A summary of the East Africa Campaign of World War I

A German Schutztruppe Askari flag bearer

African Imperial history has in recent years become something of a discredited subject. The basic reason for this, I suppose, is that the political and social landscape of Africa has been so radically altered by independence that very little tangible trace of the period remains. It is also true that all the many failings of indigenous African administration have tended to be blamed on colonialism, and continue to be blamed on colonialism, to the extent that there is almost no aspect of that epoch that is not besmirched by association with one or other of the undeniable evils of that period.

It is not my intention, therefore, to write in defense of European colonial expansion, or indeed to deride it, but to suggest that all of it, the good and the bad, is interesting, and worth sustaining as a part of Africa’s history.

The East Africa Campaign of World War I

One of the most interesting episodes of  the African colonial period in my opinion is World War One, and the continental ramifications of an ostensibly European conflict. The Great War in Africa was fought largely by colonial troops, and most of these were men of colour, although a good number of South Africans and Rhodesians were also involved.

There were two principal fault lines that existed in Africa at the declaration of war in 1914. It was here that the two main European antagonist met. The first was in Southern Africa between German South West Africa (now Namibia) and what was then the British Union of South Africa; and the second, and perhaps more important, was in East Africa between British East Africa (now Kenya) and German East Africa (now Tanzania). Campaigns were fought in both arenas. The South West Africa, however, was a relatively clean and quick campaign that exacted a minimal loss of life on either side, and was concluded in the favour of the Allies. The Germans offered occasionally stiff resistance, but otherwise were overwhelmed by a superior South African force. The Germans also tended to take the view that there was little to be gained in diverting resource to the colonies in order to retain territory when an Axis victory in Europe was inevitable.  Thereafter Germany’s overseas territories would be returned along with all the acquisition of all French, British and Belgian possessions.

British Commanding General Jun Christian Smuts

What the South West African Campaign of World War I did achieve was to elevate the South African Second-in-Command, Jan Christian Smuts, to the A-list of Imperial military commanders. Smuts had no formal training in the way that it would matter to the British military establishment, but he tended to succeed, which impressed the civilian leadership in Whitehall, and no doubt impressed a few bona fide military commanders in the field. Smuts had also fought a brilliant guerrilla campaign during the Anglo/Boer War which tended to suit the African battlefield which was more mobile than the entrenched lines of the Western Front.

The East Africa Campaign of WWI was a very different war to the both the South West Africa Campaign, and in fact to any other campaign being fought in any other theater of the Great War at the time. It is worth mentioning at the onset that neither the British Governor of Kenya, Henry Conway Belfield, nor the German Governor of Tanganyika, Heinrich Schnee, advocated war. A key understanding of the Berlin Conference of 1885, that defined the rules of play in the carving up of Africa, was broadly speaking that the colonies avoid getting involved in metropolitan wars. There were many reasons for this, one of which was concern that the inviolability of the white man would be besmirched by any unseemly squabbles between them, in particular if the killing of white men by black men was sanctioned. This would certainly undermine the cultivated sense of superiority that the white man enjoyed, and that in many cases was all that justified the authority that so few enjoyed over so many.

German military genius Colonel Paul von Lettow Vorbeck

The local military commanders, on the other hand, and indeed the settlers communities of each territory themselves, all demanded and expected action. At the declaration of war it was only German East Africa that had in situ a competent military commander. This was Colonel Paul von Lettow Vorbeck, an enigmatic character studied elsewhere in this blog, who took it upon himself to commence military preparation in spite of much anguish and hand-rubbing from Schnee. The British, on the other hand, rushed to arms in a somewhat ad hoc way, under a variety of settler militias. Both neighbouring colonies had in real terms little more than local Askari units, or virtual constabularies, under very limited white command. In German East Africa this was the Shutztruppe and in Kenya it was the Kings African Rifles. Both were under strength and trained for less than open war, but the Shutztruppe had at least an aggressive and creative commander, and an arguably more aggressive recent history to call upon.

German Victory at Tanga starts the East Africa Campaign

To keep a very long story short, the first substantive action of the Campaign was an Allied amphibious landing at the port town of Tanga in early November 1914, which was wholly and unexpectedly repulsed. The British had no idea the Germans were so keen and ready to fight and as a consequence were woefully under-prepared. The Germans, on the other hand, under the mercurial von Lettow Vorbeck, had left no stone unturned in ensuring the British Expeditionary Force a hot reception. It is noteworthy that the British force was mainly drawn from India and the German force mainly native. The Allied Indian contingent were subject to some ridicule upon return to Kenya and it was not for some time that the national reputation was rescued during later phases of the Campaign.

