African theater of World War One
The Entente defeats Germany in Africa
African theater of World War One
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
During the Great War a series of campaigns were fought in Africa for control of the German colonies in the continent. By the end of the war the German colonies of Kameroon, Togoland, German East Africa and German South West Africa were captured by the Entente. After the war Germany lost its colonial empire.
During the Great War the Central Powers instigated local rebellions against French and British rule in North Africa. The European powers clashed directly in the Entente campaigns against German colonies such as Kamerun (Cameroon), Togoland, German South West Africa and German East Africa. By the end of the war the Entente powers managed to defeat both the local and German forces. The war marked the end of German colonialism in Africa.

‘Think of lying on the ground where the hot sun is beating directly on your backs; think of yourself buried in a hole with only your head and hands outside, holding a gun. Imagine yourself facing this situation for several days, no food, no water, yet you don’t feel hungry; only death smelling all over the place. Listen to the sound of exploding bombs and machine guns, smoke all over and the vegetation burnt and of course deforested. Look at your relatives getting killed, crying and finally dead.’ This was how Fololiyani Longwe of the King’s African Rifles recalled his First World War service. Longwe served because Malawi, then Nyasaland, was part of the British Empire. His memories were not very different from those of veterans of the war in Flanders and France. And yet one title used for the war as it was being waged was the Great European War.

The British decision at the outset of the war, that the objectives of operations outside Europe were naval, created - unbeknown to them - an almost perfect symmetry between their objectives and the Germans’. Precisely because of British maritime supremacy, the Germans had little intention of defending the coast, and planned instead to withdraw inland so as to use the interior in order to prolong their resistance. Thus the British secured several quick successes but were then baffled as to why the fighting continued. The mutual incomprehension prevailed throughout the war.

According to some views after the war ended, the war was an unnecessary conflict waged between states whose similarities were more marked than their differences - a sort of European civil war. It has been said, moreover, that if the Great European War was truly a global war, it became so only after the United States entered it in April 1917. Fololiyani Longwe’s testimony corrects such arrogant uses of hindsight. He was one of over 2 million Africans who served in the war as soldiers and laborers: 10 percent of them died, and among the laborers the rate may have reached 20 percent. These were casualty rates comparable with those on the Western Front.

As much from its outset as beyond its formal conclusion, the First World War was far more than just a European conflict. In August 1914, British, French, Belgian and German belligerence embraced the entire continent of Africa with the exception of Liberia, Ethiopia, and the relatively smaller colonies of Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Not even these would remain exempt from the war, at least in its indirect forms.

Germany had had to become an empire itself, the Second Reich, proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in January 1871, before it could join Europe's great powers in the competition for empire. Their extensive conquests left the new state few pickings. Between 1884 and 1914, they had established commercial enclaves in Cameroon, Togo, and South-West Africa (Namibia) on the west coast, and what is now Tanzania on the east coast, which the imperial government had then consolidated.

Heinrich von Treitschke, the ideologist of German nationalism, announced that ‘colonization was a matter of life and death’. Even so, there was little popular enthusiasm for the acquisition of colonies, perhaps because the only areas still available for exploitation were in the less favored parts of Africa. It was German traders who supplied the impulse to enter the continent.

Genocide and famine were both deployed against the Herero in South-West Africa and the Maji-Maji in East Africa. Thereafter, however, German colonial administration became more liberal. Military responsibilities were circumscribed, commercial development promoted, and settlement doubled. As a result, the German colonial forces, the Schutztruppe, could draw in more whites: from 1913 conscripts were allowed to complete their reserve service overseas rather than remain liable for recall to Germany.

The settlers themselves became increasingly reluctant to meet the costs of an inflated military establishment, and order on a daily basis was handed over to an expanded police force. Admittedly their armament was similar to that of the Schutztruppe, and they could be and were incorporated with it when war broke out.

In 1914 the entire continent of Africa - with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia - was under the rule of European powers, principally Britain, France, Belgium and Germany. Of the other colonial powers in Africa - Spain, Italy and Portugal - only Spain remained neutral throughout the war, and Portugal entered the conflict in 1916 principally in order to secure international support for its shaky authority in Africa. In 1914 conflict spread from the European center to the periphery, and it did so because the states of Europe were imperial powers. War for Europe meant war for the world.

Portuguese soldiers took the first shock of the second German spring offensive in Flanders in April 1918 because of Portugal’s anxieties about its holdings in Angola and Mozambique. That was not typical. In the same month and year German and British black troops were campaigning across Portuguese East Africa in order to further their conduct of the war in Europe. That was more typical.

To many whites it seemed self-evident that the use of colonial troops to topple other European powers could only be self-destructive in the long term. War would rekindle the very warrior traditions that colonialism had been designed to extirpate, and ultimately the black trained to use a rifle against a white enemy might turn his weapon on his own white ruler. For such men the civilizing and progressive, if paternalist and culturally supremacist, attributes of colonialism were the conditioning factors in 1914. They hoped that they might be exempt from developments in Europe.

