Just as Australia and New Zealand harboured ‘sub-imperialist’ designs in the south Pacific, so South Africa - particularly its defence minister, Jan Smuts - wanted to push the frontier of the Union to the Zambezi river. By securing the ports of Delagoa Bay and Beira, South Africa could open up the Transvaal and further the interests of the Afrikaner population, many of whom were still smarting from defeat at the hands of the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902. The war in Europe threatened to deepen their feeling of grievance : the most obvious contribution South Africa could make to the British war effort would be to overrun German South-West Africa (modern Namibia) - a move which would hit a power which had been pro-Boer and which would benefit the status of the English-dominated Cape Town as a port. Smuts’s scheme could mollify Afrikaner sentiment, but it had a big hurdle to overcome: the territory up to the Zambezi was already part of Portuguese Mozambique. Smuts’s solution was to conquer German East Africa, keep the northern part for Britain, give the southern part to Portugal, and ask the Portuguese to give the southern part of its existing colony to South Africa.
To achieve this the South Africans were prepared to provide troops to conquer East Africa. But in 1914 and 1915 the South African forces were not free. First, they had to deal with rebellion in their own territory. The idea that Britain was engaged in a war for the defence of small nations did not convince those who had been on the receiving end of the British army in 1899-1902. Second, Britain had asked the Union to seize the harbours and wireless stations of German South-West Africa. The commandant-general of the defence forces opposed the invasion of German territory, and he and other senior officers resigned. Open rebellion flared in October, but the Germans could not give it effective support from across the frontier and it was suppressed by early December. Thereafter the conquest of South-West Africa was carried through in six months In 1915 the South African government could rely on the loyalty of white Rhodesians - even if not all Boers - for the invasion of German South-west Africa By 1916. 40 per cent of Rhodesia’s white adult male population was on active service.
The South Africans’ opening experience of the First World War, in a territory adjacent to their own, was sufficiently like the Boer War to leave intact too many of the assumptions that they had inherited from that war. Smuts had led a commando of about 400 men in the Boer War and in South-West Africa he commanded a column of three brigades. Both campaigns were fought in comparable climates, with the horse as the pivot of manoeuvre. When Smuts took over the East African command at the beginning of 1916, he had a ration strength of 73,300 men deployed for the conquest of a tropical colony, much of it barely mapped. He was a fine leader on a personal level, a man of courage and intelligence, but he had limited command experience and no staff training. None the less, his first step was to dismantle the professional staff that had been put in place and bring in men like himself - South Africans without proper training and devoid of local knowledge. His second was to manoeuvre the Germans out of their colony rather than fight them: ‘he told me’, Meinertzhagen wrote, ‘that he could not afford to go back to South Africa with the nickname “Butcher Smuts”.
The key to his approach was the use of mounted infantry on the lines favoured by the Afrikaners in both their previous campaigns. But horses in East Africa inevitably succumbed to the tsetse fly. The British knew which were the worst regions for fly, because German veterinarians had obligingly supplied them with maps before the war, but this information was not incorporated in the campaign plan. Basic procedures to prolong the horse’s life were not observed. Equine wastage ran at 100 per cent per month in 1916.
Smuts’s transport services had assumed that he would not begin his advance until after the March-May rainy season was over. They were wrong. Humans succumbed to disease caused by malnutrition as supply collapsed. The medical services were no more integrated in Smuts’s organisation than were the veterinary. For men the principal problems were dysentery and malaria, which tended to be debilitating rather than fatal. The 2nd Rhodesia Regiment had an effective strength of 800 men, but with a wastage rate of 20 per cent per month it was often reduced to 100 men. Between March 1915 and January 1917 it deployed 1,038 all ranks in East Africa, and suffered only 68 deaths - 36 in action and 32 from disease. But it had 10,626 cases of sickness, one-third of them from malaria, a largely preventable disease.
By the beginning of September 1916 the results of Smuts’s efforts looked impressive on the map. He had reached and overrun the central railway and he had control of Dar es Salaam. But he put no effort into establishing the German port and its communications infrastructure as the base for his push into the south of the German colony. His administrative staff remained at Tanga, and his principal base was still in Uganda, at Mombasa. When he was recalled to London in January 1917 to represent South Africa at the Imperial War Cabinet his forces stood on the Mgeta and Rufiji rivers. He claimed victory, presenting the war in East Africa as all but finished, the result of a great South African feat of arms. In reality, the advance had eventually stalled. The December rains, which Smuts had attempted to ignore, had turned the area between the Mgeta and the Rufiji into a continuous swamp. The Rufiji itself was a torrent hundreds of yards across. The nearest railhead was Mikese, 255 km away. The troops were sodden, hungry and sick. His successor, A. R. Hoskins, postponed any further action until April 1917.
The German Schutztruppen were intended for internal policing, not for fighting foreign powers. Although professional soldiers, their loyalty was not as unconditional as post-war German propagandists, anxious to regain Germany’s African territories, claimed.
Smuts was determined that his campaign was going to prove the invincibility of the white man. The South-West African campaign had been an affair of whites only. When in 1915 mixed-race Africans had offered to rise in revolt in support of the South Africans, the latter rejected their cooperation for racial reasons. On arrival in East Africa the Boers had dubbed the German askaris ‘damned Kaffirs’. Over the course of 1916 Smuts had had to change his tune, at least privately. Africans seemed to have greater resistance to local diseases than Europeans. By the time Smuts left the East African theatre, it was clear that the only way to carry the fighting forward was to use African soldiers. But, by claiming that the campaign was all but over, and by implying that all that remained was to mop up the vestiges of resistance in the colony’s remotest corner, Smuts kept the self-esteem of the white man intact.
The allies’ victory in the Cameroons released black troops from West Africa for service in East Africa. The Gold Coast Regiment arrived there in July 1916. The four Nigerian regiments of the West African Frontier Force were delayed by worries about possible rebellion within Nigeria, but sailed in November 1916. In East Africa itself, the King’s African Rifles, composed of three battalions at the outset of the war, had risen to thirteen by January 1917 - and reached twenty-two by the war’s end. Britain never considered using these African troops in Europe, although the French did: in this the British reflected the difficulties their Indian soldiers had encountered from the cold on the western front in the first winter of the war. So Lettow-Vorbeck’s contribution to the wider war was undermined.