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029 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and carnival in the jungle

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Small German army keeps allies in Africa busy

It is Sunday 10 January 1915. It is the 29th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

News about a Turkish advance to the Suez canal seeps through.

Sixteen German aircraft do not succeed in crossing the Channel, but nevertheless drop their  bombs on Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill enthusiastically accepts admiral Sackville Carden’s plan of attack in the Dardanelles. They expect to bring the Turks on their knees in a month’s time.

At the urgent request of Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, Count Leopold von Berchtold, main figure in the July crisis that preceded the war, is replaced by Baron  Burian.

The Russians make headway along the river Vistula.

After the Battle of Kara Urgan in Armenia the Ottoman troops have to bow their heads to the Russians.

The Germans deal blows to the French near the river Aisne, though the French succeed in fighting off attacks northwest of Soissons.

After two months of attacks and counter-attacks the French have barely managed to gain any territory in the Champagne. 

And the Germans have to give up Mafia island off the coast of East Africa, which is a setback for commanding officer Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

When on 11 November 1918 the armistice is declared, Germany is not yet finished.  A day later a German commanding officer is still fighting the enemy. It is a soldier of whom you can hardly say that he has lost the war. Paul von Letttow-Vorbeck has proudly remained standing for four years in the jungle of East Africa.

The war on the European continent was a thriller in far too many instalments, but the war that Von Lettow fought in Africa reads as an exciting boys’ book. It was not for nothing that the general pops up in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicle, the TV version of the cinema blockbusters featuring Harrison Ford. At a certain moment Indiana Jones has the opportunity to shoot Von Lettow, but he grants him his freedom. The German reciprocates in a generous grand manner. He gives his compass to Indiana Jones and the two part as friends.

Of course this is pure fiction. Von Lettow would not be caged. The reconcilement with Indy, however, refers to the reality. Both during and long after the war Von Lettow could count on great respect of his opponents. Take South African General Jan Smuts, who was fruitlessly chasing Von Lettow in 1916. This did not lead to any ill feeling with Smuts. In the years after World War II Von Lettow led a pitiful life among the ruins of Nazi Germany. The elderly general had to earn a living as a gardener. When Smuts learned of this sad fate, he provided his old bully with financial support.


But let us start with Von Lettow in 1907, when the Germans have finally succeeded in quashing a rebellion of the Herero and the Nama people in the west of Africa. The Nama are also derogatorily called Hottentots. As commanding officer Von Lettow also actively took part – and was wounded – in what is now considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.

The order to destroy with which General Von Trotha had confronted the Herero people says it all. The German word Vernichtungsbefehl casts its shadow in twentieth century Germany: ‘Within the German borders each Herero, with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, will be shot’, is Von Trotha’s command. ‘I will not take on any more women and children, they will be driven back to their people or I will have them shot at.’ One hundred years later Germany has apologized for the violent death of many tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. But requests for financial compensation from Namibia, former Southwest Africa, are still rejected.

Just like Von Lettow, also Von Trotha had gained experience when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China. Germany may have been a latecomer in colonial Africa and may also have had great problems in squeezing profit from its overseas territories. It did not, however, accept opposition from inferior races. For the Germans colonial rule was accompanied by the whip.

During the Great War the African possessions of the Germans crumbled in four separate parts. In August 1914, the first month of the war, Togo already falls, but not until commanding officer Von Doering has taken down the radio mast of the most important overseas radio station of Germany. Their resistance in Cameroon is tougher. It is not until February 1916 that the English and the French succeed in permanently establishing their rule there. The troops were plagued by rain, while more men were killed by tropical diseases than in battle.

Further on the continent Southwest Africa is rounded up by South Africans, joined by Rhodesians. Before advancing towards Windhoek General Louis Botha had to defuse a revolt in South Africa among his own Boers. Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa, falls in May 1915.

Remains German East Africa. This is the area which roughly covers Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika (the mainland of Tanzania). It will be the playground of Von Lettow’s little army, though on his long expeditions he will also cross the borders of Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa. Von Lettow knows that he should prevent a confrontation with the much bigger military force of the allies. That is why he confines himself to small-scale operations, a guerilla in the colonial hinterland of Great Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

The writer Hew Strachan refines Von Lettow’s success in the light of the goal he set himself, keeping as many allied troops away from the front in Europe as possible by pinpricks of his Schutztruppen. According to Strachan only few of the 160,000 men chasing Von Letttow were considered for the western front. It was a motley crew of Indians and Africans under British command. In 1917 also the Belgians, from the Congo, and Portuguese, from their part of East Africa, had unsuccessfully kicked off the hunt for Von Lettow.

