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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ German East Africa. March 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in history, military history, Uncategorized, World War One.
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Askari soldier. Von Lettow published this account in 1920

This is the sixth part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

The “Congo Act” of 1885, agreed between the European imperialist powers, stated that the African colonies would remain neutral in the event of a European war.  Yet this neutrality lasted only eight days after the event commonly accepted as the start of WWI, the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia. On August 5, 1914, troops from the British Protectorate of Uganda attacked German outposts near Lake Victoria.  A few days later, two British vessels bombarded Dar es Salaam, the capital of German East Africa.  And so began a conflict that lasted, amazingly, until several days after the Armistice.

Perhaps that should not be considered surprising.  According to the demonic logic of the First World War, any potential antagonists would become actual, and any parties attached to those antagonists by way of alliances would also participate.  So we had the Western Front, the Eastern Front, but also many “sideshows,” of which German East Africa was one of the strangest, most interesting conflicts.

Deneys Reitz fought in German East Africa from February 1916 until January 1917.  He had just come from the conflict in German South West, and when that was concluded he volunteered to put in his time on the eastern side of the continent.  Then, also voluntarily, he embarked for the Western Front.  The next post in this series will explore Reitz’s personal experiences in “German East”; the current post gives a bit of the background.

Von Lettow and Schnee

At the outbreak of WWI, Governor Heinrich Schnee of German East Africa preferred to maintain neutrality.  But the commander of the “Schutztruppe” in the colony, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, had his own preference, which was to respond to the British provocations quickly and aggressively.  Though Schnee was his superior, von Lettow disregarded Schnee’s wishes and raided into British territory near Kilimanjaro (in British East Africa) and up into Uganda.  His troops consisted of 260 Germans and 2,500 Askari, or “native” soldiers.  Because of Schnee’s opposition, von Lettow was never to have an army of adequate size throughout the whole war.

On Lake Victoria, a month after their initial attack, the British defeated the German “navy.”  It was a battle between two British lake steamers and a German tugboat mounted with a pompom: a microscopic version of the larger British-German conflict.

In early November, at the hands of von Lettow, the British suffered an embarrassing defeat at the town of Tanga, the coastal terminus of a rail line running from the vicinity of Kilimanjaro. British troops outnumbered German by a ratio of 8 to 1, but von Lettow’s forces, charging with bayonets, emitting wild war cries, and blowing bugles, sent the British regiments fleeing.  To make matters worse, the British ran into swarms of angry bees.  You can read more about the battle here.

Battle of Tanga

I must forge ahead here, and describe only the most major highlights, if this post is not to become too long!  South Africa entered the picture when General Jan Smuts was given command of the British forces in early 1916.  He replaced General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who had become ill.  Essentially, Smuts’ strategy was to push from the north and take control of the central railway in German East.  This he accomplished by September 1916.  Although von Lettow was a genius at guerilla warfare, so was Smuts, who had fought a guerilla campaign throughout the second half of the Boer War.  And Smuts had far more troops at his disposal.  Therefore, von Lettow’s forces simply melted away into the jungle, again and again, allowing Smuts to advance but never to win a battle.

By late 1916, with control of the northern half of the colony but a decisive victory nowhere in sight, Smuts was steadily replacing his South African, Rhodesian, and Indian soldiers with Askaris to match the German ones—men who had far more resistance to the many local diseases (especially malaria), more experience with the difficult terrain—and those were the men who were to remain in place until the end of the war.  Smuts himself departed in January 1917 to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London.

The British established garrisons in the south and engaged in continual skirmishes.  Jacob van Deventer, who’d served very creditably under Smuts in the Boer War, tried for a big offensive in mid-1917.  He succeeded in pushing back von Lettow’s troops, but the German commander put up fierce resistance at Mahiwa, where British casualties reached 2,700 compared with 519 German.  For this, von Lettow was promoted to “Generalmajor.”

Fighting extended into Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi as the war churned along; the Belgians had become involved by mid-1916 to protect their own territorial interests.  Always on the move, von Lettow retreated into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) in late 1917 but eternally evaded capture.  His challenge was always one of obtaining adequate supplies and fending off disease—those of his men who weren’t already “salted” from previous bouts of malaria took big doses of quinine that they called “Lettow’s Schnapps.”   In one of the more bizarre episodes of an already peculiar war, the German high command attempted in November 1917 to deliver supplies to von Lettow by way of a L-59 Zeppelin.  The dirigible made it as far as Bulgaria, but the mission was aborted because conditions were impossible for the crew, who were slowly freezing to death.

The story finally ends in Northern Rhodesia, where von Lettow occupied the town of Kasama.  One day later, he was informed of the signing of the Armistice, a distant event in lands far, far away.  He formally surrendered in Abercorn on November 23, 1918.

Von Lettow's surrender. Drawing by African artist.

Von Lettow was given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Germany in March 1919.  It was one of the few bright spots for his home country.

Parade, Berlin, March 1919


1. Thomas Stazyk - March 12, 2010

Another fascinating, but sobering post. Required reading for anyone whose knowledge of WWI in Africa is limited to African Queen!

Jenny - March 12, 2010

I’m glad you reminded me about that. I was just doing a little googling, and it seems that the setting of the movie was vaguely suggested by the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. That was another bizarre episode in WWI, though von Lettow didn’t have a finger in activities that far north.

2. Peter - November 9, 2010

Nice little post. I would love to subscribe to any posts on the east Africa Campaign. My own blog is http://www.peterbaxterafrica.com and I am also enjoying a similar journey…

Jenny - November 9, 2010

Thank you—I’m glad you visited. I’ve glanced at your website, and it looks very interesting. I will be going back to look at your writings in more detail.

3. Harold Williams - January 21, 2011

Are you not confusing the naval battle on Lake Victoria with the battle that actually took place on Lake Malawi where the British gunboat the Guendolin attacked the German vessel the Hermann von Wissman which was out of the water at the time at Sphinxhaven (Liuli in modern-day Tanzania)? This is reported to have been the first ‘naval’ encounter World War I.

Jenny - January 22, 2011

I am no expert on the subject on African naval conflict in WWI, but I don’t believe I am confusing the two. The Lake Victoria conflict did not involve the “Hedwig von Wissmann.” I did not say that this Lake Victoria action was the first naval encounter in WWI—I don’t know exactly when the German armed tug was trapped and scuttled, but I had the impression it was pretty early in the war. As far as the adventures of the “von Wissmann” are concerned, on Lake Tanganyika and/or Lake Malawi, I’m sure you know far more than I. Certainly a very interesting little “sideshow”!

4. Craig Ness - April 17, 2013

Read “An Ice Cream War” by Stephan Boyd. It is a great account of the different types of problems fighting near the equator. An illuminating, sad and at times humorous book about WW1’s East Africa campaign.

Jenny - April 17, 2013

That sounds very interesting! I will put it on my reading list. Thanks for the suggestion.

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