234: War in East Africa Pt. 2


The war in East Africa heats up.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 32. The war had opened in German East Africa with the Germans taking Taveta in British East Africa then the Battle of Tanga had occurred in November during which the German forces under General Lettow-Vorbeck had repulsed a British amphibious invasion. In January 1915 the Germans and British had then clashed at Jasin, where the German forces had lost a large percentage of their officers and also expended a large portion of their available ammunition. Even though both of these actions could be considered a German victory, they would still cause Lettow-Vorbeck to have to reconsider his situation. Given the supply situation for the German troops it became imperative that Vorbeck switch tactics, he would say that “the need to strike great blows only quite exceptionally, and restrict myself principally to guerrilla warfare, was evidently imperative.” This shift, which would begin in early 1915 would represent the second stage of the campaign, and it would continue until 1917. The Germans would continue to move around the colony, and would not totally give up hope of hitting a good solid military victory on the battlefield, but Vorbeck was far more focused on just keeping his forces in the field. During this time they would be almost constantly chased by the British. The Germans would move from place to place, taking advantage of supplies that had been positioned in these areas for other purposes before the war, or just whatever food they could find. This would also be a time period where the British, and their allies, would fail time and time again to tie Vorbeck down or to really accomplish any of their goals. Today we will discuss these failures in both 1915 and then during the far larger campaigns of 1916, during which the British would get serious abot the actions in East Africa by bringing in troops from both South Africa and even Europe.

Our episode today starts not with the British or the Germans though, but insetad the Belgians. While the primary German raids were into British East Africa, there would also be German forces that would attack in the Belgian Congo. Much like Schnee and the Germans the colonial authorities in the Belgian Congo had hoped that they could keep their colony neutral during the war. When this proved to be impossible it would take time for them to move troops to the borders. By early 1915 enough of these defenders had gotten to the border with German East Africa to repel further German raids. The numbers of Belgian forces had even risen enough that they began to do some raiding into German territory, with these raids being led by a British businessman, Ewart Grogan. He would lead several successful raids into the German colony. During this same time the British were trying to determine what they should do with the Germans who were still raiding into their territory out of Taveta. The problem was that the British did not have a huge numerical advantage, and to actually launch a successful operation they would probably need one. Supplies were also a constant problem. In total there were only about 4,000 combat troops in British East Africa at this time, and this was simply not enough to take on Lettow-Vorbeck directly while also maintaining any kind of defense of the rest of the colony. They were therefore forced to wait for more troops to arrive.

This did not mean that everything was idle, one area where the British and Belgians would work closely together was on and around lake Tanganyika. This lake was important because it covered a huge area and provided the best method for transporting troops and supplies around it. Boats on the lake could provide almost infinitely more mobility than anything could on land and so both sides would vie for control of the lake during the first two years of the war. the Germans would strike first by sinking the Belgian ship Alexandre Delcommune which was their largest and most powerful ship on the lake at the time. Then in November they launched a raid that disabled the steamer Cecil Rhodes while also capturing a large stash of British supplies, including 150 miles of telegraph wire. This telegraph wire was actually very important, and it would be used almost immediately to connect the German positions on the lake to other German based in the interior of the German colony. The British and Belgian situation on the lake was in flux for the early months of 1915 with the Germans having the run of the lake, allowing them to launch attacks along its banks repeatedly. In April, a British professional big game hunter, John R. Lee approached the British with information that the Germans were preparing to launch a new steamer on the lake, it would be larger than any other ship on the lack and would be called the Goetzen. It would measure 220 feet in length, dwarfing anything that the British or Belgians possessed. A vessel this large could not be wholly constructin the area and instead it was being build elsewhere and then shipped overland to the lake where it would then be reassembled. Lee’s great idea was to move an even larger ship onto the lake, constructing it in Europe and then shipping it to Africa. The British believed in this plan and made Lee a Lieutenant in the Royal Navl Volunteer Reserve. He would move to Cape Town to oversee the effort. The battle for the Lake would continue into 1916, with the Goetzen playing an important role but it would eventually be matched by the British vessels brough in to control it. Eventually the Germans would lose control of the lake, with the Goetzen eventually being scuttled to keep it out of British hands.