On 5 August 1914 the Committee of Imperial Defence, an advisory body of the British cabinet, convened a sub-committee to consider ‘combined operations in foreign territory’. Its cardinal objective was that nothing should be undertaken which might prejudice the conduct of the war in Europe. The principal task outside Europe was defensive, to secure Britain’s sea routes against German attack: these were the links that would enable Britain to tap the resources of both its empire and its neutral trading partners. The targets of offensive operations were to be the naval bases and wireless stations that supported the German navy.

The British Committee of Imperial Defence laid down two guiding principles. It renounced the conquest of territory, and it declared that any land forces used should be local formations only. These principles proved mutually incompatible. Those dominions and allies on whom Britain called to provide forces for local operations proved ready to do so. But their motives were shaped less by the needs of the war in Europe than by territorial ambitions in their own regions.

Britain did not see the outbreak of the First World War as an opportunity to acquire German colonies; however, others on whom it relied did. British imperialism may have been dormant between 1914 and 1918, but so-called ‘sub-imperialism’ flourished.

When the news of the crisis of late July 1914 reached the white settlers of Africa, it rarely provoked the popular manifestations of enthusiasm exhibited in the capitals of their parent countries. The duty of Europeans, opined the East Africa Standard of Mombasa on 22 August 1914, was not to fight each other but to keep control of the Africans. The objective of colonial government was pacification. The advent of war was against the common interests of all whites, whatever their nationalities; their numbers were very small; their hold on the recently conquered African interior was precarious, and in many areas incomplete.

The fear of the white settler was a dual one. First, the spectacle of white fighting white would reduce the status of the European. Secondly, war would either rekindle the warrior traditions of those tribes in whom they had only recently been crushed or train in the use of arms those to whom they were unfamiliar. Blacks would kill whites, and the forfeit would be white racial supremacy.

The nominal title of government did not necessarily conform to the actual exercise of power, which often still lay with local chiefs and headmen. Economic penetration through the construction of ports and railways, through plantations and mining, had only just begun. Where mass meetings in support of the war did take place, for example in Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia, they emphasized the exceptional nature of such settlements — their urbanization and, in this case, their Englishness.

In the event, the notion that the European hold on sub-Saharan Africa would be destabilized by the re-emergence of traditional forces proved misplaced; the impact of the war deepened collaboration, and its contribution to colonial decline was much longer-term — through the erosion of tribal loyalties and the broadening of new black elites that were urbanized, westernized, and politically aware.

In 1906, F. H. Grautoff, a newspaper editor and naval writer, published, under the pseudonym ‘Seestern’, The Collapse of the Old World, a fictional account of a future war, translated into English as Armageddon 190-. It contained a real warning: ‘They [Britain and Germany] had not stayed to consider that a war in Europe, with its manifold intricate relations with the new countries over the seas, the millions of whose populations obeyed a handful of white men, but grudgingly, must necessarily set the whole world ablaze.’ Grautoff’s fictional war was a corollary of ‘Weltpolitik’, the basis of German foreign policy at least until 1911.

The word ‘Weltpolitik’ therefore gave rise to another word, ‘Weltkrieg’ (world war). It was not only popular writers who prefixed their descriptions of future war in this way; responsible politicians like Bethmann Hollweg did so, too. They used it for three reasons. The first was of course for effect: they were not being geographically precise. It was not necessarily clear that Europe and the world were different. The second reason related to Germany’s challenge to the status quo. Britain had a vested interest in peace, because the existing order confirmed its own domination.

Although Germany - like the other powers of Europe - had a vociferous colonial lobby, its enthusiasm for widening the conflict was not principally a form of covert imperialism. It was a way of fighting the war. This was the third reason underpinning Germany’s use of Weltkrieg.

In Africa some Europeans pinned their hopes on the Congo Act. In 1884-5 Otto von Bismarck, acting in his capacity as the reassuring broker of Europe, had hosted a conference in Berlin to orchestrate the partition of Africa. The Berlin Congress had settled that all nations would have complete freedom to trade in the basin of the River Congo, and permitted any one of them to declare itself neutral in the event of war. In 1914 Belgium controlled not only the eastern bank of the river but also its estuary, and was also keen to uphold the principle of neutrality.

The implications for one German central African colony, Cameroon, were direct: French forces could not approach it from the south if France adhered to the Congo Act. The protection the Act gave to the others, Togoland and German East Africa (modern Tanzania), could only be indirect. But after the war the Germans cited the Congo Act both to support their claim to the restitution of their colonies and to argue that they were not the only power that breached international law in 1914.

