Africa’s Forgotten Great War

Article excerpt

ARGUABLY, not since Charles Miller’s acclaimed history of World War 1 in East Africa, The Battle for the Bundu, in 1974 has this fascinating story been given such exhaustive and riveting treatment.

While no review could do full justice to the immensity of the task that Edward Paice set himself, the involvement of Allied troops in World War 1 in dislodging Germany from her African colonies is a subject nigh forgotten, clouded over by the demise of colonialism after World War 2.

So too, the preference of scholars to see Africa only in terms of fashionable ideological comfort zones in which rapacious and avaricious colonialism has destroyed its innocence, has shielded us from gaining a deeper understanding of our continent’s history.

While much of that aspect of Africa’s history has been well-documented, Paice’s work shows that when you get down to the nitty-gritty and the details, an infinitely more complex history emerges.

The case of German East Africa, or Tanganyika, and subsequently Tanzania, affirms but also contests many dearly held generalisations about Africa, colonialism and its kaleidoscopic history.

For a start, the remarkable truth of the East African campaign is that Germany, which had been forced to surrender South West Africa (Namibia), Togo and the Cameroons to Allied forces, held on to Tanganyika right until after Armistice on November 11, 1918. The reason was simple in that the German commander, the legendary Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had not heard of the armistice in Europe.

His avowed aim in fighting so doggedly to keep German East Africa in German hands was to cause maximum losses to the Allies, to force Britain, South Africa and Belgium, to expend as many forces as possible in the East African theatre of the war, so as to prevent such forces being deployed on the Western Front in France.

In this he succeeded, much to the chagrin of the British and General Jan Smuts, who was sent up to East Africa to embark upon a campaign that was politically fraught in South Africa and one which lasted much longer than anyone anticipated, especially considering the relatively swift demise of Germany’s other colonies.

Paice’s study, written in a racy style, has benefited from sources that weren’t available to Miller, especially Portuguese sources, and Paice has had the benefit of 33 years of subsequent scholarship to draw upon. The result is a gripping work of scholarship and narrative style, a combination which brings to mind the likes of Thomas Pakenham’s masterful The Boer War and The Scramble for Africa.

Paice takes us through a step-by-step account of the various episodes of the war – from the disastrous assault on Tanga in 1914, when dithering characterised the British approach to the war in Africa and Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s invasion of the borderlands of British East Africa, Kenya, from which he had to be dislodged before the campaign in Tanganyika could get started in earnest. The next big headache for the Allies was to take out the German battle cruiser Konigsberg, holed up in the Rufiji delta.

Eventually she was, but the captain, Max Looff, managed to remove the ship’s guns which were dragged hither and thither across the vast expanses of Tanganyika and proved a menace to the Allies. …