and launched a raid into Nigeria but this was unsuccessful. Many fled into the unexplored interior and continued to be a distraction for the Allies for more than a year before the last German forces surrendered in 1916. Again, the territory was divided between the French and the British in the aftermath.

German Southwest cavalry patrol
German Southwest Africa proved a tough nut to crack but not only because of the German colonial troops defending it. The initial British offensive, launched in September of 1914 from South Africa, was defeated by the Germans under General Joachim von Heydebreck at the battle of Sandfontein even though the Germans were considerably outnumbered. The following month saw South Africa distracted by the outbreak or at least the attempted outbreak of a rebellion by pro-German Boers who still considered the British their enemies. This uprising was led by General Manie Maritz, a veteran of the Second Boer War. However, the old guard Boer leadership, particularly Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, decided to stick with the British and despite German assistance to the rebels the insurrection was put down with relatively little difficulty by the South Africans themselves. A German counter-offensive into South Africa was defeated and British imperial troops drove into German Southwest Africa in great strength. The Germans fought hard but were outmatched and finally defeated or forced to surrender by the summer of 1915. In fact, they had tried to surrender earlier but were refused by Botha. The war would really be a defining moment for South Africa and in the end German Southwest Africa became a “colony” of South Africa.

The biggest struggle, however, would be for the Allied conquest of German East Africa, the most important German colony in Africa. Governor Schnee may not have wanted a fight but the local commander of the German colonial army, Lt. Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck did. He decided that the best thing he could do would be to wage a campaign that would draw inordinate amounts of Allied troops, supplies and attention to East Africa and away from fronts that were more vital to the German war effort. In that goal, Lettow-Vorbeck was to be an absolute success. Before the war was over he would be promoted to Major General, earn the Pour le Merite (“Blue Max”) and establish himself as one of the greatest military commanders Germany, or the Kingdom of Prussia, has ever produced. He never commanded much more than 10,000 men at one time, indeed his force would at times shrink to a mere 1,500 but he managed to tie down, defeat or generally bedevil hundreds of thousands of Allied troops for the duration of the war. Truly, no other military commander was ever able to do so much with so little for so long as General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. And, just as incredible as his battles and maneuvers were his logistical accomplishments. That he and his army were able to survive and sustain themselves and their war effort in such a wilderness for so long, existing ultimately from foraging, their own inventiveness and captured enemy stores alone, is a feat that would merit his inclusion in the history books. It also doesn’t hurt that he was a staunch monarchist.

German troops at Tanga
The British struck first out of British East Africa but their forces were utterly defeated at the battle of Kilimanjaro in early November. The main push, however, came simultaneously with an attack on the port of Tanga by a largely Indian British imperial force. Lettow-Vorbeck was in command himself with a mere 1,000 troops (mostly Africans) to combat 8,000 British and Indian troops under General Arthur Aitken. It was a stunning victory for the Germans who lost only 71 men killed and 76 wounded compared to British losses of 360 killed, 487 wounded and 148 missing. The Germans also captured enough weapons and ammunition to outfit several additional companies of colonial troops. This episode taught the British that German East Africa would be no easy conquest and more strength was organized for a combined offensive from several directions. Lettow-Vorbeck knew he could not defend static positions indefinitely, so he took his little colonial army into the interior of Africa to fight a war of movement and maneuver, raiding Allied outposts, fighting small battles when the odds were favorable and disappearing into the wilderness when confronted with overwhelming strength. A big part of his success was the quality of his troops. The rank and file were almost entirely African, as were many non-commissioned officers with German NCO’s and commissioned officers to lead them. This provided the perfect combination of German mastery of leadership, discipline and tactics as well as the African expertise at survival, knowledge of the terrain and remarkable endurance. The German colonial army also had a much higher ratio of Europeans integrated within the African units than the other more segregated armies and this proved to be a marked advantage.

German colonial forces attack
1915 opened with a German raid on the Uganda Railway and later an attack on Saisi in the summer. Also that summer the German cruiser Koenigsberg was cornered and destroyed in the Rufiji Delta. Never one to let anything go to waste, Lettow-Vorbeck absorbed the sailors into his army under their commander, Captain Max Looff. They stripped the naval guns from their ship and turned them into field artillery for the German army. The opening months of 1916 saw the British gain control of Lake Tanganyika, defeating the German flotilla there and finally opening a new offensive in the Spring. At the same time, Belgian forces began attacking east from the Congo and more British troops struck north from Rhodesia. The Portuguese tried to launch an attack from the south but were defeated at the Rufiji delta. The Germans resisted where possible but took care to retreat when the odds were hopeless, fighting rear-guard actions and making the Allies, under the overall command of Smuts, pay heavily for every bit of ground gained. In July, British forces under General Jacob van Deventer captured Dodoma and in August General Smuts took Morogoro. In September the capitol of Dar-es-Salaam surrendered and about two weeks later Belgian colonial forces under General Charles Tambeur captured the outer-capitol of Tabora. The Portuguese launched another attack that did better than before but before November was out they were driven back across the border.

