Category Archives: Africa

24 MAY, 1918: Really Bad Tourists

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.

It was a very big theatre of war…

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.

The tour of Portuguese East Africa, from a British perspective.

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.

Learning the European way – native askaris with the Schutztruppe.

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.

Askaris and civilian bearers enjoyed challenging work conditions…

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.

6 APRIL, 1917: Woodrow Who?

There is a book, published in 1930, called 1066 and All That.  It’s a very silly book, taking the piss out of British history with a bunch of childish jokes strung together by a couple of failed Oxford students, but it does come to a slightly sombre conclusion.  In 1917, it announces, America became ‘top nation’ and so history came to an end.  I mention this because, although nothing in the universe has a precise starting date and I guess history is still in progress, on 6 April 1917 the United States entered the First World War on the side of the Allies – and from that day to this nobody in the world has seriously doubted the USA’s position as the most powerful nation on Earth.

Once the USA had committed its economic clout and manpower to the First World War, it was a matter of when rather than if the Allies would overpower Germany and its increasingly feeble partners. Once the USA was part of the War, it couldn’t be kept out of any future peacemaking process, and once the USA had sent armed forces across the Atlantic it could never again claim or practice a disinterested separation from foreign affairs.  The ‘American century’ had begun and as it ticks past the hundred-year mark I’d say we’re still not sure how it’s going.

There’s obviously a lot more to say on the subject, and plenty to say about the Wilson administration’s final acceptance that war couldn’t be avoided, but it’s pretty well covered by the commemoration and heritage industries, not to mention a powerful posse of scholars and journalists. There’s no real excuse for any literate person from a first-world background not being aware that 6 April 1917 was a fundamental turning point in his or her modern history, and if you’re not aware of it consider yourself told.

On the other hand, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, modern history meant different things to different parts of the world in the early twentieth century.  Important changes were being forced on all sorts of people living outside the bubble of mass communication and mechanisation that defined the richest countries.  What mattered to their history was important, wasn’t necessarily in tune with our standard narrative and tends to be ignored by modern reproductions of that narrative.

April 1917 was, for instance, an important time in the history of the Gold Coast, but that had nothing much to do with the birth of American geopolitics and much more to do with an increasingly desperate British Empire giving up on its first big attempt to recruit native troops for fighting outside western Africa.  Explanation is in order, beginning with the basics.

The name Gold Coast was originally (and obviously) applied to the coastal region of West Africa that provided Europeans with gold. Like the Ivory Coast to the west and the Slave Coast to the east, it was easily accessible to 18th-century European shipping, and had attracted incursions from Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Prussian and British colonists by the early nineteenth.  By the mid-nineteenth century bribery and bullying had enabled the world’s undisputed ‘top nation’, Britain, to remove the competition, and establish a multinational (or in imperial terms multi-tribal) Gold Coast colony that stretched far inland and would eventually become modern Ghana.


The Gold Coast was hardly one nation in 1914, but the green, yellow and mauve bits were one British colony.

Colonial administration in the Gold Coast followed the pattern established in India and employed across much of Britain’s African empire, turning local rulers into clients and letting them get on with the traditional business of local government, but keeping them under very firm personal control.  This had the great advantage of saving the British lots of money and resources that would otherwise be expended in colonial policing, along with the useful side effect of leaving much of the native population unaware that colonisation was taking place, and therefore inclined to carry on blaming the same old leaders for their troubles.

Although the northern Gold Coast interior, home to the Asante people, remained troublesome and occasionally violent into the twentieth century – more a product of internal African tensions than any colonial pressure – the British were generally able to develop their colonial interests in peace, extracting metals, diamonds, ivory, pepper, timber, cocoa and grain, along with gold, and building a trading infrastructure of roads and railways from the interior to the ports.  By 1914 British administrators were referring to the ‘sheep-like docility’ of Gold Coast natives, and on the outbreak of war only some 3,000 imperial troops and police were deployed to administer a population of about 1.6 million.

