Dawn hadn’t even fully broken over the small town of Taveta in British East Africa (now Kenya) when the artillery barrage began on February 12th, 1916.
By the standards of the Great War, the two-hour shelling of German Schutztruppe holding the small strategic lookout (Taveta was near Mount Kilimanjaro and had been seized by Germany early in the war) was little more than a pleasant morning wake-up call. But by the standards of the war in Africa, it was part of a full-blown massive offensive by a combination of Boers, Brits, Rhodesians, Indians and Africans – well over 73,000 men – to wrestle away East Africa from the Kaiser’s grip.
The 6,000 men of a South African brigade, supported by Indian-based artillery, charged at Taveta up Salaita Hill, where British intelligence had suggested that the artillery had been pounding the front-line of a few hundred black African German troops. In reality, the artillery had landed behind the front-line and instead of a few hundred defenders, 2,300 men awaited the Entente attack. Knowing discretion to be the better part of valor, the South Africans quickly retreated with minimal casualties.
Salaita Hill would be another reversal for the Entente in an endless campaign against the forces of German Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – a campaign that would last beyond the end of the First World War.
The voracious appetite of the Entente for German colonies defined the earliest months of the war in Africa. German possessions in central and southwest Africa fell with relative ease as trained British regulars were able to beat German Schutztruppe (protection forces); often little more than ill-equipped black volunteers or aging white settlers. Coupled with the introduction of forces from South African Boers and British Indians, the conquest of German Africa appeared to be proceeding as a neat and orderly little war.
The German forces in East Africa were determined to defy such a narrative, despite long odds. The Schutztruppe of German East Africa were a dispersed force of no greater than 3,000 almost exclusively black Africans (local black troops were known as Askaris) who were armed with outdated 1871 black powder rifles. Their commander was a middle-aged careerist with limited combat experience in China and Africa who had been given the assignment less than five months before hostilities began. Surrounded by British, Belgian and Portuguese colonies while being almost completely cut-off from Germany, save a few vessels that made their way from home, the Germans in East Africa had decided against logic to take the offensive.
With only 260 white officers and 2,400 Askari native troops (the entire mobilized army of German East Africa at that moment), the Germans attacked in the fall of 1914, capturing Taveta over the British East African border and conducting raiding parties deep into British territory. When 8,000 veteran British Indian troops disembarked in November of 1914 to invade German East Africa, they confidently marched on Kilimanjaro, believing their 8-to-1 advantage in manpower, to say nothing of their experience, would brush the German Askari aside. In two sharp battles, the British Indian Expeditionary Force was defeated and an embarrassed London began to search for additional troops for their sideshow front.
The British had badly misjudged their opponent. And they would keep misjudging him throughout the campaign.
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into Pomeranian nobility, but rarely acted like it other than in his gentlemanly demeanor. Where previous German authorities had treated the local Askari with disdain at best, Lettow-Vorbeck spoke fluent Swahili and insisted on equality between the men in his ranks. He frequently promoted black Africans as officers, going so far as to declare that among his fighting force “we are all Africans here.”
Having his army survive wasn’t good enough for Lettow-Vorbeck – they had to contribute to Germany’s larger war effort. The more successful Lettow-Vorbeck could be, the more likely the Entente would have to send a larger force against him, drawing on men that could have been used on other fronts. It was a dangerous gamble. The Entente could replace losses; Lettow-Vorbeck couldn’t.
By the beginning of 1916, the Entente became determined to drive Lettow-Vorbeck out of his gains in British East Africa and out of the war entirely. German naval raids, both at sea and in the interior had gotten out of control, and Lettow-Vobeck’s troops were now conducting a guerrilla war far from their home base. With over 73,000 soldiers at the command of South African Boer General Jan Smuts, supported by Belgian troops eager to avenge Germany’s occupation of their homeland, plus a few Portuguese, the Entente attacked Lettow-Vorbeck directly.
Smuts intended to catch Lettow-Vorbeck in a gigantic three-pronged trap. One wing of the offensive would come to the north, from British East Africa. Two smaller wings would advance from the Belgian Congo, forcing the understaffed Germans to alternate between defensive lines and eventually concede territory. Lettow-Vorbeck was happy to oblige – his strategy didn’t rely on holding ground, only keeping Entente forces in the theatre. Coupled with the nearly year-long lull in fighting, Lettow-Vorbeck had managed to swell his force to nearly 18,000, and he had drilled them repeatedly on the use of guerrilla tactics. His men were to engage and retreat, striking where the enemy wasn’t and plundering his supply line. The Entente was literally feeding and arming Lettow-Vorbeck’s men more than Germany was.
As Dar es Salaam fell to the Entente in September of 1916, capturing the last of the coastal holdings of German East Africa, the Allies toasted what they believed to be their final victory in the campaign. Gen. Jan Smuts left the campaign to head to London a war hero as newspapers crowed over the Crown’s victory. Lettow-Vorbeck’s army was now completely isolated and it would either surrender or completely dissolve. The environment had been brutal to the Allies – the 9th South African Infantry alone had lost 1,000 out of 1,100 men due to disease. With such wear and tear, it was only a matter of time before Lettow-Vorbeck emerged from the jungle to formally end the campaign.
The general who was becoming known back in Germany as the “Lion of Africa” was about to prove such calculations wrong and roar again.
