The imagery of the Great War is torched into the national psyche; whey-faced
Tommies clambering over the top during slow battles of attrition in which success
was measured in yards per week. In this gripping book, Edward Paice paints quite a
different picture. He tells one of the last untold stories of the conflict - the long,
costly campaign in Africa, a guerrilla war spread over thousands of miles of waterless
bush in which Allied troops sweltered to death just as their colleagues were freezing in
Paice focuses on East Africa, by far the largest of all the African campaigns in that war.
(Togo and German South-West Africa fell early on, leaving Germany with the Cameroons
and German East Africa, the latter, now Tanzania, encompassing an area five times the size
of the Fatherland.) GEA was surrounded by hostile territories - British East Africa,
Uganda, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland - or by colonies of ostensibly neutral powers
(Belgian Congo and Portuguese East Africa). After an initial German incursion into what
is now Kenya, the Allies spent four and a half years pushing the enemy ever further
southwards - out, eventually, of their own land, and into today's Mozambique.
The 17 companies of the King's African Rifles stationed in East Africa at the war's
outset were hastily augmented by Indian and South African squadrons, and settlers who
poured into Nairobi from their farms to volunteer. At first the Colonial and India Office
ran the show, and then, when the campaign hit the buffers, as it soon did, the War Office
took over (having previously dismissed the whole thing as a "sideshow"). But alongside
Passchendaele, Verdun and Gallipoli, it was hardly surprising that Whitehall mandarins
could not focus on a distant African front.
What a story it is, though. The epic siege of the Konigsberg in the fetid swamps of the
Rufiji delta; spectacular British cock-ups of the Light Brigade variety (notably the
disastrous Battle of Tanga); blockade-breakers and lashings of individual derring-do as
underpowered, patch-up flying boats skimmed the jungle while monsoon rains flooded
makeshift military camps. The Allies squabbled among themselves, as always. The
contribution of Portugal, when it finally entered the war in March 1916, reads like a scene
from Brian Rix Goes to War. According to Paice, political instability and financial chaos
in Lisbon compromised any serious chance of Portuguese military success in the colonies.
Jan Smuts led the Allies for the crucial year of 1916, until he was called to England.
But the story's hero is the one-eyed Schutztruppe chief Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a
Prussian officer who exemplified the aspirations of Wilhelmine Germany. His four-year
defiance of overwhelmingly superior forces - more than 150,000 Allied troops fighting a
force one tenth of the size - earned him, as Paice puts it, "a reputation among friend and
foe alike as one of the greatest guerrilla leaders in history". Two weeks after the
Armistice, deep in Portuguese territory, von Lettow captured a British dispatch rider on November 12th and
learned of the Peace. He did not surrender until November 25th. At first, he thought Germany had won. Marooned, far from news,
he had never envisaged failure.
Paice knows the territory. His previous book was an impressive study of
Ewart 'Cape-to-Cairo' Grogan, an adventurer who played an important part in the East
Africa campaign. This work has been researched with academic rigour, and draws on
unpublished papers from archives across Africa and Europe.
For the combatants, it was tropical hell. Enemies queued up large and small, from
jigger and tick to lion and rhino. In the year ending October 1917, 12 times as many
Allied soldiers died of disease as fell in combat. The supply line groped back hundreds
of miles, and anyway, supplies were hopelessly inadequate. Due to the lack of both roads
and vehicles, the entire campaign was reliant on porterage: the Allies recruited a million
African bearers, 95,000 of whom died in service. Often there was insufficient water to
cook, so porters subsisted on raw maize - a handful of it, after marching for 12 hours
carrying 40 lb on their heads. Those too weak to continue were abandoned. "The story of
how almost every able-bodied African male civilian [in East Africa] ... became involved
in the conflict," concludes Paice, "is one of the greatest tragedies of World War one".
Indeed, I wholeheartedly recommend this fascinating book.