The Great War in Africa

by Byron Farwell, Hardback, 382pp, 33 photographs, 4 maps.
Relatively few books have been written on the subject of the African campaigns of World War I and even these do not remain in print very long. Farwell's book is the most recent general history of the war in Africa and covers the fighting in Togoland, the Cameroons, SWA and East Africa. The general impression of the Great War as a largely static war in which massive armies faced each other in trenches and slogged it out for months on end does not apply to the African theatres.

 These were campaigns of manoeuvre and guerrilla tactics, fought in bush, jungle and swamps, against one of the most brilliant guerrilla war tacticians of all time - the German General von Lettow-Vorbeck. It required a British and Colonial force which at times totalled over 100,000 men to fight and attempt to pin down a few thousand German soldiers and Askaris in East Africa, and superior tactics and fighting skill enabled the German leader to hold out until two weeks after the armistice in Europe! The East African campaign occupies the major part of Farwell's book.

 The Allied forces in the SWA campaign consisted of troops from the Union of South Africa, a regiment of Rhodesians, and some foreign adventurers. Many of the South Africans were veterans of the Boer War, and, although formidable fighting men, were highly individualistic and lacking in discipline. One commando, while pursuing a German force, noticed the spoor of big game in the area and abandoned the war to go off hunting! The British and Rhodesian troops (among the latter was Arthur Harris, later to become Air Chief Marshall "Bomber" Harris in WWII) found the Boer style of warfare disconcerting. It was mainly due to the determination of Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of any country to lead his men into battle personally, that the campaign was brought to a successful close in 1915.

 After this early victory the emphasis shifted to East Africa where a colourful army of pioneers, hunters and frontiersmen from a variety of countries were facing a small German army which had already planted a German flag on British soil - the only occasion on which a German Commander occupied British territory during the entire war.

 Initially the British forces in East Africa were convinced that they would make short work of the German s in Africa, but they were soon disillusioned. At the Battle of Tanga the Germans, outnumbered 8 to 1, routed the Indian troops sent against them, reducing them to "jibbering idiots, muttering prayers to their heathen gods, hiding behind bushes and palm trees...their rifles lying useless beside them" in the words of one of the British officers. The battle was unique in that at one point a swarm of angry bees caused both sides to retreat in confusion, one British soldier commenting that "what with a bunch of n.....s firing into our backs and bees stinging our backsides, things are a bit 'ard..." For many, warfare in Africa was proving to be an unsettling experience, and worse was still to come. It was on the whole characterised by gentlemanly behaviour, however, and after the Battle of Tanga the German victors and British vanquished met under a white flag with a bottle of brandy to compare opinions of the battle and discuss the care of the wounded. Both sides exchanged autographed photos, shared an excellent supper, and parted like gentlemen.

 One of the most fascinating episodes of the war in Africa was the saga of the German cruiser, the Konigsberg. One of the most modern and powerful ships of the German Navy, the Konigsberg was captained by Max Loof, a formidable man who continued to fight on land after his ship was eventually destroyed. Loof captured the first British ship to be taken in the war, and destroyed the warship "Pegasus" within 20 minutes with 200 direct hits and without a single German casualty.

 British warships eventually pinned down the Konigsberg in the Rufiji Delta, where Loof hid his ship well inland for overhauling and repairs. The famous Afrikaner hunter, P.J. Pretorius, was engaged by Smuts to scout the network of rivers of the Rufiji and locate the warship. Pretorius recounted the story of this dangerous operation in a book of his own, entitled "Jungle Man". Locating the Konigsberg heralded another first for the Great War in Africa - the most protracted naval engagement in history. Ravaged by disease in the steaming hot delta area, the Germans managed to evade and fight off the pursuing British forces for 255 days. It took 27 ships to destroy the German cruiser in a series of running battles on both land and water, and even then the German sailors avoided capture, striking off inland and taking all the ship's 105mm guns with them to play a major role in the land battles that followed.

 Lettow-Vorbeck's philosophy was simple - by using hit and run tactics he could tie down a huge number of British troops in East Africa and thus prevent them from joining the fighting in Europe. Prussian officers, contrary to the popular stereotype of rigid nonthinking disciplinarians, were in fact extremely flexible individualists and Lettow-Vorbeck was a prime example. In February 1916 a new commander arrived in East Africa to try his luck against the Germans: Jan Smuts, the former Boer War general. He added new impetus to the British effort, immediately going on the offensive. His troops were a mixture of men and races from all over the Empire. The Rhodesian contingent was small but significant, according to Farwell:

The Rhodesians were good soldiers in spite of their indifference to normal military discipline, and, although there were few of them, Rhodesia contributed a higher percentage of its manpower to the war than any other segment of the empire: 6,831 out of a total of about 25,000, and of these 732 were man, Lieutenant Arthur Darville Dudley, a slightly built, energetic man, rode 200 miles on a bicycle along roads and native paths to join the Naval Africa Expedition, one of the most extraordinary undertakings in a campaign that was already a curiosity.
Despite his enthusiasm and eagerness to get to grips with what at times must have seemed a phantom enemy, Smuts met with little success:
Smuts's intended envelopment was to be repeated time and time again - and always with the same result. His campaign in East Africa was a series of frustrating attempts to surround Lettow-Vorbeck's main force or to bring him to fight a decisive battle. He never succeeded. Each time they tried the British were convinced that they would bring Lettow-Vorbeck to bay, and each time he eluded them. He always retreated in the face of overwhelming force, but not before it was necessary, and it was never easy to assemble the required force at the needed point. Smuts and the commanders-in-chief who followed him captured territory, but none succeeded in defeating the wily Lettow-Vorbeck.
Smuts reorganised his army and brought in two tough South African generals, "Jaap" van Deventer and "Coen" Brits, the latter a hard-drinking warrior who had fought the British in the Boer War. His reaction on being summoned to East Africa was to cable Smuts:
Mobilization complete. Who must I fight? The English or the Germans?
Almost throughout the entire war the British underestimated the Germans and their Askaris, black troops who had been well-trained and disciplined by their German officers. The Askaris were moreover familiar with the terrain and were ideally suited for guerrilla warfare.

