233: War in East Africa Pt. 1


In this previously Patreon exclusive episode we find out about the war in East Africa.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 32. While much is written and talked about concerning the European theaters of the war, the theater that saw the longest duration of combat during the first world war was actually in East Africa. During the four years and three and a half months that the war would last in this theater the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck would lead his troops against a variety of nations. Britain, South Africa, Belgium, India, Portugal, and others would all send troops into the German colony. During this time Lettow-Vorbeck would become one of the most famous German generals of the war. His guerrilla campaign would become a celebrated model of resistance against an opponent with vastly greater resources. For most of the war he would move around Africa while avoiding large confrontations and also attempting to suck in as many Allied resources as possible, which was goal he would have some success at achieving. What the Allies found was that their general process of capturing territory did not work well when combatting an enemy that did not really defend that territory like the Germans were doing on other fronts. This would result in three years of, mainly British, mistakes while Lettow-Vorbeck danced around their attempts at pinning him down. After the war Lettow-Vorbeck would then be celebrated, in no small part due to the popularity of his own first hadn account of the campaign, but there was a dark side to the East African theater that simply cannot be ignored. Most of the accounts that you find about this area of the war are written by Europeans about Europeans but African combatants are actually far more important. Over the four years of fighting hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of African combatants and carriers were marched around by the European armies. Hundreds of thousands would die while being asked to march 20 miles or more every single day while receiving little food and essentially no medical care. Then there was the economic and societal damage that was caused by the war that wandered its way all over the German colony. Food, workers, and all kids of resources were all stolen from the citizens in the name of keeping the armies moving and fed. When this induced hardship was then met with the worldwide flu epidemic of 1920, millions of Africans would die. The story of East Africa is a texbook example of how a narrative can easily be shifted to ignore certain pieces o the story, hopefully we can shed some light on it during the next 3 Patreon episodes. Today we will discuss the situation in the German colony before the war began, and then look at the opening moves of 1914. Then in episode 2 we will continue the story during the most militarily active portion of the war, the years 1915 and 1916, during which the Germans could still field a substatial number of troops. Then in the final episdoe we will take the story to the end of the war when the Germans would actually be forced out of their colony before learning of the end of the war in Europe. The third episode will close out by looking at the legacy of this theatre and the disastrous aftermath for the African citizens of the German East Africa.

Our story starts not with a discussion of the Germans or the Europeans but instead a group of individuals called the Askari. The Askari were professional soldiers that were trained by the Europeans in Africa, they were given training and equipment that would allow them to fight with mostly European methods. The motivations of the Askari were hugely varied, with many seeking wealth and power that they hoped that they could gain through the Europeans, others were just hoping for respect. Critically, once they became part of the Askari they were no longer considered AFricans either by the Europeans or the other Africans. They were different, apart, and they would look down on the non-Askari natives just like the Europeans did. This separation continued after their soldiering days were over, and instead of returning to their past lives they would retire to communities formed completely of other Askari. These men were critical to Lettow-Vorbeck’s war effort, but he always considered them to be of lesser quality than his European troops. And just to be clear this evaluation was almost entirely due to the deep seeding racism that Lettow-Vorbeck harbored. Like many other Europeans at this time Lettow-Vorbeck believed that the Africans needed white Europeans to lead them, and when describing his European officers Lettow-Vorbeck would often speadk of how they had gained the respect of the Africans, like with Lieutenant-Colonel Freiherr von Bock who he would describe like this “His true chivalry and fatherly care soon won him the hearts of his black conrades, to such a degree that he was in their eyes the bravest of all Germans, and they clung to him with touching loyalty.” These types of descriptions were laced with racism that would run throughout all of the Lettow-Vorbeck’s accounts of the campaign. Even though they were considered lesser than the Europeans, and they were often treated very poorly, the Askari never revolted against German rule. The British expected them to, and based some of their warplans around the idea, but it never happened. The British Colonel Meinertzhagen would say he was impressed by the German Askari saying that they “can stand a great deal of punishment and will stand up to gun and machine-gun fire.” Throughout most of the war the German armed forces in East Africa were made up primarily of these African troops, with Europeans always being in a minority within Lettow-Vorbecks’ forces. Another incredibly important groups that is even less present in histories of the war are the carriers. Given the terrain and infrastructure of Africa at this point in history it was critical that an army have many times its numbers in people just to carry supplies. There could be tens of thousands of these carriers at any given point in the campaign carrying everything from food to ammunition. They were treated very poorly, and were often considered almost expendable. When more were needed they were simply conscripted from villages on the path of the march. They were generally paid at least something, but generally very little given the amount of back breaking, and often deadly, exertion that was required of them. We will talk more about the number of casualties among these carriers in episode three but just try and keep in mind the thousands of carriers that were trudging behind the combat troops all throughout Africa as they crisscrossed back and forth around Africa.