In 1914 none of the central governments of the belligerent powers was harboring notions of imperial aggrandizement at the expense of its European neighbours through the use of battle. The Anglo-German antagonism had scant relevance to Africa. Britain encouraged the Germans to expand, possibly at the expense of Belgium and Portugal; Germany respected rather than reviled British rule. Thus, in 1914 the flow of major war was the reverse of that in the eighteenth century — from Europe to the colonies, rather than vice versa.

France enlisted over 600,000 soldiers in its colonies, the vast majority in West and North Africa. It even used its African soldiers in the war in Europe. The Germans took strong exception to what they interpreted as the barbarization of war, although the performance of the French Senegalese was not as effective as their reputation. While European soldiers were citizens of the states on whose behalf they were fighting, Africans were - in general - pressed men or mercenaries. Some served on both sides in the course of the war. However, the majority of Africans who served were not soldiers but laborers.

Kazibule Dabi, a German askari (African soldier), was captured by the British: ‘They said that we should become soldiers ... We asked them how much they would pay us if we enlisted. They said one pound, one shilling, and fourpence [a month]. We told them that we would not accept that. We told them that when we were on the German side we used to receive three pounds and ten shillings. We refused and there was great talk about it. When they saw that we were not willing to give way, they decided not to give us food... As a result we ended up by enlisting.’

Sub-Saharan Africa had few roads or railways, and pack animals fell prey to the tsetse fly. Supplies were therefore carried by people. The British recruited over a million carriers for the East African campaign, drawn from the Belgian Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Mozambique. At the end of the war, the British district commissioner in what had been German East Africa, an area where both sides had recruited labor, reported that a third of the male taxable population had been taken.

The British recruited over a million laborers for the campaign. The Belgian Congo drew in 260,000 porters during the war, both for domestic and external needs; Portuguese East Africa contributed 30,000 porters to the British and 90,000 to its own forces. Such numbers could not be raised voluntarily. Most were forced into the work, either directly or indirectly. Local chiefs would undertake to provide quotas.

Natives were assumed to be more resistant to the effects of the climate and its local diseases, but very often they were marched out of their own localities and their resistance to disease was undermined by changes in diet, by poorly cooked food and, above all, by its insufficiency. Among East and West Africans employed as carriers the death rate was 20 percent over the war as a whole: this was higher than the death rate for British soldiers in the war.

Both during the war and after it, British and French propaganda accused the Germans of militarizing Africa: they had, said Lloyd George on 24 January 1919, 'raised native troops and encouraged these troops to behave in a manner that would even disgrace the Bolsheviks'. Such rhetoric was fed by the ferocity with which the Germans suppressed the wave of resistance that struck their colonies with simultaneous force between 1904 and 1906. Nonetheless, the point remains that it was not so much Germany as the Entente which was responsible for arming the Africans.

The idea that the immense manpower pool of the African colonies might be harnessed for military purposes was given its most coherent and ambitious pre-war expression in France, by General Charles Mangin in his book La Force noire, published in 1910. Mangin predicted that French West Africa could raise 40,000 men, or 4 percent of the total population of 10.65 million, and that enlistment in some areas could rise to 8 or 10 percent. At the time such projections looked far-fetched, but by the end of the war France had enlisted 200,000 soldiers in West Africa.

The British decision at the outset of the war, that only local forces should be used in the elimination of German colonies, broadly interpreted, remained good. Although about 160,000 troops, both British and Belgian, were in the course of the East African campaign, few of them would have been available for the Western Front. Indeed, the fact that the campaign was not allowed to detract from the British army’s effort in France and Flanders was one reason why it was so protracted.

The difficulties of supply, rather than the experiences of battle, did most to disseminate the impact of the Great War throughout the African continent. The numbers who experienced combat were few. The war in Africa was an affair not of ‘big battalions’ but of individual companies. A unit any larger could not be readily supplied. One of the most striking differences was the almost total absence of artillery. Fighting was therefore predominantly an infantry affair, the machine-gun being the heaviest and most significant weapon regularly deployed. Thus, the individual was not tyrannized by the industrialization of warfare.

A company with its attendant porters mustered about 300 men and on the tracks of the equatorial rain forests of Central Africa constituted a column 1,500 to 2,000 yards long; a formation any bigger was too large for effective, tactical control. The force to space ratio was, therefore, completely different from that of the Western Front. Small-scale actions in Africa settled the balance of power in territories as big as a whole theater of operations in Europe.

Individually, heavy guns proved of value in the open grasslands of the northern Cameroons or northern Tanganyika. But collectively, guns had little opportunity. Even where draught animals were more readily available, in South-West Africa, the Germans were not able to turn a relative strength to advantage. Pack animals had a difficult time carrying supplies in the rough African terrain. Thus, the guns tended to arrive too late. In theaters where the tsetse fly ruled out animal draught, 300 porters could be required for a single field gun, without considering its likely shell consumption.

Because none of the European powers had planned to fight each other, the guns possessed by each colony tended to be of varying calibers, obsolete, and short of ammunition. In the Cameroons the Germans had fourteen guns of different types and 3,000 rounds. When used, their moral impact, particularly on black troops unaccustomed to artillery fire however light, outstripped their destructive effect.