 Chasing Lettow-Vorbeck proved to be an agony of endurance for the Allied forces - disease took a heavier toll than the enemy, and the conditions under which the troops marched and fought took the men to the limits of human endurance. On one march 1,639 horses and mules died from the Tsetse flies that swarmed in the bush, leaving a putrefying corpse every 100 yards of the route. The starving soldiers lived on paw-paws and groundnuts, struggling to move vehicles through the ever-present mud, and often ended up lying helplessly in the mud "retching from the stench of dead animals and watching the rats crawl over us..." They suffered from ticks which caused fever, flies, dysentery, blackwater fever and "guinea worms" whose millions of larvae spread through a human body to produce abcesses in the genitals, lungs and heart. It was impossible to remove the worms until they came to the skin surface, after which they could be pulled out, a few centimetres each day, taking care not to break them and release more larvae into the bloodstream. Jigger fleas, which burrowed into the troops' feet, caused agony and could only be removed with a needle or knife point. Every day the soldiers had to go through the ritual of removing them, on average 12 to 40 per day. Some soldiers lost all their toes as the jiggers fed on the infected flesh of their feet.

 Aircraft were used for scouting and to "bomb" the enemy on the few occasions that the pilots could find them. The bombing, however, was so ineffective that eventually the Germans didn't even bother to step off the road when an airplane appeared! One of the pilots was "Karamojo" Bell, an elephant hunter who refused to fly with an observer because a second man in the plane would block his view as he swooped down to blast away at the enemy with his elephant gun...

 In October 1917 the last big battle and the bloodiest of the entire campaign was fought at Mahiva - it was a set piece battle resembling those on the European front. Again the Germans were victorious, losing only 95 killed, whereas the British lost more than half their men - 2,700 out of a total of 4,900 men. Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to withdraw as his forces had by then been reduced to less than a thousand men.

 In a series of hard marches, punctuated by small skirmishes and ambushes, Lettow-Vorbeck led the British on a long chase which took both armies into Mozambique, where the Germans routed a numerically superior Portuguese force with almost contemptuous ease, and ultimately into Northern Rhodesia. Cut off from their supply lines the Germans lived off the land, using captured weapons and ammunition obtained along the way from the sizeable Portuguese supply dumps. In spite of the hardship the morale of the German force was exceptionally high:

Marching through strange lands far from home, often living under the most primitive conditions, without letters or news of any sort, constantly fighting and constantly retreating, with only a faint hope of final victory, they all - officers, askaris, carriers, and followers - soldiered on.
The morale of the British, however, was almost equal to that of the enemy as they struggled along behind, holding on through sheer guts and determination. Lettow-Vorbeck had a number of British prisoners with him and spoke admiringly of their ability to bear hardship with a sense of humour.

 In Northern Rhodesia Lettow-Vorbeck faced a force of Rhodesian police and civilian volunteers strongly determined to block his way. It seemed likely that he would make his way South, perhaps to Salisbury or Bulawayo, but, having captured Kasama, word reached him on 13 November 1918 that the armistice had already taken effect in Europe. On 25 November, after confirmation that the war was indeed over, he surrendered, undefeated, and his men laid down their arms.

 The British officers were delighted at last to have the chance to meet the legendary general and openly admitted that they "had more esteem and affection for him than for our own leaders". The war had been fought in a gentlemanly fashion throughout, and Lettow-Vorbeck was not imprisoned, but given the use of a car and invited to dinner by Van Deventer. On his return to Germany he was given a hero's welcome. He remained in the army and was later to suppress a Communist uprising in Hamburg. In 1920 he became a politician and served for 10 years in the Reichstag. He and Smuts formed a lasting friendship and he sat next to Smuts as guest of honour at the anniversary dinner of the East African Expeditionary Force. After World War II, in which he opposed the Nazis and refused their offer of a post as ambassador, he lived in poverty for many years. Smuts, on hearing of the plight of his former enemy, sent him regular food parcels. Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964.

 "The Great War in Africa" is an absorbing account of a strange war fought by extraordinary men. At times it reads like fiction, with warships doing battle inland, hundreds of miles away from the sea, zeppelins attempting to fly the 3,600 miles from Germany to East Africa with supplies, and a colourful mixture of brilliant soldiers, big-game hunters, frontiersmen, killer bees and tsetse flies all battling for possession of a vast tract of one of the most inhospitable parts of Africa.

Some other books currently still available on the East Africa campaign of WW1 include MILITARY OPERATIONS, EAST AFRICA by Hordern, a reprint of the HMSO official history, and MY REMINISCENCES OF EAST AFRICA by von Lettow-Vorbeck, a translation of the German general's memoirs. An excellent account, now out of print and scarce, is BATTLE FOR THE BUNDU by Charles Miller. The book STORY OF THE NORTHERN RHODESIA REGIMENT by Brelsford contains a large section on the regiment's part in WW1, and is still obtainable as a reprint. Two books deal with the South African Infantry Brigade in France in WW1: ROLLCALL and DELVILLE WOOD by Ian Uys, both dealing with two of the bloodiest battles of the war - Longueval and Delville Wood - in which the South Africans stubbornly held the line at a cost of 80% casualties!

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