Von Lettow had to make do with about 15,000 men. As was the case with the allied forces, soldiers of the motherland were a minority in the German Army. In the jungle of Africa, where the tsetse fly was more dangerous than the actual enemy, white troops were synonymous with ‘walking hospitals’.

Askari, which means ‘soldiers’, formed the bulk of Von Lettow’s army. They were disciplined in a gründlich way and also better paid than the indigenous troops of the British. When in the sixties the Federal Republic of Germany decides to support the Askari of 1914-1918 who are still alive financially, only few can prove on paper that they have served Germany. A German banker has a plan. All those that can present a broomstick as a rifle, get their money. Everyone of the three hundred or so Askari who has reported for his outstanding pay, passes the test.

Von Lettow’s triumph starts in November 1914. A miserable Indian expeditionary army starts an amphibian attack on the port of Tanga. Despite a dominance of eight to one, the Indians have to go back into their boats. Besides, they leave a cartload of ammunition and weapons behind for Von Lettow’s men.

Yet Von Lettow wisely decides to turn his back to the sea and to go inland. On 12 January 1915 a handful of Germans and their Askari have to give up Mafia Island off the coast. And in July of the same year the German cruiser Köningsberg goes down in the Rufiji delta. The guns of the ship are dismantled and added to the scarce artillery which Von Lettow has at his disposal. After that it is a cat and mouse game in the jungle.

In 1917 the Germans try to provision Von Lettow’s besieged troops from Europe by airship twice. Both attempts fail, but this rescue operation was not really necessary. Von Lettow himself manages to replenish his supplies. ‘The lion of Africa’ can not be tamed. After a quick and vigorous attack he and his men go into hiding between the forest and the mountains.

In 1926 Von Lettow will publish ‘My Reminiscences of East Africa’. One fragment goes as follows. ‘Many walked barefoot and often they trod on thorns. Frequently one of them resolutely drew his knife during the march and cut a whole piece of flesh from his wounded foot. And then he marched on. After the bearers came the women, the ‘Bibi’. Many Askari had brought their women and children with them on the expedition and during the marches the stork delivered many a baby.’ A bit further Von Lettow continues: ‘They all loved bright colours and when a large number of colourful fabrics were robbed, the procession that stretched for miles looked like a carnival parade.’

On 12 November 1918, one day after the armistice on the western front, the Askari still fight against the King’s African Rifles. Again a day later Von Lettow learns that the war in Europe is over. He surrenders on 25 November. With the allies feelings of shame and admiration fight for priority when they see how small in number their enemy was, not more than a couple of thousand.

Von Lettow is welcomed as a hero in post-war Germany. With 120 of his men in damaged uniforms he parades in 1919 under the Brandenburg Gate of Berlin. Also Heinrich Schnee, the Governor of German East Africa takes part in this parade. Schnee had prefered to keep his colony out of the war, but throughout the war he could not stand up to the military drive of his commanding officer.

Von Lettow sees how post-war Germany is sinking away in a class struggle and takes up arms against communist insurgents in Hamburg. In 1920 he also lends his troops for the rightwing Kapp Putsch. This fails and with that Von Lettow’s military fate in the Weimar Republic is sealed.

When Hitler comes to power, a prominent rank is reserved for the war hero. He can become the ambassador in Great Britain, but Von Lettow the conservative won’t let himself be manipulated and taken advantage of by Hitler the proletarian. In speeches he not only urges that Germany gets its colonies back, but he also rejects nazi politics. Joseph Goebbels decides to silence him.

He is then, however, appointed General for Special Purposes in 1938, but he will not actively serve in the Wehrmacht, unlike his two sons Rüdiger and Arnd. They are both killed in action. And when on top of this Von Lettow’s house is destroyed by bombs in 1945, the war hero of old sees himself condemned to poverty. So along comes Jan Smuts, his old rival from the Great War, who provides him with a monthly allowance of 200 Marks.

On the initiative of a German magazine Von Lettow returns to Namibia and Tanzania in 1953. In Dar es Salaam he is welcomed enthusiastically. He gives his travel report the title ‘Africa as I saw it again’.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck dies in Hamburg in 1964 at the age of 94. The Minister of Defence holds a eulogy at his funeral and some of Von Lettow’s Askari have come over for the ceremony. His rehabilitation seems to b  complete, though in the German Democratic Republic he will be remembered as a ‘colonial mummy’.

