13 MARCH, 1916: Alien Invasion

A century ago, the big story dominating world news was the carnage around Verdun, where a second phase of the German offensive was underway.  The two-pronged attack had pushed south from positions northeast of the old town, advancing east of the Meuse from 6 March and west of the river two days later, by which time French sector commander Pétain had rushed every available man and artillery piece to the area.  On the one hand, this chimed perfectly with German chief of staff Falkenhayn’s plan to draw the French into attrition and ‘bleed the French Army white’; on the other hand it was enough to halt the German offensive in its tracks.

In short, the mincing machine was nicely set up for the next few months, but the tactical nuance, derring-do and disaster on the ground that followed aren’t really my business here, and are covered in soldierly detail by the heritage industry, so let’s head off to East Africa.

The strange war for control of colonial East Africa is largely forgotten today, and almost completely ignored by modern media, so you won’t be hearing too many centenary fanfares about the biggest single operation of the campaign, known to posterity as the Morogoro Offensive.  Launched by British Imperial forces in March 1916, it scored an early success, greeted as a major triumph by a British press desperate for some kind of victory to report, with the capture of Moshi, terminus of the main German East African railway, on 13 March


I sketched a background to the East African campaign, complete with the above stolen map, more than a year ago (2 January 1915, Colonial Carnage), but here’s the gist again. The British expected their colonial forces to mop up German East Africa with the same ease that they had disposed of other German colonies on the continent – but they’d reckoned without the resources available to the fertile jewel in the German colonial crown, and they’d reckoned without Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

In August 1914, colonial administrators in British and German East Africa preferred a resolution to their masters’ squabbles that would do the least possible damage to local societies, but military authorities were having none of it and both sides launched unsuccessful attacks during the autumn.  Quickly reinforced with 12,000 men from India, British colonial forces were much the stronger on paper, and Royal Navy control of the sea-lanes meant they could resupply at will.  The smaller German force, though effectively besieged in the colony, was better trained and led by a brilliant field commander in Lettow-Vorbeck, a leader who (in contrast to his British counterparts) trained, trusted and promoted his African troops as if they were Europeans.

Lettow-Vorbeck switched to a defensive campaign from early 1915, a hit-and-run affair designed to distract as many British resources as possible to East Africa from other fronts.  In a year that saw plenty of cross-border raiding by both sides, German guerilla activity had destroyed 32 trains and 9 bridges on the British Uganda Railway by March 1916.  Meanwhile the British Indian Expeditionary Force – cobbled together from British territorials, Askaris, Indian Army units and white colonial volunteers – attempted no major operations in 1915, though it did take (and loot) the small Lake Victoria port of Bukoba in late June in what seems to have been a morale building exercise.  More ambitious British border raids in July and September had barely begun before they collapsed in disarray.

By the end of the year Lettow-Vorbeck and colonial governor Schlee had performed several minor miracles.  Despite the British blockade they were keeping the colony reasonably well supplied, thanks to the efficiency of African farmers trained by German colonists and to erzatz production through a local chemical laboratory.  Salvaging everything possible from the Königsberg, a German cruiser trapped and hunted by down by British ships in the maze-like Rufugi Delta, had meanwhile helped Lettow-Vorbeck maintain ammunition supplies and added heavy guns to his armoury, and by finding volunteers among the colonial and African populations he had managed to almost triple the size of his army.  He entered 1916 at the head of some 14,500 combat troops, 3,000 of them European, deployed as northern and southern units, and controlled from his base at the central railway town of Tabora.

In London, the War as a whole was beginning to feel like a shambles by late 1915, and strategic thinking was dominated by gloom, the blame game and an urge for change.  Blame for the running sore of East Africa was placed squarely (and with some justification) on the fairly obvious limitations of Indian Army commanders on the spot. On 15 November, an experienced Western Front general, Horace Smith-Dorrien, was appointed theatre c-in-c with instructions to win a morale-boosting victory as soon as possible . Smith-Dorrien promptly fell ill, and by the time his replacement, the South African Jan Smuts, reached his post on 19 February the Indian Army command had confirmed its incompetence by launching 6,000 men into another chaotically unsuccessful border raid, this time towards the town of Tavita.

