256,044 Pages

East African Campaign (World War I)
Part of African theatre of World War I
Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DOA3029, Deutsch-Ostafrika, Landsturm angetreten
Colonial volunteers in German East Africa, 1914.
Date 3 August 1914 – November 1918
Location Modern Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda Protectorate, DR Congo
Result Allied tactical victory[1]
German strategic victory[1]
United Kingdom United Kingdom

Flag of Belgium (civil).svg Belgium

  • Flag of Congo Free State.svg Belgian Congo

Flag of Portugal.svg Portugal

  • Portugal Portuguese East Africa
Flag of the German Empire.svg German Empire
Dervish flag Dervish State
Commanders and leaders
Union of South Africa Jan Smuts
Union of South Africa Jacob van Deventer
Belgium Charles Tombeur
Portugal Ferreira Gil
German Empire Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck White flag icon
Initially 2 battalions.[2]

Average strength 12,000 to 20,000 soldiers

250,000 Allied soldiers (total who served in the theater).[3](mostly South African and Indian by 1916)[4]
Initially 200 Europeans and 2,500 natives[5]

Peak strength 3,000 German and 15,000 native soldiers.[3]
Casualties and losses
10,000 British dead[6] 2,000 Germans dead

115 Europeans and 1,168 natives surrender, keep swords and weapons White flag icon [7]

365,000 civilian lives and cost £2.8 billion in today's (2008) money[8]

The East African Campaign was a series of battles and guerrilla actions which started in German East Africa and ultimately affected portions of Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo. The campaign was effectively ended in November 1917.[9] However, the Germans entered Portuguese East Africa and continued the campaign living off Portuguese supplies.

The strategy of the German colonial forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel (later Generalmajor) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, was to drain and divert forces from the Western Front to Africa. His strategy failed to achieve these results after 1916, as mainly Indian and South African forces, which were prevented by colonial policy from deploying to Europe, conducted the rest of the campaign.[10][11] Nevertheless, the Germans fought for the whole of World War I, receiving word of the armistice on 14 November 1918 at 7:30 a.m. Both sides waited for confirmation, and the Germans formally surrendered on 25 November. German East Africa ultimately became two League of Nations Class B Mandates, Tanganyika Territory of the United Kingdom and Ruanda-Urundi of Belgium, while the Kionga Triangle became a mandate of Portugal.


German East Africa (comprising Burundi, Rwanda, and the mainland part of modern-day Tanzania) was a large territory with complex geography, including parts of the extensive East African Rift, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. It varied from the mountainous, well-watered and fertile north-west, to the drier and sandy or rocky center, with wildlife-rich grasslands in the north-east and vast areas of uninhabited forest in the south-east. Its coast, inhabited by the Swahili people and Arab traders, dominated trade with Central Africa in conjunction with British-controlled Zanzibar and the coasts of modern-day Kenya and Mozambique.

At the start of the Great War, Governor Heinrich Schnee of German East Africa ordered that no hostile action was to be taken.[2] To the north, Governor Sir Henry Conway Belfield of British East Africa stated that he and "this colony had no interest in the present war."[12] The colonial governors, who often met in prewar years, had discussed these matters and wished to adhere to the Congo Act of 1885, which called for overseas possessions to remain neutral in the event of a European war.[13]

Neither colony had many troops. In order to preserve the authority of white colonial administrators, and the concept of the inviolability of white people in general, few black soldiers were trained or maintained. It was considered dangerous to have black troops fighting against white troops, even where both sides were predominantly composed of black Africans with white European officers. As such, both the British and Germans only maintained small forces to deal with local risings and border raids.[14]

Campaign historyEdit

Beginning, 1914–1915Edit

East Africa WWI as at August 1915

New York Times situation map of August 1915 (with multiple errors)

In East Africa, the Congo Act was first broken by the British.[15] On 5 August 1914, troops from the Uganda protectorate assaulted German river outposts near Lake Victoria, and on 8 August a direct naval attack commenced when the Royal Navy warships HMS Astraea and Pegasus bombarded Dar es Salaam from several miles offshore.[16] In response, the commander of the German forces in East Africa, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, bypassed Governor Schnee, nominally his superior, and began to organize his troops for battle. At the time, the German Schutztruppe in East Africa consisted of 260 Germans of all ranks and 2,472 Askari,[17] and was approximately numerically equal with the two battalions of the King's African Rifles (KAR) based in the British East African colonies.[2]

