East African Campaign (World War I)

East African Campaign (World War I)

conflict=East African Campaign (World War I)
partof=African theatre of World War I

date=August 3, 1914 - November, 1918
place=Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo
result=Tactical German victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
*flagicon|South Africa|1910 South Africa
*flagicon|India|British India
*flagicon|Uganda|colonial Uganda Protectorate
* Northern Rhodesia
* Southern Rhodesia
*flagicon|Belgium Belgium
*flagicon|Belgian Congo Belgian Congoflagicon|Portugal Portugal
*flagicon|Portugal Portuguese East Africa
combatant2=flagicon|German Empire Germany
*flagicon|German Empire German East Africa
commander1=flagicon|South Africa|1910 Jan Smuts
Jacob van Deventer
commander2=flagicon|German Empire Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
The East African Campaign was a series of battles and guerilla actions which started in German East Africa and ultimately impacted portions of Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, Kenya, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo. The German colonial forces, led by Colonel (later Major-General) Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck, fought for the duration of World War I and surrendered only after that war had ended.


German East Africa comprising Tanganyika (the mainland part of modern-day Tanzania), Burundi, and Rwanda, was a large territory with complex geography (including parts of the massive Great Rift Valley, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria). It varied from the mountainous, well-watered and fertile north-west, to the drier and sandy or rocky centre, with wildlife-rich grasslands in the north-east and vast areas of uninhabited forest in the south-east. Its coast, inhabited by the Swahili people and Arab traders, dominated trade with Central Africa in conjunction with British-controlled Zanzibar and the coasts of modern-day Kenya and Mozambique.

At the start of the war, the German colony chief administrator, Governor Heinrich Schnee, ordered that no hostile action was to be taken. To the north, the British Governor of Kenya stated that Kenya "had no interest in the present war" (Keegan, "World War I", pg. 210). The reason for this was, in part, neither colony had many troops. But the commander of the tiny German army in East Africa, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, ignored Schnee and assembled his army for battle. At the start of the war, the German Schutztruppe were about 200 officers, 1,700 German soldiers, and 2,500 askari.

Campaign history

Beginning, 1914-1915

The fighting in German East Africa began in August, 1914. On August 15, German troops stationed in Rwanda-Burundi shelled some villages in the Belgian Congo. On August 22, a German naval vessel on Lake Tanganyika opened fire on the harbour of Albertville (now Kalemie).

In September, the Germans staged raids into neighbouring Kenya and Uganda. Lettow-Vorbeck also created a tiny navy on Lake Victoria, causing minor damage but a great deal of news. The British sent out some gun-boats in pieces over the railway to Lake Victoria to re-establish control over the lake. They also sent two brigades of the British Indian Army which they tried to land at Tanga on November 2 1914 but the Germans completely disrupted the landing (see Battle of Tanga). Heavy and accurate fire prevented the British from moving off the beaches and finally forced them to re-embark three days later. The supplies left behind on the beaches, as well as supplies from the homeland kept Lettow-Vorbeck's large army equipped for the next year (Keegan, "World War I", pg 211).

Naval war

The German High Seas Fleet had just one cruiser in the area when the war started, the SMS Koenigsberg, which after destroying an old British Cruiser HMS Pegasus in Sansibar harbour had to retire into the Rufiji delta. After being discovered by British warships, including monitors and a battleship, the ship was destroyed. Crews and 10.5 cm guns were taken over by the Schutztruppe.

Lake Tanganyika expedition

In 1915, two British motorboats, HMS "Mimi" and HMS "Toutou" were transported by land to the British shore of the lake. They captured the German ship "Kingani", renaming it HMS Fifi, and with other two Belgian ships, under the command of Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, attacked and sunk the German ship "Hedwig von Wissman" in a bid to secure control of Lake Tanganyika, strategic key to controlling the eastern part of German territory. The "Graf von Götzen" was the only German ship to survive, and it was scuttled before the advancing British troops could capture it. It was later refloated by the British. [Giles Foden: Mimi and Toutou Go Forth — The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganyika, Penguin, 2004. ]

