World War 1 - The Campaign in East Africa

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


Last June I was kindly lent a book called The Battle for the Bundu (Charles Miller, 1974: Macmillan). This book began to open for me an episode in WWI which is still very much closed for many people. The war in East Africa was so costly in human and financial terms, and ultimately so futile, that the victorious powers chose to obscure as far as they could any accounting of the cost. Another book has come to hand (by the speedy and efficient services of Amazon) called Tip and Run; the untold tragedy of the Great War in Africa (Edward Paice, 2008: Phoenix).


This book offers much more detail and also discusses the relationships between the warring powers (Great Britain, Belgium, Portugal and to a lesser extent France and Italy on the one side and Germany and to a lesser extent Turkey on the other). Paice also discusses the uneasy politics of South Africa at the time (just over 10 years after the Treaty of Vereeniging at the end of the second Boer War) and the difficulties encountered by those in power (Botha and Smuts) in their support for the Empire when there was a substantial Afrikaaner minority in South Africa in favour of the other side. Indeed, had the “ten-bob rebellion” of 1915 by disgruntled Afrikaaners succeeded, there could have been very serious consequences for the Allied war effort. Nor does he ignore the various races and tribes of the whole of East Africa and the major disasters suffered by them as the Europeans prosecuted their quarrel in this remote corner of their Empires, or even the African units of the British Army (the Gold Coast Regiment and the King´s African Rifles). Lastly, although he covers the actions and events in which the various units of the Indian Army were involved, I feel that he might have devoted a little more space to the overall effort played in the War by the Indian units. But this is an extremely minor cavil about a masterly survey of the actions involved in East Africa in 1914 – 1918.


The blurb on the front cover shows “Superb…..meticulously researched and written with tremendous lucidity and brio”, William Boyd, Sunday Times. I find that these self advertisements are often uncritical, but this comment is quite true. This book must be an exhaustive study of the war in East Africa, even though there are so many facts which today must be lost in the mists of time. It is mostly well written, and I suspect that the proof reader must have flagged towards the end, since that is where there are more inconsistencies. There are 400 pages of text and quantities of photographs, sixteen maps, notes, sources, a list of dramatis personae and eight appendices. The book is written with a great deal of panache, and throws light on some of the quirkier corners of history. The whole story is so unlikely that, as they say, you couldn't make it up.


Total casualties in the four year campaign may never be known; the British and Imperial Armies lost about 10 000 and the Germans 2 000. Total losses amongst the indigenous Africans were well over 100 000 mostly from disease and war induced famine. Even more died in the Spanish ´flu that followed. For East Africa as a whole, this war was an unmitigated disaster.


Von Lettow Vorbeck, the German field commander, clearly succeeded in his aim of tying down thousands of Allied troops for the whole of the War, and he emerged from the conflict as an undefeated hero and was celebrated as such on his return to the Fatherland. It could all have been so different: after the War one senior British administrator in East Africa pointed out, “Had we not invaded [German] East Africa, it is 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……”


Many of the difficulties between the Allies during the War arose from the mutual suspicion and jealousy surrounding their motives and aims concerning the disposal of the German colonies in Africa after the War had been won. There were brief and victorious campaigns in other parts of the African continent. The upshot was that Britain took German East Africa (Tanganyika), added the western slice of Togoland to what became Ghana and a slice of the North Eastern Cameroon to the future Nigeria; France took the rest of Cameroon and eastern Togoland; South Africa at the time emerging from its own colonial status took German South West Africa, now Namibia; Belgium the central states of Ruanda and Burundi which were contiguous with the Belgian Congo; and Portugal regained the Kionga triangle. Portugal´s war aim of retaining her Empire had at least been achieved. The German Empire in Africa, on the other hand, founded after the treaty of Berlin in 1884, had come crashing down after only 34 years.


The wartime attitude of the British towards their allies Belgium and Portugal was determined by a sense of colonial superiority. It was not long since the control of the Congo had been wrested from the rapacious maw of Leopold II of Belgium, and vested in the Belgian state. And wherever they looked, the British could see nothing to admire in the Portuguese Empire. Indeed, the northern part of Portuguese East Africa was run by the German owned Companhia do Niassa on similar lines to the British controlled Companhia de Moçambique further south – they were thinly disguised means of exploiting African labour through an indenture system – a kind of slavery by another name.


There is a delightful vignette on the relationship between the British minister in Lisbon (Sir Lancelot Carnegie) and his Portuguese opposite numbers. Carnegie was endowed with exceptional diplomatic skills. He needed them because he was over six feet tall and towered over each and every Portuguese. How difficult it must have been to put over a high-handed British policy to sensitive or even touchy Portuguese ministers from a position of actual physical superiority.


Some of the events of this campaign are remarkable for being so far fetched. The hunt for the German cruiser SMS Königsberg and its eventual destruction miles up an African river; the beginning of air support for artillery in the Rufiji delta; the difficulties of flight itself in tropical air; the aborted support flight by the German airship L59; the overland journey of the British boats Toutou and Mimi from Cape Town to Lake Tanganyika under the command of Spicer-Simson and their part in the war; the sheer crassness of the initial British attack in October 1914 which may have given the Germans some heart for the coming struggle; and the successful penetration of the British blockade of the East African coast by two German supply ships which gave them the means.


Having fought the British and Imperial troops over three years, von Lettow Vorbeck eventually slipped into Portuguese East Africa in November 1917 and after a year long rampage emerged again over the Rovuma in September 1918 with the intention of invading Northern Rhodesia. He was persuaded to surrender at Abercorn in present day Zambia at 11:00 on 25 November 1918. It was exactly a fortnight after the Armistice had come into being, and exactly a year since the German column had crossed into Portuguese East Africa. Von Lettow Vorbeck had achieved his war aim of occupying the attentions of immense numbers of Allied troops and at the same time of eluding capture, but the sense of disappointment among the Germans of his column when they learned the outcome of the War in Europe was crushing. His campaign excited the admiration of many of his opponents, but those left to pick up the pieces in Tanganyika and British East Africa (Kenya) after the War had a less chivalrous view of the death and destruction visited by the warring European powers on a supposedly less civilised African population. They tended to put the blame squarely on the Germans.


The moral question of limited war is an age old problem. To what extent were the European powers justified in taking their quarrel into Africa? To what extent should they have sought to protect their African subjects from the death and destruction that awaited them? I myself find it difficult to countenance a circumstance where Britain would be at war with Germany in Europe, but not in Africa. The British accepted that this war was not only a European war when they made their original attack on Tanga in October 1914. Having started the war in Africa - as they did – it ill becomes the British to criticise the means by which the other side conducted it. Imperial Germany has a wretched reputation for its means of keeping control of its Empire. We know that everyone (indigenous Africans included) seems to have had a poor impression of Portuguese methods of Empire. And if we consider the effect of this war on the indigenous populations of East Africa, can we assert that French and British methods were so superior?

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