On the surrender of the German forces in East Africa

It seems fitting that while large numbers of people are remembering the end of the war in Europe, to stop and look at Africa where fighting continued to 13 November and arms finally laid down on 25 November. To mark the events in Mbala (Abercorn in Zambia) in November 1918, the GWAA has published a book containing German and English diary accounts of the last days from 11 November to 31 December 1918. What is does not contain are extracts from newspapers.  By all accounts, little was reported. Below are reports from two newspapers in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Noticeably lacking is detail on Africa but as one of the papers noted, there had been a block on reporting events in Africa. Unfortunately copies of the Nyasaland Times for November 1918 were not available in the same collection. It would have been interesting to see what they had to say.

On 29 November 1918, the Bulawayo Chronicle reported the following on page 3;

The von Lettow Surrender

Discussing the close of the German East Campaign, the Beira News says of Von Lettow:-

“His tactics were perfectly simple in their object, which was only to fight and run away, and all the fine plans of the Allied commanders failed to bring him to a stand or prevent him from scuppering a detachment here and an inferior force there. In the end, not because he was in any real danger of capture, but because it perhaps suited his mood, Von Lettow once more forded the Rovuma despite the elaborate steps taken to stay his flight and proceeded towards Tabora, but finaly, and probably because he was well-posted regarding the imminence of the debacle on the western front, broke back into Northern Rhodesia and have himself and his force into the hands, not of any of the men who had pursued him so long, but of a political officer of another regime!

A great deal was made about the mess in Mesopotamia, and three high officers under the Indian Government were given to the public as hostages for better things along the Tigris. In “German” East the same Indian Government was content to let things go on anyhow, and the Home Government and the War Office, oblivious of of (sic) the waste of life nad the loss of prestige, condoned the mess by making the chief command a matter of political selection instead of handing it over to a professional soldier of repute and seeing that everything necessary was provided to bring it to a speedy issue, either with cavalry or fully-trained troops. If the true story of “German” East is ever told – it is hardly likely that it will – it will be seen to rank as the one great failure of the war and all that is required to give to it the halo of a campaign in keepign with the measure of it record is a ten-column list of awards.”

If the secret agents of von Lettow in East Africa are ever discovered – which is very doubtful, having regard to the inability of the military authorities to run down the culprits while they were most active – there will be a fine story to tell of barefaced treachery and intrigue (says the Beira paper). The last story of the kind which reached Beira just before the surrender was that a native had been caught in the fighting area with a bundle of Reuter’s wires containing all the news from Europe up to the 9th November! It is well known, of course, that von Lettow carried a wireless set with him for receiving purposes, but on this occasion, and even if the latter was still in his possession, he was probably too far away from the coast to pick up the news, and the presumption is that the messages were taken off by an agent within the coastal area and therefore within receiving distance of any ship engaged in passing on the story of the war to another.

On page 7, the following was received on The Casualties:

IN the House of Commons today [Tuesday], Mr Mcpherson, Under Secretary for War, announced that the casualties in the East African campaign totalled approximately 900 officers and 17,000 men.

The following are the detailed figures of Allied casualties: Killed, 280 officers, and 8724 men; wounded, 470 officers and 7876 men; missing and prisoners, 38 officers and 929 men.(*)

A bit further on page 9, we read that von Lettow’s record should: should he be punished

The Guardian vigorously protests against the suggestion in a Rhodesian paper that Von Lettow is entitled to the full honours of war. It quotes from a Parliamentary White Paper on the atrocities in German East, and points out that Von Lettow was in command at the time and knew what was going on, and did nothing. The Guardian says he only merits the honours of war if a fleeing criminal putting up a good fight is excused his crime on that account. The paper hopes that Von Lettow will receive punishment for his loathsome regime.

It is officially stated that the force surrendered by Von Lettow included thirty officers, 125 other Europeans, 1,165 Askaris, and a hundred carriers.The Askaris are being detained at Tabora for repatriation and the Germans for transference to Europe.