The War had a generally, though not critically depressing effect on the Gold Coast economy, which enjoyed a minor surge in demand for cocoa but otherwise suffered from the conflict’s disruption of global sea trade and attendant price fluctuations – but economic uncertainties had little immediate social impact before 1917.  Local chiefs continued to give support to the colonial regime for a variety of internal reasons, usually involving their own security or territorial ambitions, and loyally provided troops for campaigns against German forces in neighbouring Togoland and Cameroon. Meanwhile the colony’s educated, largely urban African elite and its mouthpiece, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, continued to profit from collaboration with the British and to exploit any opportunities for increased influence thrown up by wartime personnel shortages.

Broadly speaking, most local leaders and imperial administrators regarded the War as a faraway irrelevance, a view shared in spades by those natives aware that it was taking place – but the colonial government was nevertheless afraid that the inconveniences of an economic downturn could undermine popular acceptance of the white man’s invincibility.  Careful to avoid policies likely to trigger unrest, it ignored European demands for tighter quality control over cocoa exports, refused to expel immigrants from neighbouring French colonies, where natives were regarded as French citizens and conscripted accordingly, and rejected all attempts by an increasingly manpower-starved UK government to impose conscription on the colony.   Although some of the northern territories brought under largely military control in the previous couple of decades did see uprisings against chiefs seen as British agents, this Afro-centric approach kept most of the Gold Coast relatively peaceful during the War’s first two years.

Government policy couldn’t disguise the wartime reduction of imperial resources available for colonial work.  This forced the closure of fortresses in the northern hinterland, brought a 30 percent reduction in the number of troops and police available by early 1917, and did exactly what the colonists feared most, feeding a growing popular belief that the white empire’s days were numbered. Under the circumstances, the British Army recruitment campaign launched by the colonial government in January 1917 was a very bad idea.

Given the Empire’s desperate manpower needs after the carnage of 1916’s Western Front offensives (and a clamour in the British press for conscription of native populations that could be heard loud and clear in the colonial capital, Accra), the Gold Coast administration had little choice but to attempt the recruitment drive.  It went about the job in the only way it knew how.  Local rulers were told to provide recruits, and left to do so in any way they saw fit, while the rich folks of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society – which had previously been useful in encouraging contributions to various voluntary war funds – were allowed to spearhead attempts to attract volunteers by individual persuasion. The results were divisive and universally unsatisfactory.

Local chiefs and other rulers needed young men for their own communities and while some were slow to provide recruits, many more simply bribed or coerced their least useful subjects into joining the British Army.  Colonial administrators recognised that this amounted to conscription, or in some cases forced labour, and they bemoaned the low quality of recruits.  They also complained that many refused to fight or deserted during training, but they felt no need to interfere with what could be dismissed as local methods, particularly since they weren’t picking up recruits by any other means.  Details are scant, but the general picture seems to have been of a population that regarded going away to fight in a distant war as a ridiculous idea, and that wasn’t about to do anything recommended by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

The recruitment drive was abandoned as a failure in April, but would be repeated the following year with similarly unfortunate results. Although Gold Coast troops were recruited to take part in the British East African campaign, alongside greater numbers from other British West African colonies, and would be on the verge of deployment in Palestine when the War ended, the main effects of the drives were to dilute the authority of white rule and along with it the authority of local rulers.  Local chiefs, particularly in the largely autonomous countryside, lost support as the agents of recruitment, and lost status as recruitment fuelled popular belief that the British Empire was running out of resources.


Gold Coast troops in East Africa – a long, long way from home and hating it…

The primary wartime forces undermining the traditional rural power structures upon which Gold Coast colonial rule was built were economic instability and connected phenomena – like the concentration of wealth and labour resources in the main ports, and the 1916 issue of paper money to cover imperial cash flow problems – but the British Empire’s clumsy scramble for manpower served as an emblem for their decline.  As such it helped alter the mindset of an entire people, and helped hand the colony’s future to the educated elite represented by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

As political influence came to depend more and more on access to economic and population hubs, wealthy urban natives were sufficiently in touch with the wider world to be influenced by liberal talk of post-War self-determination.  By the time the War ended the Gold Coast educated elite and the press it controlled were expressing desires for equality of civil opportunity, increased native control over economic resources and political representation. The Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society was meanwhile reorganising to become a political organisation in pursuit of those desires.  It would evolve during the 1920s into the kernel of a nationalist movement dedicated largely to the interests of social elites and destined to grow steadily during the next four decades.

By then, of course, the presence of the USA at the post-War peace table seemed important to at least some future Ghanaians, but in April 1917 Woodrow Wilson really didn’t matter in West Africa.

