February 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Africa, Books, Germany, Globalization, History, Third World, World-system | Leave a comment










Africa is the forgotten front of World War I and only famous movies like “The African Queen” and “Out of Africa” vaguely bring this aspect of modern world history back to mind.

World War I started in Africa in 1914 and World War II in China in 1937 and “now is like now because then was like then.”

The Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign 1914-1918

Product Details:

· Hardcover: 368 pages

· Publisher: Tempus

· January 1, 2004

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0752423444

· ISBN-13: 978-0752423449

The first world war began in East Africa in 1914 and didn’t end until 1918: its impact would change a world, and was the largest of its times on African soil – yet the East African campaign would remain largely under-stated and nearly forgotten were it not for Ross Anderson’s in-depth study THE FORGOTTEN FRONT. Surprisingly, THE FORGOTTEN FRONT is the first full-length history of this campaign, providing in-depth coverage of events and politics as well as military strategy analysis.

Relevant Films:

Black and White in Color (1976)

Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins

Genre: Foreign Films

Synopsis: In 1914, some patriotic Frenchmen, living in a small town on the west coast of Africa, find out about the war with Germany, declaring: “I would have thought it would be with England.”

Starring: Jean Carmet, Jacques Spiesser

Starring: Jean Carmet, Jacques Spiesser

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

The inaugural film effort of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black and White in Color is set during World War I. Upon the outbreak of hostilities, a French trading post in West Central Africa finds itself at odds with a formerly peaceful German post, for no other reason than their parent countries are at war. The newly xenophobic French traders attack the Germans, only to fail in their efforts. Socialist Jacques Spiesser is put in charge of the debilitated French contingent, utterly discarding his former high ideals in the process.

Shout at the Devil (1976)

The story of the film was inspired by one of the most spectacular and adventurous event that took place during WWI, in German East Africa, later Tanganyika, later Tanzania, in late 1914 – early 1915, known as Battle of Rufiji Delta, in which the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg was blockaded and finally sunk by various British units.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

(20 March 1870 – 9 March 1964)

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (20 March 1870 – 9 March 1964) was a German general, the commander of the German East Africa campaign in World War I. He commanded one of only two German colonial forces of that war which were not defeated.

As lieutenant colonel in October 1913 he was appointed to command the German colonial forces known as the Schutztruppe [protection force] in German Kamerun (today Cameroon apart from a portion in Nigeria). Before he could assume this new command, his orders were changed and he was posted — effective 13 April 1914 — to German East Africa, the mainland part of modern-day Tanzania.

During the early phases of the Great War in August 1914 Lettow-Vorbeck was the commander of a small garrison of 260 Germans and 2,472 Africans in fourteen Askari field companies.[2] Knowing the need to seize the initiative, he ignored orders from Berlin and the colony’s governor Heinrich Schnee. Schnee had insisted on neutrality for German East Africa.[3] Lettow-Vorbeck promptly disregarded the governor, nominally his superior, and prepared to repel an amphibious assault on the city of Tanga, where between 2 and 5 November 1914, he fought one of his greatest battles. He then assembled his men and almost nonexistent supplies to attack the British railways in East Africa. He scored a second victory over the British at Jassin on 18 January 1915. While these victories gave him badly-needed modern rifles and other supplies, as well as critical boost to the morale of his men, Lettow-Vorbeck also lost numerous experienced men in these pitched battles, among them the “splendid Captain Tom von Prince,”[4] whom he could not easily replace.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s plan for World War I was quite simple: knowing that East Africa would never be anything but a sideshow, he determined to tie down as many British troops as he possibly could; this would remove them from the Western Front, and in this way, might contribute to Germany‘s victory.

Lettow-Vorbeck knew he could count on his highly motivated officers (their casualty rate was certainly proof of that).[5] As a consequence of costly personnel losses, he afterwards avoided direct engagements with British forces, instead directing his men to engage in raids into British East Africa (modern Kenya), Uganda and Rhodesia, targeting forts, railways and communications — all with the goal of forcing the Entente to divert manpower from the main theater of war in Europe. He realized the critical needs of guerrilla warfare in that he used everything available to him in matters of supply.