What is rather surprising about these entries, and those of 15 and 22 November, is that there is no report on the actual handing over of the notification to von Lettow that the war in Europe had come to an end or of the actual events at Mbala.

It also seems rather odd that the great news about the war having ended is recorded on page 4 rather than emblazoned on the front page as we are used to seeing today. The front page consists of classifieds for those who have not seen a paper from the time.

(*) on 22 November (page 5), the following figures were given to the House of Commons concerning all British casualties:

… British military casualties in all theatres of war to November 10, excluding the Air Force, but including Domonion and Indian troops, totalled 3,050,000, whereof 142,634 were officers and 2,900,000 men.

The number killed totalled 27,875 officers, 620,628 other ranks.
The total of casualties for France was 125,700 officers, 2,539,999 men, of whom 32,800 officers and 527,000 men were killed.
In the Dardanelles 5,000 officers, 115,000 men, of whom 1,800 officers and 32,000 men were killed.
On the Salonika front casualties numbered 1,200 officers, 25,000 men.
In Mesopotamia 4,300 officers, 93,000 men.
Egypt 3,600 officers, 54,000 men.
East Africa 900 officers, 17,000 men.

In contrast, the Rhodesia Herald ran the following Editorial on page 10.

There was the usual crop of rumours in town yesterday concerning Von Lettow and his attitude towards the armistice signed by his country on Monday. Most of them were absurd and are not worth repeating, although the idea held by some people that he would continue guerilla warfare as an outlaw is mentioned to show how little the situation of the distinguished General was appreciated. From such meagre accounts of the progress of affairs in East Africa that the Press of this country has been privileged to publish, there seems to be little doubt that von Lettow has conducted the campaign in a soldierly fashion, has taken “sporting chances”, has proved himself to be a tough fighter, and – to use the words of another distinguished soldier, General Northey – “he had played the game all through”. In fact, von Lettow appears to be one of the few German commanders who did not countenance the practice of Hunnish methods, although, of course, cases of cruel treatment have been reproted even from East Africa, but he is not held to be responsible for them. In these circumstances it was supposed that when Germany signed the armistice General Von Lettow, like the good soldier he is, would naturally continue to play the soldier’s part and accept the inevitable. That, ideed, we are advised, is what occurred. Von Lettow has accepted the armistice and is now engaged in fulfilling the terms of the conditions that apply to East Africa. We are not in a position to interpret the somehwat vague reference to East Africa, contained in clause 17 of the armistice; but we imagine we are right in drawing the conclusion that hostilities have now ceasedin that country and that steps will at once be taken to restore ordered government pending the ultimate decision to be arrived at by the Peace Conference. Whilst we do not desire to detract from the great performances of General Von Lettow, but pay him the British tribute of having fought like a man, we are not prepared to fall upon his neck and kiss him. He has done his duty in a praiseworthy manner in the same way that every British soldier has performed his duty, and we hope there will be no maudlin sentiment indulged in at this time. Let our first regard, be for our own noble men. There is always a tendency to allow sporting instincts to predominate as against common sense; but we trust on this occasion that if any one is tempted to allow his feelings to run away with him, he will cast his mind back to the atrocities committed by the Germans in France and Belgium and to the long record of odeous crime which is laid at their doors. Before we are generous we are bound to be just over this war. Moreover, we have to remember that for the hell let loose in the world the Prussian has to pay and to pay to the uttermost mark. At the same time, we rejoice in the cessation of hostilities in East Africa and offer our grateful thanks to those brave Rhodesians, including that gallant soldier, Colonel Murray, of the British South Africa Police, and those of our allies who have assisted to bring the war to a close. We believe that with the acceptance of the armistice a new era in East Africa has dawned, and the future is bright with the promise of peace and prosperity.

Copies of the original newspaper articles can be accessed free with a British Library login.

Notably lacking from the above reports are mention of the King’s African Rifles and the porters who played such a vital role in the last years of the campaign.

We remember them all – known and unknown.


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