British reinforcements, 1916

General Horace Smith-Dorrien was assigned the command to fight the Germans, but pneumonia contracted during the voyage to South Africa prevented him from taking command. In 1916, General Jan Smuts was given the task of defeating Lettow-Vorbeck. Smuts had a large army (for the area), some 13,000 South Africans including Boers, British, and Rhodesians as well as 7,000 Indian and African soldiers. Also, not under his direct command but fighting on his side, was a Belgian force and a larger but totally ineffective group of Portuguese military units based in Mozambique. A large Carrier Corps of African porters under British command carried supplies for Smuts's army into the interior, much of which lacked railway or established roads. Despite all these troops from different countries, this was essentially a South African operation of the British Empire under Smuts' control. During the previous year, Lettow-Vorbeck had also gained troops and his army was now 3,500 Germans and some 12,000 Askaris.

Smuts army attacked from several directions, the main attack was from the north out of Kenya, while substantial forces from the Belgian Congo advanced from the west in two columns, over Lake Victoria and into the Rift Valley. Another force advanced over Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) from the south-east. All these forces failed to catch Lettow-Vorbeck and they all suffered terribly from disease along the march. One unit (9th South African Infantry) started at a strength of 1,135 in February and by October was down to 116 men, without doing much fighting at all (Cyril Falls, "The Great War", pg. 253). However, the Germans nearly always retreated from the larger British forces, and by September 1916, the German railway from the coast at Dar-es-Salaam to Ujiji was fully under British control. Belgian forces under General Tombeur captured Tabora, an administrative center of central German East Africa.

With Lettow-Vorbeck's forces now confined to the southern part of German East Africa, Smuts began to withdraw his South-African, Rhodesian, and Indian troops and replace them with African soldiers. By the start of 1917 more than half the British Army was composed of African soldiers, and by the end of the war, it was nearly all African troops. Smuts himself left the area in January 1917 to go to London to join the Imperial War Cabinet.

Belgian-Congolese participation

Belgian-Congolese participation in the campaign was sizeable — for the logistics alone some 260,000 carriers were mobilized, not counting troops.

The colonial armed forces of the Belgian Congo ('Force Publique') started a campaign on April 18, 1916 under the command of General Tombeur, Colonel Molitor and Colonel Olsen. They captured Kigali on May 6. The German forces in Burundi fought well, but had to give in to the numerical superiority of the Force Publique. On June 6, they took Usumbura, and by that time had completely occupied Rwanda and Burundi.

The Force Publique then started the campaign to capture Tabora. They marched into Tanganyika in three columns and took Biharamuro, Mwanza, Karema, Kigoma and Ujiji. After several days of heavy fighting they took Tabora. Fearing Belgian claims on the German colony, Smuts quickly sent Belgian forces back to Congo, leaving them as occupying forces in Rwanda and Burundi. But the British were forced to call Belgian-Congolese troops to help for a second time in 1917, and after this they worked together.

Last years, 1917-1918

Despite continued efforts to capture or destroy Lettow-Vorbeck's army, the British failed to end the German resistance. First General Hoskins (of the King's African Rifles) took over, then another South African, General van Deventer, was given the command. Deventer launched an offensive in July 1917. Lettow-Vorbeck's forces were divided into three groups and two of them managed to escape the offensive but the third, some 5,000 men under Tafel, was forced to surrender.

In 1917, the German High Command made an attempt to deliver much-needed supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck via dirigible from Germany. The "L.59" Zeppelin travelled over 6,400km (4,000 miles) in 95 hours, but in the end failed to deliver the supplies, ["First World War" - Willmott, H.P.; Dorling Kindersley, 2003, Page 192] when it received an abort message over the radio.

The German forces were however still able to tie down large British forces and even defeat them upon occasion. For example, the Germans beat the British at a battle near Mahiwa in October 1917. They lost 100 men and the British lost 1600.

