235: War in East Africa Pt. 3


The war in East Africa comes to a close.



Hello everyone and and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 24. This is our third, and final, episode on the campaigns in German East Africa during the war. WE will cover the events of 1917 and 1918, during which the campaign in East Africa would totally and completely change. During this time Smuts would leave the theater, leaving a completely exhausted British army in his wake. This would give the Germans a bit of time to recover, but by this point they were heavily outnumbered and outsupplied. This would force Lettow-Vorbeck fully into guerilla warfare, which would last for the rest of the war. During this time the German forces would completely abandon even the concept defendingly the colony and would instead push into Portuguese East Africa. This move would allow them to raid into a more profitable area that had been mostly untouched by the war up to this point. During just one month of this raiding in 1918 the Germans would raid 30 trains, and would destroy 10 rail bridges. This havoc, while problematic, was also not as impactful or dramatic as previous fighting, but it was all that the Germans could do at this point.

As the end of 1916 approached Smuts was in a bind. His army was exhausted, and his plans to trap the Germans had failed at every turn. The British had captured huge swaths of what had been German territory, but this was still not the great and decisive victory that Smuts had hoped for. With it clear that his army could not sustain a large campaign in early 1917 something magical happened, at least in terms of Smuts’ reputation. In early 1917 Lloyd George wanted to create an Imperial War Conference in London. This would involve representatives from all of the Empire’s colonies and commonwealths. Smuts was chosen to be the representative from South Africa. When he would leave EAst Africa he left his army in command of most of the major railways, ports, and waterways of the colony, but he also heaft an army that was completely exhausted, had serious supply problems, and had thousands of men in the hospital. These would all be problems that the next commander would have to deal with. Smuts was basically jumping out of the theater just in time, back in London his huge advances and territorial acquisitions made him a hero, and it was up to the next guy to deal with the aftermath.

As the territory controlled by the Germans was forced to contract the areas still available to Lettow-Vorbeck found themselves more and more heavily taxed to keep the German army in the field. These areas were robbed of all foodstuff, and their population was taken as carriers for the German army. It was very rare that any payment or compenstaton was given for these actions. Many British officers would later report that this was the primary reason that Lettow-Vorbeck was able to keep his troops in the field throughout the last two years of the war. There was a general and complete disregard for the native populations, as one officer would put it ‘total disregard for the barest needs of the native population.’ The wholesale requisitioning that was happening would cause famies in East Africa during the last months of 1917, resulting in the deaths of up to 300,000 Africans, which was about 5% of the population. Those that were forced to be carriers were even more unlucky than those that wer eleft before. As one British official would say ‘Can you wonder that [the carriers] suffered, and suffered terribly? Of course they did. These poor, spiritless, ragged creatures had to hump their heavy packs and follow some of the most active and hardy troops that ever took to the field, over fearfully difficult country, through one of the most prolonged and rapid wars of movement ever known.’ All of these supplies allowed the Germans to stay in almost constant motion, never really getting within reach of their British pursuers.

With Smuts now back in London talking about how awesome he was, it was once again time to find a replacement for the British commander in East Africa, they would turn to Major General Hoskins. Hoskins was not very experienced in fighting in Africa, he was deeply racist, but he was still chosen. The condition of the army when he arrived was less than he hoped for. When Smuts left large numbers of South African troops went with him, when this was combined with the number of sick and wounded troops Hoskins found himself in a serious manpower crunch. While the number of British froces in the colony were not over 40,000, there were really only about 24,000 combat troops, and only about half of those were truly combat effective by the time that Hoskins arrived. It would take Hoskins weeks to convince those in London that the situation was not in the favor of the British at the time. In this effort he was not at all assisted by Smuts, who made it clear that Hoskins was dawdling, taking up way too much time, obviously the situation was not nearly as bad as he said. Because of Smuts’ influence back in London this view would carry the day, and in May Hoskins would be replaced and sent to Mesopotamia. He would be replaced by General van Deventer, who had commanded South African mounted troops for Smuts. van Deventer would be in command for the rest of the war.

