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.
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
@UKNatArchives and @I_W_M. Anyone know what is in the other African archives – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Congo, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria?