In northeastern France, the Battle of the Marne is getting fully underway. For all the vast scale and cost of later battles on the Western Front, the Marne can claim to be the theatre’s one decisive action, in that it ended German hopes of a rapid victory and effectively condemned both sides to the long haul. It was quite a fight, four days of thrust and counterthrust, error and opportunism – but you don’t need me to tell you about it. Instead, let’s talk about another battle on this day in 1914, much smaller and altogether less significant, unless you happen to come from Cameroon.
To begin at the beginning, Germany had established a sprinkling of colonies in Africa during the late-nineteenth century. The best developed by far was German East Africa, comprising modern Ruanda, Burundi and mainland Tanzania, while the western colony of Togoland was well-established and economically self-sufficient, but Southwest Africa (modern Namibia) and Cameroon were still little more than expanded trading posts when war broke out in Europe. Cameroon, for example, covered an area bigger than Britain and France combined but contained no more than 2,000 European personnel in 1914. Here’s today’s borrowed map.
The Allies, and Britain in particular, didn’t waste much time before attempting to replace German authorities in Africa, and a joint Anglo-French expedition to Cameroon was agreed on 22 August, aimed at capturing the strategically useful radio station at the capital, Douala. That force took almost a month to arrive from Europe, and meanwhile a separate, three-pronged invasion across the northern border was launched on 24 August by British forces in Nigeria.
On 30 August some two hundred British troops took and occupied the village outpost of Nsanakong, a few kilometres inside the frontier, but they were surrounded and attacked by four times as many Germans on 6 September. It was a rout. Half the British force was killed, against forty German dead, and more died as the invasion was driven back into Nigeria.
This small German victory set the tone for a campaign that lasted until the spring of 1916. The Allied attack on Douala succeeded comfortably enough because German forces retreated into the hinterland, but attempts to secure the colony as a whole (from Douala, Nigeria and French Equatorial Africa) were repeatedly thwarted by rearguard actions, skilled retreats and difficult conditions, particularly in the rainy south of the country. The majority of the surviving German population completed a fighting retreat to the neutral Spanish coastal enclave of Rio Muni in January 1916, and 832 survivors were eventually evacuated to internment in Spain. Allied forces couldn’t take the last German outpost of Mora, and its 388 survivors surrendered on generous terms before Britain and France officially partitioned Cameroon on 4 March.
In total, the campaign employed some 18,000 British and French imperial troops, of whom 4,235 were killed, mostly by disease, along with unknown numbers of German personnel and native bearers. Not much in the context of the killing fields elsewhere, and you may still be wondering why I bothered. I can think of three reasons.
First, a lot of people have no idea there was a war in Africa. Togoland, barely defended, was in Allied hands by the end of August 1914, and the conquest of Southwest Africa by forces from the newly independent South Africa was completed in the summer of 1915, but an epic struggle for German East Africa was still in progress some time after the Armistice of 1918. I’ll discuss the latter campaigns at a later date, but take my word for now that both had side effects with great significance for the future of the continent. This is worth knowing.
Secondly, it seems important to mention that, despite Allied propaganda to the contrary, Germany was in many ways the most enlightened of the European powers in Africa. Though German forces were still struggling for control of Southwest Africa against hostile local tribes, regimes in East Africa and Togoland were pursuing programmes for self-sustaining social and economic development that put other colonial powers to shame. The future of those countries was drastically altered, arguably for the worse, when they passed into British and French hands, and the same may well be true of Cameroon, which was still in a very early stage of colonial development in 1914.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of men fighting in Cameroon, on both sides, were imperial troops recruited from West African colonies, known to Europeans as Askaris, and many more local people served as guides, bearers or other auxiliaries. Though they sometimes changed sides or went home if mistreated by their white masters, Askaris were generally loyal, reliable and by far the most effective fighters in African conditions, not least because they were less susceptible to sickness than Europeans. The best European commanders learned to trust Askaris as they would first-class European troops, and their contribution to momentous changes wrought by the First World War shouldn’t be forgotten.
I’m not suggesting the Battle of Nsanakong was more important than the Marne, or than actions taking place on the Eastern and Serbian fronts at the same time, but it was a significant moment in the history of a very large African country that our heritage war chooses to ignore.