For the Entente troops that remained in East Africa chasing Lettow-Vorbeck, the German general had another nickname – “the Bush Ghost.”
The African climate had taken it’s toll on the Entente. Pursing troops found themselves held up by miles of thorn-bush thickets, sun-baked plains (which exhausted their water supplies), marauding rhino herds by day, treacherous lion prides by night and destructive giraffes and elephants. When the animals didn’t knock over installations and destroy telegraph lines, the weather did. Monsoons created immediate flood conditions, washing out bridges. All the while malaria, dysentery, blackwater fever and dreaded typhoid decimated the Entente ranks.
The German-led Askaris were basically immune to these diseases, as were those white commanders who had lived in East Africa for years. Moreover, the Germans dressed in the manner of African troops, with only their hands and heads exposed. The British uniform issue was shorts and short sleeve shirts, open at the neck.
If disease didn’t cut down the Entente brigades, Lettow-Vorbeck’s ambushes would. German Askari ambushes consisted of rapid deployment of machine guns (on portable tripods), concealed by logs or trenches. By the time the Entente troops collected themselves following these ambushes, their attackers were gone, having melted back into the jungle.
Frustrated with their inability to meet Lettow-Vorbeck in the field, the Entente turned to destroying his supplies. Villages were ransacked, farms burned and livestock confiscated if not killed. The Germans responded in kind, partially out of denying supplies to the Entente and partially out of need to consume supplies for their armies. For both sides, the men under arms represented the tip of a iceberg – the majority of the mass being underneath. Lettow-Vorbeck’s army included thousands of family members for the Askari and thousands more carriers. The Entente would employ 600,000 carriers in the hunt for Lettow-Vorbeck and over a million men over the four year campaign.
Both sides became an army of locusts, devouring whatever came across their path. For the inhabitants of the region, the approach of the German or Entente armies meant certain starvation. An estimated 365,000 civilians would die from food-related maladies, almost all of them in the last two years of the war.
In October of 1917, the Entente finally got what it had longed for – a battle with Lettow-Vorbeck out in the open.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s army had been reduced to roughly 5,000 men at arms, as combat and disease had slowly thinned his ranks. Tipped off that the German general was located at Mahiwa in what is now modern Tanzania, a 5,000 man force of South Africans and Nigerians attempted to divide Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces and defeat them separately. A wing of Lettow-Vorbeck’s army, commanded by one of his lieutenants and totaling 1,500 men, was caught by surprise. As the South Africans tried to hold the German Askaris down, the Nigerians prepared to flank the force and surround them.
Lettow-Vorbeck rushed into the battle and took over command from his lieutenant, routing the Nigerians. But then Lettow-Vorbeck did something he hadn’t in years – he took the offensive. After three days of hard fighting, the Entente was forced to retreat with over 2,700 casualties – the highest number of casualties for the Entente in East Africa since early in the war in 1914. It was a resounding German victory.
It was also a massive strategic mistake. Lettow-Vorbeck lost an estimated 600 men and spent 850,000 rounds of ammunition to accomplish his victory. Neither the men nor bullets were replaceable. Lettow-Vorbeck’s men were starting to reach their breaking point. While the general suffered few defections in his army, it was partially because he purposefully chose to avoid villages were his men had family, out of fear they might never leave home again to rejoin his force.
Depleted, and down to his last 2,000 men, Lettow-Vorbeck invaded Portuguese Mozambique in late 1917, feasting on Portuguese supplies. Jan Smut’s successor was congratulated on forcing the Germans out of British East Africa only to be told he had to deploy 17,000 troops in Mozambique to help try and quell Lettow-Vorbeck’s adventures there.
The end for Lettow-Vorbeck’s army would start on November 13th, 1918 – a full two days after the Armistice.
Having consumed his way through Mozambique, Lettow-Vorbeck decided to invade British Rhodesia. Upon ceasing a supply depot, the general was greeted by a courier announcing that the war in Europe was over. Cut off from news for years, Lettow-Vorbeck at first refused to believe the courier, assuming it was a British trick. After all, Lettow-Vorbeck had heard the many rumors the British had started of his demise over the the years.
By November 25th, 1918, the news had been confirmed. Thirty German officers, 125 settlers, five German doctors and 1,100 Askaris surrendered to the British. At the time, 160,000 Entente soldiers were currently tasked with finding Lettow-Vorbeck and his men. Despite surrendering, there was little question which side thought themselves the victors. Lettow-Vorbeck’s Askaris sang “Heia Safari, Tuna-kwenda, tuna-shinda.” Or roughly translated: “Where we go, we win.”
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck would return to Germany a national hero. In March of 1919, Lettow-Vorbeck would lead a parade in his army’s honor, marching with his Schutztruppe men, white and Askari, complete in their nearly-destroyed uniforms, down to the Brandenburg Gate. His reputation would only grow after the war as the only “undefeated” German commander in the Great War.
With the ascent of the Nazi Party to power, Adolf Hitler attempted to co-opt the aging Lettow-Vorbeck’s legacy by offering him an ambassadorship. The old general’s response would become part of German lore after the war: “Fick dich selber.” He had told Hitler to “go fuck himself.” Lettow-Vorbeck would remain under tight surveillance during the Second World War by the Gestapo, but was never punished for his rebuke – such was his popularity.