In his history of the war Lettow-Vorbeck would say that there was not a single African tribe that rose against the Germans and that he did not have to divert a single squad to keep the natives in line. This was untrue, and the evidence of this starts before the war even began. The German colonies were prestige items for the German Empire, all great powers at the time had colonies empires and so the Germans wanted in on the game. They were late entrants into the colonial quest due to Bismarck and his belief that Germany not only did not need colonies but they would in fact be a detriment and a worthless use of resources. Eventually Bismarck would no longer control German policy and shortly thereafter the hunt for colonies was on. Many looked to colonies due to the economic benefits, but there were also some that saw them as a solution to the population problems that many believed that Germany would face in the coming years and their population continued to increase. Lettow-Vorbeck was of this mind, and he saw the colonies as a solution to possible over-population in Europe. As a general rule the African colonies ruled over by the Germans were not great places to live for native Africans. They were given very few rights and European settlers were, essentially, allowed to do whatever they wanted. This would then lead to a long series of rebellions from the native people of Africa against the Germans. Then these rebellions woul dlead to violent actions against them, and even worse treatment, it was really just a very bad situations. Many historians consider the German colonies to be the second most brutal colonial regime in Africa, placing it behind only the Belgian Congo, which if you know anything about the Belgian Congo is an incredibly low bar to beat. The rebellions did help the Germans prepare for the war since it required the creation of a large police force, called the Schutztruppe, and it also allowed their large numbers of Askari to get combat experience. In his work World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent Edward Paice would say this of the German experiences in their colony before the war. “Indeed in the first decade of the twentieth century, while the rest of the world turned a blind eye, German colonial troops honed scorched earth and bush warfare tactics against the indigenous inhabitants of German South-West Africa and German East Africa with a single-mindedness that Kitchener had been neither willing nor able to contemplate in the Anglo-South African War - with results that can only be termed genocidal. Such thoroughness also ensured that Germany’s larger African colonies, in marked contrast to Britain’s, had mobilisation procedures in place which in 1914 would prove every bit as effective at countering aggression from a colonial neighbour as they had for suppressing indigenous uprisings.” All of these uprising make it clear that the Germans did not have the support of the native population, but at the same time neither did the Allied invaders. One Masai tribesman would state the overall native position quite well by saying “It makes no difference to us whether the english or the Germans are our masters.”

The one finla bit of history we need to discuss before getting to the war is the story about Lettow-Vorbeck himself. Lettow-Vorbeck was born in 1870, his father had been a general in the Prussian Army and Lettow-Vorbeck was enrolled in the Katettenanstalt military academy. He would graduate in 1888 and would serve in an infantry regiment for 11 years. After this stint in the infantry he would spend two years studying the colonies for the German General Staff. Lettow-Vorbeck would then be promoted out of Europe. The reason for this promotion was the fact that while no one would ever accuse him of cowardice or laziness, or even being poor at his job, he was not exactly the most popular of officers. This affected his ability to properly lead troops in the military, and also made him a a prime target for promotion to the colonies, in this case German East Africa.