22 MAY, 1916: The Blind Bully

It’s not my business here to provide a narrative of the First World War.  I’m more interested in shining a small light into the many nooks and crannies largely ignored by one-track posterity, and in joining up some of the forgotten threads that link that world with ours.  That’s why, with the great powers of 1916 in the midst of vast military enterprises all over Europe, I’m heading for a small but geopolitically formed campaign in the Sudan, or to be more precise in the remote (and these days infamous) western province of Darfur.

A century ago today, an Anglo-Egyptian force met and defeated the fighters of Ali Dinar, Sultan of Darfur, at Beringia, near the regional capital of El Fahser.  Before I get into details of the battle itself – which was an old-school colonial affair defined by a huge technological gap between the two sides – it’s worth taking a look at why, at a time when manpower shortages for ambitious offensives elsewhere were a major issue, the British saw fit to send some 2,000 well-equipped and supported troops to the back of beyond.

One basic reason is that, from start to finish, Great Britain viewed the First World War in a global, imperial context.  The Empire’s first act on the outbreak of war had been to send naval units to protect imperial oil supplies coming out of Mesopotamia, and by 1916 it had time and again proved willing to commit resources to securing or expanding its overseas possessions.

This was partly a product of attitude, in that a century of largely unchallenged global supremacy had left British ruling elites accustomed to imperial success and inclined to assume that it would remain the index of geopolitical power in the post-War world – but it was also a matter of circumstance.  Britain had more resources available than any other European empire; its prosperity was more dependent on overseas trade; and it wasn’t required to focus every effort on defeating a homeland invasion, or threat of invasion.  In contrast, wartime France and Belgium regarded empire primarily as a source of manpower against the invader on the Western Front, Germany had never seen overseas possessions as more than bargaining chips in a European power struggle, the Netherlands and Portugal were strictly minor military powers, and Italy’s imperial pretensions were little more than optimistic fantasies.  Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were meanwhile concerned only with the preservation or expansion of their centralised land empires.

The second, more specific reason is lodged in the history of the region, giving me an excuse to provide some distant background to its modern troubles, and to give one granite-minded icon of militarism through the ages his first mention of the War to date.

If you’ve ever stayed awake through much of the movie, you may know that Charlton Heston (aka General Charles Gordon) met his death at the hands of Sudanese rebels, led by an Islamic sect, in January 1885, shortly before a belated British relief attempt reached his besieged headquarters at Khartoum.  Gordon’s ill-fated expedition from Egypt had marked a reversal of the British government’s previous decision to abandon the Sudan as worthless. The change had been forced by popular and press outrage at the perceived loss of prestige involved, and Gordon’s death sealed the renewed commitment.

The commander of the relief force, future war minister General Kitchener, began a process of destroying rebel enclaves in the Sudan that was complete by the end of the century, leaving the British in theoretical control of a vast, wild and endemically lawless nation.  It was also a largely Moslem nation, making its people particularly amenable to Turkish agitation once Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire.

Policing the Sudan was the primary wartime responsibility of the Egyptian Army – a force that was (like Egypt) nominally independent but was trained and led by British officers, and equipped with obsolete British weapons.   The task kept some 14,000 Egyptian, Sudanese and Arab troops occupied throughout the War, along with a battalion of British Army infantry (and attached artillery) based at Khartoum.  Helped by a relative boom in the Sudanese economy – moribund and chaotic in 1914, but boosted by the supply needs of British forces in Egypt and East Africa – they generally restricted insurgent activity to isolated incidents.  Before 1916, the noisiest of these had been the arrest of Ottoman emissary Elmaz Bey for inciting uprising among Egyptian troops at Port Sudan in 1915, but the prospect of a concerted Islamic rebellion in the Darfur region posed a more serious threat.

Dafur – the land of the Fur people – covered some 400,000 square kilometres of western Sudan, bordered by French Chad to the west and Libya to the north.

The Sudan, 1885–1916
Northwest Africa, 1885–1916

The leader of the region’s Tama tribe, Ali Dinar, had accepted British rule at the turn of the century and been appointed British agent for Darfur, but had since run his unloved province as an increasingly autonomous fiefdom, treating the British authorities in much the same way other Ottoman outposts in North Africa treated the regime in Constantinople.