Next week: Samuel Smith

Translation: Peter Veltman

024 Christiaan de Wet and his double loyalty

Christiaan de Wet

Christiaan de Wet

Not all Boers side with the British

It is Sunday 6 December 1914. It is the 24th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Pope Benedict XV makes an appeal for a Christmas truce.

Dunkirk in France and Veurne in Flanders are shelled by the Germans from a great distance.

The Germans start a new battle around Warsaw.  

Near the Falkland Islands four German ships carrying 2,200 men are wrecked: the end of naval hero Maximilian von Spee.

Austrian general Oskar Potiorek has to sound the retreat in Serbia.

The Austrians also suffer heavy losses near Kraków.

In Great Britain Nicholas Ahlers is convicted. The naturalized German is said to have helped Germans in England return to the Heimat for military service in the beginning of the war.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are driven back by the British.

The French government returns from Bordeaux to Paris.

The Germans bit their teeth to pieces on Ypres.

And in South Africa Christiaan Beyers drowns when on the run, while another Boer rebel spends his days behind bars: Christiaan de Wet.

October 2000 a group of people gathers at the foot of the statue of General Christiaan de Wet in the middle of the Netherlands. The co-operative of Dutch and South Africans had decided to pay hommage to the Boer warrior who had distinguished himself from other soldiers by ‘shrewdness, perseverance and strategic insight’, as stated on the Roepstem, the website of the co-operative.

Various scouting groups in the Netherlands still bear the name Christiaan de Wet. Several streets are also named after him. And then there is that statue on the Hoge Veluwe, a vast nature reserve. It is made by sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa who was commissioned by Mr and Mrs Kröller-Müller. The Kröller-Müllers combined a passion for modern art with sympathy for the Boers.

They proved to be Apartheidproof, all these tributes for an advocate of the Dutch descendants in the southernmost part of Africa.


In the first week of December 1914 Christiaan de Wet is under lock and key. He is a rebel, caged by his own government in South Africa. A sentence of six years for high treason awaits him, but in six months’ time he will be a free man again. In his cell De Wet must have realized that as a Boer he will always be condemned to the Brit. Three times he opposed the anglicization of his country by force of arms, demanding strict discipline of the ‘burghers’ of whom he was in command. De Wet led in battle during the First and Second Boer War, which the Afrikaners rather call the First and Second Freedom War. Especially his last struggle, in the first months of the First World War, was doomed to fail.

Who were the Boers? Descendants of the Dutch who took root around Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century, where Jan van Riebeeck had put up his replacement post for ships of the Dutch East India Company. When the British arrived at the end of the eighteenth century, the Dutch colonists moved on. The Great Trek took them northeast. Then Boer republics such as Transvaal and Orange Free State lodged there.

In 1880 the British decide to annex the territories of the Boers. We are in the era of modern imperialism. Her Majesty’s Africa should extend between Cape and Cairo. Boers fit just as little in this scheme as the German colonists in the southwest of Africa.

The First Boer War of 1880-1881 does not bring the British the desired result. A second armed conflict will be needed to force the Boer republics into the Union of South Africa. There are more interests than purely imperialist ones at stake.  The British have set their eyes on the goldmines of the Boers. In the British press stories have appeared about the disgraceful treatment of English-speaking labourers in the Boer republics. And there is a political motive to deal with the Boers, their approach to German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia.

In the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the Afrikaners fight the British troops of Lord Roberts, who will die very old on 14 November 1914 while inspecting the Indian troops on the western front in France. The battle Roberts is fighting with the Boers in South Africa around the turn of the century is unprecedentedly cruel. Farms are burnt down according to the scorched earth policy, the livestock thinned out. The concentration camp phenomenon emerges. The grim resistance of the Boers makes the British lock up their wives and children in camps. A comparison with the extermination camps of the nazis does not apply, but the 26,000 dead in fifty British concentration camps is really quite something.

The experience the British troops gain against the Boers will be of help to them in 1914 when stopping the Germans in Belgium and northern France. But the Second Boer War was not useful for public relations. Worldwide, but also at home in England, there is disgust about the ruthless imperialism displayed by the British at the expense of the Boers. In keeping with it is the admiration for the unyielding Boers, especially of their bloodbrothers in the Netherlands.

It takes the British three years to crush the Boers, after which the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in 1902. As acting president of Orange Free State –  Marthinus Theunis Steyn, the actual foreman, has fallen ill – Christiaan de Wet contrecoeur put his signature to the treaty. He would rather have continued the fight. In ‘The Battle between Boer and Brit’ (official English title ‘Three Years War’) he recorded his wartime experiences on board the boat that took him and his companions Louis Botha and Koos de la Rey to Europe to raise funds for the reconstruction of his country.