Smuts was one of the twentieth century’s noisiest all-rounders, a polymath whose influence helped shape half a century of the British Empire.  In 1916 he was a senior political figure in South Africa, an experienced veteran of two African wars – the Boer War and the previous year’s conquest of German Southwest Africa – and a lieutenant general (the British Empire’s youngest) in field command of the South African Army.  Reinforcements from South Africa and Rhodesia had brought British combat strength up to 27,000 men, 71 field guns and a squadron of RFC aircraft when Smuts launched his opening attack across the frontier in early March, and it had taken the small towns of the northern Kilimanjaro region, including Moshi, by the time rain and the ravages of disease forced him to call a halt on 13 March.

Despite fanfares in the British press, the attack failed to achieve its main objective – the destruction of Lettow-Vorbeck’s army.  The German force escaped intact, prompting Smuts to use a two-week break forced by bad weather to plan a multiple offensive that would surround his elusive enemy.

Secondary advances duly opened in early April from Northern Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Mozambique (an impressive communications effort in colonial Africa), and at the same time Smuts launched a two-pronged offensive across the northern frontier.  General Deventer’s 4,000 men advanced south towards the German colony’s central railway, and Smuts led the rest east towards the coast along the secondary railway.

It was a good plan, well coordinated by a very competent general, but it was a slow, painful failure.  None of the diversionary attacks lasted very long or achieved anything, while Deventer spent a month getting halfway to the railway, chasing an exemplary German retreat that took or destroyed everything of use in its path.  He had lost half his men to sickness when German hit-and-run attacks on 9 and 10 May forced a long pause.  Smuts made slow progress eastwards but moved more rapidly from 22 May, taking the European settlement of Amani before turning south and marching for Morogoro, 185km west of Dar-es-Salaam on the Central Railway.  His advance ran out of steam and paused for recuperation in late June, although a detachment of Indian troops took the coastal town of Tanga without a fight on 3 July.

The two British columns eventually converged on the Central Railway in late August.  Morogoro was occupied on 26 August and Dar-es-Salaam on 3 September, but Lettow-Vorbeck and his army got clean away, escaping into the fertile Rufugi Delta region and leaving nothing of any value behind.  Smuts did his best to follow, and had marched his sick and exhausted forces some 200km north by late September, when he finally gave up and went back to Dar-es-Salaam.

Smuts had captured a lot of territory, in theory at least, and his long, arduous trek around German East Africa had taken the colony’s railways, along with every town anyone in Europe had heard of. From where the British press, public and political establishing were standing, watching 1916’s plans for the Western Front burning at Verdun, this was the great victory they so desperately needed. Smuts found himself lionised as a hero, his military reputation raised to the roof, but aware that he had in fact suffered an expensive, ultimately unnecessary defeat.

After invaliding out 12,000 sick troops, Smuts left the theatre in January 1917 to join the British War Cabinet in London, where he did nothing to dispel the prevailing view that the East African campaign was triumphantly done and dusted.  This was anything but true.   Lettow-Vorbeck, resupplied by a German blockade-runner, remained a dangerous enemy at large in a territory of his own, and his dwindling forces would continue to plague occupation efforts for the next two years, overcoming supply problems and keeping ever-increasing numbers of British imperial troops occupied.

How the saga ended is a story in itself, best saved for later, but this rambling visit should reinforce my basic point about the campaign. For all the old-fashioned and extreme military endeavour involved, and for all Lettow-Vorbeck’s heroically ingenious defence of imperial interests, its most significant effect was to comprehensively ruin German East Africa.  Armies ranged all across the colony for years, stripping it of resources, wrecking its institutions and destabilising its tribal societies by pitting them against each other as Askaris.  A fertile, peaceful region in 1914, developing into a model for colonial development under relatively enlightened German rule, that part of eastern Africa has never fully recovered and remains a horrible mess.  Well done, everyone.

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