The Schutztruppe recruited new personnel and expanded to its eventual size of some 14,000 soldiers, most of them Askari, but all well-trained and well-disciplined. Lettow-Vorbeck’s fluency in the Swahili language earned the instant respect and admiration of his African soldiers; he appointed black officers and “said — and believed — ‘we are all Africans here’.”[6] “It is probable that no white commander of the era had so keen an appreciation of the African’s worth not only as a fighting man but as a man.”[7]

He gained the men and artillery of the German cruiser SMS Königsberg (sunk/scuttled in 1915 in the Rufiji River delta) which had a capable crew under commander Max Looff, as well as its numerous guns, which were converted into artillery pieces for the land fighting, which would be the largest standard land artillery pieces used in the East African theater. In March 1916 the British under Gen. J.C. Smuts launched a formidable offensive with 45,000 men. Lettow-Vorbeck patiently used climate and terrain as his allies while his troops fought the British on his terms and to his advantage. The British, however, kept on adding more troops and forcing Lettow to yield territory. Nevertheless, he fought on, including a pivotal battle at Mahiwa in October 1917 where he lost 519 men killed, wounded or missing and the British 2,700 killed, wounded or missing.[8] After the news of the battle reached Germany he was promoted to Generalmajor.[9] The British would recover their losses and continue to hold an overwhelming manpower advantage; for the Schutztruppe it was serious, there were no reserves to again fill the ranks.

Lettow-Vorbeck now began a forced withdrawal to the south, with his troops at half rations and the British in pursuit. On 25 November 1917 his advance column waded across the river Rovuma into Portuguese Mozambique.[10] In essence he cut his own supply lines and the Schutztruppe caravan became a nomadic tribe. On their first day across the river they attacked the newly replenished Portuguese garrison of Ngomano and solved all their supply issues for the foreseeable future.[11] When they captured a river steamer with a load of medical supplies, including quinine, at least some of their medical problems were no more.[12] For almost an entire year they had now lived off the land, but mainly with provisions captured from the British and Portuguese; they had replaced their old rifles with new equipment and acquired machine guns and mortars after capturing Namakura (Nhamacurra in modern Mozambique) in July 1918.[13] At the end they had more ammunition than they could carry.

On 28 September 1918 von Lettow again crossed the Rovuma and returned to German East Africa with the British still in pursuit. He then turned west and raided Northern Rhodesia, thus evading a trap the British had prepared for him in German East Africa. On 13 November 1918 two days after the armistice, he took the town of Kasama which the British had evacuated,[14] and continued heading south-west towards Katanga. When he reached the Chambeshi River on the morning of 14 November, the British magistrate Hector Croad appeared under a white flag and delivered a message from the allied General van Deventer informing him of the armistice.[15] Lettow-Vorbeck agreed to a cease-fire at the spot now marked by the Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial in present-day Zambia. He was instructed by the British to march north to Abercorn (now Mbala) to surrender his undefeated army, which he did there on 23 November.[15] His remaining army then consisted of 30 German officers, 125 German non-commissioned officers and other enlisted ranks, 1,168 Askaris and some 3,500 porters.[16]

The East African war and the population

General von Lettow-Vorbeck and colonial Governor Heinrich Schnee

The British and Belgian invasions of German East Africa set off a chain of events with devastating ramifications for the natives and their German overlords. The invasions caused interruptions throughout the colony so that the land no longer “basked in a climate of plenty.”[17]

As military commander, Lt. Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck’s first obligation was to his army over the objections of Governor Heinrich Schnee. The governor regarded war as the worst possible calamity that could befall German East Africa; it would “undo everything his social and economic reforms had accomplished.”[18] Lettow-Vorbeck knew he would have to give ground and escape confrontations with Allied forces. He thus established food depots along his intended line of march from Neu Moshi to the Uluguru Mountains, and if the neighboring villages were near starvation, that was a misfortune of war.[19]

Hardly any aid from Germany could penetrate the British blockade to alleviate the enormous supply deficiencies, and only two blockade runners succeeded in reaching the colony. On 14 April 1915 the freighter Kronborg arrived off Tanga at Manza Bay after a two months’ journey from Wilhelmshaven, and was promptly attacked by the British cruiser Hyacinth. Fortunately for the Germans, Kronborg had been scuttled by her captain to avoid a coal fire after repeated hits by the British cruiser and the ship settled in shallow water. Nearly its entire cargo could be salvaged.[20] When the steamer Marie von Stettin arrived south of Lindi on 17 March 1916,[21] its precious cargo of 1,500 tons was of only very modest help.[22] By late September 1916, all of coastal German East Africa, including Dar es Salaam and the Central Railway, were under British control, with the west occupied by Belgians;[23] then during December 1917 the German colony was officially declared an Allied protectorate.[24]

Lettow-Vorbeck and his caravan of Europeans, askaris, porters, women and children marched on, deliberately bypassing the tribal home lands of the native soldiers in an effort to forestall desertions. They traversed difficult territory, “swamps and jungles . . . what a dismal prospect there is in front of me [to succeed]” stated the Allied commander Gen. J.C. Smuts. But Smuts did not flinch. His new approach and objective was not to fight the Schutztruppe at all, but to go after their food supply.[25] The end eventually came some time later with Smuts in London and Gen. J.L. van Deventer in command in East Africa.

In a 1919 book, Ludwig Deppe, a medical doctor campaigning with Lettow-Vorbeck and former head of the hospital at Tanga, looked back in rue and lamented the tragedy that was imposed by German forces on East Africa in their war with the invading Allies: “Behind us we leave destroyed fields, ransacked magazines and, for the immediate future, starvation. We are no longer the agents of culture, our track is marked by death, plundering and evacuated villages, just like the progress of our own and enemy armies in the Thirty Years’ War.”[26]

While there was German callousness and harshness, the new British or Belgian masters in German East Africa were by no means benevolent, either. They assumed no responsibility for African welfare and provided little assistance to the malnourished native population; indeed, when food ran short for the Allied formations “the British askaris fell back on the practice of attacking and looting villages.”[27] When the worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic swept into eastern Africa in 1918-19 it struck down thousands with impartiality, native and European alike.[28] The weakened state of many natives made them especially susceptible; this included the caged askaris and porters of the German Schutztruppe, which had been herded together at the Tabora POW camps.[29] [30]

Post-War career and legacy

After hostilities ended, the British transferred German soldiers and POWs to Dar es Salaam for eventual repatriation. Lettow-Vorbeck tried to ensure decent treatment and the briefest time the German askaris would be caged at Tabora.[31]

Lettow-Vorbeck returned home in early March 1919 to a hero’s welcome. On a black charger he led 120 returnees of the Schutztruppe in their tattered tropical uniforms on a victory parade through the Brandenburg Gate which was decorated in their honor.[32] Though he ultimately surrendered; he frequently won against great odds and was the only German commander to invade British territory successfully in World War I.[33]

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was a daring yet prudent commander who showed uncanny ability to fight a guerrilla war in unfamiliar terrain. He was respected as a brilliant soldier and a first rate leader by his white officers, non-commissioned officers and Askaris – and beyond that, by his foes.[28] In the field when rations had to be reduced and supplies dwindled, it was a measure of the Askaris’ loyalty to their commander that they accepted the cuts and did not desert en masse. Some did desert, of course . . . [as did British, Belgian and Portuguese native troops]. But the German Askaris were by far the most loyal as well as the most effective, and it all went back to von Lettow’s brand of discipline, which bound him and his German officers as much as his black soldiers.[34]

The East African campaign then was essentially about a “modestly immense Allied army” that was engaged by “a midget German force led by an obscure Prussian officer who could have conducted post-graduate courses in irregular warfare tactics for Che Guevara, General Giap and other more celebrated but far less skilled guerrilla fighters.”[35] Lettow-Vorbeck’s exploits in the African bush have come down “as the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful.”[36]

One of Lettow’s junior officers, Theodor von Hippel, used his experience in Africa to be instrumental in forming the Brandenburgers, the commando unit of the German Abwehr intelligence agency in World War II.[37]


1. Farwell, The Great War in Africa, p. 106

2. Farwell, p. 109

3. The governor based his position on the Congo Act of 1885 where the European colonial powers absurdly promised each other to keep their overseas possessions separate and neutral from European wars

4. Tom von Prince had a Scots father and German mother and was born on Mauritius. After he was orphaned his maternal relatives brought him to Germany. He and Lettow-Vorbeck were classmates at the Kassel Military School (Kadettenanstalt Kassel); Prince eventually settled in the Usambara region of German East Africa. At the outset of the Great War he was recalled to active service as Hauptmann (captain) and assigned command of the askaris of the 13th Field Company and 7th and 8th Schützenkompagnies (rifle companies) composed mainly of the sons of German settlers. Prince’s exploits soon earned him the nickname Bwana Sakarani – the wild one – from his askaris. He died at Tanga on 4 November 1914.

5. Hoyt, Guerilla, p. 28

6. Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, p. 85

7. Miller, Battle for the Bundu, p. 38

8. Miller, p. 287

9. Hoyt, p. 175; on a comparison chart this rank was equivalent to Brigadier General in the British forces or the U.S. Army, i.e., the lowest General Officer rank

10. a state of war existed since 9 March 1916 between Germany and Portugal. After neutral Portugal complied with a British demand to confiscate German ships interned in Portuguese ports, Germany reacted by declaring war on Portugal

11. Miller, p. 296

12. Hoyt, p. 214

13. Willmott, World War One, p. 93

14. “The Evacuation of Kasama in 1918″. The Northern Rhodesia Journal. IV (5) (1961). Pages 440-442. Retrieved 7 March 2007.