In the years to follow Alfred Milner, the British High Commisioner, tries to carry through the anglicization with the utmost rigour but this storm dies down when a liberal government takes office in Great Britain. The ambition is now reconciliation. To oblige the Boers, London does not make an issue of shelving civil rights of non-white people. The Boer republics had embedded inequality of races in their constitution, with the bible as underlying document. This line of segregation – apartheid in the language of the Boers – can also be followed in the new South Africa.

Not all Boers are ready for reconciliation with the British, but a man like Louis Botha is quite willing to turn South Africa into a union. In 1912 he even goes so far as to unveil a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who gave his name to Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. In August 1914 Botha does not find it difficult as prime minister to stand by London in the war, just like the leaders of the four other dominions, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand. Botha promises to deal with the Germans in Southwest Africa. From all over the country men are summoned to take up arms for that purpose.

For his old comrade in arms Christiaan de Wet this all goes too far. After all, the Germans have acted as friends of the Boers in their fight for freedom. De Wet drifts further away from Botha’s court when the police shoots another hero from the Second Boer War on 15 September. General Koos de la Rey ignores a stop signal of the police officers who are on to a gang of gangsters. ‘Dit is raak’, are De la Rey’s last words. ‘It hit the mark’. The police stick to their version of an accident, but to De Wet and his men the explanation is murder by authority of the state.

De la Rey is currently worshipped as a Boer hero even more than De Wet. Bok van Blerk scored a hit in 2007 which also aroused controversy. Van Blerk says that he is against apartheid, but at the same time he is proud of his identity as Afrikaner in the Rainbow nation. Hence this chorus: ‘De la Rey, De la Rey, will you come to lead the Boers? General, general, united we will fall around you.’

De la Rey is already dead when another commanding officer of the Boers, Manie Maritz, goes over to the Germans in Southwest Africa on 10 October. Maritz gives the South African government an ultimatum. If he is not allowed to contact other Boer leaders, among whom Christiaan de Wet, Maritz will invade the Cape Province. The government in Pretoria makes this ultimatum public, which to De Wet is the sign to go into action. In his hinterland, Orange Free State, he forms an army of seven thousand Boers. In Transvaal and Cape Province another five thousand Boers arm themselves.

But also prime minister Louis Botha takes up his old profession. He advances against his former comrades in arms with superior power. De Wet will be finished soon. In the Second Boer War he has always been too quick for the British. Fifty thousand men were after him during the ‘First De Wet Hunt’ in 1900. The Boer Pimpernel, like no other experienced in guerilla-like tactics, had grown into a legend, although he had to share his fame with Fleur, his inseparable Arab horse. Now, in 1914, with another Boer as the enemy, he got the worst in no time.

With De Wet behind bars, the leader of the Boers in Transvaal, Christiaan Beyers, is also defeated.  On the run he is drowned when he wants to cross the river Vaal. Again a week later another Boer leader falls into the hands of the government. Jopie Fourie ends his life before a firing squad because of high treason. He is the only one to suffer this fate. The Boer rebellion is crushed by Boers who have remained loyal to the British. The number of casualties is limited to 192 rebels, among whom a son of Christiaan de Wet who was killed at Doornberg, and 132 government soldiers. At the next elections it will become clear that the discord among the Boers continues. Botha’s party is just a little bigger than the National Party of independent Boers.

When De Wet is released on parole in 1915 – a fine is paid with voluntary contributions of sympathizers – , he retires for good. In the final phase of his life a ‘spirit of peace and quiet’ must have come over him. The warrior inside him stayed behind in prison.


Christiaan Rudolph de Wet dies in Klipfontein on 3 February 1922. He is buried near the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, where six years earlier Martinus Theunis Steyn, president of Orange Free State, was laid to rest. The English human rights activist Emily Hobhouse designed the group of statues which is central to the monument. She was inspired by the visit she paid to a concentration camp of the British in 1901.

A year before the Great War De Wet had spoken at the consecration of the National Women’s Monument and put his finger on the salient point of the British concentration camps. ‘Today we stand again at the graves of 26,000 women and children. During the war we often heard their songs from the camp. That was the evidence on Whom they built their faith. Let this be the slogan of every mother and child: be loyal to your nation  and your religion.’

Next week: Sir Alfred Ewing

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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