Even if the British troops had been in pristine condition in early 1917 it would have been very difficult to launch many operations during the first 4 months of the year. The rains would come on January 22nd and they would be some of the worst in recorded history. For 4 months no large actions could occur and just the act of supplying the forces was almost impossible. By late January 120 miles of road that was critical to British supply movements was simply washed away and the entire area had become a lake. With the road gone the only recourse was to rely on carrier convoys, which when trying to feed and supply 3,000 troops was a pretty big task. No fresh meat would reach the forward troops during this time, and rations were cut to almost nothing. While barely keeping the troops fed van Deventer also prepared to advance, and at the very least he could depend on the Germans being in a situation just as bad as his own troops. The Germans were down to half rations during this period and on both sides the death rates among the carriers ballooned up to 1 in 5, a staggering death toll when you consider there were tens of thousands of carriers on both sides by this point.

While the rain was a problem nothing could completely halt the fighting, and as soon as he could van Deventer would launch an attack on Kilwa, which was the main German ammunition depot. At this point van Deventer did not really care if the Germans stayed to fight, or if he managed to trap them, all he knew was that if he hit the depot fast enough the Germans could not possibly take everything with them, and what they lost they would not be able to replace. On July 19th the British launched their attack, and the Germans did decide to resist, and while they held out for a brief period van Deventer also sent troops on a flanking mission which forced the Germans to once again retreat. The German troops would retreat to Mahingo, which they were then forced to abandon in late September. It was at this point that the German situation really began to fall apart, with 1,000 troops surrendering. This would begin a trend where small groups of German troops would be confronted and this they would surrender to the British attackers. This would include 1,500 troops in mid October, 1,400 later that month who were out scavanging for supplies, and the in November another 1,600. In each of these cases the lost troops would continue to erode the ability of Vorbeck and the Germans to actually confront the British, but for most of 1917 Vorbeck would not give up hope that a successful confrontation was possible.

During 1917 Lettow-Vorbeck was still hoping that one big engagement could still happen and he could defeat the British troops in that enagament. If everything went right he might be able to reach almost parity with a body of British troops and then hit a blow that would send the British reeling. By late 1917 he hoped that this would allow him to maintain his troops in the Lukuleidi region of East Africa, which was still pretty lucrative in terms of food. If this could be accomplished in 1917 it might allow the Germans to hold onto this area into 1918. As the situation around him continued to deteriorate Vorbeck was forced to try and find this fight on worse and worse terms. In October he was presented with a possible opportunity. The British were advancing troops from two direction, one column from the north and another from the west. Their goal was to separate the 1,200 men that Vorbeck had with him from the 1,000 men under the command of the German General Wahle. Vorbeck hoped that he could hit one and then the other British columsn before they could fully isolate his units. To do this Vorbeck would march his troops 40 miles to hit the British after they attacked Wahle. If everything went according to plan the British would panic and flee. Everythin did go according to plan. The British attacked Wahle, Vorbeck arrived at the perfect time, but then the British troops did not panic and instead held their ground. Vorbeck would try to outflank the British, but would run into more British troops who ere trying to do the same thing to him. Vorbeck would then be forced back from his flanking attack and the fighting would turn into a stalemate. The fighting would continue for days, and it would become a simple attrition battle. Eventually the British would pull back, resulting in a tactical victory for Vorbeck, but in every other way it was a disaster. Sure, Vorbeck could claim that the British ahd lost 40% of their forces, but the 25% that the Germans lost were totally irreplaceable. More than that they he used most of their ammunition, which was just as hard to come by as more men. While the British were forced back for a few weeks, they would just return, and in greater numbers.

It was at this point that Vorbeck was forced to make a decision. While he successfully fought off the British advances and pushed them back for the moment, they would be coming back and he would once again be forced to run. Most of his scattered units were surrendering to the British, with 98 German and 425 Askari troops and a good portion of Vorbeck’s remaining artillery pieces surrendering in Chiwata in late November. He was now down to just 320 European and 2,500 Askari troops under his direct command, and a few hundred more scattered throughout the colony. He was also critically low on quinine, which meant that soon his European troops would begin to have serious problems with malaria. On November 17th all of these facts forced him to make a decision. He would gather together as many troops as possible and they would all undergo a medical exam. The fittest 2,000 men would then go with him on a raiding trip into Portuguese East Africa. This meant that several hundred European and up to 2,000 Askari would be left before to be taken prisoner by the British. I doubt all of them were deeply saddened by this propsect. By making this decision Lettow-Vorbeck was totally giving up on the idea of a traditional war, or even holding onto any territory within the German colony, he and his army were going full guerilla mode.

