World War I

by Edward Paice

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World War I

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746

The first shots by British troops during World War I were fired in a pestilential, little-known German colony in West Africa. Most readersindeed most history buffswill be surprised to learn that Africa played a role in that great conflict. However, anyone familiar with The African Queen (1935) by British novelist C. S. Forester or the classic 1951 film version is at least marginally aware that the British and the Germans were facing each other down on what was then still known as the Dark Continent.

At the opening of hostilities in mid-1914, almost all of Africa was under the control, real or nominal, of one European country or another. Germany possessed four colonies on the continent: Togo, Cameroons, German South-West Africa, and (largest of all, at 384,170 square miles) German East Africa. Together their area was five times the size of the mother country itself.

Opposing Germany and its allies were the Entente Powers, whose combined holdings in Africa were immense. As a result, Germany’s African colonies were surrounded by immediate and potential enemies, and most had little chance of resistance. Tiny Togo in West Africathe site of those first British shotssurrendered during the first month of the war to a combined Anglo-French force. Its fall was followed by that of German South-West Africa, which surrendered to South African forces in July, 1915. Britain had only recently concluded peace with South Africa’s Boer (Dutch) settlers after two bitter wars, and there had been concern about the Boers’ sympathies, but they proved loyal to the British crown. Germany’s other West African colony, Cameroons, capitulated in February of the following year. This left only German East (as English speakers routinely referred to the territory), but that colony was destined to consume the efforts of combined British and Indian forces (with some help from Belgian and Portuguese troops) for four years.

Besides their ostensible foes, troops faced a daunting array of “natural” enemies in Africacruel terrain, a debilitating climate, and a variety of vexatious and often dangerous animals. (On more than one occasion, swarms of angry bees joined in the melee, attacking both sides indiscriminately.) Endemic diseases included malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery, smallpox, and meningitis. The great pandemic of “Spanish” influenza reached sub-Saharan Africa in late 1918. The European participants were also constrained by a crucial psychosocial factor, the fear that their African subjects, whom they reflexively treated as inferiors, would come to see the Europeans as just another collection of warring tribesmore powerful, certainly, but otherwise no better than themselves. In any case, the colonizers were not constrained for long, using (and ruthlessly sacrificing) native Africans in virtually every capacity.

That German East resisted as long as it did was due largely to a single individualPaul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who became commander-in-chief of German forces in East Africa in 1914. A veteran of brutal colonial wars in South-West Africa that would today be classified as genocidal, von Lettow-Vorbeck had developed into a skilled, ruthless guerrilla leader determined to win at any cost. He quickly put German East on a war footing, overriding the concerns of timid Governor Heinrich Schnee and in effect assuming control of the colony.

On the map, German East’s predicament appeared dire. To the north lay British East Africa (Kenya) and Uganda, while to the southwest were two more British territories, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Off the coast lay the British protectorate of Zanzibar and its sister island Pemba. On the west was the vast Belgian Congo, while to the south was Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). However, the situation was not as one-sided as it might appear. Although Belgium had...

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been invaded by Germany in early August of 1914, cooperation between its commanders in Africa and their British counterparts left much to be desired. Portugal entered the war on the Allied side only in 1916, but its efforts in Africa proved inept at nearly every turn. Over the next four years the resourceful von Lettow-Vorbeck ranged with remarkable speed over the region, waging a brilliant campaign against forces ten times the size of his own. His primary opponent was General Jan Smuts, a veteran of the Second Boer War and the German South-West campaign who was appointed commander-in-chief of British and South African forces in East Africa in 1916.

Britain’s war in East Africa got off to a bad start with the battle for Tanga, a port in German East and the terminus of one of the region’s few rail lines. Under the inept command of the hapless Major-General Arthur Aitken, who neglected to reconnoiter the area in which he landed his troops, the British suffered an ignominious defeat. Subsequently the British fared better, but the loss of the battle was a severe blow to morale in Britain as well as in British Africa.

