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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

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