The first world war
Germany's African epic
From The Economist print edition
MEASURED by scale, dreadfulness or daring, the German campaign in east Africa from 1914 to 1918 can hardly be beaten. Over a vast territory, a small German colonial force, under the extraordinary leadership of General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, outsmarted the combined forces of the British, Portuguese and Belgian empires, from the beginning of the war to beyond its end.
By attacking Northern Rhodesia they invaded British territory, the only German forces to do so in the whole war. They improvised everything from artillery (using salvaged naval guns) to quinine (known as Lettow-schnapps). Their opponents carried a disassembled steamer in crates across Africa in order to outgun them on Lake Tanganyika.
It came at a terrible cost. The few soldiers who fought in both Europe and Africa thought the latter far worse. All sides treated Africans abominably. Of 1m porters recruited by the British, 95,000 died. German looting and raiding caused at least 300,000 civilian deaths. Many native casualties simply went uncounted.
This extraordinary story has already been well told in fiction, such as “The African Queen” by C.S. Forester and William Boyd's “An Ice-Cream War”.
Those longing to know every detail of the military campaign will be well-served by Edward Paice's comprehensive history of the war. Others may find it frustrating that the human drama and detail are obscured by a relentless focus on military minutiae and an unfortunate propensity to repeat facts. By the middle of the book the reader feels lost in a seemingly endless wasteland of skirmishes and forced marches. The inadequate maps do not help make sense of the many unfamiliar place names.
But even the author's plodding prose cannot obscure the exciting bits. German efforts to resupply the beleaguered protectorate in east Africa were audacious. The final attempt counts as one of the great feats of early aviation. In 1917 a Zeppelin got as far as Khartoum before turning back—apparently having been tricked by a bogus radio message sent by the British. Yet this astonishing story is crammed into four pages and is missing from the index.
Most annoyingly, the author is inexplicably timid about giving details of personality and character. The retired General Kurt Wahle, who served throughout the campaign (he was visiting his son when war broke out), is described as the oldest combatant of the war—but his age is not given. No proper picture of General von Lettow-Vorbeck is provided, and all details of his private life (was he married?) are omitted. So too is the fact that his admiring British opponents not only invited him to a dinner in 1929, but after the second world war got together to pay him a pension.