The arrangement suited both sides until war between the empires brought British declaration of a protectorate over Egypt and the Sudan in 1914 (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab), ending their nominal status as Ottoman provinces.  This, along with grievances about French incursions from Chad and British quarantine regulations applied to livestock, prompted Ali Dinar to seek Turkish support against the infidel.

In touch with Turkish officers aiding the Senussi uprising in Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), Ali Dinar apparently accepted their assurances that Darfur would become an autonomous Islamic state after an Ottoman victory, and definitely accepted a shipment of 250 rifles from the Senussi.  Aware of the latter, the British Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, opted to nip rebellion in the bud by sending a punitive expedition from Khartoum to Darfur .

The Western Frontier Force (WFF) assembled by Wingate was powerful enough for the job.  Some 2,000 infantry supported by six light artillery pieces, a dozen machine guns, eleven motorised trucks and an RFC contingent of four BE2 biplanes, marched against perhaps 3,000 poorly armed and trained Fur regulars, backed by about 2,000 tribal spear-carriers and 800 cavalry.  Defeating Ali Dinar was not expected to be problem… but getting to him was another matter.

The Sudan’s western railhead at El Obeid was almost 700km from Khartoum, and reaching the regional capital of El Fasher meant travelling another 650km across dry, inhospitable country, with survival dependent on the efficient seizure of precious water holes. The WFF marched northwest from El Obeid on 16 March 1916, moving from water hole to water hole, using aircraft to scare away Fur fighters posted for their defence.  The advance eventually reached the approaches to the capital on 21 May, and the following morning, shadowed by Ali Dinar’s mounted forces, it came up against defenders entrenched beyond the village of Beringia, some 20km short of El Fasher.

What followed was, aircraft aside, straight out of the nineteenth-century imperial playbook.  The WFF’s infantry moved forward in a square, in the style of the Napoleonic Wars, and when an unauthorised advance by a British Camel Corps company (that’s cavalry on camels, obviously) occupied a ridge overlooking the village, Ali Dinar’s 4,000 fighters abandoned their trenches and launched an attack.  Though unquestionably brave, this was not a smart move, and during a 40-minute exercise in slaughter the Fur were cut down without getting close to the British square, leaving 261 dead and 95 seriously wounded on the battlefield and removing many more casualties when they fled.

That afternoon the British moved up and entrenched outside El Fasher, where they were attacked at three in the morning by about 700 Fur cavalry and 300 infantry, but starshell (flares) illuminated the battlefield for machine-gunners and the attackers were driven off in less than fifteen minutes.

Ali Dinar had abandoned the capital and withdrawn to the southwest by the time the British entered El Fasher next morning, and on 29 May he sent word to WFF commander Lt.-Col. Kelly that he intended to surrender and renounce his sultanate.  At that point operations by both sides were brought to a halt by the rainy season, and by the time it was over, in October, Ali Dinar had shown no sign of actually surrendering, forcing Kelly to send a detachment in pursuit.

A small British force eventually attacked and defeated the last coherent Fur force in early November, and on 6 November Ali Dinar was tracked to his hideaway and killed, effectively ending the campaign.  The result was formalised on 1 January 1917, when the autonomous province of Darfur was absorbed into the Sudan and placed under direct British administration.

Ali Dinar – stone dead, but his cause would rise again.
Ali Dinar – stone dead, but his cause would rise again.

The British weren’t primarily responsible for Ali Dinar’s rebellion.  It was a product of the self-interested ambition typical among regional warlords within the crumbling Ottoman Empire, fuelled by the genuine (and religiously inspired) support of his followers and ignited by false Turkish promises of post-War independence.  Nor could the British know that, a century after they crushed the Fur people’s clumsy bid for self-governance, the independent status of Darfur would still be a running sore poisonous with slaughter and deprivation.

On the other hand, particularly given the tendency of British heritage industries to portray the Empire as an adventure seen through British eyes, the casual manner in which Britain ran roughshod over the Sudan in general, and Darfur in particular, is a breathtaking reminder of the self-centred thinking behind the ‘civilising mission’ of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European empires.