The major problems of the opposing sides were geographically determined. Cursed with inadequate maps, intelligence efforts were devoted as much to establishing the nature of the country and its resources as to learning the enemy's whereabouts and strength. Both the climate, with its switch from dry to rainy seasons, and the insect life, with its impact on the health of livestock and humans, were strategically decisive.

East Africa was home to the anopheles mosquito, the tsetse fly, the jigger flea, the spirillum tick, the white ant, the scorpion, the poisonous spider, the wild bee, and the warrior ant. The range of larger fauna provided more than an exotic backdrop to the fighting. Soldiers, if sick or sleeping, were liable to be eaten by lions or hyenas; both elephants and rhinoceroses were known to attack patrols, with fatal consequences. On the other hand, game provided an important supplement to the diet, hippopotami and elephants in particular being shot for their fat.

The campaign in German East Africa is inevitably linked with the name of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in the longest campaign in Germany’s global war. Lettow-Vorbeck became a legend. Forty-four years old when the war broke out, he was physically tough and extremely aggressive. He did not surrender until two weeks after the armistice in Europe. Here, at least, was a German commander who had never been defeated. But he became a legend to his enemies as well. Lettow-Vorbeck led them the length of East Africa from Uganda to the Zambezi, but they never caught him up.

The local Entente officers’ incompetence played a large part, but it suited them better to believe that Lettow-Vorbeck had conducted a guerrilla campaign. That was nonsense. Lettow-Vorbeck was a Prussian general staff officer, with all the preconceptions which that implies. His African soldiers, or askaris, were organized in independent field companies and were trained in bush fighting, but his inclination was to seek battle, not shun it.

Cut off from Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was almost entirely reliant on what he could get from within the colony: fighting for fighting’s sake both depleted his ammunition stocks and endangered his irreplaceable European officers and non-commissioned officers. Lettow’s strength lay in dispersal and in striking against weakness, forgoing the temptation to concentrate for battle. Lettow could not resist the pressures of the traditions in which he had been brought up.

A true guerrilla strategy would have rested the defense of German East Africa on the opportunities for fomenting revolution in the adjacent colonies of the enemy. The British colonial service was depleted by the need for its younger officials to join the armed forces, and the Belgians to the west and the Portuguese to the south had the reputation of being the most bloodthirsty and tyrannical of all the European colonial powers. Lettow-Vorbeck did not exploit this chance: he saw the fighting as a matter between armies in the field and the territories as simply ground over which they operated.

Lettow-Vorbeck never acknowledged - and perhaps never realized - how much he owed to the civil administration of German East Africa. Although there were certainly areas of the colony which gave support to the British forces, the Germans never had to cope with insurrection in their rear. The German governor, Heinrich Schnee, was not enthusiastic about the war. Initially, he embraced the Congo Act. For Lettow-Vorbeck, German East Africa fulfilled a purely military function: to draw British troops off from the main theater in Europe. This could never be accomplished by neutrality. Lettow-Vorbeck therefore saw himself as constantly at odds with Schnee. In reality, he could never have lasted as long as he did in the field without the efforts of the civil administration.

On 15 September 1918, with the campaign reaching its conclusion, a doctor with Lettow-Vorbeck’s force, Ludwig Deppe, wrote: ‘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.’ For Schnee, German colonialism was an end in itself; for Lettow-Vorbeck it was a means to an end. Both were defeated. Germany lost its colony.

In East Africa, the principal port, Dar es Salaam, was a long way from the nearest British colony, Kenya. The Admiralty therefore wanted mastery of the whole coast. The King’s African Rifles had been designed for internal colonial policing and were not strong enough for such a task. India was asked to provide the troops, and Tanga, because it was in the north, was chosen as the first target. It stood at the foot of the Northern Railway, and an attack on it could be combined with a thrust on the other end of the line which reached into the foothills by Mount Kilimanjaro. The battle ended in defeat for the British.

Indian Expeditionary Force B went ashore at an undefended beach close to Tanga. The town was held by a single company, and Lettow-Vorbeck’s attention was focused on the danger to the other end of the railway. But the preparation of IEF B had not been a high priority for the Government of India, which had already diverted its best troops to other theaters - France, Mesopotamia and Egypt. ‘They constitute the worst in India, and I tremble to think what may happen if we meet serious opposition’, the expedition’s intelligence officer, Richard Meinertzhagen, wrote in his diary. ‘The senior officers are nearer to fossils than active, energetic leaders of men.’

Lettow-Vorbeck could have suffered a major defeat at the very outset of the campaign; instead he was able to snatch a crucial victory. IEF B’s dilatory and demoralized approach gave him time to concentrate his forces on the British point of debarkation. Deprived of effective artillery support by a decision not to disembark its guns, and confused by the thick bush, IEF B nonetheless fought its way into Tanga.

