The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918 Summary

Byron Farwell

The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918

Thousands of books have been written on World War I, and it is not easy to select a topic that previous authors have not already analyzed in depth. Byron Farwell, however, a British journalist and military historian, has succeeded in this task. Germany before the war possessed several African colonies, including the Cameroons and German East Africa. Throughout the war, Britain--and to a lesser extent France and Belgium--carried on an offensive to wrest these colonies from German control.

The struggle was a grim one, in that both sides relied heavily on native troops, called askaris, who suffered many casualties. The war blighted the agricultural economy of the colonies and disrupted the life of the population. Farwell, while fully alive to these facts, also has an eye for bizarre incident and piquant detail. On one occasion, for example, a British naval commander acquired a heroic reputation for action in a naval battle he had in fact carefully bypassed.

Farwell describes all the major actions in this forgotten theater of the war in careful detail and with great verve. Especially noteworthy is his long discussion of the Boer General Jan Smuts, who moved from his campaigns against the German colonies to a much more central role in British military affairs.

The author does not devote much attention to the background of the German colonies, and standard works such as Harry Rudin’s study of colonial German administration find no place in the bibliography. Whatever its analytical weaknesses, however, the book succeeds very well as an interesting and informative narrative. If, as Thomas Carlyle said, “history is the essence of innumerable biographies,” Farwell has done an excellent job of historical writing.