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 been invaded by Germany in early August of 1914,...
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