When the Brits entered Tanga some German company commanders instructed their buglers to sound the recall in order to regroup. But the signal was mistaken as one for a general retreat. On the British side, officers insisted it was the charge. For a second time the Germans were given a chance to recover an apparently irredeemable situation.

Tanga was empty and, as British naval gunfire at last began to take effect, Lettow-Vorbeck prepared to continue the fight to the west of the town. But the British commander, A. E. Aitken, had decided to give up. IEF B was evacuated. Tanga was only the first of Britain’s amphibious expeditions to fail because of divided ministerial authority, lack of army and navy cooperation, and confused and irresolute command.

Lettow-Vorbeck was now given a breathing space of over a year. This was the product not of his own efforts but of those of the men defending Germany’s colonies in other parts of Africa. Given the inadequacies of the Indian forces in East Africa, the British had two alternative sets of ‘local’ troops to turn to. One was the South African Defence Force, and the other was the West African Frontier Force. But both were fully committed, the former in South-West Africa until July 1915, and the latter in the Cameroons until January 1916.

Although Lettow-Vorbeck never acknowledged it, the conduct of the Cameroon campaign in particular stands comparison with his own achievement - and indeed underpinned it.

Just as Australia and New Zealand harboured ‘sub-imperialist’ designs in the south Pacific, so South Africa - particularly its defense minister, Jan Smuts - wanted to push the frontier of the Union to the Zambezi river. By securing the ports of Delagoa Bay and Beira, South Africa could open up the Transvaal and further the interests of the Afrikaner population. Smuts’ scheme could mollify Afrikaner sentiment, but it had a big hurdle to overcome: the territory up to the Zambezi was already part of Portuguese Mozambique. Smuts’ solution was to conquer German East Africa, keep the northern part for Britain, give the southern part to Portugal, and ask the Portuguese to give the southern part of its existing colony to South Africa.

To achieve this the South Africans were prepared to provide troops to conquer East Africa. But in 1914 and 1915 the South African forces were not free. First, they had to deal with rebellion in their own territory. The idea that Britain was engaged in a war for the defense of small nations did not convince those who had been on the receiving end of the British army in 1899-1902.

Britain had asked the Union to seize the harbors and wireless stations of German South-West Africa. The commandant-general of the defense forces opposed the invasion of German territory, and he and other senior officers resigned. Open rebellion flared, but the Germans could not give it effective support from across the frontier and it was suppressed.

German South-West Africa, now Namibia, is an enormous territory, six times the size of England, arid, infertile and populated then by only 80,000 Africans. Mostly Herero tribesmen, whose rebellion in 1904 had been put down with ruthlessness by the Governor, the future Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring's father, they were kept under close control by the German garrison of 3,000 and the 7,000 German male settlers.

The German government had hoped, as elsewhere in its African possessions, to avoid a conflict in ‘South-West’; they put their trust in a vague, mutual, pre-war commitment to neutrality in Africa between the colonial powers. The British, however, were determined otherwise and they embarked at once on an expedition by sea and land against the German colony.

In 1915 the South African government could rely on the loyalty of white Rhodesians - even if not all Boers - for the invasion of German South-West Africa. By 1916, 40 percent of Rhodesia’s white adult male population was on active service. Thereafter the conquest of South-West Africa was carried through in six months.

The South Africans’ opening experience of the First World War, in a territory adjacent to their own, was sufficiently like the Boer War to leave intact too many of the assumptions that they had inherited from that war. Smuts had led a commando of about 400 men in the Boer War, and in South-West Africa he commanded a column of three brigades. Both campaigns were fought in comparable climates, with the horse as the pivot of maneuver.

At the very beginning Britain found itself engaged both in a colonial campaign against the German enemy and in a Boer rebellion. The rebellion, fortunately for the British, did not take fire. About 11,000 Afrikaners joined in but, opposed by 30,000 loyalists, Boer and British, they had all been forced into surrender or, in the case of a few, into German territory by January 1915.

The war against the Germans began in earnest. The army was formed into four columns. Mainly mounted, they converged on the German centers of resistance from the coast, from the Orange River and from Bechuanaland, the enormous protectorate (now Botswana) to the north of the Union. The objective was Windhoek, the German colonial capital, on which the Germans fell back in a fighting retreat. Resistance continued after its capture, though with the exchange of courtesies on both sides.

The Germans were in a hopeless position. Outnumbered many times, and forced to campaign in one of the most desolate regions of the world, without any prospect of resupply from outside, they eventually surrendered unconditionally in July 1915. The German officers were allowed to retain their swords, the German settler reservists to return to their farms with arms and ammunition to protect themselves, their families and their properties.