Britain didn’t want to control the Sudan and had no use for it.  It was only there because a nationalist press and public behaved like fans of flat-track bullies, forcing Gordon’s expedition and everything that followed, including 1916’s pointless suppression of nascent national awareness in Darfur.  Needless to say, the campaign aroused no controversy at the time, but these days its long-term effects are painfully obvious, and peddlers of heritage are letting down history by ignoring it.

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.

9 MARCH, 1916: Pawn Sacrifice

Here’s something the English-speaking world tends to ignore: a century ago today Germany declared war on Portugal.  Taking part in the First World War went on to wreck Portugal, but though peace treaties and posterity have given Germany the blame, the real culprits were Portugal’s allies, especially the British.  Here’s why.

Portugal in 1916 was a turbulent republic with a population of around six million, a fragile economy and an unstable government. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1910, after it blundered into a dispute with Britain over Portugal’s African colonies, and by the time war broke out in August 1914 the republican government of President de Arriaga had survived royalist uprisings, military plots and serial changes of prime minister.

Portugal’s foreign policy was dominated by Britain, its ally since the fourteenth century and its regular protector against outside attack, and was largely motivated by the desire to hold on to its African colonies.  Apart from uprisings against notoriously harsh European administrations, the biggest danger facing those colonies – Portuguese East Africa (Angola) and West Africa (Mozambique) – was encroachment from neighbouring German colonies, so Portugal’s wartime sympathy for the Entente was never in doubt.

On the other hand, a small army of 33,000 ill-equipped and poorly trained troops, along with internal instability and economic disarray, meant Portugal was in no position to actually fight a war, so the government adopted what the British called ‘quasi-neutrality’.  This amounted to remaining technically neutral while obeying the instructions of Sir Lancelot Carnegie, the British minister in Lisbon, an attempt to have it both ways that eventually came home to roost.

If that sounds harsh on a struggling Portuguese government trapped by a Great Power conflict beyond its control, bear in mind that stricter neutrality might have been possible if Lisbon had been less determined to defend its colonial possessions.  When German border raids hit Mozambique in August 1914, and Angola later in the year, Portugal did manage to send some 1,500 troops to Mozambique.  Poorly supplied, ill-led and without clear orders, the expeditionary force had no real impact on German operations on or around the frontier with German East Africa.

Arriaga resigned the presidency when his term of office ended in 1915, and from August of that year Dr. Bernadino Marchada held a shaky grip on power in Lisbon.  By that time the British, still vexed by their inability to winkle the Germans out of East Africa, were losing patience with the situation in Mozambique.  After the dispatch of another 1,500 Portuguese troops to the colony in November 1915 had changed nothing on the ground, London decided that what little military value Portugal had to offer was worth extracting after all.

In return for a desperately needed loan, and a call from exiled ex-King Manoel to end royalist rebellion for the duration, the Marchada government agreed to Britain’s demand for the removal of all German shipping from Portuguese ports.  Rather than attempt negotiation with German ships in its ports, the Portuguese regime chose to seize them in a series of surprise raids during February, effectively guaranteeing that war would follow.  The rationale behind this sudden flush of aggression was simple:  by entering the War as an active ally, complete with ships seized for Allied use, Portugal could be sure of British protection from reprisal attacks.

Sure enough, Germany declared war on 9 March, followed a week later by Austria-Hungary, and the British set about making the most of Portugal’s belligerent status.  They began training Portuguese divisions for France at once, and the Portuguese Army mushroomed, eventually mustering 335 big guns and about 180,000 men, of whom about 100,000 saw active service on the Western Front or in Africa.  After final training in Britain, the first two Portuguese divisions – about 40,000 men – reached Flanders by mid-1917, and fought with the BEF until their withdrawal in the spring of 1918, while increasing numbers of troops blundered around the African colonies upsetting the natives but making no progress against German incursions.

In total the Portuguese Army suffered about 21,000 wartime casualties, almost 8,000 of them killed.  Meanwhile the small Portuguese Navy, headed by one venerable old pre-Dreadnought battleship, was too busy taking part in factional squabbles at home to make much contribution to the war effort, and though the tiny Portuguese Army Air Service did add a couple of old British machines to its collection of three obsolete biplanes, none of them saw active service.

