German East Africa – World War 1 Colonial Warfare I THE GREAT WAR Special


By this time 100 years ago, the German Empire
had lost all of its colonial possessions. Well, all save one, but it would cling tenaciously
to that one. I’m talking, of course, about German East Africa. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about German East Africa in the First World War. German East Africa covered what is today much
of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, which bordered- among other colonies- British East Africa,
the Belgian Congo, and Portuguese East Africa, so once the war really got going, German East
Africa was basically surrounded by enemies. I’m not going to delve into the pre-war
history of the region very much, but I will mention Carl Peters. In 1884, Peters founded
the Society for German Colonization, a group dedicated to acquiring German colonies. This
was the late time of the scramble for Africa, when many European nations were trying to
carve out their own chunks of the continent. That year, Peters went to Africa and signed
treaties with several tribal chiefs offering them “protection” in exchange for sovereignty
and the following year created the German East Africa Company. Now, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was
opposed to Peters’ colonial plans and gave him no backing. Bismarck didn’t want to
potentially sour relations with the British and wasn’t a colonization fan in general,
but when Peters threatened to sell his acquisitions to Belgium, Bismarck, and his pro-colonial
National Liberal allies in the Reichstag gave in and gave Peters an imperial charter. Peters turned out to be an unsavory character,
to say the least. In 1891 and 1892 he was in German East Africa as Reichskommissar,
ostensibly to help delineate the border with British East Africa, but he was brutal to
the locals. He took local girls as concubines, and when one of them got together with his
manservant, Peters had them both executed and their villages destroyed. Stuff like that.
Needless to say, this provoked local hostilities, and Peters was recalled. Anyhow, the next quarter century of German
sovereignty was a period of frequent unrest and war. At one point a local tribe, the Hehe, dealt
the German Schutztruppe- the protection forces- a humiliating defeat, and the Germans responded
by invading their territory, destroying fields and harvests to cause famine, and taking women
and children as bounty. The Hehe turned to guerrilla warfare and the conflict dragged
on throughout the 1890s. Between 1905 and 1908 there was an all-out
war, the Maji-Maji War, during which tribes united across ethnic and cultural boundaries
against the Germans. The Germans responded as before, and by the end of the war an estimated
quarter of a million Africans died, as opposed to 15 European Sc hutztruppe soldiers. Yep,
15 versus as many as 250,000. 382 Askari who fought with the Germans also died and around
10,000 tribesmen during attacks on German garrisons, but 15 to 250,000. For the three
year war and it’s aftermath of famine and starvation. Then came 1914. Now, in January 1914 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
became commander of the Schutztruppe in German East Africa. He had seen colonial combat in
both the Boxer Rebellion and in German Southwest Africa, and when the war broke out seven months
later, he chose to ignore the Congo Agreements that gave the colonies the option to remain
neutral, and which colonial Governor Heinrich Schnee favored. Lettow-Vorbeck’s policy was offensives without
compromise. He sabotaged the British Uganda railway and defeated numerically superior
British forces again and again. They were demoralized until the fall of German Southwest
Africa in mid 1915 suddenly gave the British loads more South African troops to turn against
von Lettow-Vorbeck. The British also began to coordinate with the Belgian Congolese forces,
and in early 1916, Portugal joined the war with the Allies and von Lettow-Vorbeck now
had to deal with attackers from all sides, and he had no hope of relief or supplies arriving
from Germany. He withdrew to the southern part of the colony,
which was great for his campaign of guerrilla warfare. He had switched to this tactic since
he could not afford to lose men, and that would happen in open engagements win or lose.
In 1917, he was forced to cross the border into Portuguese East Africa, where his men
ransacked the countryside for food and ammunition. His war had now become an end to itself. In 1918 in British Rhodesia, von Lettow-Vorbeck
learned about the armistice and surrendered November 25th. But what was the colonial war like? Well, unlike the war on, say, the Western
Front, it was a war of movement. It was also a war of foot soldiers since the terrain was
unsuitable for mechanized or mounted troops, and you couldn’t really drag around artillery,
so most casualties were caused by malnutrition, exhaustion, and disease. Allied troops suffered
17,700 losses and anywhere from 50,000 to well over 100,000 carrier losses. On the German
side were 734 European German casualties of 3,600, 6,300 Askaris – the recruited African
soldiers- out of over 30,000, and around 100,000 carriers. Civilian deaths are difficult to
estimate but may very well have been over a million. Von Lettow-Vorbeck claimed he could’ve continued
the war for years, but is that really true? From 1916 on, his troops were in terrible
shape; they didn’t have shoes or anything approaching matching equipment, and everything
they did have was from enemy or local supplies. Some soldiers didn’t mind going on for years,
but may wanted to return to their families, and an important note- von Lettow-Vorbeck’s
comrades praised his style of leadership and determination, they did not praise him for
tactical or strategic genius. The war in Africa was also supposedly more
civilized than that in Europe. And while it is true that German and British
officers were keen on keeping things almost sportsmanlike in nature, but when you look
at, say, the askari on both sides, you see that those same officers allowed their troops
to commit the worst atrocities on the local civilians. Rape, murder, looting; one Schutztruppe
soldier had this to say, “Behind us we leave destroyed fields… and famine for the time
to come. We are no longer ambassadors of culture, we are bringing, death, pillaging, and empty
villages.” In fact, local civilians were often forced to become carriers and not given
enough food to survive. There’s also the semi-myth of the faithful
askari. They were supposedly loyal to Germany to the
bitter end and in the future were used to portray German colonialism as superior to
that of, say, Belgian, and to show what a good and decent trade partner Germany would
be to newly emerging nations later in the 20th century. Askari were often recruited from other parts
of Africa to make them more dependent, but they were given decent regular salaries and
relatively free reign; things like alcohol abuse and polygamy were tolerated by British
and German officers to promote goodwill, and since askari were used to commit atrocities,
in many cases desertion would mean retaliation so it was safer to remain with the battalion.
Still, there was an 18% desertion rate. Of course, there were many many thousands of
askari who were simply loyal to the end, but it is a far more complicated situation than
it seems on the surface. In fact, you could say that about the entire
situation of German East Africa during the First World War; that it was far more complicated
than it may seem on the surface. Or that it may seem from stories and legends told about
it afterwards. Well, today was just a brief look at the colony
and the war as well as a short analysis of some of the questions and myths surrounding
it. As always, I urge you all to look this up for yourselves to get more detail and a
better perspective of things. If you want to see more from about the topic,
we did a bio special on General von Lettow-Vorbeck, you can check that out and hear me curse right
here. Let us know what other colonies you are interested
in so we can start our research and of course: Don’t forget to subscribe.

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