The goals of the German trooops in East AFrica would change as the war progressed. This was mostly due to how long the war was going on because just like everyone else in the colonial leaders of the European colonies believed that the war would be short. If it was short than it was important to hold onto as much of the colonies as possible when it eneded, because the colonies were almost certain to play a role in the negotiations for peace. For East Africa this meant that Lettow-Vorbeck would focus on keeping the Allies out of East Africa if at all possible. In fact, in late August the German Colonial secretary in Berlin would draw up a list of Colonial possessions that German should request when the war was over, the goal being to create a sort of MittleAfrika, a large block of German controlled African colonies, but to accomplish this goal they had to actually be in control of their existing colonies. This strategy of trying to hold as much territory as possible would continue for most of 1915, however after this point, as it was clear that the war would drag on for awhile, a different set of objectives emerged. The political aims of defending the colony mostly evaporated and instead the goal just become to continue to resist and to tie down as many Allied resources as possible. This would be where Lettow-Vorbeck would have his greatest successes, just acting as a distraction and diversion.

When the war started the majority of the forces available in the colony came from the security forces that existed when the war started. For the Germans this meant a force of 2,450 professional Askari, 2154 African police officers, and 1,000 Askari reserves. These numbers for security forces was not abnormal in Africa at this time, with British East Africa and Uganda having roughly similar numbers. These African troops would be joined by a bit over 200 Europeans, these Europeans were generally in the colony in the hopes of gaining wealth and adventure. They would be paid double what German soldiers in Europe received and they were put in control of territory that was larger than some European countries. These troops were not the sum total of the forces that would be used during the war. AFter war was declared the Governor of German East Africa, Heinrich Schnee would isseue a decree which told all of the Germans in the colony that they Germany ‘expected that we too [defend] to the death the soil of German East Africa entrusted to us.’ The Germans that had not been part of the military before the war would be an important source of manpower for Lettow-Vorbeck. Many of these men had been professional hunters or other adventurous individuals who would fight the war as if it was a sport. Lettow-Vorbeck would arrange these Europeans into their own units in 1914, with 2 companies being made up entirely of Europeans. There would also be white officers in the units that were made up of Africans. Lettow-Vorbeck preferred this arrangement, believing that the Europeans units were of higher quality and that the African units had to be led by Europeans to be effective. As I said, very racient. This arrangement would eventually break down due to casualties, and after 1915 the European companies were broken up to fill the ranks of other units and to make sure that, above everything else, the Askari units always had Europeans in all leadership positions.

When Lettow-Vorbeck arrived in the colony and took over as leader of the defense he brought with him some different ideas around how the colony should be defended. Those who had been in the colony longer, and the colonial leaders in 1914, believed that the best course of action was to launch a guerrilla war, or a Buschkrieg. They felt that this plan was required due to the fact that the colony’s defenders would almost certainly be outnumbered by the British invaders. There were also concerns that a conflict on the European style, with large armies, would strain the colony too much and would lead to native uprisings. Lettow-Vorbeck disagreed with all of them, and as soon as he arrived in January 1914 he began to transform the forces available to him to be closer to the European model. His goal was to fight a far more conventional war, with Lettow-Vorbeck preferring a Bewegungskrieg, or a war of movement. These types of operations would require more soldiers, more supplies, and more infrastructure and it also required large movements from his army, which would put more pressure on the soldiers and carriers as they moved around. All of this would prove to be beyond the power of the German East African forces, and after a long stalemate the attempts at this strategy would be abandoned by Lettow-Vorbeck in the second half of the war.

