2 JANUARY, 1915: Colonial Carnage

Into 1915 we go, and although the main European belligerents are busy preparing major assaults on fortified positions in Belgium, France and Galicia, none is destined to amount to much more than pointless slaughter. Meanwhile, in Africa, the majority of colonial business is done and dusted, with German possessions in Togoland, Cameroon and Southwest Africa either in Allied hands or on their last legs. There was, however, one theatre of war in sub-Saharan Africa just building into one of the most extraordinary campaigns in military history, a struggle that would still be in progress when the War ended in 1918 and that was already developing some very curious characteristics.

I’m talking about the campaign in German East Africa, a four-year catalogue of military brilliance, doughty defence and escalating madness that makes most fictional adventures look tame by comparison. My excuse for beginning the story at this particular moment – apart from the obvious truth that nothing much was going on elsewhere at the time – is that on 2 January 1915 two elderly British warships, the battleship HMS Goliath and the cruiser HMS Fox, bombarded Dar-Es-Salaam for the second time in a matter of weeks. Putting that event in context should provide a background briefing to the campaign as a whole, and free up the brain for regular trips to the region during the next few years.

Covering modern Burundi, Rwanda and mainland Tanzania – about a million square kilometres – East Africa was far and away the most successful German colony in 1914. A liberal development policy had provided some 7.65 million Africans (divided into more than 100 tribes) with levels of education and health care that were the envy of the continent, while a highly successful agricultural programme meant the colony was known as the ‘breadbasket of Africa’. The German regime, led by about 5,350 Europeans with the help of some 11,000 Asian immigrants, all concentrated in the north of the country, had also built two important railways leading from the coast to the interior.

War in Europe threatened to ruin the colony, which was surrounded by territories and offshore islands in Allied hands, and particularly menaced by British East Africa to the north. A map seems in order, so here’s one I borrowed earlier (and will remove on request). It doesn’t include the second railway, leading inland from Tanga, which had only just been completed when the War began.


The German army in East Africa was about the same size as the British force to the north, but in better shape. Its 2,472 African troops (known to Europeans as ‘Askaris’) were led by 260 Europeans, supported by 31 obsolete artillery pieces and backed by a predominantly African gendarmerie of some 2.200 men. They were better trained and paid than the 2,300 men of the King’s African Rifles in British East African service, and they were concentrated in the north of the country while British forces (mustering only 62 European personnel) were scattered around in small clumps, with only 150 men stationed at Nairobi. The British nevertheless possessed one enormous tactical advantage in the Royal Navy’s complete dominance of offshore waters, which meant they could reinforce and resupply at will while denying the same to German forces. Under the circumstances, it was no real surprise that governor Schlee of German East Africa preferred peace in 1914.

Schlee and governor Belfield of British East Africa, both more concerned with colonial wellbeing than imperial strategy, agreed in August to a policy of mutual neutrality, and a passing British cruiser arranged a non-aggression pact with German authorities at Tanga and Dar-es-Salaam. The pact was promptly denounced by the Royal Navy, while the German military commander in East Africa, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, simply ignored Schlee’s wishes and went straight onto the attack.

Lettow-Vorbeck armed a German steamer to take control of Lake Tanganyika, before invading north towards Mombasa with 500 men in late September, and taking the town of Tavita before superior defensive numbers forced a retreat. Two attempts to move south into British Northern Rhodesia, in September and November, also failed, but Lettow-Vorbeck’s wider aim of distracting as many Allied resources as possible from other theatres met with immediate success.

Encouraged by an easy West African victory in Togoland, London authorised the conquest of German East Africa in August, and had sent 12,000 troops from India to Mombasa by mid-October. Their commander, General Aitken, launched his ill-equipped reservists into attacks across the border and against the port of Tanga in early November, but both failed, and later in the month a desultory naval bombardment of Dar-es-Salaam achieved little more than a fatal weakening of Schlee’s pacifist arguments against Lettow-Vorbeck.

After another, equally unproductive bombardment of Dar-es-Salaam on 2 January, Lettow-Vorbeck mounted one last attack – a hard-fought engagement on 18–19 January around the coastal border town of Jassin – before deciding to concentrate on defence. Expanding his forces with reserves and volunteers, dividing them into highly mobile southern and northern sections, salvaging heavy artillery and pretty much everything else from the Königsberg (a modern German cruiser trapped in the nearby Rufugi Delta that will make for a tale of its own at a later date), and organising the country’s food supplies to cope with blockade, he embarked on a guerilla campaign that would keep increasing numbers of British troops and warships occupied until after the Armistice in 1918.

During the next few years I’ll be returning to the genius of Lettow-Vorbeck from time to time, to the extraordinary durability of the German colony, and to the ever-expanding, increasingly frustrated and sometimes downright eccentric British efforts to establish control over eastern Africa. It’s quite a story, and it’s unlikely to gather many headlines from the commemorative industry – but while reviving memories of dash and derring-do let’s not forget that this was an unnecessary campaign, fought for marginal European interests in defiance of African needs, that effectively wrecked a nation and caused tens of thousands of casualties.  Colonial mission?  Yeah, right…

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