Back in Germany Vorbeck was promoted to Major-General, not that it really mattered that much, I guess he got paid more. He arranged his troops into 10 companies, with five in the vanguard, 2 in the rear, and three in the center. These were all spread out over a pretty good distance, and everyone knew that they had set themselves up to be constantly pursued by the British. They also only had about 3,000 carriers with them, which greatly limited the number of supplies that they could carry with them. This made the rapid raiding and taking of supplies a necessity, a constant necessity. They would have some quick initial success, with Vorbeck and Wahle seizing 18 tons of food in just three weeks. This kept the Germans on their feet for awhile, but since they could not stay in one place for long, or take much of the food with them, they would have to have these types of successes again and again. Back in London Lloyd George continued to push for the British troops to pursue the Germans, even into Portuguese territory. van Deventer had little hope of catching Vorbeck or forcing him into a position where he would surrender, the most that he could hope for was to keep whittling away at the German numbers, and hopefully they would run into a string of back luck. Once of the problems the van Deventer was that once the Germans made it into Portuguese territory the Portugese were not exactly thrilled to have British troops moving into their colony. They were concerned that if the British were allowed to move into their colony, and they were shown to be militarily weak it would affect their ability to hold onto their colonies, and maybe even expand them, after the war was over. It would take weeks for them to finally grant van Deventer permission to end, by which point Vorbeck had a good solid lead on his British pursuers.

While Vorbeck was making the decision to move to a strict raiding strategy, back in Berlin there were plans being made to try and supply him directly. This came in the form of a plan created by Max Zupitza and it would involve airlifting supplies with a Zeppelin. This plan was of course top secret, and code named the China Affair. It would involve taking the airship L59 and lengthening it to be 225 meters, which would make it the longest airshpi every build. There were then changes to make the airship as useful as possible once it arrived in Africa, because this would always be a one way trip. Every piece of the ship had a purpose assigned to it once it arrived, for example the catwalks were covered with leather that could be made into boots, supplies were included to turn the cavas into tents and clothing, the list went on and on. The L59 was given enough fuel to reach its goal with 15 tons of cargo including 30 machine guns and 400,000 rounds of ammunition. The first attempt to make the trip began on November 13th, with 22 crew ready for the 3600 mile journey. However, bad weather would force the ship to turn back. A week later they tried again, and this time the airship made it all the way to Egypt. Everything seems to be going great, but then a wireless transmission was received from Berlin. It read ‘Break off operation. Return. Enemy as seized greater part of Makonde Highlands, already hold Kitangari, Portuguese are attacking remainder of Protectorate forces in the south.’ Unfortunately for all of those that had worked so hard to get the airship ready for its trip, the Germans had simply lost all of the territory in which the airship could have landed and therefore the entire operation was scrapped. 2 days later, having traelled 4,180 miles the airship arrived back in Europe, a long way to fly for no real purpose. Vorbeck would not learn of the attempt to supply him until later, and oddly enough only from the British.