Meanwhile the British defeat at Tanga had an immediate effect on German morale. A generally pervasive belief prior to this had been that there was no real point in mounting resistance against a superior British regional force, backed up as it was by a superior navy, when victory in Europe was inevitable. After Tanga, however, and having witness such a miserable British performance, a sense that some value might indeed exist in confronting the British in Africa took root.

The East Africa Campaign shifts north to Kilimanjaro

Thus the focus of the East Africa Campaign shifted to the Kilimanjaro region in the north east where lay the focus of white settlement and were the terminus of the regionally strategic Usambara Railway was situated.  The territory was also close to the frontier with Kenya, and moreover close to the equally strategic Uganda Railway that connected the British port of Mombasa with the economic heartland of the colony. The obvious strategy for von Lettow Vorbeck to adopt at that point was to mount aggressive patrols against the Uganda Railway, and in essence pick a fight with the British in the region of their most ticklish underbelly, and see what kind of response was generated.

From the British point of view the situation was dire. Allied forces in the form of the regionally dominant South Africans were occupied in South West Africa, and little in the way of support was forthcoming from the Imperial Government. Genuine fears existed that the colony stood in imminent danger of German occupation, A campaign was meanwhile fought along the frontier that featured aggressive hit and run patrols against the Uganda Railway and associated installations against which the British could offer little but containment . While one or two iconic battles were fought at this stage – Salaita Hill perhaps being the most famous – the character of the campaign was a frustrating inability of the British to fully engage and a general battlefield dominance of the Germans who were content with a guerrilla style approach.

Von Lettow Vorbeck preferred a guerrilla war to open conflict

Von Lettow Vorbeck was fully cognisant of the fact that in the long term German East Africa had little chance of surviving a war with its British neighbour. When the full weight of British attention was focused on the region it would be inevitable that German East Africa would be taken. His strategy, therefore, was to retreat in the face of British force once it arrived, after which he would attempt to bog down as much Allied manpower and ordinance as possible in a guerrilla war in order to deflect their deployment to the Western Front.

This was indeed what happened. General Jan Smuts arrived in the region at the head of a vastly expanded force early in 1916 and began to push the Germans back. British forces quickly occupied the German HQ at Moshi, and the regional capital Arusha, before bearing down on the German retreat along the line of the Usambara Railway.

Smuts was time and time again out manoeuvred by von Lettow Vorbeck. This did not mean, however, that von Lettow Vorbeck was the superior commander, it was simply that he had in his favour use of the Usambara Railway as an avenue of retreat as well as access to the rugged and inaccessible Pare Mountains that ran parallel to the line. Furthermore he had under his command a small, mobile, well armed and well disciplined force that enjoyed the signature advantage of fighting on its home ground.

An unconsummated victory was all the Allies could claim

For Smuts the campaign very quickly degenerated into a thankless slog through largely unmapped terrain during the height of the regions ‘long rains’. Illness, poor nutrition and exhaustion pared down the non-indigenous units to a skeletal force of weak and emaciated men; and still von Lettow Vorbeck could not be induced to stand and fight. He danced from one region to the next, always slightly ahead, never run to ground and never defeated.

Although the British occupied German East Africa fairly soon after Smuts’ arrival in the theatre, the East Africa Campaign itself was not concluded until a few weeks after the armistice was signed. Von Lettow Vorbeck emerged from the epic struggle as a national hero in a nation bitterly defeated and hungry for heroes. Smuts moved on into higher and greater levels of statesmanship and diplomacy while in the scattered graveyards of East Africa, and indeed in convalescent homes from Cape Town to Bombay, palsied, fevered and shell shocked men died of residual illness or struggled towards recovery.

In the aftermath of the war the two territories of German South West and East Africa became South African and British mandated territories respectively. Perhaps the signature lesson learned by the Allies as a consequence of the campaign was to avoid using non-African soldiery in Africa campaigns. Thus the east Africa Campaign of World War II was fought on the principal of black troops and white commanders which proved to be a great deal more effective and successful.

As a postscript the East Africa Campaign of WWI witnessed the death of one of the finest sons of Africa, Frederick Courtney Selous.