By 1916, the last center of German resistance to the British and French forces in the colonial empires was in ‘German East’, today Tanzania. The British reached and overran the central railway and had control of Dar es Salaam. But Smuts put no effort into establishing the German port and its communications infrastructure as the base for his push into the south of the German colony. When he was recalled to London in January 1917 to represent South Africa at the Imperial War Cabinet his forces stood on the Mgeta and Rufiji rivers. His successor, Arthur Hoskins, postponed any further action until April 1917.

Smuts claimed victory, presenting the war in East Africa as all but finished, the result of a great South African feat of arms. In reality, the advance had stalled. The December rains, which Smuts had attempted to ignore, had turned the area between the Mgeta and the Rufiji into a continuous swamp. The Rufiji itself was a torrent hundreds of yards across. The nearest railhead was Mikese, 255 km away. The troops were sodden, hungry and sick.

Smuts was determined that his campaign was going to prove the invincibility of the white man. The South-West African campaign had been an affair of whites only. On arrival in East Africa the Boers had dubbed the German askaris ‘damned Kaffirs’. Over the course of 1916 Smuts had been forced to change his tune, at least privately. Africans seemed to have greater resistance to local diseases than Europeans. By the time Smuts left the East African theater, it was clear that the only way to carry the fighting forward was to use African soldiers.

By claiming that the campaign was all but over, and by implying that all that remained was to mop up the vestiges of resistance in the colony’s remotest corner, Smuts kept intact the self-esteem of the white men under his command. All the while it was clear that they needed reinforcements from the black population to continue the campaign. The Africanisation of the East African campaign was also dependent on the completion of the conquest of the Cameroons.

The British wanted to secure Douala on the coast, the Cameroons’ principal port and wireless station. By September 1914 they did so, without a shot being fired. The French in French Equatorial Africa had meanwhile embarked on their own campaign in the south, without approval from Paris. They had two objectives: to recover territory ceded to the Germans in settlement of the 1911 Moroccan crisis, and to take the war into German territory. In the main the Germans in the south of the colony had no forewarning of hostilities, so these initial objectives, too, were soon achieved.

Neither Paris nor London had any desire to conquer the Cameroons. The problem for both governments was that they did not know how to stop what they had begun.

The Germans still controlled the bulk of their colony, and their forces were intact. In 1913 they had drawn up a plan to defend the colony not from its periphery but from its interior. Its focus was Ngaundere in the northern highlands, well defended by nature and agriculturally productive. In the Cameroons, as opposed to East Africa, the German civil authorities remained paramount. So the Cameroons did not become simply a battlefield, sacrificed to the greater struggle in Europe, but was held because its defenders believed in the merits of colonization, and especially German colonization, as an end in itself.

The German assumptions had two implications. First, they could rely on local support, and this in turn gave their defense greater resilience. Second, the initial losses at Douala and elsewhere were not of major strategic significance.

The French, and more particularly the British, never appreciated the underpinnings of German strategy. As a result, their conquest lacked direction and purpose, too often hitting the Germans hard where it did not hurt them. In March 1915 London told the British commander in the Cameroons, Charles Dobell, to go over to the defensive. But the governor-general of French Equatorial Africa, Martial Merlin, imposed an overall plan for his forces. It adopted Yaounde as the focus of the different advances, so that the columns’ efforts should have mutually supporting effects.

Merlin’s plan was not lacking in sense, but it did completely neglect the fact that the Germans’ pivot was not Yaounde but Ngaundere. The allies intercepted a signal which revealed Ngaundere’s importance, but the intelligence was dismissed by Merlin.

Cameroon, a much larger territory, equal in size to Germany and France combined, proved more difficult to conquer. The German garrison numbered about a thousand Europeans and three thousand Africans. The Entente force included troops of the Nigeria, Gold Coast and Sierra Leone Regiments under British command, French African infantry and a Belgian contingent brought up from the Congo. Despite its preponderance of numbers, distance, climate and topography blunted their early efforts.

By June 1915 the Germans, cut off from resupply from Germany, were running low on ammunition. Even more serious for the Germans was the decision of their commander, Zimmerman, to reduce the garrison at Garua, in the north, so as to reinforce that at Banyo, protecting Ngaundere’s western flank. The British operating out of Nigeria were meant to be supporting Dobell’s advance by tying down Germans, but they now had an overwhelming superiority and were able to capture Garua. Colonel Brisset, commander of a French column in the north-east, persuaded the British to push on to Ngaundere.

Rounds for the German 1898-pattern rifle were restricted to use in machine-guns only, and the askaris had to employ older models firing bullets made from spent cases collected from the battlefield, percussion caps fashioned from brass ornaments, and black powder. The smoke gave away their position and the bullets themselves - if they did not get stuck in the breech - rarely ranged more than twenty yards.

Three British columns were in motion across the Nigerian border, each separated from the other by 250 miles of roadless terrain. Near Lake Chad, on the old Central African slave-trading route only recently conquered by the French, one was advancing towards Mora; a second was approaching Yarua, 500 miles from the sea; a third, near the coast itself, was directed at Nsanakang. All three encountered strong resistance and were turned back with heavy losses. The French did better, seizing a coastal bridgehead and winning a small battle at Kusseri, just south of Lake Chad.

