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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *