March 1916

The German East African campaign

By Alessandro Salvador

"To obtain all we must risk all."

(Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, My Reminiscences of East Africa)

Germany declared war on Portugal in March 1916. The Lusitanian country had entered the conflict in late February, alongside the Entente. Portugal’s contribution to the conflict in Europe was minimal, but was significant for the German colony of East Africa which, from then on, was officially surrounded by the enemy.

The German Empire had occupied a region in Africa which included modern-day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania since 1885. When war broke out in 1914, the colony’s fate already seemed to be doomed. Entirely surrounded by enemy colonies, except for Portuguese Mozambique, the area under German control had only just received the news of the outbreak of war when telegraph cables, which went through British territories, were cut.

The garrison, commanded by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was cut off, with fewer soldiers and resources than the troops of the surrounding colonies. At the outbreak of war there were about 200 European soldiers and 2,500 Africans to defend German East Africa. Equipment was largely outdated, because the Africans could only rely on the old single-shot muskets. Lettow-Vorbeck, however, had a little light artillery and some Maxim machine guns, as well as the advantage of the considerable local knowledge of the African troops.

In theory, the colonial troops did not have to worry about the consequences of the war in Europe. The Congo Act in 1885, in fact, stated that the colonies would remain neutral in the event of a conflict between their homelands in Europe. For this reason, the military contingents even of the British colonies were not particularly large. Despite this background and assurances from British governors in Africa, on 5th August 1914 the treaty was violated with an attack, which, from Uganda, targeted some German outposts on Lake Victoria. At the same time, the British navy attacked Dar es Salaam, capital of the German colony.

In response to the attack, Lettow-Vorbeck bypassed the German Governor Schnee and began to organize defence plans. Given the impossibility of receiving reinforcements, unlike the British colonies, the German colonel knew that his only chance of victory lay in the use of local troops and unconventional warfare tactics. Lettow-Vorbeck's troops began to carry out raids and guerrilla operations against British garrisons. This approach led to a series of victories which were enhanced by the capture of war material.

The situation in East Africa was a source of great embarrassment for the British army, unable to get the better of the German colonial troops. The situation seemed to change in 1916, when Portugal entered the war, hence adding Mozambique to the conflict, and the creation of an Expeditionary Force of about 73,000 men, mostly African, but also Indian, British and Boers, led by General J.C. Smuts. These troops were joined by a Belgian force and a Portuguese contingent. British and allied troops launched a series of offensives from several directions, taking control of a number of strategic positions and the railway leading to Dar es Salaam. Lettow-Vorbeck's troops, now confined to the southern part of the colony were, however, able to avoid direct confrontation.

This marked the start, for the Entente forces, of a long period of attrition. The Germans, with their African troops, led a campaign of raids and sabotage based on high mobility and even temporary abandonment of colony territories. Raids were made in the British and Belgian colonies and although unable to achieve a decisive victory, the small contingent, numbering now about 18,000 men, managed to survive. On the other hand, the British multiplied their efforts using vast amounts of resources, reinforcements and a large number of African auxiliary troops.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s elusive band reached the armistice on 11th November 1918 almost unbeaten. Two days later, the Germans occupied Kasama, evacuated by the British. In the end, on 23rd November 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck formally surrendered to the British and marched his army to Abercorn. The last remnant of the German Empire to surrender - a small contingent - whose numbers peaked at 30,000 actual soldiers, kept nearly a million people, including soldiers, sailors, bureaucrats and carriers busy for over four years. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, promoted to General during the campaign, returned home like a hero.



Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a German officer descending from a Pomeranian noble family with a long military tradition, was born on 20 March 1870 in the town of Saarlouis, in the present-day Saarlouis district. In 1881, at the age of 11, he entered the... Read all