On 15 August, German Askari forces stationed in the Neu Moshi region engaged in their first offensive of the campaign. Taveta on the British side of Kilimanjaro fell to 300 askaris of two field companies with the British firing a token volley and retiring in good order.[18] In September, the Germans began to stage raids deeper into British East Africa and Uganda. German naval power on Lake Victoria was limited to a tugboat armed with one "pom-pom" gun, causing minor damage but a great deal of news. The British then armed the Uganda Railway lake steamers SS William Mackinnon, SS Kavirondo, Winifred and Sybil as improvised gunboats. Two of these[which?] trapped the tug, which the Germans scuttled. The Germans later raised her, dismounted her gun for use elsewhere and continued to use the tug as an unarmed transport. However, with the tug’s "teeth removed, British command of Lake Victoria was no longer in dispute."[19]

In an effort to solve the raiding nuisance and to capture the entire northern, white settler region of the German colony, the British command devised a two-pronged plan. The British Indian Expeditionary Force "B" of 8,000 troops in two brigades would carry out an amphibious landing at Tanga on 2 November 1914 to capture the city and thereby control the Indian Ocean terminus of the Usambara Railway (see Battle of Tanga). In the Kilimanjaro area, the Force "C" of 4,000 men in one brigade would advance from British East Africa on Neu-Moshi on 3 November 1914 to the western terminus of the railroad (see Battle of Kilimanjaro). After capturing Tanga, Force "B" would rapidly move north-west, join Force "C" and mop up what remained of the broken German forces. Although outnumbered 8:1 at Tanga and 4:1 at Longido, the Schutztruppe under Lettow-Vorbeck prevailed. According to the British Official History of the War the events are described as one of "the most notable failures in British military history."[20]

Naval warEdit

Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DOA3100, Deutsch-Ostafrika, Artillerie

German Schutztruppe with Königsberg gun

The German naval command had just one major warship in the Indian Ocean when war was declared, the light cruiser SMS Königsberg. After limited opportunities for commerce raiding, Königsberg sank the cruiser HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour and then retired into the Rufiji River delta. After being cornered by warships of the British Cape squadron, including an old battleship, two shallow-draught monitors with 6 in (150 mm) guns were brought from England that demolished the cruiser on 11 July 1915. The surviving crew of Königsberg and her 4.1 in (100 mm) main battery guns were taken over by the Schutztruppe.[21] The British salvaged and used six 4 in (100 mm) from the sunken Pegasus, the so-called 'Peggy guns'.[22]

Lake Tanganyika expeditionEdit

In 1915, two British motorboats, HMS Mimi and Toutou, were transported by land to the British shore of Lake Tanganyika. They captured the German ship Kingani, renaming it HMS Fifi, and with two Belgian ships under the command of Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, attacked and sank the German ship Hedwig von Wissmann in a bid to secure the lake as the strategic key to the western part of the German colony. The Graf von Götzen was the only German ship to survive. Lettow-Vorbeck then had its Königsberg gun removed and sent by rail to the main fighting front.[23] The ship was scuttled after a floatplane bombing attack by the Belgians on Kigoma and before advancing Belgian colonial troops could capture it. It was later refloated and used by the British[24] and is still in service today plying the lake under the Tanzanian flag.

British Empire reinforcements, 1916Edit

World War I in East Africa

East African Theatre in World War I

General Horace Smith-Dorrien was assigned with orders to find and fight the Schutztruppe, but he contracted pneumonia during the voyage to South Africa which prevented him from taking command. In 1916, General J.C. Smuts was given the task of defeating Lettow-Vorbeck. Smuts had a large army (for the area), some 13,000 South Africans including Boers, British, and Rhodesians as well as 7,000 Indian and African troops. In addition, not under his direct command but fighting on the Allied side, was a Belgian force and a larger but ineffective group of Portuguese military units based in Mozambique. A large Carrier Corps of African porters under British command carried supplies for Smuts' army into the interior. Despite all these troops from different allies, it was essentially a South African operation of the British Empire under Smuts' control. During the previous year, Lettow-Vorbeck had also gained personnel and his army was now 1,800 Germans and some 12,000 Askaris.

