The British and the French invaded the German Cameroons from all four points of the compass. In September 1914, the so-called Cross River Column, from Nigena to the north, hit strong German defences and was repulsed.
Some colonial administrators in 1914 hoped that would not be the case. The local units they commanded were designed not to fight each other but to maintain internal order. To many whites it seemed self-evident that the use of colonial troops to topple other European powers could only be self-destructive in the long term. War would rekindle the very warrior traditions that colonialism had been designed to extirpate, and ultimately the black trained to use a rifle against a white enemy might turn his weapon on his own white ruler. For such men the civilising and progressive, if paternalist and culturally supremacist, attributes of colonialism were the conditioning factors in 1914. They hoped that they might be exempt from developments in Europe. In Africa they pinned their hopes on the Congo Act. In 1884-5 Bismarck, acting in his capacity as the reassuring broker of Europe, had hosted a conference in Berlin to orchestrate the partition of Africa. The Berlin Congress had settled that all nations would have complete freedom to trade in the basin of the River Congo, and permitted any one of them to declare itself neutral in the event of war. In 1914 Belgium controlled not only the eastern bank of the river but also its estuary, and was also - given its situation in Europe - keen to uphold the principle of neutrality. The implications for one German central African colony, the Cameroons, were direct: French forces could not approach it from the south if France adhered to the Congo Act. The protection the Act gave to the others, Togoland and German East Africa (modern Tanzania), could only be indirect. But after the war the Germans cited the Congo Act both to support their claim to the restitution of their colonies and to argue that they were not the only power that breached international law in 1914.
The idea that war in Europe - or at least one involving Britain and Germany - would not spread beyond Europe was a later construct. In 1906, F. H. Grautoff, a newspaper editor and naval writer, published, under the pseudonym ‘Seestern’, Der Zusammenbruch der alten Welt (the Collapse of the Old World), a fictional account of a future war, translated into English as Armageddon 190-. It contained a real warning: ‘They [Britain and Germany] had not stayed to consider that a war in Europe, with its manifold intricate relations with the new countries over the seas, the millions of whose populations obeyed a handful of white men, but grudgingly, must necessarily set the whole world ablaze’. Grautoff’s account of the war’s origins began in Samoa, one of a clutch of German possessions in the south Pacific, and the name Grautoff gave its governor, Dr Solf, was the same as that of Germany’s colonial secretary when the real war did break out. Grautoff’s fictional war was naval and imperial in its origins. It was a corollary of ‘Weltpolitik’, the basis of German foreign policy at least until 1911.
The word ‘Weltpolitik’ therefore gave rise to another word, ’Weltkrieg’ (world war). It was not only popular writers who prefixed their descriptions of future war in this way; responsible politicians like Bethmann Hollweg did so, too. They used it for three reasons. The first was of course for effect: they were not being geographically precise. It was not necessarily clear that Europe and the world were different. After all, to their Eurocentric eyes any war involving two alliance blocs would be massive, and in many contexts that was all ‘Welt’ meant. The second reason related to Germany’s challenge to the status quo. Britain had a vested interest in peace, because the existing order confirmed its own domination. In 1907 Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal prime minister, combined pacifism with navalism in a logic which was self-evident to British liberals but nonsensical to Continental powers: ’The sea power of this country implies no challenge to any single State or group of States.... Our known adhesion to those two dominant principles - the independence of nationalities and the freedom of trade — entitles us of itself to claim that, if our fleets be invulnerable, they carry with them no menace across the waters of the world, but a message of the most cordial good will.‘
Campbell-Bannerman emphasised Britain’s subscription to universal principles for a pragmatic reason. The military value of the Royal Navy lay above all in its ability to protect the United Kingdom; its capacity to defend Britain’s far-flung possessions and their trading routes was much less assured, and relied to a large extent on the acceptance by other powers of the Pax Britannica. If Germany found itself at war with Britain, the latter’s overseas possessions were more vulnerable to attack than Britain itself; its trade and its financial markets were more sensitive to danger than were its forces in the field. Germany therefore had an interest in taking the war beyond Europe if it could find the means to do so. Although Germany - like the other powers of Europe - had a vociferous colonial lobby, its enthusiasm for widening the conflict was not principally a form of covert imperialism. It was a way of fighting the war.
This was the third reason underpinning Germany’s use of Weltkrieg. By the same token Britain had an imperative need to close the war down. On 5 August 1914 the Committee of Imperial Defence, an advisory body of the British cabinet, convened a sub-committee to consider ‘combined operations in foreign territory’. Its cardinal objective was that nothing should be undertaken which might prejudice the conduct of the war in Europe. The principal task outside Europe was defensive, to secure Britain’s sea routes against German attack: these were the links that would enable Britain to tap the resources of both its empire and its neutral trading partners. The targets of offensive operations were to be the naval bases and wireless stations that supported the German navy. The sub-committee laid down two guiding principles. It renounced the conquest of territory, and it declared that any land forces used should be local formations only.
These principles proved mutually incompatible. Those dominions and allies on whom Britain called to provide forces for local operations proved ready to do so. But their motives were shaped less by the needs of the war in Europe than by territorial ambitions in their own regions. Britain did not see the outbreak of the First World War as an opportunity to acquire German colonies; however, others on whom it relied did. British imperialism may have been dormant between 1914 and 1918, but so-called ‘sub-imperialism’ flourished.