This is the first of what will be a series shedding a little light on some misconceptions of the Great War campaigns in Africa. I have to declare guilt in having believed many of them myself until detailed study proved otherwise and I’m sure many others will come to light in due course – it’s the joy of exploring the past through original documents and first-hand accounts.
The East Africa campaign is the ‘forgotten’ campaign of the First World War.
This may have been somewhat true a decade ago but no longer. In reality, even then, the East Africa campaign was better known than other campaigns in Africa during the 1914-1918 years. How many know who the commanders were of the German South West Africa campaign of 1914-1915, that in Togoland and Cameroons in West Africa, the German invasion of Angola in 1914 and the conflict taking place in Egypt involving Suez Canal and later the Senussi? Yet, most people can name the leading commanders of the East Africa campaign – Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck for the Germans and Jan Smuts for the British.
Yet, the myth of the East Africa campaign being ‘forgotten’ is perpetuated, not least in the title of my latest book which was only published in July 2012. Truth be told, I had no say in the title World War 1 in Africa: the forgotten conflict among the European powers, but I can see the allure in marketing terms sensitive to search engines on the world wide web. Ross Anderson started the trend with his 2004 book The forgotten front: the East Africa campaign 1914-1918, while Edward Paice’s 2007 book Tip and Run: the untold tragedy of the Great War in Africa perpetuates the idea of forgotten.
Other evidence proving that the East Africa campaign is/was not forgotten concerns the number of general histories and diaries or memoirs of the campaign, novels and film . There is growing interest in all the campaigns, yet I have only located novels and film covering the conflict in East Africa, except for Percy Westerman’s Wilmshurst of the Frontier Force which in West Africa and then moves to East Africa. A full list of the known non-fiction (currently 35 in various languages) of the First World War in Africa can be found on the Great War in Africa Association website.
Over the next few months the following, and other, misconceptions will be considered:
- The British did not use armed black troops
- The Germans gave the British the run around
- The South West Africa campaign lasted 6 months
- The Indian troops were not up to scratch
- Blacks were commandeered to serve in Africa
- Men of colour were not recognised for their services
- There is no record of blacks who lost their lives
- There was no trench warfare in Africa
- The Belgian role was insignificant (it is if you read British accounts)
- The Germans deliberately used bees in their fight against the British
- The Lake Tanganyika Expedition consisted of 28 men