The British did not know what to do next. They still assumed that Yaounde was the key to the German defense, not Ngaundere. But none of the British appreciated what had been achieved, any more than did Brisset’s French superiors: all saw him as insubordinate and bloodyminded.

The Germans could no longer use the northern highlands as their lifeline; instead they had to switch to the Spanish colony of Muni (today Equatorial Guinea), and neutral territory. At last Yaounde became the axis of the German line of communications. Forced to pause during the rains, the British and French resumed their converging movement on Yaounde from the west, north and east in the autumn of 1915. Although the columns moved in ignorance of each other, their effects were now reciprocal and on 8 January 1916 the British from the north and French from the east linked at the Nachtigal rapids, to the north of Yaounde. From Muni, the Germans kept alive their hopes that the defeat was only temporary and that German colonialism could be revived.

The arrival of reinforcements gave the British the advantage and, with the assistance of four British and French cruisers and a fleet of small craft, they secured the coast, captured Douala, the colonial capital and wireless station, and started inland up the rivers and the two short colonial railways. The objective was Yaounde, 140 miles inland. Skillful German resistance, sustained during the torrential rainy season, delayed the renewal of the advance until October 1915.

The Entente’s attention had been focused on the north. They had neglected the south. The Germans’ route to neutral territory lay open and they took it. The columns were exhausted by their advance: when the French reached Yaounde they were 700 km from their intermediate base at Nola on the Sanga. Short of supplies, their pursuit was dilatory. About 6,000 askaris and 7,000 families and followers followed 1,000 Germans into Muni.

The Entente pushed forward into the central mountainous region and forced most of the Germans to seek internment in the neutral enclave of Spanish Guinea. The last German post of Mora, where the campaign had opened in the far north eighteen months earlier, surrendered in February 1916.

The victory in the Cameroons released black troops from West Africa for service in East Africa. The Gold Coast Regiment arrived there in July 1916. The four Nigerian regiments of the West African Frontier Force were delayed by worries about possible rebellion within Nigeria, but sailed in November 1916. In East Africa itself, the King’s African Rifles, composed of three battalions at the outset of the war, had risen to thirteen by January 1917 - and reached twenty-two by the war’s end.

Britain never considered using these African troops in Europe, although the French did: in this the British reflected the difficulties their Indian soldiers had encountered from the cold on the western front in the first winter of the war. So Lettow-Vorbeck’s contribution to the wider war was undermined.

Lettow-Vorbeck aimed to hold the line of the Rufiji until the crops ripened in April 1917. The supply position of the Germans to his left, to the north of Songea, was also desperate. They split, one column under Georg Kraut going south and the other, under Max Wintgens, going north. Wintgens led his column clean across the enemy lines of communications, and up to the central railway near Tabora. Wintgens, sick with typhus, surrendered in May, but Heinrich Naumann, his successor, held out until September. By then he was right back in the north of the colony.

This was a classic guerrilla operation. Naumann’s men marched 3,200 km between February and September; they had found a population which was passively supportive; and they had drawn up to 6,000 men away from the main battle. Lettow-Vorbeck never appreciated what had been achieved: such independence smacked of insubordination, not initiative. His own instinct still was to give battle, not to adopt guerrilla methods.

The British resumed their advance after the rainy season. Hoskins’ delay - given that Smuts had said that the campaign was over - had exhausted London’s patience, and he was replaced by ‘Jap’ van Deventer. The frontal push was supported by thrusts from the coastal ports of Kilwa and Lindi. Lettow met the Kilwa column with head-on battles at Narungombe and at Nahungu in an eighteen-day struggle. In the battle of Mahiwa, ground was won and lost up to six times. The British suffered 2,700 casualties out of 4,900 men engaged. The battle broke Lettow-Vorbeck’s force as a combat-ready formation.

All the Germans’ smokeless ammunition was expended, machine-guns had to be destroyed, and only twenty-five rounds remained for each of the older-pattern rifles. Over 1,000 soldiers had to be left behind because there were no longer the weapons or munitions for them.

Mahiwa enabled Lettow-Vorbeck to break contact with the British and he crossed the Ruvuma river into Portuguese East Africa (today Mozambique). Lettow-Vorbeck carried on fighting and marching for a whole year longer. His column was able to exploit the weakness of Portugal’s hold on its colony and the incompetence of its forces. marched straight through Portuguese East Africa and reached Quelimane on the coast. At Namakura in July 1917 he defeated a Portuguese-British garrison. He then set off north again, skirted the top of Lake Nyasa, and was in Northern Rhodesia when the war ended.

