Tip and Run: The Untold Story of the Great War in Africa

By Pinfold, John | African Research & Documentation, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Tip and Run: The Untold Story of the Great War in Africa


Pinfold, John, African Research & Documentation


Tip and run: the untold story of the Great War in Africa, by Edward Paice. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007. xxvi, 488 pp. ISBN 0-297-84709-0 . £25.

In popular memory it is the trench warfare of the Western Front which defines the First World War. Yet it was truly a world war, with actions in the Far East, the Pacific and in both West and East Africa, as the allied powers sought to gain control over Germany's colonial empire. A 'small war*, with a few 'local affairs' was all that was expected in August 1914, as Britain moved to eliminate the German naval bases in Africa and take over the German territories, yet in East Africa this developed into a long running and costly campaign, as the Germans used highly effective guerrilla tactics to tie down large numbers of increasingly frustrated allied troops. Two weeks after the Armistice was signed the Germans in East Africa were still in the field, and only surrendered after they had been shown incontrovertible proof that the war in Europe was over; they subsequently returned to Germany as heroes, and their exploits may well have contributed to the legend that the German army in 1918 remained unvanquished and that the country's defeat was solely attributable to the 'stab in the back'.

In its own way, the war in East Africa was as deadly as that on the Western Front, perhaps in some ways even more so. Paice quotes a lieutenant Lewis, who, in 1914, had seen the slaughter of every single man in his half-battalion on the Western front, and had first hand experience of trench warfare. Yet, after he was posted to East Africa, he wrote to his mother, "I would rather be in France than here". It was no doubt not just the nature of the fighting that Lewis had in mind, it was also the effects of the climate, the ever-present disease, the lack of adequate medical facilities, and the lack sufficient supplies, all of which played a major part in the experience of all who took part in the campaign.

For what is often regarded as a sideshow, the East African campaign contained many innovations in warfare. The air attacks on the German cruiser Königsberg were the first of their kind, and were a precursor of what was to come in the second World War at Taranto, Pearl Harbor and elsewhere, whilst the audacious attempt by the Germans to supply their forces in East Africa by Zeppelin from the homeland, although a failure, surely deserved to succeed (it seems to have been thwarted through an intelligence double-cross which led the crew to believe the German forces had already surrendered, when in fact they were not do to do so until after the Armistice in 1918). Perhaps the most extraordinary story of all is that of transporting the British gunboats Mimi and Toutou by land halfway across Africa to attack the German ships on Lake Tanganyika. This expedition was led by the larger than life character Lieutenant Commander Spicer-Simson, and the whole affair has a Boys Own Paper quality about it which is sadly lacking from much of the rest of the campaign.

Indeed, the majority of the British commanders emerge as largely incompetent, and, at least initially, wildly over-confident. The disaster at Tanga in November 1914, for example, was an almost copybook example of how not to mount an amphibious assault, even though the British defeat could at least partly be attributed to the actions of an angry swarm of bees. Even Smuts was lucky to survive the campaign with his reputation intact - largely because he declared victory prematurely and left for the more rarefied atmosphere of the Imperial War Conference, leaving others to pick up the pieces and try to bring the campaign to a real, as opposed to a proclaimed conclusion.

On the other side, the Germans were led by the autocratic Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He had previously served in German South West Africa (Namibia) and had played a part in the appalling genocide of the Herero people. To the East African campaign he brought a similar degree of single-minded ruthlessness which undoubtedly prolonged the campaign and caused the deaths of many people on both sides. …

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