Even though the German colonial governor, Heinrich Schnee, would eventually send out that notice that all Germans were expected to do their duty, his mindset was different when the war first started. Schnee believed that the colonies should and could remain neutral during a European war. This was due to Article 11 of the Congo Act of 1885 which was signed by all of the major colonial nations of Europe, it read “In case a Power exercising rights of sovereignty or Protectorate in the countries mentioned in Article 1, and placed under the free trade system, shall be involved in a war, then the High Signatory Parties to the present Act, and those who shall hereafter adopt it, bind themselves to lend their good offices in order that the territories belonging to this Power and comprised in the Conventional free trade zone shall, by the common consent of this Power and of the other belligerent or belligerents, be placed during the war under the rule of neutrality, and considered as belonging to a non-belligerent State, the belligerents thenceforth abstaining from extending hostilities to the territories thus neutralized, and from using them as a base for warlike operations.” In accordance with this agreement Schnee believed that the colony would remain neutral and therefore he declared its neutrality and declared that its two main ports at Dar-es-Salaam and Tanga would remain open ports for the rest of the war. This forced the German warship Konigsberg to put to sea immediately, or it would have to be interned for the duration of the conflict. Lettow-Vorbeck was not a supporter of these actions, he believed that declaring the ports as open was basically just going to give them to the British. He believed that the British would land troops and then march them into the colony, completely disrespectiving the declaration of neutrality. Lettow-Vorbeck would win this argument with Schnee, and in fact almost all of the colonial leadership group would soon consider Lettow-Vorbeck as the person in charge. On August 15th, in the first military action in the African colonies, Lettow-Vorbeck sent the German Captains von Prince and Hering to take a force of Askari and Europeans to capture the village of Taveta. Taveta was just over 10 miles over the border with British East Africa and was considered a valuable target for the Germans to take and hold because it controlled the best route that the British could take into the German colony. This was not the only froce that was sent towards objectives, with other troops moving toward Lake Tanganyika. This lake was critical due to its role in providing north to south motiblity for the German forces. The fighting around Lake Tanganyika would not be the quick success that Taveta would be, and the fighting on the lake would continue well into 1915. Two other objectives were on Lettow-Vorbecks list in these opening actions, Lake Victory and the Northern Railroad these targets were also important because they would provide greater mobility to the German forces, however both of the attacks sent toward them would be unsuccessful.

Over the next six weeks, September and Early October 1914, Taveta would be a key launching pad for raids into British territory. Many of these raids focused around the Uganda railroad. The war at this point was still very, almost casual, with Lewis Harcourt, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies referring to it as “all very thrilling.” This was still at a point where most people thought that the war would be over soon so these small colonial actions were just a bit of a game, but for one group of people it was not a very fun game, the African troops on both sides. When they had entered into military service it had been mostly for peacekeeping and internal security but now they were in a real conflict and were marching all over Africa under the orders of the Europeans. Things did begin to calm down after the first week of October though. The pace of reading from September was just unsustainable and so the Germans needed a break, and what they were doing was not working very well anyway, with most of the raids not producing the expected results or supplies. In general the theatre would stay pretty quiet until the British decided that it was time to get a bit more serious about the situation and that meant landing troops on the coast.

The British were planning to invade German AFrica from the sea in early November, this would be in the form of a tro pronged attack, one landing at Tanga and the other at Longido. The assault at Tangs would go forward first, with November 2nd set as the start date. It woul dbe commanded by General Aitken and would be executed by troops from India. Aitken had no experience in campaigning in Africa, and he had only met his direct subordiantes a few days before the operation. The forces were not well supplies with heavy equipment, with just 14 machine guns and a few small artillery pieces to use. They would also go directly onto their beaches from their ships that had been loaded in India, without any stop along the way to sort things out or two recover from the voyage. As I am sure you can tell, this is not going to go very well for them. Lettow-Vorbeck was prepared for the landings and he was prepared to defend the city, even though Schnee wanted to city to be abandoned. Lettow-Vorbeck knew that he probably could not completely stop the landings if they were well organized, he would be outnumbered several times over, but he hoped that he could disrupt the British landings, slow them down, and then withdraw inland where he would be better able to resist. To try and reduce the effectiveness of the British numerial advantage Lettow-Vorbeck planned to try and draw them into house ot house fighting within Tanga.