Portugal’s greater concern was with internal order: the northern parts of the colony had never been properly pacified, and in the south the Makombe in Zambezia rose in revolt in March 1917. The Portuguese turned Ngoni auxiliaries on the Makombe, and suppressed the rising by the end of 1917 by condoning inter-tribal terrorism and slavery.

Lettow-Vorbeck did not fan these flames for his own ends. He paid for goods with worthless paper currency, and the German doctors attended to the sick - albeit without medicines - but he continued to regard Africa and Africans as neutral bystanders in a wider conflict.

The first speedy victory for the British was also the most important. By 25 August 1914 the wireless station in Togoland at Kamina, which linked Germany’s other African stations with Nauen in Germany itself, was destroyed, following a British invasion by the Gold Coast Regiment. The war in Africa lasted four more years but the principal objective had been achieved within three weeks of its outbreak. The tiny territory of Togo, sandwiched between the British Gold Coast (now Ghana) and French Dahomey (now Benin), was quickly overrun by troops of the West African Rifles and the Tirailleurs senegalais.

The seizure of German Togoland was in perfect consonance with the objectives set out by the subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence: it employed only local forces, and it eliminated Germany's single most important overseas wireless station, that at Kamina, linking Nauen with Germany's other African colonies, with shipping in the South Atlantic, and with South America.

The prospects confronting the Germans in Togoland were not encouraging. Their colony, a thin strip stretching inland from a coastline only 51 km long, was bounded on all its frontiers by enemy territory. No regular soldiers were available for its defense. The governor was on leave. The first step, therefore, of his deputy, Major von Doering, was to propose neutrality to his British and French neighbors. The Congo act allowed any power within the Congo basin to declare itself neutral. However, its provisions did not extend so far from the Congo itself.

Frederick Bryant's response to the German plea for neutrality was unequivocal. Without consulting London, he sent an emissary to Lome on 6 August 1914 to demand the surrender of Togoland. Von Doering signalled to Berlin that he planned to abandon the defenceless Lome and the territory 110 kilometres to its north, and to fall back inland to Kamina. Dispatched by wireless in clear, the intercepted German message justified Bryant's impetuosity.

The Colonial Office, assured of French cooperation, allowed Bryant to attack Kamina. On 12 August 1914 two companies of the Gold Coast Regiment took possession of Lome. It was the decisive step of the campaign. The harbor at Lome enabled Bryant to concentrate fourteen days sooner than if he had been confined to land routes.

The Germans withdrew across the Chra river, blowing the railway bridge and taking up strong positions on its northern bank. In the subsequent attack the British columns lost contact with each other in the bush. However, the Germans, although their losses were light, fell back once more under cover of dark. The action on the Chra marked the end of any serious resistance. The Germans destroyed the Kamina wireless station, smashing its nine huge masts and burning its switchboard and batteries with oil. On the following day von Doering surrendered.

In Africa the powers did not fight to take territory. Indeed, the most obvious immediate effects were to loosen the holds of empires. Most whites in the colonies feared that the sight of Europeans fighting each other would promote rebellion and resistance. Those fears could only grow as local administrators joined up, and as local forces turned from their policing function to that of confronting an external enemy. But such fears proved exaggerated. After the war Africa was, once again, divided between the victorious European powers.

Where colonial authority collapsed, anarchy was more likely than revolution. In the Cameroons German pastors were interned and German doctors fled to Muni: the French took over much of the colony in 1916 but were in no position to provide replacements. Education collapsed and witchcraft revived. In South-West Africa, the South Africans wisely left the German settlers in place - at least until the peace settlement in 1919.

The Paris peace conference completed the last stage of the partition of Africa, allocating the German colonies to the victorious powers. The war promoted imperialism - even if the ambitions of South Africa were in the end thwarted. Moreover, it was not only the peace settlement that had this effect. Where the campaigns were conducted, white men penetrated areas which they had never entered before. Soldiers spread the cash economy and the market; they mapped; and they created the rudiments of a communications network.

Traditional patterns of authority were broken down as adult - and not-so-adult - black males were taken for the army and for labor. Particularly for those who left Africa, and who were treated with respect in Europe, the war could open the door to political awareness: ‘We were not fighting for the French’, Kamadon Mbaye, a Senegalese, recalled; ‘we were fighting for ourselves [to become] French citizens.’ The long-term consequences would be the emergence of modern resistance movements to colonialism. But in the short term, colonial rule was deepened and extended in order to serve the war efforts of the belligerents.

The Entente powers wished to stabilize their hold on their empires by closing down the global war outside Europe. But the demands of the war within Europe meant that instead they had to mobilize overseas resources almost as much as domestic resources in order to wage it. That in turn was more a reflection of Germany’s success in extending its own frontiers within Europe, rather than outside it.

Although fought between European powers for objectives that were also European, the African campaigns of the First World War bore more relation to the nineteenth-century campaigns of colonial conquest than they did to the Great War itself. In relation to the outcome of the war they were, as is too often remarked, sideshows.