Misconception 2 of World War 1 in Africa: The Germans gave the British the run around

I am not a military person and so I’m not going to get myself tied up in knots and arguments about the military capabilities of the opposing forces in East Africa. There are others far more competent than me to do that! Harry Fecitt whose articles can be found on The Soldier’s Burden, Ross Anderson, Jon Nesselhuf and Michael Pesek.

So, how can I disprove the myth that the Germans gave the British the run around? Simply using the words of the man who is said to have led the British on their merry dance – General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck himself from My Life and My reminiscences of East Africa.

One of the challenges English-speaking historians and students of the campaign in East Africa face is that there is very little published in English of the German side (forthcoming review in SA Military History Journal) and most of what there is has been published by Lettow-Vorbeck. Given that there were at least 120 other German officers who survived the war, this means that we have a very limited lens through which to see the German actions. And let’s face it, who is really going to write their memoirs saying how challenged they were especially when there are bigger political issues at stake? We all like to put ourselves in a more favourable light. Notwithstanding that, Lettow-Vorbeck is sufficiently honest enough to recognise a worthy opponent and to give him credit and it is this that allows the misconception of the British being given the run-around to be laid to rest.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s raw troops performed similarly to those of the British. He notes about Tanga:

It wasn’t easy for me to deploy my reserves on the right wing… Some askaris had already run away, and our front was on the brink of collapse…

After the day’s fighting, Lettow-Vorbeck went to investigate the situation and on his left front,

was unable to find a single German soldier anywhere.

And everyone returned to their camp for dinner when the bugle was blown. Lettow-Vorbeck

worked like a horse for three days and three nights, and … was stretched to breaking point … To us, the whole thing appeared as a miracle, and it filled us with thanks and awe.

After Tanga, little fighting took place, the biggest action in the north of the German colony being at Jassini where control moved between the two sides for a month or so. Lettow-Vorbeck noting

During the last days of December, our patrols who in that district were on British territory, had been gradually pushed back, and had concentrated south of Jassini, on German territory.

Having concentrated his forces, they

came under a very well-aimed fire at short range… The fighting had become very hot… The enemy made three strong attacks at this point and each time was repulsed. Against that from the west the Arab corps had done badly; the day before many had urgently demanded their discharge… they bolted. But luckily these hostile columns then came on Captain Adler’s two companies…

Following General Jan Smuts’ arrival in East Africa in February 1916,

they invaded German East Africa and surrounded us. My plan was to hit first one column and then the other. But things did not go as I wanted…

Lettow-Vorbeck received a report that

described the total defeat of our right wing [at Reata]… In light of the danger, I believe it is understandable that I abandoned the attack against Deventer…

And so I could go on,

The Germans suffered in set battles, Lettow-Vorbeck referring to encounters as ‘inconclusive’ and noting ‘we were unable to defeat him’. The cost of fighting set battles was too much for the German commander:

We always had to bear in mind that even a victorious battle would cost us too many casualties, exhausting our strength too quickly. We had no reinforcements at all.

Nevertheless these fighting tactics, fighting on internal lines, worked out fairly well. They weren’t ideal, but we managed to deal quite successfully with several enemy columns. But really they only worked once against a major enemy column the way I had often imagined they would.

Luck, chance, miracle are words which features often in Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs. He felt this accounted for his victory at Mahiwa, although the latter’s tactics were rather predicable. Crossing into Portuguese East Africa, Lettow-Vorbeck noted

There weren’t many of us who believed that our mission would succeed as we waded across the river that morning… the askaris were calling me “Bana anakata Schnada” or “the master who is making our shrouds”…

Yet, the luck of the draw was with Lettow-Vorbeck and the Germans were able to replenish their supplies abundantly from the Portuguese posts.

This is just a taste of comments by Lettow-Vorbeck on the war in East Africa and a closer read of both My reminiscences of East Africa and My Life provides insights into the other close encounters which could have gone the Allies’ way had it not been for the luck of war. That the Germans were able to achieve what they did in East Africa can also be attributed to the luck which led to General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck being appointed commander in early 1914 and not someone else. As the General himself noted not all his commanders agreed with his strategy and had any of them been in his position, they would have been constrained by the same issues that dogged the Allies.

It is also generally believed that Lettow-Vorbeck kept about 75,000 troops from fighting in Europe. I argue against this in my own work as evidence suggests that many of the South Africans who fought in East Africa would not have gone to Europe and Britain was not keen on using armed black soldiers in Europe. What Lettow-Vorbeck did do, however, was keep much needed shipping and equipment from getting to Europe as effectively as the British Admiralty would have hoped. But that is another story and one the British politicians and General Staff are responsible for – it could have been a very different picture in 1916 had the British cabinet listened to Lord Kitchener.

Clearly more holistic work needs to be done on the military aspect of the East Africa campaign and a greater use made of German, Belgian, Portuguese, South African material, some of which can be found in and . Anyone know what is in the other African archives – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Congo, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria?

3 thoughts on “Misconception 2 of World War 1 in Africa: The Germans gave the British the run around

  1. From Harry Fecitt: I’m sorry that the writer has not even mentioned the Indian Army contribution to East Africa – those fine troops would have been deployed to other theatres such as Mesopotamia if Lettow von Vorbeck had surrendered (as did the Schutztruppen commanders in Togo, Kamerun and German South West Africa).

    And perhaps those equally fine West and East African troops (West African Frontier Force and King’s African Rifles) would have been deployed early to the Palestine theatre (as was planned for them in 1918).

    If the writer wishes to pluck sentences out of the German commander’s ‘Reminiscences’ to try to prove some pseudo-academic point or other then that is fine – true democracy allows free speech, and pseudo-academics and their following thrive on it.

    But if the reader wishes to remember that we are talking about war and not tiddly-winks, then the Schutztruppe in East Africa was never destroyed or decisively beaten or forced to discuss Armistice terms.

    Writer, please advise of where else in the world such a situation prevailed in November 1918.

    The Germans gave us the run-around in East Africa because of the ineptitude of the Allied military leaders, led by Smuts. I know from my own experience that in war you need luck – but I also know that you have to make your own luck. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was professionally adept at making his own luck.


  2. Another theatre to examine is that of German South West Africa, the Namibia of today. South African forces defeated the Germans in this annexed territory. As a result South Africa took control of the country and it the German Prefix was dropped. I spent a lot of time in Namibia and the German influence is still strong.

    This may be a positive source of information of events from a German perspective from the surviving relatives.

  3. Pingback: Ed Paice speech on the Great War in East Africa – 14 June 1014 | Anne Samson - Historian

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