Category Archives: East 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.

30 MAY, 1917: All Guts, No Glory

Offensive warfare can be seen as strategically desirable, as a means of overcoming opposition to getting what you want.  It can also be seen as psychologically necessary, a means of venting fear, anger, outrage, jealousy, simple hatred or any other negative emotion. Chuck in the simple need for self-protection that defines defensive warfare, and you have the motivations behind pretty much every military activity during the First World War – except the long fight for unchallenged possession of colonial East Africa.  That had become an example of war for war’s sake.

The East African campaign began as a standard case of strategically desirable offensive warfare, as the British Empire sought to expand its colonial interests in Africa at the expense of German colonies all over the continent.  By the time the Empire’s latest theatre c-in-c, South African general Jaap van Deventer, took up his new command on 30 May 1917, the campaign had become a saga.  That was because a small, brilliantly organised force of German and native troops, led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had been leading an ever-expanding British pursuit on an epic wild goose chase for almost three years.

Lettow-Vorbeck was still at large in the spring of 1917, still defying all attempts to capture, wipe out or even permanently subdue his elusive columns, and still performing military wonders for the sole purpose of keeping the fight going.  His justification for waging war for war’s sake was a desire to divert as many Allied resources as possible from fronts that had more strategic value, and the British high command had obliged by pouring men and machines into the theatre in ever-increasing numbers.

Sketchily, and without ever really getting across how Lettow-Vorbeck’s Robin Hood act made the British look like the Sheriff of Nottingham, I’ve already covered East Africa until the departure of Jan Smuts as British c-in-c in January 1917.  I’ve given a nod to at least some of its crazy-paving sideshows (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut), and I’ve banged on at length about the destructiveness of the whole pointless exercise.  It killed a lot of people, it permanently degraded a hitherto fertile, relatively comfortable part of Africa, it dragged third parties (like Portugal and the people of other African colonies) into a war they really didn’t need… and I’m not planning to repeat the long versions of all that.  I am planning to take the story a little further, and to follow it into another one of its weird backwaters.

Once he took over in January 1917, new British c-in-c General Hoskins spent the next four and a half months reorganising supply and communications systems, which had been left in a terrible mess by the autumn campaigns.  A particularly heavy rainy season, along with desperate food shortages and the loss of about 20 percent of his (largely African) strength to disease, prevented any kind of offensive action, and his requests for reinforcements quickly made him unpopular in London, where Smuts had fostered the illusion that the East African campaign was all but won (16 March, 1916: Alien Invasion).

After South African premier Botha had refused to send further reinforcements north, Hoskins was removed and Deventer, a veteran of the campaign and a trusted colleague of Smuts, returned to East Africa to become the tenth British c-in-c in the theatre since 1914.  South African reinforcements were duly supplied, and Deventer (who spoke no English and needed an interpreter to deal with most of his subordinates) took over the process of building up and organising imperial forces for a summer offensive aimed at finally defeating Lettow-Vorbeck, rather than at occupying territory and calling it a victory.

Another fine moustache… and is that Captain Darling to the right of General van Deventer?

Deventer did, however, face one immediate operational challenge. In a miniature mirror of the campaign as a whole, a single enemy unit was busy making a mockery of the claim that Smuts had reduced the theatre to ‘mopping up’ operations.

Lettow-Vorbeck had escaped Smuts the previous autumn by fleeing into the swamps of the Rufugi Delta, in the southeast of the old German colony, where his forces survived on improvised rations and supplies, completely cut off from contact with Germany but safe from faltering British efforts to trap them. They were still there on 6 February, when part of one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s columns – a force of about 700 native troops, or askaris, accompanied by a handful of German troops, several hundred bearers and three light field guns – broke away from the main body and marched north into British-held territory.

Their commander, Captain Max Wintgens, launched the expedition without official sanction from Lettow-Vorbeck, against the explicit orders of his immediate superior (who retreated further south at the same time), and for reasons that have never been made clear. He may have been responding to askari requests to fight closer to home, to an urgent need to find new food supplies or to a simple personal dislike of Lettow-Vorbeck, but his maverick moment turned out pretty well from the point of view of anyone waging war for war’s sake.