The war in Africa entered into 1918 with the Germans continuing their raiding and the British in pursuit. During this time the Germans were unable to capture enough quinine to keep their European troops healthy and this meant that throughout the year the number of Europeans under Vorbeck’s command continued to dwindle. Those that fell behind were left behind. In early october the German troops would get their first information about the situation in Europe, or at least the first in many months, when their wireless set which at this point could only receive but not transmit information, was able to get a signal from Europe. What they heard is that the Germans were still holding the Hindenburg line. They had missed out on most of the drama of 1918, but they had known of the hindenburg line from 1917 and they were encouraged that the Germans still held that line of fortifications. Over the next month other snippets of news would slowly trickle in and what they gathered from these sources like captured from British telegrams painted a fare less optimistic picture for the German war effort. Schnee, who was still with Vorbeck and the German forces, would say that ‘very unfavourable news relating to the Western Front, the Bulgarian armistice, and the capture of Damascsu’ would be found in British communications. It was clear to the troops in Africa that the situation in Europe was already not exactly good, and it was only getting worse. They would hear about the armistice right after managing to capture a huge amount of supplies at Kasama, an effort that would prove to be pointless. It would not be until November 25th, 14 days after the armistice on the Western Front that Vorbeck woul surrender. It had been a year since he had begun his raids into Portuguese territory. He would present his surrender to Brigadier-General Edwards. Edwards allowed Vorbeck to keep his sword, and for the German officers to keep their sidearms. He would only have 155 Europeans and 1168 Askari with him at the time of surrender. Finally, after over 4 years the war was truly over.

As with all aspects of the war the East African theater had its own tally of hardships inflicted on the combatants and those around them. Throughout the course of the war the Allies would commit a total of 200,000 troops to the campaign, although not all at once, and of these about 5,000 would die. The true tragedy would be the carriers that the British forces employed. There would be about a million carriers in British service at some point during the war, and 95,000 of these would die. When this level of attrition become known in London it was believed that the true cost of the campaign should be suppressed if at all possible. Evaluations of the campaign vaired on the British side, they had managed to push the Germans out of their own colony, but had not managed to achieve the quik victory that had been hoped for, and which had happened in so many other colonies around the world. One British colonial administrator, Charles Dundas, would later say that the British might have even helped Vorbeck to rise to the kind of hero that he became after the war. ‘Had we not invaded German East Africa it was quite possible that von Lettow-Vorbeck would have been compelled to surrender in order to save his own people, particularly the German women and children, from extreme privation. Instead we relieved him of that burden and left him unencumbered to pursue his tactics of attrition. One wonders at times whether it would not have been more profitable to content ourselves with holding our own borders, leaving the Germans to stew in their own juice, in a sense it all seemed so futile …’

Vorbeck would consider is campaign a success, believing that he had diverted 300,000 British troops away from the European theater, this number if very high, and many of the troops that were sent to Africa would not have went to Europe anyway. The Germans had also lost several thousand men, but most of their combat troops had been captured. Once again the true tragedy was on the side of the native Africans. The Germans did not even keep records of the number of carriers conscripted into their forces. They were considered totally expendable to them, and they did not record casualty rates. The official history of the campaign would read ‘of the loss of levies, carriers and boys [we could] make no overall count due to the absence of detailed sickness records.’ Given the numbers of carriers employed aand the hardships experienced by them it is extremely doubtful that the number is less than the 95000 that the British lost, and it is very likely that the number is far higher. That does not even include the number affected by the policies of Vorbeck while he was vacuuming up the supplies for his men. All that we can really do is speculate, but the best estimates from historians put the number of Africans that would die as a direct result of these German actions between 300,000 and 350,000. This leads me to conclude that number of Africans killed by German policies or employment during the war could have been around 500,000. Just to make the situation worse for the Africans, right after the war, and the famine that it created, the survivors were hit by the worldwide flu epidemic. By the thime that it was over it would cause almost 2 million people to die in sub-Saharan africa, although those numbers are incredibly fuzzy due to the absece of good record keeping.

The legacy of Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops in East Africa would be one of great heroics in post-war Germany. German, and later Nazi, historians would claim that just 1,000 carriers had died supporting the German troops during the war. Lettow-Vorbeck would be treated a classic heroic soldier who had been a benevolent command and leader of his African troops. They insisted that the population of German East Africa heavily supported the war, and their loyalty had lasted until the very end. It would only be after decolonization in the aftermath of World War 2 that the true story, as was so often the case in colonial Africa, would be told. These post World War 1 histories would do much to boost Lettow-Vorbeck’s presige, an image that is hard to break even today. But the fact of the matter is that, like to many other Europeans during the era of European colonization, Lettow-Vorbeck is only known because he was standing on a giant pile of death, destruction, and suffering that was hidden from view.