Smuts' army attacked from several directions: the main attack was from the north out of British East Africa, while substantial forces from the Belgian Congo advanced from the west in two columns, over Lake Victoria on the British troop ships SS Rusinga and SS Usoga and into the Rift Valley. Another contingent advanced over Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) from the south-east. All these forces failed to capture Lettow-Vorbeck and they all suffered from disease along the march. One unit, 9th South African Infantry, started with 1,135 men in February, and by October its strength was reduced to 116 fit troops, without doing much fighting at all.[25] However, the Germans nearly always retreated from the larger British troop concentrations and by September 1916, the German Central Railway from the coast at Dar es Salaam to Ujiji was fully under British control.

With Lettow-Vorbeck's forces now confined to the southern part of German East Africa, Smuts began to withdraw his South African, Rhodesian and Indian troops and replaced them with askaris of the King's African Rifles. By the start of 1917, more than half the British Army in the theatre was composed of Africans, and by the end of the war, it was nearly all African troops. Smuts himself left the area in January 1917 to join the Imperial War Cabinet at London.

Belgian-Congolese campaignEdit

Belgian-Congolese participation in the campaign was sizeable—for the logistics alone some 260,000 carriers were mobilized, not counting troops.

The colonial armed forces of the Belgian Congo, 'Force Publique', started their campaign on 18 April 1916 under the command of General Charles Tombeur, Colonel Molitor and Colonel Olsen. They captured Kigali on 6 May. The German askaris in Burundi fought well, but had to give way to the numerical superiority of Force Publique. By 6 June, Burundi as well as Rwanda was effectively occupied.

Force Publique and the British Lake Force then started a thrust to capture Tabora, an administrative center of central German East Africa. They marched into German territory in three columns and took Biharamuro, Mwanza, Karema, Kigoma and Ujiji. After several days of heavy fighting, they secured Tabora. To forestall Belgian claims on the German colony, Smuts ordered their forces back to Congo, leaving them as occupiers only in Rwanda and Burundi. But the British were obliged to recall Belgian-Congolese troops to help for a second time in 1917, and after this event the two allies coordinated campaign plans.

Last years, 1917–1918Edit

Despite continued efforts to capture or destroy Lettow-Vorbeck's army, the British failed to end German resistance. First, Major General Reginald Hoskins (of the KAR) took over, then another South African, Major General J.L. van Deventer was assigned command. Van Deventer then launched a major offensive in July 1917. The Germans’ tactical skill could delay but it could not halt; by early autumn they were pushed 100 mi (160 km) south.[26] They were still able to tie down large British forces and even defeat them on occasion. In mid-October 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck fought a pivotal and costly battle at Mahiwa, the Schutztruppe's last stand in defense of their colony, where they lost 519 men killed, wounded or missing and the British Nigerian brigade 2,700 killed, wounded or missing.[27] After the news of the battle reached Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Generalmajor.[28]

Lettow's surrender

Lettow surrendering his forces at Abercorn, as seen by an African artist

In early November 1917, the German High Command made an attempt to deliver much-needed supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck by air from Germany. The naval dirigible L.59 traveled over 4,200 mi (6,800 km) in 95 hours, but in the end the mission failed when the airship received an "abort" message over the radio from the German admiralty.[29]

British units were closing in on the Schutztruppe and on 23 November 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed south into Portuguese Mozambique to gain supplies by capturing Portuguese garrisons. By leaving German East Africa, he no longer had to defer to the civil authority of Governor Schnee. With his caravans of troops, carriers, wives and children, he marched through Mozambique for the next nine months, avoiding capture, but unable to gain much strength. Lettow-Vorbeck's army was divided into three groups on the march. He eventually learned that he had lost a thousand-man detachment under Hauptmann Theodor Tafel, who was forced to surrender, being out of food and ammunition.[30]

