East African Campaign (World War I)

East African Campaign
Part of the African theatre of World War I

A colonial Askari company ready to march in German East Africa (Deutsch-Ostafrika)
Date3 August 1914 – November 1918
LocationModern Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo
Result German Objectives Achieved

 British Empire


Portugal Portugal

 German Empire

Commanders and leaders
Union of South Africa Jan Smuts
Union of South Africa Jacob van Deventer
Belgium Charles Tombeur
Belgium Armand Huyghé
Portugal Ferreira Gil
Heinrich Schnee (POW)
German Empire Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
British Empire:
Initially: 2 battalions.[1]
Average: 12,000 to 20,000 soldiers
Total: 250,000 soldiers[2]
Initially: 200 Europeans and 2,500 Africans[3]
Peak: 3,000 Europeans and 15,000 African soldiers[4]
End of war: 115 European and 1,168 African soldiers[4]
Casualties and losses

British Empire 22,000
11,189 soldiers killed
Belgium 5,000
2,620 soldiers killed
Portugal 12,000+
5,533 soldiers killed
5,640 soldiers missing/POW

Total: 40,000+ casualties

  • c.20,000 dead

German Empire Total: 16,000+

365,000 civilians and porters died, mainly of disease

The East African Campaign was a series of battles and guerrilla actions, which started in German East Africa and spread to portions of Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda and the Belgian Congo. The campaign all but ended in November 1917, when the Germans entered Portuguese East Africa and continued the campaign living off Portuguese supplies.[8]

The strategy of the German colonial forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel (later Generalmajor) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, was to divert forces from the Western Front to Africa. His strategy achieved only mixed results after 1916, when he was driven out of German East Africa and Allied forces became composed almost entirely of South African, Indian and other colonial troops. Black South African troops were not considered for European service as a matter of policy, while all Indian units had been withdrawn from the Western Front by the end of 1915; the campaign in Africa consumed considerable amounts of money and war material that could have gone to other fronts.[2][9] 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 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 (Deutsch-Ostafrika) was colonized by the Germans in 1885. The territory itself spanned 384,180 square miles (995,000 km2) and covered the areas of modern-day Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.[10] The colony's indigenous population numbered seven and a half million and was governed by just 5,300 Europeans. Although the colonial regime was relatively secure, the colony had recently been shaken by the Maji Maji Rebellion of 1904–05 whose effects were still being felt by 1914. The German colonial administration could call on a military Schutztruppe (Protection force) of 260 Europeans and 2,470 Africans, in addition to 2,700 white settlers who were part of the reservist Landsturm, as well as a small paramilitary Gendarmerie.[10]

Map of the proposed Mittelafrika with German territory in yellow

The outbreak of World War I in Europe led to the increased popularity of German colonial expansion and the creation of a Deutsch-Mittelafrika ("German Central Africa") which would parallel a resurgent German Empire in Europe.[11] Mittelafrika effectively involved the annexation of territory, mostly occupied by the Belgian Congo, in order to link the existing German colonies in East, South-west and West Africa.[11] The territory would dominate central Africa and would make Germany as by far the most powerful colonial power on the African continent.[11] Nevertheless, the German colonial military in Africa was weak, poorly equipped and widely dispersed. Although better trained and more experienced than their opponents, many of the German soldiers were reliant on weapons like the Model 1871 rifle which used obsolete black powder.[12] At the same time, however, the militaries of the Allied powers were also encountering similar problems of poor equipment and low numbers; most colonial militaries were intended to serve as local paramilitary police to suppress resistance to colonial rule and were neither equipped nor structured to fight wars.[13]


Even the largest concentration of German troops in the continent in East Africa, was numerically unable to fight an aggressive war. The main objective for the German forces in East Africa, led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was to force Allied governments to keep military forces and supplies in Africa, rather than send them to fight in Europe. By threatening the important British Uganda Railway, von Lettow hoped to force British troops to invade East Africa, where he could fight a defensive action.[14] In 1912, the German government had formed a defence strategy for East Africa in which the military would withdraw from the coast into the hinterland and fight a guerrilla campaign.