The landings, when they were executed by the British are an almost textbook example of how not to execute amphibious operations. The first problem would be that the British would delay landings for 24 hours after giving the proper notification to the authorities in Tangs. This allowed Lettow-Vorbeck to move down more troops into the region and it just kept the Indian troops on their ships even longer. The men on the ships were not the highest quality troops in the British Empire, all of those had already made their way to Europe, they did not have much experience and they had even less with amphibious operations. To make matters worse they would be landing at night, and in a rainstorm. In this very difficult situation they would have to walk the last 300 meters onto the beach through chest deep water, and then they had to march and fight. The first troops were ambushed on their way into Tanga, and they would be pushed back. Then the British pushed further forward towards Tanga and Lettow-Vorbeck was able to launch an attack against their flank. This caused a good amount of panic, and the British troops which had reached the outskirts of Tanga were forced to retreat. Overall, the whole battle would be over before 5:30 in the afternoon. Even though things had went incredibly well, Lettow-Vorbeck knew that he should not push his luck into the next day and so instead of staying to fight the next day he began to pull his troops out of the city.

The quick defeat of the British landing force came as a huge shock to the British commanders. The commander on the scene was just as shaken as anybody else, and because of this he sent reports to Aitken that painted a very bleak picture. With all of this near panic, the British began to negotiate with Lettow-Vorbeck about an evacuation. This sounds really bad, and it was, but in some ways the British were lucky. Lettow-Vorbeck had made the choice to not counter-attack after the British attack had been stopped, and this had allowed the British some time to recover and then begin the evacuation. One of the British officers, Captain Evants would say that ‘if the enemy had been at all enterprising they might have mounted their Maxims on the cliffs above the beach and wiped out the whole force.’ Even though the evacuation began successfully, the British were still incredibly concerned about the stiatuion and they took an important step a few days later on November 5th. It was on that day that Aitken decided that the evacuation had to happen faster and therefore all heavy items should be left behind. This provided Lettow-Vorbeck with a gold mine of items including 8 machine guns, 450 rifles, half a million rounds of ammunition, coats, blankets, and telephone gear. All of this was esentially priceless to Lettow-Vorbeck since so much of it was completely unattainable in the colony.

The losses at Tangs were quite small on both sides, with the British lossing between 800 and 1800 dead, wounded, or missing. I realize that is a pretty wide spread but the numbers seem to be all over the place. The Germans probably lost about 100, although there are not good sources on that. There were several immediate consequences, the first was that teh British sacked Major General Aitken who was demoted and placed on half pay for the rest of the war, he would spend the next decade trying to clear his name. It also caused the War Office in London to remove Africa from the responsibility of the Colonial and Indian offices and instead bring them under direct control from London. This would cause the British to be far more cautious with future actions, and it meant when they came back it would be in overwhelming force. This was very similar to what happened in the Middle East after the disaster at Kut al-Amara. In many ways, if the goal of the German defenders was to tie down as many British resources as possible the victory at Tanga was in some ways far too complete. It scare the British off instead of drawing them in further. This meant that resources that would have went to maintaining a British force in East Africa were diverted elsewhere. Lettow-Vorbeck did hope that such a decisive victory would cause the colonial government and the people of the colony to more fully support the war effort, and in this he was partially successful.

After Tanga the entire theatre would settle down, the British would maintain a defensive stance in their colonies and Lettow-Vorbeck would centralize his forces around Tanga and continue raiding. During this time the German forces slowly grew due to the recruiting of large numbers of Africans. This meant that the German forces would balloon up to between 16,000 and 20,000 men. This gave Lettow-Vorbeck far more striking power, but also made the upply situation even worse. Another problem for Lettow-Vorbeck was that he was running short of European officers and while his forces would continue to grow, the number of Europeans available to him did not increase at the same rate. This was further exacerbated after the Battle of Jasin, during which 1/7 of the German officers in Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces were killed. That battle would happen in early 1915. Overall the first 6 months of the war in Africa had been action packed, and things were just getting started.