German colonial company on the march
By 1917, to look at a map, it seemed that German East Africa was conquered and Smuts relinquished his command after a successful offensive. However, the German colonial army remained at large and while the major towns were in Allied hands, Lettow-Vorbeck was still very much a threat and had not been defeated. From March through September he invaded Portuguese East Africa, capturing large amounts of supplies to sustain his little army while the Allies chased after other, smaller, German forces; the British from Kilwa and the Belgians toward Mahenge. In October the Germans fought a major engagement at Kilwa against the British which was yet another German victory, though a costly one they could ill-afford. Still, it set the British back and forced them to call in the Belgians from their recently seized prize of Mahenge to reinforce them. The following month, Lettow-Vorbeck doubled back and crossed into Portuguese East Africa again, defeating the Portuguese at the battle of Negomano. There seemed to be no end in sight and the British landed additional troops toward the end of the year. Lettow-Vorbeck was sometimes called “the Bush Ghost” and it is no wonder as he and his army seemed to be invisible until they appeared where least expected, attacked and then vanished again before overwhelming force could be brought against them.

aiding a wounded comrade
For much of 1918 the Germans remained elusive, to the consternation of the Allies. However, one should not get the impression that their forces were incompetent, far from it. Their troops, South African, British or the natives of the King’s African Rifles were disciplined and courageous, it was only that their commanders were outclassed. There were many colorful figures and units involved on the Allied side such as an eccentric British officer named Spicer-Simpson who wore a skirt, there was a unit of British fusiliers made up of an odd assortment of elderly men who actually proved to have more endurance in Africa than the youngsters. The Belgian colonial army also gained a great reputation in the campaign though the native troops of the other Allied armies refused to camp too close to the Belgians for fear that the Congolese natives of the Force Publique would eat them, such was their fearsome reputation. The Portuguese fared the worst probably and they were the only power to transfer large numbers of European troops from Portugal for service in Africa. At times they fought very well but the natives were not very reliable and the troops from Portugal were not adapted to the climate and conditions and it is no wonder they were often outfought by the veteran Germans.

Generalmajor Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
In July, Lettow-Vorbeck defeated a combined Anglo-Portuguese force at the battle of Namacurra but by the autumn an effort to aid them from Germany was underway. The Germans finally decided to send a zeppelin loaded with supplies from Turkey all the way to their forces in East Africa. Unfortunately for them, the Allies sent out a false report that the German army in Africa had surrendered and so the zeppelin turned back somewhere over the Sudan. It was not true of course and Lettow-Vorbeck continued his campaign of hit-and-run raids that kept the Allies in constant pursuit but never catching him. In September he crossed back into German East Africa, just long enough to make his presence known and then daringly turned south to invade Rhodesia. He was there, still going strong, when the war came to an end. The British informed him of Germany’s downfall, which he asked to have confirmed and which was done; the war in Africa being fought with considerable chivalry on both sides. The German colonial army marched to the nearest British outpost at Abercorn and surrendered, though Lettow-Vorbeck was furious when he found out that van Deventer had deceived him, saying that the armistice terms required his “unconditional surrender” when, in fact, it stated only that the German forces in Africa must be “evacuated”, however, despite his protests nothing came of the matter. He and his German personnel were shipped home where, quite rightly, there were given a hero’s welcome with a triumphal parade through the Brandenburg Gate. They had ended the war still undefeated.


  1. I love reading about battles in Africa during the Great War because I don't see them covered as much as the European theater, but Lettow-Vorbeck FTW!

  2. I had an African history professor in college that insisted on referring to WWs I&II as the First and Second European Wars. Aside from the obviously false implication that they were the only two wars ever fought in Europe, it completely ignored the fact that a lot of fighting happened in Africa and included African troops and independent African countries.

    Of course, she also maintained that Islam was a "native" African religion and Christianity was imported and forced on the population by Europeans, which required the convenient ignorance of the ancient Christian church in Ethiopia.
    Anyway, thanks for shedding light on an often ignored part of history.

    1. Not much you can say to that ... that's just tossing the very idea of "facts" out the window. WW1 had fighting all over (as mentioned above) and in WW2 there was more than just the fighting in Tunisia, Libya & Egypt. There were the campaigns in east Africa, sabotage by Nazi sympathizers in South Africa, even an operation in Madagascar. And certainly there was far more combat in Asia in WW2 that I wouldn't think one could just ignore. Heck, alot of right-wingers in Japan like to ignore Europe & Africa altogether and just call it the "Greater East Asian War".

      Islam an African religion? Sorry, north Africa at least had been Christian long before Mohammed was ever a twinkle in his daddy's eye -and that was in Arabia. Of course, there's also alot of ignorance (willful usually) about the Islamic domination of the slave trade in Africa long before Europe ever got in the business and even then it lingered on long after Europeans did away with it. One of the last big slave-trading rings was in East Africa run by the Muslim rulers of Sudan and Zanzibar.

  3. I suppose Lettow-Vorbeck had replaced Lothar von Trotha?

    1. I don't think so, von Trotha served in Southwest Africa, not East Africa which is where Lettow-Vorbeck was posted.

    2. Wait, you mean Germany had a colony in what is now Tanzania too?

      I was reading inattentively and thought this was Südwest!


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