It wasn’t exactly quiet across the world at war a hundred years ago, but the big picture was quieter than usual for late spring. The Western and Italian Fronts were in skirmish mode for the moment, and the Eastern Front – though anything but quiet – was in the throes of what you might call internal chaos, with civil war brewing in Russia while nationalist ambitions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus struggled to survive a power grab by victorious but resource-hungry German, Ottoman and (occasionally) Austro-Hungarian invaders.
Elsewhere, Allied armies were still loitering with unconvincing intent at Salonika, British imperial forces in Mesopotamia were into a long period of reorganisation after a limited advance up the Euphrates in March, and General Allenby’s invasion of Palestine was still in a state of suspension enforced by the emergency transfer of men and materiel to meet the German spring offensive in France. Not much for Allied propaganda machines to crow about there, for all that they made the most of any trench raid, air operation or naval action that could claim even a hint of success, but they did find apparently exciting news to report from the ruthlessly ridiculous campaign in eastern Africa.
The British press hadn’t had much to say about East Africa since early 1917, when the government had accepted the (self-serving) analysis of former theatre commander Jan Smuts and pronounced the campaign all over bar the mopping-up operations (13 March, 1916: Alien Invasion). It wasn’t. Despite covering and ‘occupying’ an enormous amount of ground, British armies had failed to stop, let alone defeat or capture the Schutztruppe, the small, infinitely pesky German colonial force rampaging around East Africa under the tactically brilliant command of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
During the first half of 1917 Smuts’ successors – General Hosking and, from May 1917, South African General Deventer – rebuilt forces ravaged by disease for a renewed attack on the Schutztruppe, which had retreated into the largely untamed southeastern corner of German East Africa (modern Tanzania). Heavily distracted by the antics of the maverick Wintgens-Naumann expedition (30 May, 1917: All Guts, No Glory), and burdened by imperial assumptions that his task was straightforward, Deventer eventually launched a major offensive in September.
By that time Deventer commanded some 35,000 troops of the King’s African Rifles, and he was able to detach two overwhelmingly strong columns south and southwest from the coastal bases at Kilwa and Lindi. Hopelessly outnumbered, desperately short of supplies and facing an obvious pincer movement, the Schutztruppe made a stand at Mahiwa, about 80km inland, on 17-18 October. Lettow-Vorbeck stationedhis last two field guns and 1,500 of his troops, more than half his remaining strength, in strong positions on a ridge, where they held off two simple frontal assaults by a tired Anglo-Nigerian brigade (4,900 men) before South African General Beves called off the attack. Having inflicted some 2,700 casualties against 500 losses of his own, Lettow-Vorbeck withdrew south.
The battle at Mahiwa, which was both the bloodiest and the last major engagement of the campaign in East Africa, received scant attention from Allied propaganda but was big news in Germany and earned Lettow-Vorbeck promotion to the rank of major-general. It didn’t solve the Schutztruppe‘s supply problems, so having broken free of the pincer and unwilling to risk further battle casualties, Lettow-Vorbeck marched his remaining 2,200 troops south and into Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique).
Crossing the Rovuma River into Portuguese East Africa in late November 1917, and chasing off a half-hearted attempt to confront the invasion by about a thousand native troops under Portuguese command, the Schutztruppe found plentiful supplies and easy pickings. Able to loot colonial supply bases almost at will, it used some of the proceeds to trade with native villagers, who were used to being robbed with violence by Portuguese colonists and found Lettow-Vorbeck’s scrupulously honest dealing far more to their liking. Meanwhile the British, having yet again let their prey slip away, could only rest their exhausted troops, open negotiations with Portuguese authorities to send a force into Mozambique, and wait for the winter rains to subside.
With permission granted, Deventer assembled a brigade known as PAMFORCE at Port Amelia (now Pemba) in December 1917. Heavy rains restricted its operations to skirmishes with the small German rearguard in the hinterland until 7 April, when field commander General Edwards marched the entire force west. While Lettow-Vorbeck responded by withdrawing deeper into Portuguese territory, his six companies of rearguard troops performed another exemplary tactical retreat, drawing British forces into skirmishes against good defensive positions before falling back on prepared supply dumps and water sources. PAMFORCE marched doggedly in pursuit, its two columns struggling to remain in tactical contact through uncharted, hilly country while disease and supply problems rapidly reduced their fighting strength, until by mid-May they were close to exhaustion.
Finally, on 22 May, a detachment sent to aid PAMFORCE from Nyasaland stumbled upon the German rearguard near Mahua and attacked its baggage train – but the nearest of Edwards’ columns, though within earshot of the fight, was unable to cross rough terrain in time to join it, and most of the rearguard escaped to follow Lettow-Vorbeck south. Further skirmishes took place next day, by which time PAMFORCE actions were being portrayed in the British press as the prelude to final victory in East Africa, but this particular false dawn was fleeting and optimism evaporated within 48 hours.
Another well-executed rearguard action on 24 May completed the Schutztruppe‘s escape, after which Edwards chose to preserve the lives of his sick, hungry and exhausted troops. The hunt was called off, PAMFORCE limped back to Port Amelia and Edwards began developing a new base of operations further south at the port of Mozambique. Lettow-Vorbeck meanwhile continued his fruitful tour of Portuguese East Africa without meeting serious resistance until 28 September 1918, when the Schutztruppe re-crossed the frontier into German territory.
The last chapter of the war in East Africa was still to come, and I’ll be back to take a look at it, but I make no apology for using this post as an update on the campaign. That’s because it is either ignored by modern European commentators, or discussed purely as a prime example of a successful guerilla war against overwhelming force, and both positions reflect a shamefaced silence about the real tragedy of East Africa that set in immediately after the War.
Tens of thousands of soldiers, drawn from a bewildering array of nationalities spanning four continents, suffered illness, injury or death during the campaign (I’ll report the final tallies when it’s done), but the War’s negative impact on East African civilian life was on an altogether different scale.
As well as native troops, or Askaris, some 350,000 civilians were employed as bearers for European armies on the move, stripping a significant portion of the workforce from croplands and livestock herds that were anyway under pressure from military supply demands, the scorched earth policies adopted by retreating armies and the widespread destruction of local infrastructure. The region known as the ‘breadbasket’ of Africa, arguably the continent’s most socioeconomically promising experiment in colonialism, suffered famine in 1917–18, was particularly vulnerable to the post-War influenza epidemic that killed perhaps 1.5 million of its people, and would never fully recover its potential for prosperity.
That was only half the story, and a future story at that. For those post-War British authorities aware of the campaign’s detailed course, the immediate debt to be ignored concerned the enormous wartime loss of civilian life in East Africa. Nobody ever counted the campaign’s civilian casualties but some estimates range above a million dead, and informed British contemporaries saw no reason to tarnish the Empire’s post-War reputation with that kind of butcher’s bill. So East Africa wasn’t talked about during the War’s aftermath, and while the ‘civilised’ world was struggling with the paradoxes of its own reconstruction, nobody who could be heard cared. That’s the way the world was in 1918 and 1919, but there’s no real excuse for keeping quiet about it now.