So apart from providing a few small German ships and a smattering of strategically insignificant cannon fodder, Portugal’s War was a non-event – but the cost of token military involvement was enough to tear down the country’s society and economy.  Internal unrest worsened as severe shortages of basic foods and fuel hit the civilian population, and a military coup in December 1917 drove Macheda into exile.  Never comfortable around revolutionaries, Britain withdrew financial aid to Portugal a couple of weeks later, having provided £23 million since March 1916, and shortages had worsened by the Armistice.

Peace brought an immediate resumption of royalist agitation, and the assassination in December 1918 of the new president, Major Sidonio Paes, triggered a year of civil war and economic chaos that saw inflation reach 440% by the beginning of 1920.  Meanwhile, as a reward for a shabby African campaign that had killed an estimated 100,000 natives, Portugal qualified for a seat at the post-War Paris Peace Conference, got to keep its colonies and was allowed to add some 500 square kilometres of former German territory to Mozambique.

Portugal’s prize for ‘winning’ the War: Mozambique’s Kionga Triangle, under occupation.

I’ve got two more things to say about Portugal’s pointless and largely forgotten First World War.  First off, Portugal had little choice about being bullied into war as a notional aid to Britain’s failing East African campaign, a reminder of the enormous clout and willingness to use it that characterised Great Power relations with little countries in the early twentieth century, and of how desperately the greatest of the Great Powers needed any help it could grab by 1916.

Secondly, the fact that Portugal’s economy was ruined by the strain of adding a tiny pinprick to the Allied war effort highlights the vast difference in scale, shocking at the time, between the First World War and anything that had gone before.  This was (literally) war on an industrial scale, and only the most efficient societies could handle it.  To a greater or lesser extent every small European nation that mounted a War effort, and all the big ones except Britain and (arguably) France, suffered social and/or economic breakdown as a consequence.  Beyond Europe, it was possible to emerge from the War altered but essentially intact.  The United States and Japan managed it, along with most of the ‘white’ British colonies and those opportunist nations, like Brazil, that joined the Allies late on – but only because they were far from the imperial battlefields and engaged in less than what we now call total war.

15 JUNE, 1915: ‘Do so, Mister Allnut…’

Schedules matter in time of war, as any warrior knows, so Poppycock owes the world an apology for losing the plot and arriving late with this. Fact is, I started back on 15 June and then embarked on a fairly long and complex voyage over land and sea that kept the logistics department far too occupied to bother about writing. Unforgivable, obviously, but also oddly appropriate, because on 15 June 1915 a small group of British servicemen set out on a very long, very complex journey that would end with them arriving rather late on the scene at one of the First World War’s more bizarre battlefields.

I refer to what was known as the Naval Africa Expedition, a British military adventure, part Boys’ Own and part bonkers, that attracted plenty of straight-faced public attention in its aftermath and provided indirect inspiration for one of Hollywood’s classic movies, but is largely forgotten today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This is a story about Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second largest lake. The Lake stretches 675km from north to south, but is only between 15 and 50km wide. In 1914, the Belgian Congo and German East Africa faced each other across this narrow strip of water, although a small portion of the southwestern shore belonged to British Northern Rhodesia. When war broke out in Europe, two armed German boats took control of the lake, sinking the only Belgian ship big enough to carry armament on 22 August and dispatching the Lake’s two small British boats later in the year.  Map, please…


The German boats and their guns – towed on a raft at a snail-like two knots – were now able to raid the western shoreline, threaten Allied trade and dominate relations with local tribes. By way of cementing control a much bigger German ship, the 1200-ton Goetzen, was dismantled and taken to Kigoma for reconstruction – a rugged enterprise involving 5,000 crates and a very difficult overland journey from Dar-Es-Salaam. The Goetzen was eventually launched on 9 June 1915, and later equipped with bigger guns from the cruiser Königsberg, which had been hunted down by British naval forces in the nearby Rufugi Delta. By that time Allied countermeasures were underway – but still a long way from making any difference.

Belgian authorities in the Congo had been demanding all sorts of military assistance since August 1914, but all a hard-pressed home government eventually managed was an old torpedo boat, without torpedoes, and a plan (eventually abandoned) to build a new, 800-ton ship at the Lake. The British Admiralty agreed to lend the Belgians four Short seaplanes, but they didn’t arrive near the Lake until the end of 1915. Meanwhile, in April 1915, a veteran hunter and ivory poacher named John Lee arrived in London from South Africa and pitched a plan to the Admiralty that would, he claimed, shorten the already vexing battle for German East Africa. According to details worked out in advance by Lee, transporting two modern, armed motorboats to the Lake would outclass the slow, old German vessels and quickly restore control to the Allies.