Lettow-Vorbecks’ primary effort during this period was against the Uganda Railway. He would launch 50 separate raids against the railway in 1915 and thes would slowly grind down its effectiveness to the point where it almost ceased to be effective. The condition of the rails was further complicated by the shear amount of traffic that was being forced upon it. It was a critical route for supplies to reach the British defenders of their colony and the volume of traffice required by the war was far in excess of what it had been built for in peace time. Even as the state of the rails sunk further and further the British had no choice but to push them to their maximum.

It would be a year after Tanga before serious discussions about another British invasion of East Africa would occur. The plan created back in England was to use South African Troops, at least 10,000 of them, to launch another invasion of the German colony. The logical choice to lead these troops, with so many South African involved, as a South african. And of those the best choice probably was Jan Christian Smuts, however at this time there were some political problems in South Africa, and Smuts did not want to leave the area, and so a different leader would have to be found. Eventually General Smith-Dorrien would be chosen. Smith-Dorrien was soemthing of a world traveller before the war, like many pre-war British generals he had been involved in his fair share of colonial conflict. He had led troops during the Zulu War in 1879, participated in the Boer War, and had been at Omdurman with Kitchener. He had then spend years in India at the head of a division before going back to Europe in time to lead a division of the BEF at the start of the war. We have encountered him in our story way back in the 1914 episodes at the battle of Le Cateau. Everyone thought that he was a good candidate for the current position in EAst Africa, but right from the beginnning he would have problems getting the resources required to make a second invasion a realistic possibility.

While Smith-Dorrien was working hard to get his expedition ready for the invasion, nature itself would fight against him. After being in the theater for three weeks Smith-Dorrien would get very sick with pneumonia. In just those week he would drop to just nine stone, which for everybody out side of the UK means that he dropped to just 126 pounds in weight. His clerk would say ‘It would have killed him to have gone to East Africa. No one could have worked harder to make the expedition a success. I shall always think of Sir H. with all his peculiar and hard-to-get-used-to ways as a great man, a fine soldier, and a God-fearing gentleman.’ He would simply have to be replaced, and once again the best option appeared to be Smuts. There was additional pressure to find a South African who could take command of the invasion due to the fact that there was not enough time to both bring in a leader from Europe and also get the attack started before the rainy season hit, operations would have to start quickly. This time it was decided that the South African political situation was in a plac where he could leave, and so he would take over command. He would be commissioned as a Lieutenant General, and he would arrive in British EAst Africa in mid February 1916. Captain Meinertzhagen would write that Smuts “is a fascinating little man and one leaves him after an interview with the the impression that he has a first class brain.” The best information that Smuts had about the situation that he was walking into was a report from November 1915 that had been made by some South African officers. In it they had been position about the prospects for an invasion saying that it would require only a few months to completely finish off the German defenders. When Smuts arrived he quickly realized that perhaps it was not going to be so easy, what he found was a disorganized group of soldiers that had not had good experiences during the war. It was going to be a difficult road to victory.

One advantage that Smuts had over previous British leaders in East Africa was the number of troops under his command. The British had massively expanded the number of soldiers in the theater and these troops would come from both South Africa and Europe. Two regiments would even be dispatched from France. This meant that by the time that Smuts arrived to take control he would command over 27,000 troops. Many of the officers from South Africa even had some experience, having seen service during the Boer War, although most of their men were raw recruits with little experience. These men had almost exclusively lived in Africa their entire lives, but the Africa that they had lived in was generally very different than what they experienced in East AFrica. The last South African troops would arrive on March 4th, and with their arrival Smuts decided it was time to set his plan into motion.