Nevertheless, the British troops were closing in on the Germans and so on November 23 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed south into Portuguese Mozambique. He hoped by so doing to gain recruits and supplies by capturing small Portuguese garrisons. He marched through Mozambique for the next nine months, avoiding capture but unable to gain much strength. Then the German Army crossed into Northern Rhodesia in August 1918. On November 13, two days after the Armistice was signed in Europe, the German Army took and burnt its last town, Kasama which had been evacuated by the British. The next day at the Chambezi River, Lettow-Vorbeck was given a telegram announcing the signing of the armistice, and agreed to a cease-fire: the 'Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial' marks the spot in present-day Zambia. As requested, he marched his undefeated army to Abercorn and formally surrendered there on November 23. [ [http://www.nrzam.org.uk/NRJ/V4N5/V4N5.htm "The Northern Rhodesia Journal" online] , Vol IV No 5 (1961) pp440-442. “The Evacuation of Kasama in 1918”. Accessed 7 March 2007.]


In this campaign, disease killed or incapacitated 30 men for every man killed in battle (on the British side) (John Keegan, "World War I", pg. 300).

As Cyril Falls writes

    The achievement of Lettow-Vorbeck deserves undying fame. He was cut off from home. He could entertain no hope of a decisive victory. His aim was purely to keep the British on the stretch as much as possible for as long as possible and to make them expend the largest possible resources in men, in shipping, and in supplies. By this yardstick he was successful (Cyril Falls, "The Great War" pg. 254).

Historian Fred Reid's assessment was that 'In retrospect, the East African campaign came to look like a 'sideshow' of the First World War. As memory focused on the vast slaughter of the Western Front, the Indians, Africans and British who had borne the pains of that 'poisonous country' were all but forgotten. Even today, it is only possible to give approximations of the total fatalities. The British forces lost over ten thousand men, two thirds of them from disease. German losses were about 2,000. But the black people of East Africa suffered far more as carriers who died from disease, exhaustion and military action. No one bothered to record their fate. One modern estimate is 100,000 dead on all sides. Black civilians also suffered dreadfully. War devastated many localities, bringing hunger, disease and death in its train. Thousands of Africans perished in the outbreak of influenza that swept over their continent at the end of the war. To some Africans at least, long stigmatised as 'savages' by Europeans, it was plain that there was often a savage behind the white man's mask of civilisation.' [Fred Reid, "In Search of Willie Patterson: A Scottish Soldier in the Age of Imperialism." p.121. (2002).]

An unknown Belgian missionary in Congo wrote about the Congolese society as a society where "the father is at the front, the mother mills grains for the soldiers while the children are carrying the food to the front". No Congolese fought in Europe but the people of Congo paid also a high price in the Great War.

ee also

* Carrier Corps
* Jan Smuts
* Geoffrey Spicer-Simson
* History of Kenya - Colonial History
* History of Tanzania - First Word War
* Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
* East African Campaign (World War II)


Further reading

*Abbott, Peter, "Armies in East Africa 1914-1918" Osprey, 2002, ISBN 1-841-76489-2.
*Anderson, Ross, "The Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign: 1914-1918", Tempus Publishing, Limited, 2004, ISBN 0-752-42344-4.
*Farwell, Byron, "The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918", W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, ISBN 0-393-30564.
*Gardner, Brian, "On to Kilimanjaro", Macrae Smith Company, 1963, ISBN 1-111-04620-4.
*Hodges, Geoffrey "The Carrier Corps - Military Labour in the East African Campaign 1914-18" Greenwood Press NY 1986
*Hoyt, Edwin, "Guerilla: Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany's East African Empire", Scribner, 1981, ISBN 0-025-55210-4.
*Hoyt, Edwin, "The Germans who never lost", Frewin, 1969, ISBN 0-090-96400-4.
*Miller, Charles, "Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa", Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974, ISBN 0-025-84930-1.
*Mosley, Leonard, "Duel for Kilimanjaro", Ballantine Books, 1963.
* Paice, Edward, "Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa", Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, ISBN 0-297-84709-0.
*Sibley, J.R., "Tanganyikan Guerrilla", Ballantine Books, 1973, ISBN 0345098013.
*Strachan, Hew, "The First World War in Africa", Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-199-25728-0.
*Stevenson, William, "The Ghosts of Africa", Ballantine Books, 1981, ISBN 0-345-29793-8 (fictionalized account)

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