After conducting a few local skirmishes, Wintgenns led his force northwest towards the northern end of Lake Nyasa and the town of Tabala.  Meeting and defeating a combined South African and British colonial force on the way, it besieged Tabala from 18 February, but was driven off by a British relief column on 22 February. His strength down to 450 men, 11 machine guns and two field pieces, Wintgens made a series of feinting manoeuvres to escape pursuit, and had almost reached the relatively fertile and undamaged region around Lake Rukwa before the British re-established contact in mid-March.

An attack by one British battalion on 17 March threatened to trap Wintgens at the mission of St. Moritz, which was hemmed by swollen rivers on two sides, but a counterattack on 20 March saw the British camp surrounded. Though Wintgens abandoned the position after a British relief force arrived on 26 March, he used the delay forced on the British evacuate his entire force from St. Moritz, using improvised rafts to cross the rivers, by 3 April.

Too short of supplies to pursue, the British drafted extra troops into the region and requested the help of Belgian forces from the Congo, while Wintgens focused on finding food supplies and headed east, before turning north towards Kipembawe. His main force clashed with one of the reinforcing British battalions in late April, driving it back from Kitunda mission and occupying the town on 4 May. By this time Wintgens needed to pause for rest and recuperation, not least because he and many of his European contingent were suffering from typhus, but the arrival of Colonel Murray’s main British pursuit force compelled him to move north again within a week.

War was Hell in East Africa, and though the British sent machines to help, they weren’t much use in jungle conditions.

Wintgens had become seriously ill by 21 May, when he passed command to Naumann, and he surrendered to Belgian forces on 24 May. Naumann meanwhile had little choice but to keep running, and led his askaris northeast to cross the Central Railway at Mkalama, now pursued by imperial forces that amounted to some 4,000 men. By early June, Deventer was forced to recall Murrray’s regiment in preparation for the British summer offensive, and Belgian units, finally ready for action two months after they were mobilised, took over the hunt for Naumann, who reached the shores of Lake Victoria late that month.

Hampered by poor supplies and lack of reconnaissance aircraft, the Belgians eventually caught up with their prey on 29 June, but were defeated near the lake at Ikoma. Naumann escaped again, this time to the south, and made for Kondoa Irangi and the Central Railway. Once the Belgians had dealt with their severe losses, they spent the next month chasing in vain.

By late August Naumann had eluded or defeated all pursuers to reach the Kilimanjaro area, but the endgame was coming. With Belgian units being withdrawn to take part in the main Allied offensive, now in progress far to the south, the pursuit was again dominated British forces, and the dispatch of British reinforcements by rail compelled Naumann to run southeast.  This time, Deventer had attached mounted infantry to join the pursuit, and it made the difference.  Desperately short of supplies and unable to outrun the horses, the remnants of Naumann’s column were pinned down at Luita, north of the Central Railway, and surrendered on 2 September.   Even then a detachment remained at large, and it took another month before the British finally captured the last 14 Europeans, 150 askaris and 250 bearers.

Route map – German, so the names don’t quite match, but hard work will get you there.

During the course of a chase lasting almost nine months and covering some 3,000km, what is known as the Wintgens-Naumann Expedition had punched way above its weight when it came to influencing strategic dispositions in the theatre, not just because it attracted pursuit from thousands of troops but also because it forced British commanders to defend all the places it might attack. It had also laid waste to everything in its path that could be of use to the enemy, and had sparked a propaganda tantrum from the British. Faced with such shocking evidence that the East African campaign was not done and dusted, the British had devoted a lot of column inches to publicising tales of atrocities carried out on German orders, a response that forced them to charge Wintgens with murder after his capture – and then to release him for lack of evidence.

These were the achievements that made heroes of the Expedition’s leaders and provided the world with a tale of derring-do, improvisation and endurance that stands with the most stirring military adventures of modern times.  Looking back from 2017, and bearing in mind the matrices of pointlessness the Expedition inhabited, they don’t seem to me to amount to anything very positive, more an illustration of the nineteenth-century attitude to warfare – as an essentially ennobling exercise, character-building for individuals and societies – that helped propel the developed world into the catastrophe of 1914.

So why am I bothering to talk about this?  First, because it shines what seems to me an interesting light on the weirdness of warfare in East Africa a century ago, and secondly as a rambling but timely reminder that stirring military adventures, especially when carried out for no reason any sane person could possibly call good, inflict just as much death, misery and long-term destruction as the dull ones.

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

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…