With so many more British resources arrayed against him, Lettow-Vorbeck was in a trap of his own making. If he wanted to pull in resources from other theaters, he had certainly accomplished his goal, even bringing in troops from France, but the question became what to do now. While the British were reaching new heights in terms of troops numbers, Vorbeck was as well. At this point he would have up to 20,000 troops under his command, and it would represent the only time for the the rest of the war where his numbers would be comparable with his enemies. Not all of these troops were together though, and most of them were scattered around the west and south regions of the colony instead of focused in what would prove to be the decisive north eastern quadrant. This meant that Lettow-Vorbeck only had about 4,000 troops at the point of greatest danger, Taveta. He knew that this number could not stop the British advance that was surely coming, but he hoped that it could give him a sharp jab before retreating.

After reviewing the situation Smuts would decide to basically just follow the plan that Smith-Dorrien had already created. This would involve a two pronged attack, one focusing directly on Taveta with the other attempting to hit the Germans in the rear. The goal of these moves was to trap the German troops in Taveta, with General Tighe leading the primary attack with 15,000 men while General Steward lead the flanking force with a further 4,000. Smuts was confident that this move would completely change the situation in the colony and almost remove Vorbeck from the board before the rainy season began.

The force given to Tighe was large enough that it was going to push the Germans out of Taveta, nobody doubted that fact, and so the critical task would fall on General Steward, who had to get behind Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops in time to cut them off. To accomplish this task he would have to march through some pretty inhospitable terrain, with very little water along the way. Stewart would initially push his troops hard, and they would reach their first objective by March 6th, a day earlier than planned, but it would turn out that in meeting this objective he would push them too hard. In World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent Edward Paice would describe what it was like for the troops of Stewart’s column as they marched “The regimental historian of the 129th Baluchis described how this march . . . over semi-desert country, in a tropical sun, in column and on a strictly limited water supply, was an extremely exhausting task requiring good march discipline. All the troops, except a small number in the advance guards and on the flanks, were enveloped in a thick haze of dust from the moment the march started until the halt, at the end of the day. Only those who have done such marches know what they mean. It is one thing to picture war in terms of smartly aligned columns marching on good roads, it is another to see the reality - columns of filthy, sweating men, staggering with fatigue, at the end of such a march, and with parched mouths gasping for water. And to see these troops, in such a condition, pull themselves together for battle with an entrenched enemy, is to see real soldiers and to know the meaning of discipline.” After the first objective was reached on the 6th Stewart’s advance began to slow precipitously. Some of this slow down was very understandable, there were no rail lines in the area and supplies the troops was a huge problem. They were also the targets of near constant German raiding and another problem was the prevalence of occasional heavy rains which began as a pre-cursor to the rainy season which was just on the horizon. As report after report came into Smuts hands he became more and more frustrated at Stewart’s lack of progress.

By March 11th Stewart had only moved his troops a total of 20 miles in three days, and he was far behind schedule, it was by this point basically impossible to trap the Germans which were already slipping away. Smuts was furious. He believed that Stewart was not pushing his men hard enough, and was being simply lackadaisical. He also though that Stewart must not have properly prepared for his task, how else could he have failed so badly. Judgements both at the time and later would be far more positive for Stewart. Sure, he was not some general savant, but up until this point he had shown himself to be a totally competent commander in East Africa and contemporary accounts paint him as a universally liked and trusted leader. More importantly as the next year of fighting would prove, trapping the German troops was an almost impossible task. But in march 1916 Smuts did not care, he believed Stewart had failed due to being too cautious, and obviously he was not worthly of the command so he had to go. Stewart was relieved of his command and would find himself commanding a garrision in Aden for the rest of the war. In my mind this was Smuts simply finding a scapegoat for the failure of his operation. It obviously could not be Smuts fault, so somebody must have failed, and much like so many other officers during the war Stewart was lose his job due to his commander’s mistakes.

