Whilst reading Thomas Pakenham’s mamoth work The Boer War, I was astounded at the similarities between the war in southern Africa between 1899 and 1902 and the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918.
‘It will be over by Christmas’ – a statement seemingly used regularly on the declaration of war at the time. I read somewhere (can’t recall where though) that wars were often declared after the European summer break and generally over by Christmas. I can think of numerous exceptions to this but it does appear that there was a warefare season in day’s gone by. Anyway, back to the two wars under discussion… ‘it will be over by Christmas’ was a dominant thought for those rushing to enlist from the colonies/dominions and was noted to be part of the reason for General Aitken’s lack of planning for his attack on Tanga in November 1914. As is generally known, the Anglo-Boer war lasted until 30 May 1902 and the EA campaign until 25 November 1918.
Complaints regarding a lack of rations, equipment and uniforms abound in both wars. As do the extremes of weather, the terrain to be traversed and the bugs/disease one encountered. Although, the prevalence of malaria and blackwater fever did seem worse in EA. The impact of tsetse fly also caused much havoc with transport in EA, resulting in huge numbers of porters needing to be employed in EA.
The enemy remained elusive and refused to stand and fight. How interesting that Smuts was accused of letting the Germans get away when they evaded his encircling attempts yet little criticism is levelled at the British generals of doing the same in the earlier war. I’ll stop there as further analysis as to why this difference could land me in hot water. However, what does surprise me is that Smuts and van Deventer, who had been expert at this very evasive practise in 1901/2 were seemingly unable to work out how they could have stopped themselves thereby trying the same against the Germans.
Another similarity is the poor supply of medical treatment. This is no indictment on the medical practioners themselves but rather about the scarcity of them and the conditions under which they had to work.
The role of the General Staff, outdated equipment, the enemy wearing captured uniforms to replace their own warn-out rags, using guns and ammunition captured from the other side and allowing (some) prisoners parole (clothed or otherwise) are further common themes.
Untrained (or poorly trained) troops were another feature. In EA we have the Indians at Tanga in November 1914 and the South Africans at Salaita in February 1916. The EA Mounted Rifles, too were regarded as amature, whilst in SA, the territorials and yeomanry seemed to be tarred with the same brush.
On the face of it, what is surprising is that the experiences of the 1899-1902 war were not analysed, by either side, as well as they could have been especially as the Boers and Germans seemed (to my untrained eye) to fight a similar kind of mobile war.
Perhaps one day, a brave young student will come along and do a comparison of both conflicts but for now the ‘uniqueness’ of the EA campaign appears in doubt, at least in my mind.