The British Admiralty, which possessed no accurate charts for the region, jumped at the challenge, citing the Navy’s duty to ‘fight the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship’, and assembled a volunteer force for the purpose. Three officers and 24 ratings were put under the command of the Navy’s oldest lieutenant commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.  Lee (now commissioned as a lieutenant) went ahead with a small advance party to prepare the route, and the rest of the group waited for the boats before leaving London aboard the liner Llanstephen Castle, bound for Cape Town, on 15 June. The boats had meanwhile been named Mimi and Toutou by Spicer-Simson, after the Admiralty had vetoed his original choice of Cat and Dog.  If that looks like a sign of eccentricity to come, it was.

The 6,000-mile trip to Cape Town ended on 2 July, and a 2,600-mile railway journey saw the expedition arrive at Port Elizabeth, in the Belgian Congo, on 26 July. The hardest part of the odyssey – a 150-mile trek across mountainous country and 140 rivers or gorges, cutting through jungle much of the way – brought the boats to the town of Sankisia by the end of September, after which it was 15 miles by light railway to Bukama, another 400 miles floating down the Lualaba River to Kabalo and a final 175 miles by rail to the little Belgian Port of Lukuga, on the western shore of Lake Tanganikya. Spicer-Simson, already proving a paragon of energy, didn’t like the tactical position he found at Lukuga and built his own harbour facilities a little down the coast, finally getting the boats afloat on the Lake two days before Christmas.

Mimi and Toutou went into action on Boxing Day 1915, attacking and capturing one German boat, which was renamed Fifi and added to Spicer-Simson’s strength. Communications around the Lake were sketchy at the time, to say the least, and the second small German craft didn’t come looking for its mate until 16 February, when it was chased, disabled and scuttled after a twelve-hour fight.

At this point Spicer-Simson knew nothing of the Goetzen‘s size or relatively huge armament, and the captain of the Goetzen still thought shore batteries were responsible for any damage suffered by the smaller boats. Next day, when the Goetzen came looking, both sides had their eyes opened. Spicer-Simson took one look at the Goetzen‘s armament, decided he needed a bigger ship, and suspended operations while he toured British East Africa in a vain for search of one. Captain Zimmer of the Goetzen discovered he had a new enemy on the Lake, but was almost immediately required to donate his guns to German land forces in East Africa and devote his energies to troop transport. With British forces keeping a low profile and unaware that the Goetzen‘s guns were now dummies, military stalemate set in until June.

By now, eccentricity was getting the better of Spicer-Simson, and he’d come over a bit Heart of Darkness. Wearing a grass skirt and showing off his impressive array of tattoos to awestruck local tribespeople, he became well known around the Lake and set himself up as form of deity-cum-magistrate, a policy that may have helped wean several tribes away from pro-German activities but certainly bewildered his subordinates.

Increasingly frustrated by lack of action, Spicer-Simson eventually took his flotilla south to aid Rhodesian forces in the siege of German-held Bismarckburg. The town fell on 8 June, but Spicer-Simson infuriated the Rhodesians by refusing to intervene and prevent the garrison from escaping. A few days later, after the aforementioned Belgian seaplanes had attacked the Goetzen to very limited effect, an emotional Spicer-Simson suddenly invalided himself home. His timing was good. A British offensive in German East Africa took the main Dar-Es-Salaam railway in mid-July, cutting off supplies to the Goetzen, which obeyed orders to scuttle on 27 July, an act that brought fighting on Lake Tanganyika to an end.

It wasn’t quite the end for Spicer-Simson, who returned to Britain with tales of heroic derring-do that were largely fiction but were lapped up by the popular press and earned him a spell in the spotlight as a war hero. The Royal Navy was careful not to burst the propaganda bubble, interviewed the rest of the party (all of whom returned alive), awarded everyone involved medals, promoted Spicer-Simson to Commander… and never gave him another active command.