For the Belgians, the German presence in East Africa was a threat to the security of Congo but some Belgian officials viewed the fighting in East Africa as an opportunity to expand Belgian territory. The Colonial Minister, Jules Renkin, favoured a policy of trading territory gained in East Africa with the Portuguese, to expand the western Congo coast in a post-war settlement.[15] A successful campaign in Africa was also seen as a way for the De Broqueville government to avenge the German invasion of Belgium.[16]

Campaign history

Operations, 1914–15

Map of the German colonial empire in Africa, with German East Africa in dark blue

In East Africa, the Congo Act was first broken by the British.[17] 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.[18] In response, the commander of the German forces in East Africa, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, bypassed Governor Heinrich Schnee, his nominal 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 and was approximately numerically equal with the two battalions of the King's African Rifles (KAR) based in the British East African colonies.[19][1]

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 Askari of two field companies with the British firing a token volley and retiring in good order.[20] In September, the Germans began to stage raids deeper into British East Africa and Uganda. German naval power on Lake Victoria was limited to Hedwig von Wissmann and Kingani 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. The tug was trapped and then scuttled by the Germans.[21] The Germans later raised her, dismounted her gun for use elsewhere and continued to use the tug as an unarmed transport; with the tug disarmed "teeth removed, British command of Lake Victoria was no longer in dispute."[22]

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. In the 1941 volume of the British Official History, Charles Hordern described the events as one of "the most notable failures in British military history."[23]

Naval war

German Schutztruppe with Königsberg gun

A light cruiser SMS Königsberg of the Imperial German Navy was in the Indian Ocean when war was declared. In the Battle of Zanzibar, Königsberg sank the old protected cruiser HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour and then retired into the Rufiji River delta.[24] After being cornered by warships of the British Cape Squadron, including an old pre-dreadnought battleship, two shallow-draught monitors with 6 in (150 mm) guns were brought from England and demolished the cruiser on 11 July 1915.[25] The British salvaged and used six 4 in (100 mm) guns from the sunken Pegasus, which became known as the Peggy guns; the crew of Königsberg and the 4.1 in (100 mm) main battery guns were taken over by the Schutztruppe and saw major use in various points throughout the area until the end of operations.[26]

Lake Tanganyika expedition

The Germans had controlled the lake since the outbreak of the war, with three armed steamers and two unarmed motor boats. In 1915, two British motorboats, HMS Mimi and Toutou each armed with a 3-pounder and a Maxim gun, were transported 3,000 miles (4,800 km) by land to the British shore of Lake Tanganyika. They captured the German ship Kingani on 26 December, 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. The Graf von Götzen and the Wami, an unarmed motor boat, were the only German ships left on the lake. In February 1916 the Wami was intercepted and run ashore by the crew and burned.[27] Lettow-Vorbeck then had its Königsberg gun removed and sent by rail to the main fighting front.[28] The ship was scuttled in mid-July after a seaplane 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.[29] [lower-alpha 1]

British Empire reinforcements, 1916

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.[31] Smuts had a large army (for the area), some 13,000 South Africans including Boers, British, and Rhodesians and 7,000 Indian and African troops in a ration strength of 73,300 men. There 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 13,800 strong.[32]

Smuts 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. 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.[33]

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 Askari of the King's African Rifles, which by November 1918 had 35,424 men. By the start of 1917, more than half the British Army in the theatre was already 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.[34]

Belgian operations, 1916

Soldiers of the Belgian Congo's Force Publique, pictured in East Africa

The British conscripted 120,000 carriers to move Belgian supplies and equipment to Kivu (in the east of the Belgian Congo) between late 1915 and early 1916. The lines of communication in the Congo required c.260,000 carriers, which were barred by the Belgian government from crossing into German East Africa and Belgian troops were expected to live off the land. To avoid the plundering of civilians, loss of food stocks and risk of famine, with many farmers already conscripted and moved away from their land, the British set up the Congo Carrier Section of the East India Transport Corps (Carbel) with 7,238 carriers, conscripted from Ugandan civilians and assembled at Mbarara in April 1916. The Force Publique, started its campaign on 18 April 1916 under the command of General Charles Tombeur, Colonel Philippe Molitor and Colonel Frédérick Olsen and captured Kigali in Rwanda on 6 May.[35]

The German Askari in Burundi were forced to retreat by the numerical superiority of Force Publique and by 17 June, Burundi and Rwanda were occupied. The Force Publique and the British Lake Force then started a thrust to capture Tabora, an administrative centre 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 battle, they secured Tabora on 19 September.[36] During the march, Carbel lost 1,191 carriers died or missing presumed dead, a rate of 1:7, which occurred despite the presence of two doctors and adequate medical supplies.[37] To prevent Belgian claims on German territory in a post-war settlement, Smuts ordered their forces to return to the Congo, leaving them as occupiers only in Rwanda and Burundi. The British were obliged to recall Belgian troops in 1917 and the two allies coordinated campaign plans.[38]

Operations, 1917–18

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

Major-General Reginald Hoskins (KAR) took over command of the campaign and was then replaced by Major-General Jacob van Deventer of South Africa. Van Deventer began an offensive in July 1917, which by early autumn had pushed the Germans 100 mi (160 km) to the south.[39] From 15–19 October 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck fought a mutually costly battle at Mahiwa, with 519 German casualties and 2,700 British losses in the Nigerian brigade.[40] After the news of the battle reached Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Generalmajor.[41][lower-alpha 2] British units forced the Schutztruppe south and on 23 November, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed into Portuguese Mozambique to plunder supplies from Portuguese garrisons.[43]

