Monday, August 10, 2015

Imperial German Africa

A colonial Askari company ready to march in German East Africa (Deutsch-Ostafrika), 1914-1918.

A member of the German Schutztruppe in East Africa, more commonly referred to as askaris, pictured holding a German flag. The colonial force for German East Africa was established by an act of the Reichstag on 22 March 1891.

Within a matter of days of the loss of the SMS Königsberg, the cruiser's crew was back on board removing the ten Krupp guns and ammunition, together with any other useful items. In all there were eight 10.5cm guns and two smaller 8.8cm guns. The guns were taken to Dar es Salaam - during which journey this image was taken - where they were fitted with carriages and went on to see action against the Allies in East Africa over the next two years.

The con­flict which began as the Great European War rapidly spread around the globe to become a world-wide con­flagration. Africa, East and West, the Middle and Far East, all became theatres of war. In Europe itself, it was not just the Western Front that experienced the horrors of modern warfare, with bitter fighting taking place in Italy and Salonika. The confl­ict of 1914- 1918 was indeed a world war. 

The uni­fied state of Germany had only been in existence for forty-three years when war broke out in 1914. Like so many of the European nations, this new Germany sought the prestige of an empire and quickly began to acquire territory in Africa. In 1884 Germany seized Togoland and part of Ghana to form the West African Togoland Protectorate (Schutzgebiet Togo). At the same time as the Germans took control of Togoland, they also took control of parts of Nigeria, Gabon, the Congo and Cameroon, which became the Protectorate of Kamerun. When war was declared in 1914 Britain immediately planned to seize these colonies. 

The outbreak of war left the Togoland Protectorate unprepared, with less than 700 men, mostly natives, to defend the territory. Consequently, British and French troops occupied the Protectorate on 7 August 1914, without opposition. 

It was a different matter in Kamerun where the 1,855 German Schutztruppen were supplemented by around 6,000 locally-raised troops. On 8 August, a mounted detachment from the West African Frontier Force from Kano in northern Nigeria set out towards Kamerun; at the same time, French troops moved from French Equatorial Africa. This British force crossed the border into German territory on 25 August. Later that day it came into contact with German troops at the border station at Tepe on the Benue River. After the skirmish, which involved ­ fierce ­ fighting, the enemy forces withdrew and the British occupied the station. Few casualties were suffered by either side.

More ­fighting, and more battles, followed and it was not until 1916 that the Allied forces ­finally defeated the Germans. The conflict in Kamerun cost France and Britain almost 2,000 men.
The ­fighting in East Africa was on a far greater scale. Around a quarter of a million Allied troops served in the East African theatre, incurring some 10,000 casualties. The Allies employed approximately 600,000 bearers throughout the course of the campaign and it has been estimated that the ­fighting cost the lives of 365,000 civilians. 

Britain assumed that German East Africa would fall easily into their hands, attacking German outposts near Lake Victoria on 5 August 1914. Three days later, British warships bombarded Dar es Salaam from the sea. The Germans responded, with General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck leading an invasion of British East Africa. 

Von Lettow's early success prompted the Allies to mount a large-scale invasion of the German territory. Two Indian Expeditionary Forces (classi­fied as B and C, as the ­first Indian Expeditionary Force was sent to the Western Front), totalling 12,000 men, were assembled and despatched to East Africa. At the battles of Tanga and Kilamanjaro the two Expeditionary Forces were defeated by the numerically inferior German Army, resulting in what has been described as amongst "the most notable failures in British military history". 

The naval war in East Africa also saw the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg sink the cruiser HMS Pegasus before the German ship was destroyed by warships of the British Cape squadron.
Fighting even took place on Lake Tanganyika itself. It was the story that inspired the Humphrey Bogart ­ lm The African Queen; two British gunboats were dragged overland halfway across Africa in 1915 to oppose German vessels on Lake Tanganyika in 1915. 

Greater numbers of Allied troops were despatched to East Africa to try and end German resistance. Forces from South Africa and Rhodesia, led by General Smuts and including Belgian troops from the Belgian Congo, joined the Indian forces. Von Lettow continued to be successful, achieving a remarkable victory at the Battle of Mahiwa in October 1917, inflicting almost 3,000 casualties on a combined South African and Nigerian force for the loss of only around 500 men. When the First World War came to an end, von Lettow remained undefeated.


As formidable as Germany's European-based army was, its ability to defend most of its colonial possessions was limited. The British planned to capture all of the German colonies throughout the world, ostensibly with the objectives of preventing German warships from gaining access to ports and of protecting Allied colonies from German aggression, but also of reaping the rewards of imperial expansion at the expense of Germany. In Africa, German colonies included Togoland, Cameroons, and German Southwest Africa on the continent's west coast, and German East Africa on the east.
On August 7, three days after England declared war, four companies of British-led native troops from the Gold Coast (Ghana) and a unit of French-led native troops from Dahomey (Benin) invaded Togoland on their own initiative. After 20 days of sporadic combat, German colonial officials surrendered the colony. The immediate dividend of this victory was the capture of wireless (radio) stations that regulated the operation of German surface vessels raiding in African waters. 