15. a b Gore-Browne, Sir Stewart (1954). “The Chambeshi Memorial”. The Northern Rhodesia Journal, 2 (5) pp 81-84 (1954). Retrieved 18 May 2007

16. Haupt, Deutschlands Schutzgebiete in Übersee 1884-1918, p. 154

17. Miller, p. 22

18. Miller, p. 41

19. Miller, p. 236

20. Hoyt, p. 89-90

21. Hoyt, p. 119

22. Farwell, p. 276

23. Louis, Great Britain and Germany’s Lost Colonies 1914-1919, p. 74

24. Miller, p. 291

25. Miller, p. 237

26. Ferguson, Empire, p. 253

27. Miller, p. 309

28. a b Farwell, p. 354

29. Miller, p. 329

30. Nearly the entire body of Allied political and colonial literature 1914-1920 was propagandistic and devised to create a climate of “whatever happens, these Colonies can never be returned to Germany” [Louis, p. 116], since Germany was deemed guilty of committing “. . . the climax of Africa’s exploitation: its use as a mere battlefield” [Strachan, p. 571].

31. Miller, p. 327

32. Farwell, p. 355-356

33. Article 17 of the Armistice required not his “surrender” but simply “evacuation of all German forces operating in East Africa.” Evacuation was not at all the same as surrender [Farwell, p. 353]

34. Hoyt, p. 171

35. Miller, p. ix

36. Hoyt, p. 229

37. Lefèvre, Brandenburg Division, p. 17-29

38. a b c Miller, p. 331

39. Farwell, p. 356

40. Garfield, p. 164

41. Garfield, p. 178

42. a b c Farwell, p. 357

43. Miller, p. 331; the suggestion for the nomination as ambassador to the Court of St. James came from retired Col. Richard Meinertzhagen during a visit to Berlin

44. this trip was sponsored by the German news magazine Stern

45. Miller, p. 333


· Anderson, Ross. The Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign, 1914-1918. London: Tempus Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2344-4.

· Crowson, Thomas A. When Elephants clash. A critical analysis of Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck in the East African Theatre of the Great War. (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Faculty of the US Army Command and General Staff College, Masterarbeit, 2003). Washington, DC: Storming Media, 2003. NTIS, Springfield, VA. 2003. Microform-Edition.

· Farwell, Byron. The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, ISBN 0-393-30564-3.

· Ferguson, Niall. Empire. The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books. 2004. ISBN 0465023282

· Garfield, Brian. The Meinertzhagen Mystery. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc. 2007. ISBN 1597970417

· Haupt, Werner. Deutschlands Schutzgebiete in Übersee 1884-1918 [Germany’s Overseas Protectorates 1884-1918]. Friedberg: Podzun-Pallas Verlag. 1984. ISBN 3-7909-0204-7

· Hoyt, Edwin P. The Germans who never lost. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. 1968, and London: Leslie Frewin, 1969. ISBN 0090964004. Note: This book is a study of Captain Max Looff and his crew of the light cruiser Königsberg. The main sources are German admiralty records and published accounts by crew members. The book is listed here for reference only, since, as the author explains, he “had gotten off the track as far as [Paul Emil] von Lettow-Vorbeck was concerned.” Thus, all footnotes for “Hoyt” on this page refer to his book Guerilla. See SMS Königsberg.

· Hoyt, Edwin P. Guerilla: Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany’s East African Empire. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1981; and London: Collier MacMillan Publishers. 1981. ISBN 0-02-555210-4.

· Lefėvre, Eric. Brandenburg Division, Commandos of the Reich. Paris: Histoire & Collections. 2000 (translated from the French by Julia Finel. Originally published as La Division Brandenburg 1939-1945. Paris: Presses de la Cité. 1983). ISBN 2-908-182-734.

· Louis, Wm. Roger. Great Britain and Germany‘s Lost Colonies 1914-1919. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1967.

· Miller, Charles. Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in German East Africa. London: Macdonald & Jane’s, 1974; and New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1974. ISBN 0-02-584930-1.

· Mosley, Leonard. Duel for Kilimanjaro. New York: Ballantine Books, 1963.

· Paice, Edward. Tip and Run. The untold tragedy of the Great War in Africa. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. ISBN 0-297-84709-0.

· Schulte-Varendorff, Uwe. Kolonialheld für Kaiser und Führer. General Lettow-Vorbeck – Eine Biographie [Colonial Hero for Kaiser and Führer. A General Lettow-Vorbeck Biography]. Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag, 2006. ISBN 3-861-53412-6.

· Sibley, J.R. Tanganyikan Guerrilla. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973. ISBN 0345098013.

· Stephenson, William. Der Löwe von Afrika. Der legendäre General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck und sein Kampf um Ostafrika [The Lion of Africa. The legendary General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his campaign for East Africa]. Munich: Goldmann, 1984. ISBN 3-442-06719-7.

· Strachan, Hew. The First World War 1914-1918. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001. ISBN 0199261911.

· Stratis, John C. A Case Study in Leadership. Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Springfield, VA.: NTIS, 2002. Microform-Edition.

· Willmott, H.P. World War One. London: Dorling Kindersley. 2003. ISBN 0789496275


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