Never one to just give up, Smuts would push forward with his attack even after the Germans had escaped his trap. After pushing the Germans out of their base at Taveta Smuts was determined to keep them on the run instead of leading them settle into new positions. If this were to happen the British might get bogged down during the rainy season which would give the Germans just too long to recover and prepare to defend against them after the rains stopped. The plan was once again pretty similar to what had just happened, Smuts would have his main body of troops proceed directly against Lettow-Vorbeck to prevent him front setting up new positions around the Northern Railway, at the same time a smaller force would attempt to outflank the Germans. This time it the flanking force would be comprised of mounted troops. This time the flanking force had two goals, the first was to force Vorbeck to make a choice. If he kept most of his troops facing Smuts and the main British army he risked the Central Railway being cut by the moounted troops. If he moved troops to protect that railway then he risked losing all of the Northern Railway to the advance of Smuts. Overall this was a good plan for the British, but it relied on the ability of the mounted troops to move quickly towards their objectives, and in this simple task would lye the main problem. East AFrica was entering the rainy season, which would make it difficult to move anywhere, especially quickly. There was a belief among the British leaders, based on local intelligence, that the rains would not be as strong where the mounted troops were going, but this would prove to be incorrect. While Smuts was making his move elsewhere in East Africa a group of Belgian troops were advancing into the German colony. This would not greatly impact this specific British advance but it would prevent Lettow-Vorbeck from moving in more troops to meet the British advance.

The German retreat from Taveta, and from the border with British East Africa in general, would be a lengthy series of rear guard actions. In general these were not overly costly in terms of casualties, but they were also not really that much of a hinderance on the British advance. All that the Germans could do was hit the British a few times, while continuing to retreat as fast as possible, and in this very limited set of goals they were successful. Any greater German response was simply impossible due to the manpower disadvantage and the supply situation. Much like the British the German units were also greatly affected by the near complete lack of real infrastructure in the area, making moving large groups of troops or supplies a challenge. Most importantly, for both side, was the fact that the rains soon arrived and they would continue for 2 straight months. This allowed the Germans to break contact with the British for awhile. With the Germans in the air they were allowed a bit of a breather, and were given the opportunity to prepare for what came next. This would be the engagement in Kondona-Iringi. Here the Germans had fortified their positions and the fight became one of positional warfare, with many of the familiar features of the European fighting. The battle would go on for weeks as both sides tried to maintain their positions, it was of course quite costly. Eventually Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to order a retreat, the attrition was just unsustainable.

The retreat would continue all the way until the end of August. By that point the British had captured a good amount of the Central Railway, and the capture of Dar-es-Salaam was just a matter of time. During this time Smuts pushed his troops very hard, and he would later say that ‘it may be that I expected too much of my men, that I imposed too hard a task on them under the awful conditions of this tropical campaign’. While this sounds like Smuts questioning himself, he would always believe that he did the right thing, or really the only thing that he could do. ‘I do not think so . . . It is true that efforts like these cannot be made without inflicting the greatest hardships on all, but it is equally true that the Commander who shrinks from such efforts should stay at home.’ There would come a point in August where the British would meet up with the Germans once again, only this time the German troops had been able to dig in and fortify their positions once again. Smuts fear that if things continued it would be very costly, and he had some hope that a negotiated settlement could be accomplished. He would send a note to the War Office which said ‘I would submit that on occupation of Central Railway it will be advisable to make a serious effort to effect the surrender of the German forces without running the risk and expense of protracted guerrilla operations in the far south of their territory.’ While this type of settlement would have been great for the British, the chances of it actually happening was quite low, even Smuts knew that, and so he planned on launching more offensive operations. This would require him to push through the areas around the Uluguru mountains, which he would later say was ‘among the most difficult of the whole campaign.’

With these bodies of troops constantly moving around EAst Africa supplies, or lack of supplies, became a crucial factor that dictated the course of the campaign. The British supply lines aran all the way back to their own colony, and so the further they advanced the longer those supply lines became. This did not prevent the British from pushing forward, but they fell into something of a pattern. The main body of troops would push directly at the Germans while troops were sent around to try and hit their flanks. The Germans would then defend against this flanking force while their entire body of troops retreated. This happened again and again until early September when even Smuts was forced to admit that it was time for a break. The Troops from British East Africa had now advanced 200 miles in just six weeks, and it was simply impossible to continue forward. This exertion had cost them both in terms of absolute numbers but also in terms of health. By the end of September 6,000 British troops were out of their units and in the hospital, and this resulted in some units being completely combat ineffective. It was time for a break, and when that break was over the war in East Africa would once again decisively change.