Smuts – a good teacher?

I’ve recently been reading a book on Lord Kitchener which has the following to say about Boer General CR de Wet:

“He had failed, but his miraculous escape increased rather than lessened his reputation. Wherever he moved he brought large bodies of British troops after him, and he kept under arms many a burgher whose spirit of resistance was drawn from him. His influence losing nothing by report of his deeds, spread to the most distant parts, and had its effect not merely on the burghers, who were ready to join him whenever he elected to try again, but on Botha and De la Rey.”
(Edwin Sharpe Grew, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener: his life and work for the Empire)

How similar to what people said about Lettow-Vorbeck in the next great war Britain was involved in. I’m probably going to put my foot in it as far as concerns my military colleagues but it is striking how similar the mobile ways of fighting in the Boer War and East African campaign were.

It also got me thinking that the Smuts/van Deventer-Lettow encounter was in some ways an extension of the Anglo-Boer war but with the tables slightly turned.

By all accounts, the Boers had a novel way of fighting which led to Kitchener and other generally competent generals fumbling for ways to bring this small number of Boers to book. Lettow knew about this as he had studied the Boer tactics in his advisory role in Germany. He later put into practice some of his skills in the field in German South West Africa learning how to survive in harsh conditions. How much contact he actually had with any of the Boer leaders is still not fully known but he would have likely had some contact with the peoples of South Africa during his stay.

Thus, by the time he got to face Smuts in East Africa, the student had become the master. And unlike Kitchener who had strong political/military backing in the south (Cape), Smuts et al could not rely on the Portuguese to apply pressure from that direction (Mozambique).

Having had to adjust to more British ways of conducting a war in 1915 South West Africa, Smuts was caught on the back foot when he got to East Africa – a position from which he couldn’t recover.

It is clearly one skill to be able to conduct a successful mobile war as seen by Smuts, de Wet in 1901/2 and Lettow 1916-8, but definitely another to contain and bring the force to book (Kitchener, 1901/2 and Smuts/van Deventer in 1916-8).

These are by no means the only examples one can draw on but they are the ones I feel most comfortable talking about.
So, at the end of the day, can one suggest that Lettow’s success was from having had a good teacher: his arch adversary in WW1?

Regardless, the encounter between Lettow and Smuts has been, and remains, an enduring and dominating feature of the campaign in East Africa.

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One thought on “Smuts – a good teacher?

  1. I was interested by Strachan’s comment in his First World War book that part of Lettow-Vorbeck’s success came from his occupying the interior and not contesting the coastal bits of German East Africa. As the Allies were initially only concerned to occupy the coast that left L-V free to run around in the interior.

    The irony of a Boer War guerrilla commander struggling against L-V is nevertheless an amusing one. I get the sense though that the terrain and landscape in what is now Tanzania was rather different to that of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, though I have not visited either.

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