The Germans fought the Battle of Ngomano in which the Portuguese garrison was routed and then marched through Mozambique in caravans of troops, carriers, wives and children for nine months but was unable to gain much strength. Lettow-Vorbeck divided the force into three groups on the march, a detachment of 1,000 men under Hauptmann Theodor Tafel, was forced to surrender before reaching Mozambique, after running out of food and ammunition; Lettow and Tafel were unaware they were only one day's march apart.[43] The Germans returned to German East Africa and crossed into Northern Rhodesia in August 1918. On 13 November two days after the Armistice was signed in France, the German Army took 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. Lettow-Vorbeck marched his army to Abercorn and formally surrendered on 25 November 1918.[44][lower-alpha 3] For the British, the campaign cost approximately c.£12 billion at 2007 prices.[45]



Memorial to the German soldiers killed during the campaign in Iringa, Tanzania

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 one million people in their fruitless pursuit of Lettow-Vorbeck and his small force.[46] Lettow-Vorbeck was cut off and 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 amount of 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 Theatre after 1916. While some shipping was diverted to the African theatre, it was not enough to inflict significant difficulties on the Allied navies.[8]


African porters in British service during the campaign, who suffered high casualties from disease

In Strachan's estimate of 2001, British losses in the East African campaign were 3,443 killed in action, 6,558 died of disease and c.90,000 deaths among African porters.[47] In 2007, Paice recorded c.22,000 British casualties in the East African campaign, of whom 11,189 died, 9 percent of the 126,972 troops in the campaign. By 1917, the conscription of c.1,000,000 Africans as carriers, depopulated many districts and c.95,000 porters had died, among them 20 percent of the Carrier Corps in East Africa.[48] Of the porters who died, 45,000 were Kenyans, 13 percent of the male population.. The campaign cost the British Empire £70 million, close to the British war budget in 1914.[49][50] A Colonial Office official wrote that the East African campaign had not become a scandal only "... because the people who suffered most were the carriers - and after all, who cares about native carriers?"[51] Belgian casualties of 5,000 were recorded, including 2,620 soldiers killed in action or died of disease. This does not count an additional 15,650 deaths of porters.[52] Portuguese casualties in Africa were 5,533 soldiers killed, 5,640 troops missing or captured and an unknown but significant number wounded.[53]

In the German colonies, no records of the number of people conscripted or casualties were kept but in the German Official History, Ludwig Boell (1951) wrote "... of the loss of levies, carriers, and boys (sic) [we could] make no overall count due to the absence of detailed sickness records."[51] Paice wrote of a 1989 estimate of 350,000 casualties and a death rate of 1-in-7 people. Carriers were rarely paid and food and cattle were requisitioned from civilians; a famine caused by the subsequent food shortage and poor rains in 1917, led to another 300,000 civilian deaths in German East Africa.[54] The impressment of farm labour in British East Africa and the failure of the 1917–1918 rains, led to famine and in September the 1918 flu pandemic reached sub-Saharan Africa. In British East Africa 160,000–200,000 people died, in South Africa there were 250,000–350,000 deaths and in German East Africa 10–20 percent of the population died of famine and disease; in sub-Saharan Africa, 1,500,000–2,000,000 people died in the flu epidemic.[55]


  1. The ship is still in service as the Liemba, plying the lake under the Tanzanian flag.[30]
  2. In early November 1917, the German naval dirigible L.59 travelled over 4,200 mi (6,800 km) in 95 hours towards East Africa but was recalled by the German admiralty before it arrived.[42]
  3. The Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial marks the spot in Zambia.