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…

18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

9 October, 1914: Roots of Apartheid

This was busy day of warfare in Europe. The northern Belgian port and fortress of Antwerp, bypassed by the invasion in August and a thorn in the rear of the German advance ever since, surrendered to a German detachment sent back from the Western Front. On the Eastern Front, the first German offensive against Russian forces in East Prussia was ending with everyone back where they started around the Masurian Lakes. Further south, in Polish Silesia, Austro-German forces were moving to meet a Russian invasion across the River Vistula, and the three-week engagement that followed, generally known as the Battle of Ivangorod, would be yet another exercise in mutually unproductive slaughter.

Important stuff, all of it, that helped shape the early phases of the War in Europe, but the most significant event of 9 October 1914 took place thousands of miles away, near the frontier between South Africa and what is now Namibia.  Here’s a very brief look at how and why.

Like the British Empire’s other ‘white’ dominions, South Africa responded to the outbreak of war in Europe with an immediate offer of practical assistance to Britain. London came back with a request for troops to take part in an invasion of what is now Namibia but was then the German colony of Southwest Africa. The South African government agreed and began raising troops for the task, but this wasn’t Canada, and the decision to fight for Britain sparked an internal crisis that would have momentous consequences for the country’s future.

The Union of South Africa under British imperial rule had only existed since 1910. Before that the British had governed two of the region’s four white colonies, Natal and Cape Colony, while the region’s original colonists, the Afrikaners (or Boers), controlled Transvaal and Orange Free State. Having fought a major war at the turn of the century, the British and moderate Afrikaners co-existed peacefully enough in 1914, and important government posts were filled by Boer leaders, including Louis Botha as head of the Union’s elected Executive Committee (effectively prime minister) and Jan Smuts as defence minister – but a sizable minority of Afrikaners was still firmly opposed to what they saw as British subjugation and was generally sympathetic to the German cause. The government’s decision to fight for Britain offered them a shot at busting free.

A number of senior Afrikaner military officers, some of them openly pro-German and all of them outraged, resigned their commissions at once and began raising anti-British militia in Transvaal and Orange Free State (then known as Orange River Colony). Afrikaner anger came to the boil in mid-September when, shortly after a stormy session of parliament had ratified deployment of the South African Defence Force in Southwest Africa, an Afrikaner hero of the Boer War, General Koos de la Rey, was killed by police in suspicious circumstances. By 18 September, when a force of 1,824 South African troops occupied the little Southwest African port of Lüderitzbucht (now Luderitz), Natal and Orange Free State were close to open rebellion against the Union.

The flames of revolt were ignited by Colonel ‘Manie’ Maritz, commanding a couple of thousand regular South African Defence Force troops, all of them Afrikaner, stationed near the border with Southwest Africa at Upington. Maritz took his men across the frontier to join German colonial forces and, a hundred years ago today, made the public proclamation of rebellion, incorporating a demand for Afrikaner independence, that is regarded as the start of the Boer Revolt.

The Revolt was short-lived. Operations in Southwest Africa were suspended while Botha led 6,000 mounted troops against Maritz (who had been joined by Christian de Wet, another prominent Boer War veteran), and the rebels were routed after a hard fight at Mushroom Valley, about 100km northeast of Bloemfontein, on 26 October. While Botha’s subsequent offers of amnesty to all rebels contributed to a general easing of tension elsewhere, separate rebel columns led by Generals Beyer and Kemp were defeated during the following weeks, and Southwest African operations were resumed in early December. The remnant of Kemp’s force joined Maritz inside German territory, but their final attack across the frontier against Upington failed on 15 January, and they surrendered on 3 February.

Casualties had been relatively light (540 rebels killed or wounded, along with 347 loyalists), the vast majority of combatants on both sides were Afrikaners, and the South African government continued to provide aid to Britain throughout the War – yet the Revolt put a curve into white South African politics from which it never recovered.

Afrikaner opposition didn’t go away, but instead gathered around the political banner of Walter Herzog’s right-wing National Party, a process that formalised the faultline running through white South African society and left the country in a state of acute political uncertainty when the War ended. Turmoil persisted until 1924, when Herzog’s party became part of the longstanding coalition that instituted the social and political exclusion of South Africa’s native peoples, a system known to the world as Apartheid.

This is merely a sketch, and there’s a lot more to be said about southern African history during the War years, but it is another reminder that, from its opening shots, the Great War sent ripples around the planet that triggered seismic change.


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.