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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.