Both sides expended much of their energy during the opening months of conflict on SMS Königsberg, a German light cruiser responsible for the first loss of merchant shipping in the war. Under the command of Captain Max Looff, the Königsberg captured the SS City of Winchester, a British cargo ship heading for Britain with a load of Indian tea, on August 6, 1914. Afterward, however, the Königsberg, running short of coal and supplies, sought a safe haven in the vast delta of the Rufiji River, one of the German colony’s major water courses. It slipped out in September to shell and destroy the British cruiser HMS Pegasus, which was laid up in the harbor at Zanzibar, before returning to the delta. The fear of mines kept British ships from following it upstream. Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) became obsessed with the ship, and Britain spent vast sums of money to destroy it. Both sides endured extremes of heat, humidity, and boredom (not to mention the predations of mosquitoes) before the issue was finally resolved. It was thanks to two British monitors, or shallow-draft gunboats, towed from the Mediterranean that the cruiser was blown up. The British also used small planes to direct the attack, the first such use of planes to destroy a warship. However, the Germans managed to salvage ten of the ship’s guns, which they used against the British for the duration of the conflict. In a fitting end, the wreck of the Königsberg was eventually sold for two hundred pounds to the captain of the Pegasus.

Several enormous bodies of water lying along German East Africa’s western bordersVictoria Nyanza, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Nyasaplayed key roles in the fighting. Two German craft, the gunboat Hedwig von Wissmann and the tug Kingani, held sway over the waters of Lake Tanganyika during the early months of the war, sinking a Belgian steamer and two British steamers in 1914. The following year they were joined by the Goetzen. This huge steamer had been built in Germany, disassembled, shipped to Dar-es-Salaam on the coast of German East, and then carried by train and porter to the lake, where it was reassembled. One of the Königsberg’s salvaged guns made the ship especially dangerous. In an even more astonishing feat, however, Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson oversaw the transport of the bizarrely named motorboats Mimi and Toutou on cradles from South Africa to the lake and, with the help of two small Belgian craft, sank the Hedwig von Wissmann and captured the Kingani. With the aid of planes, the smaller, faster Allied craft were able to keep Goetzen at bay in the port of Kigoma, and it was eventually scuttled by its crew. These events inspired Forester to write his famous adventure novel.

The armistice ending Germany’s involvement in the war was signed November 18, 1918, yet von Lettow-Vorbeckwho by then commanded only 153 German troopsdid not immediately learn of his country’s defeat or even believe the news. He clearly would have fought to the last man. After the war he crusaded with Schnee for the return of Germany’s colonies and took part in an unsuccessful 1920 putsch to impose a military dictatorship on Germany. Adolf Hitler decorated him in 1939, and he lived well into the 1960’s. It is possible that, if other Germans had fought with the same determination (or fanaticism, depending on one’s point of view), the outcome of the war might have been different.

The campaign in Africa has routinely been dismissed as a “sideshow,” but for a sideshow it was immensely costly. Britain’s bill alone ran to more than four billion dollars in today’s money, and when the cost to India and Britain’s other African colonies is included, the amount was far greater. The war was even costlier in lives. The official death toll among those fighting on the British side in East Africa was one hundred thousand, but the actual number was probably twice that. At least one-eighth of British East Africa’s male population died. German brutality resulted in the death of as many as three hundred thousand African civilians in German East alone.

There have been several books in English about World War I in East Africa, including Ross Anderson’s well-received 2004 study The Forgotten Front, 1914-1918: The East African Campaign. However, Paice’s exhaustive history is likely to remain the standard work for the foreseeable future. He has consulted not only printed sources (as his lengthy bibliography attests) but also archives in eight countries. His command of detail is extraordinary, although he suffers from a desire to share everything he knows about his subject. Long, ambitious sentences constructed of multiple clauses and bristling with military abbreviations and references to commanders, armament types, troop strength, and unfamiliar place names may overwhelm all but the most determined reader. Here the book’s glossary, dramatis personae, and maps are a great help, as are the eight appendixes summarizing orders of battle.

It is unfortunate, however, that Paice’s editors have not attended to the minor details of their production. The map of colonial Africa at the outbreak of the war incorrectly shows French Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia as parts of French West Africa. The index is incomplete, and there are several incorrect references; an entry for “Somaliland” contains “see also” references to “French Somaliland” and “Italian Somaliland,” but those entries are nowhere to be found. Finally, Paice’s title itself is somewhat misleading, as his book is devoted almost entirely to the campaign in East Africa and neglects the fighting in German Southwest Africa and Cameroons. Thus the definitive history of the African front in World War I remains to be written.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

Booklist 104, no. 22 (August 1, 2008): 32.

Contemporary Review 289 (Winter, 2007): 529.

The Economist 382 (February 17, 2007): 87.

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The Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 2007, p. 8.

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