The army then reentered German East Africa and crossed into Northern Rhodesia in August 1918. On 13 November 1918, two days after the Armistice was signed in France, the German Army took and occupied its last town, Kasama, which had been evacuated by the British. The next day at the Chambezi River, Lettow-Vorbeck was handed a telegram announcing the signing of the armistice and he agreed to a cease-fire: the 'Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial' marks the spot in present-day Zambia. As requested, he marched his undefeated army to Abercorn and formally surrendered there on 23 November 1918.[31]


  • In this campaign, disease killed or incapacitated 30 men for every man killed in battle on the British side.[32]
  • In one capacity or another, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers, sailors, merchant marine crews, builders, bureaucrats, and support personnel participated in the East Africa campaign. They were assisted in the field by an additional 600,000 African bearers. The Allies employed nearly 1 million people in their fruitless pursuit of Lettow-Vorbeck and his handful of warriors.[33]
  • Lettow-Vorbeck was effectively cut off from meaningful support. He could entertain no hope of a decisive victory. His aim was purely to keep as many British forces diverted to his pursuit for as long as possible and to make the British expend the largest possible resources in men, shipping, and supplies to his pursuit. Although succeeding in diverting in excess of 200,000 Indian and South African troops to pursue his forces and garrison German East Africa in his wake, he failed to divert additional Allied manpower from the European Theater after 1916. While some shipping was diverted to the African theater, it was not enough to inflict significant difficulties on the Allied fleets.[9]
  • In retrospect, the East African campaign came to look like a 'sideshow' of the First World War.[according to whom?] As memory focused on the vast slaughter of the Western Front, the Indians, Africans and British who had borne the pains of that 'poisonous country'[according to whom?] were all but forgotten.[citation needed] Even today, it is only possible to give approximations of the total fatalities. The British Commonwealth forces lost over 10,000 men, ⅔ of them from disease.[citation needed] German losses were about 2,000.[citation needed] But the black people of East Africa suffered far more as carriers who died from disease, exhaustion and military action. One modern estimate is 100,000 dead on all sides.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit

Footnotes and referencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Stapleton 2006, p. 7.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Miller, Battle for the Bundu, p. 41
  3. 3.0 3.1 [1], Crowson, p. iii.
  4. Holmes 2001, p. 359. In 1916 the bulk of Allied manpower came from South Africa and Indian
  5. Contey, F. (2002). Zeppelin Mission to East Africa. Aviation History, 13(1), 46.
  6. Strachan 2003, p. 641.
  7. [2], Crowson, p. 87.
  8. "WORLD WAR I." Kirkus Reviews 76.12 (2008): 90. Advanced Placement Source. EBSCO. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Holmes 2001, p. 361.
  10. Holmes 2001, p. 359.
  11. Strachan 2003, p. 642.
  12. Farwell, The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918, p. 122
  13. Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, p. 83
  14. Fendall 1921, pp. 22–23.
  15. Garfield, p. 84
  16. Miller, p. 42
  17. Farwell, p. 109
  18. Miller, p. 43
  19. Miller, p. 195
  20. Farwell, p. 178
  21. Miller, p. 123
  22. Miller, p. 183
  23. Miller, p. 211
  24. Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth — The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganyika. New York: Penguin Books. 2004
  25. Falls, Cyril. The Great War. New York: Capricorn Books. 1961, p. 253
  26. Miller, p. 281
  27. Miller, p. 287
  28. Hoyt, Guerilla, p. 175; the promotion was from Lt.Col. to Generalmajor, bypassing full Colonel. Generalmajor was equivalent to Brigadier in the British Army and Brigadier General in the U.S. Army
  29. Willmott, H.P. First World War. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2003, p. 192
  30. Miller, p. 297; unknown to Lettow and Tafel, they were only one day’s march apart
  31. The Northern Rhodesia Journal online, Vol IV No 5 (1961), p. 440-442. “The Evacuation of Kasama in 1918.” Accessed 7 March 2007
  32. Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1999, p. 300
  33. Garfield, p. 274 (see Hodges, Geoffrey, p. 20-200)

Bibliography and further readingEdit

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.