  1. 1 2 Miller 1974, p. 41.
  2. 1 2 Holmes 2001, p. 359.
  3. Contey 2002, p. 46.
  4. 1 2 Crowson 2003, p. 87.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Morlang 2008, p. 91.
  6. Paice 2007, p. 388.
  7. 1 2 3 Michels 2009, p. 117.
  8. 1 2 Holmes 2001, p. 361.
  9. Strachan 2004, p. 642.
  10. 1 2 Chappell 2005, p. 11.
  11. 1 2 3 Roger Louis 1963, p. 207.
  12. Anderson 2004, p. 27.
  13. Anderson 2004, p. 21.
  14. Roger Louis 1963, pp. 207–208.
  15. Strachan 2004, p. 112.
  16. Strachan 2001, p. 585.
  17. Garfield 2007, p. 84.
  18. Miller 1974, p. 42.
  19. Farwell 1989, p. 109.
  20. Miller 1974, p. 43.
  21. Hordern 1941, pp. 28, 55.
  22. Miller 1974, p. 195.
  23. Farwell 1989, p. 178.
  24. Hordern 1941, p. 45.
  25. Hordern 1941, p. 153.
  26. Hordern 1941, p. 45, 162.
  27. Newbolt 1928, pp. 80–85.
  28. Miller 1974, p. 211.
  29. Foden 2004.
  30. Paice 2007, p. 230.
  31. Strachan 2001, p. 602.
  32. Strachan 2001, p. 599.
  33. Strachan 2001, p. 618.
  34. Strachan 2001, pp. 627–628.
  35. Strachan 2001, p. 617.
  36. Strachan 2001, pp. 617–619.
  37. Paice 2007, pp. 284–285.
  38. Strachan 2001, p. 630.
  39. Miller 1974, p. 281.
  40. Miller 1974, p. 287.
  41. Hoyt 1981, p. 175.
  42. Willmott 2003, p. 192.
  43. 1 2 Miller 1974, p. 297.
  44. Alexander 1961, pp. 440–442.
  45. Paice 2007, p. 1.
  46. Garfield 2007, p. 274.
  47. Strachan 2001, pp. 641, 568.
  48. Paice 2007, pp. 392–393.
  49. Sondhaus 2011, p. 120.
  50. Chantrill 2016.
  51. 1 2 Paice 2007, p. 393.
  52. Annuaire 1922, p. 100.
  53. Statistics 1920, pp. 352–357.
  54. Paice 2007, p. 398.
  55. Paice 2007, pp. 393–398.



  • Anderson, Ross (2004). The Forgotten Front: The East Africa Campaign, 1914–1918. Stroud: Tempus. ISBN 978-0-7524-2344-9. 
  • Chappell, Mike (2005). The British Army in World War I: The Eastern Fronts. III. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84176-401-6. 
  • Crowson, T. A. (2003). When Elephants Clash. A Critical Analysis of Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck in the East African Theatre of the Great War. NTIS, Springfield, VA.: Storming Media. OCLC 634605194. 
  • Farwell, B. (1989). The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-30564-3. 
  • Foden, G. (2004). Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganyika. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100984-5. 
  • Garfield, Brian (2007). The Meinertzhagen Mystery. Washington, DC: Potomac Books. ISBN 1-59797-041-7. 
  • Holmes, Richard (2001). The Oxford Companion to Military History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860696-3. 
  • Hordern, C. (1990) [1941]. Military Operations East Africa: August 1914 – September 1916. I (Imperial War Museum & Battery Press ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 0-89839-158-X. 
  • Hoyt, E. P. (1981). Guerilla: Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany's East African Empire. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-555210-4. 
  • Michels, Stefanie (2009). Schwarze Deutsche Kolonialsoldaten. Mehrdeutige Repräsentationsräume und früher Kosmopolitismus in Afrika [Black German Colonial Soldiers. Ambiguous Representational Spaces and Former Cosmopolitanism in Africa]. Histoire Transcript (Firm) (in German). Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. ISBN 978-3-8376-1054-3. 
  • Miller, C. (1974). Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-584930-1. 
  • Morlang, Thomas (2008). Askari und Fitafita. "Farbige" Söldner in den deutschen Kolonien [Askari and Fitafita. 'Colored' Mercenaries in the German Colonies]. Schlaglichter der Kolonialgeschichte (in German). Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag. ISBN 978-3-86153-476-1. 
  • Newbolt, H. (2003) [1928]. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Naval Operations (PDF). IV (Naval & Military Press ed.). London: Longmans. ISBN 1-84342-492-4. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  • Paice, E. (2009) [2007]. Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa (Phoenix ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 978-0-7538-2349-1. 
  • Roger Louis, Wm. (1963). Ruanda-Urundi, 1884–1919. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 445674. 
  • Sondhaus, L. (2011). World War One: The Global Revolution. London: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-73626-8. 
  • Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914–1920 (online ed.). London: War Office. 1920. OCLC 1318955. Retrieved 23 November 2016. 
  • Strachan, H. (2001). The First World War: To Arms. I. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926191-1. 
  • Strachan, H. (2004). The First World War in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-925728-0. 
  • Willmott, H. P. (2003). First World War. London: Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 1-4053-0029-9. 


  • Alexander, G. A. M. (1961). "The Evacuation of Kasama in 1918". The Northern Rhodesia Journal. IV (5). ISSN 0549-9674. Retrieved 7 March 2007. 
  • "Annuaire statistique de la Belgique et du Congo Belge 1915–1919" [Statistics of Belgium and the Belgian Congo Annual]. Bruxelles: Institut national de statistique for Ministère des affaires économiques. 1922. ISSN 0770-2221. 
  • Contey, F. (2002). "Zeppelin Mission to East Africa". Aviation History. Weider History Group. XIII (1). ISSN 1076-8858. 


Further reading



External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to East African Campaign (World War I).
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/4/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.