A combination of French, British, and Belgian colonial troops invaded Cameroons on August 20, 1914, from the south, the east, and the northwest. By sea, they also attacked in the west. German resistance was more formidable than it had been in Togoland. The German Cameroonian Army was a small but capable force of 12 companies. It withdrew to a stronghold at Mora and held out there against repeated attacks through February 18, 1916. With its defeat, Cameroons fell to the Allies. 

British regulars were withdrawn from South Africa for western front duty on August 10, 1914. To take their place, the white civilian residents of South Africa formed four irregular units and invaded German South West Africa (Namibia), beginning in September 1914. The British irregulars enjoyed a superiority of numbers that enabled them to gain control of all major ports; however, invasion of the interior was delayed by an uprising of pro- German South Africans, who had fought against the British during the Second (Great) BOER WAR (1899- 1902). It was not until January 1915, by which time the ranks of the British irregulars had grown to 50,000, that an offensive was launched to put down the rebellion. It was quelled by February-except in Cameroons, where many Germans continued to fight a guerrilla war of sporadic skirmishes. The Germans in South Africa surrendered on July 9, 1915.

Territory consisting of present-day Rwanda, Burundi, and continental Tanzania constituted German East Africa. In contrast to Germany's other colonial holdings, it was defended not only ably but also with genius and determination, by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964). This officer possessed great skill in guerrilla warfare and commanded a force of askaris, superb European-trained native African troops. 

Lieutenant Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck was dispatched to German East Africa early in 1914. With limited supplies and a small army equipped with outmoded weapons, Lettow- Vorbeck nevertheless resolved to strike preemptively. As soon as war was declared in Europe, he staged a series of raids against the British railway in Kenya. Next, he attempted to capture Mombasa. Although he was driven back by September 1914, he successfully defended against a British amphibious attack on the port town of Tanga in northeastern Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) during November 2-3, 1914. Lettow-Vorbeck inflicted heavy losses on the British and also captured a large cache of badly needed arms and ammunition. He forced the British, themselves poorly supplied, into a defensive posture, which tied up a disproportionate number of men. Even after the Royal Navy sank in the Rufiji-River Delta the German cruiser Königsberg-the vessel on which Lettow- Vorbeck depended heavily for support-the German commander refused to give up. He put his men to work salvaging most of the stricken vessel's guns and even commandeered the Königsberg's crew as land troops. 

To deal with Lettow-Vorbeck, the British put a large force of British and colonial troops under the command of South African general Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950). The operations of this invasion army were coordinated with those of a Belgian invasion from the west and with those of an independent British invasion from Nyasaland in the south. Hopelessly outnumbered, Lettow-Vorbeck met this formidable threat with cool patience, employing delaying tactics to keep the invaders exposed to the merciless jungle. He made an ally of a hostile climate and terrain; in the end, tropical diseases caused far more Allied casualties than German bullets. Lettow-Vorbeck's askaris were accustomed to the climate and therefore less vulnerable to regional disease. 

Their losses notwithstanding, the British continued to pour men and resources into the invasion. Lettow- Vorbeck slowly yielded to the advance, ensuring that the invaders paid dearly for every mile they claimed. At frequent intervals, he turned on his pursuers with surprise counterattacks carried out with lightning speed. At Mahiwa, during October 15-18, 1917, although outnumbered four to one, he inflicted 1,500 casualties on the British, sustaining no more than 100 himself. Nevertheless, it was clear to Lettow-Vorbeck that the superior numbers of the British would ultimately drive him out of German East Africa. He decided not to make a useless stand in defense of a lost cause but instead invaded the Portuguese colony of Mozambique in December 1917. By looting Portuguese garrisons, Lettow-Vorbeck was able to supply his 4,000-man army sufficiently to enable him to raid as far south as Quelimane on the coast during July 1-3, 1918. Here, he turned back north and reentered German East Africa during September and October. By this time the war was all but over in Europe, but Lettow-Vorbeck, out of communication and isolated, had no knowledge of the fate of his countrymen on the western front. He launched an invasion of British-held Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and took the principal city of Kasama (in modern Zambia) on November 13, 1918-fully two days after the Armistice had officially ended the war. 

After taking Kasama, Lettow-Vorbeck began to hear and heed rumors of the German surrender in Europe. He opened negotiations with the British, and on November 23, 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered his undefeated army at Abercorn (Mbala, Zambia). His was the last German force to lay down its arms in World War I. On the day of his surrender, Lettow-Vorbeck's entire army consisted of 155 Europeans, 1,168 African askari troops, and 3,000 other Africans.

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