East African Campaign (World War I)

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East African Campaign
Part of the African theatre of World War I
Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DOA3056, Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askarikompanie.jpg
A colonial Askari company ready to march in German East Africa (Deutsch-Ostafrika), 1914-1918.
Date 3 August 1914 – November 1918
Location Modern Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo
Result Allied victory

 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
Portugal Ferreira Gil
Heinrich Schnee (POW)
German Empire Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
Initially 2 battalions.[1]
Average strength 12,000 to 20,000 soldiers
Total: 250,000[2]
Initially 200 Europeans and 2,500 natives[3]
Peak strength 3,000 German and 15,000 native soldiers.[4]
Casualties and losses
10,000 British dead[5]

2,000 Germans dead

115 Europeans and 1,168 natives surrendered.[4]
365,000 civilians died and the war cost c. £12 billion at 2007 prices[6]

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 was effectively ended in November 1917.[7] The Germans entered Portuguese East Africa and continued the campaign living off Portuguese supplies.

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South African troops were not considered for European service as a matter of policy while all Indian units had been withdrawn from the Western Front by the end of 1915; the campaign in Africa consumed considerable amounts of money and war material that could have gone to other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][8] 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.[9] 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 1904-5 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.[9]

File:Ger claims Prof Delbruck 1917.jpg
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.[10] 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.[10] The territory would dominate central Africa and would make Germany as by far the most powerful colonial power on the African continent.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]


Even the largest concentration of German troops in the continent, situated in East Africa, were 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. In particular, 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.[13] In 1912, the German government had formed a defence strategy for East Africa; 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.[14] A successful campaign in Africa was also seen as a way for the De Broqueville government to avenge the German invasion of Belgium.[15]

Campaign history

Operations, 1914–1915

File:East Africa 1914-1918.jpg
East Africa, 1914–1918

In East Africa, the Congo Act was first broken by the British.[16] 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.[17] In response, the commander of the German forces in East Africa, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, bypassed Governor Schnee, nominally his 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.[18][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.[19] 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. Two of these[which?] trapped the tug, which the Germans scuttled.[20] 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."[21]

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."[22]

Naval war

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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]

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.[26] Lettow-Vorbeck then had its Königsberg gun removed and sent by rail to the main fighting front.[27] 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.[28] [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.[30] 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.[31]

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.[32]

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.[33]

Belgian operations, 1916

The British conscripted 120,000 carriers to move Belgian supplies and equipment to Kivu from late 1915 to early 1916. The lines of communication in Belgian 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 Molitor and Colonel Olsen and captured Kigali on 6 May.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] To forestall Belgian claims on the German colony, Smuts ordered their forces back to 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.[37]

Operations, 1917–1918

File:Lettow's surrender.jpg
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 J.L. 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.[38] From 15–19 October 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck fought a mutually costly battle at Mahiwa, with 519 German casualties and 2,700 British casualties in the Nigerian brigade.[39] After the news of the battle reached Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Generalmajor.[40][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. The Germans marched through Mozambique in caravans of troops, carriers, wives and children for nine months but were unable to gain much strength. Lettow-Vorbeck divided the force into three groups on the march. One detachment of 1,000 men under Hauptmann Theodor Tafel, was forced to surrender, after running out of food and ammunition; Lettow and Tafel were unaware they were only one day’s march apart.[42] 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.[43][lower-alpha 3]



German WW1 Memorial in Iringa

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 handful of warriors.[44] 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.[7]


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.[45] 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.[46] 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?"[47]

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."[47] Paice noted a 1989 estimate of 350,000 casualties and a death rate of 1:7 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.[48] The impressment of farm labour in British East Africa and the failure of the 1917–1918 rains, led to famine and in September Spanish flu 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.[49]



  1. The ship is still in service as the Liemba, plying the lake under the Tanzanian flag.[29]
  2. In early November 1917, the German naval dirigible L.59 travelled over 4,200 mi (6,800 km) in 95 hours but the airship was recalled by the German admiralty.[41]
  3. The Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial marks the spot in Zambia.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Miller 1974, p. 41.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Holmes 2001, p. 359.
  3. Contey 2002, p. 46.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Crowson 2003, p. 87.
  5. Strachan 2001, p. 641.
  6. Paice 2007, p. 1.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Holmes 2001, p. 361.
  8. Strachan 2004, p. 642.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Chappell 2005, p. 11.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Roger Louis 1963, p. 207.
  11. Anderson 2004, p. 27.
  12. Anderson 2004, p. 21.
  13. Roger Louis 1963, pp. 207–208.
  14. Strachan 2004, p. 112.
  15. Strachan 2001, p. 585.
  16. Garfield 2007, p. 84.
  17. Miller 1974, p. 42.
  18. Farwell 1989, p. 109.
  19. Miller 1974, p. 43.
  20. Hordern 1941, pp. 28, 55.
  21. Miller 1974, p. 195.
  22. Farwell 1989, p. 178.
  23. Hordern 1941, p. 45.
  24. Hordern 1941, p. 153.
  25. Hordern 1941, p. 45, 162.
  26. Newbolt 1928, pp. 80–85.
  27. Miller 1974, p. 211.
  28. Foden 2004.
  29. Paice 2007, p. 230.
  30. Strachan 2001, p. 602.
  31. Strachan 2001, p. 599.
  32. Strachan 2001, p. 618.
  33. Strachan 2001, pp. 627–628.
  34. Strachan 2001, p. 617.
  35. Strachan 2001, pp. 617–619.
  36. Paice 2007, pp. 284–285.
  37. Strachan 2001, p. 630.
  38. Miller 1974, p. 281.
  39. Miller 1974, p. 287.
  40. Hoyt 1981, p. 175.
  41. Willmott 2003, p. 192.
  42. Miller 1974, p. 297.
  43. Alexander 1961, pp. 440–442.
  44. Garfield 2007, p. 274.
  45. Strachan 2001, pp. 641, 568.
  46. Paice 2007, pp. 392–393.
  47. 47.0 47.1 Paice 2007, p. 393.
  48. Paice 2007, p. 398.
  49. Paice 2007, pp. 393–398.


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  • Foden, G. (2004). Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganyika. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14100-984-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Garfield, Brian (2007). The Meinertzhagen Mystery. Washington, DC: Potomac Books. ISBN 1-59797-041-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Hoyt, E. P. (1981). Guerilla: Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany's East African Empire. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-02555-210-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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Further reading

  • Abbott, P. (2002). Armies in East Africa 1914–1918. Osprey. ISBN 1-84176-489-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Clifford, H. C. (2013) [1920]. The Gold Coast Regiment in the East African Campaign (Naval & Military Press ed.). London: John Murray. ISBN 978-1-78331-012-8. Retrieved 23 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Fendall, C. P. (1992) [1921]. The East African Force 1915–1919 (PDF) (Battery Press ed.). London: H. F. & G. Witherby. ISBN 0-89839-174-1. Retrieved 25 February 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Gardner, B. (1963). On to Kilimanjaro. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith. ISBN 1-11104-620-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Hoyt, E. P. (1968). The Germans Who Never Lost. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. ISBN 0-09096-400-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Northrup, D. (1988). Beyond the Bend in the River: African Labor in Eastern Zaire, 1865–1940. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies. ISBN 0-89680-151-9. Retrieved 3 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Rutherford, A. (2001). Kaputala: The Diary of Arthur Beagle & The East Africa Campaign 1916–1918. Hand Over Fist Press. ISBN 0-95405-170-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Sibley, J. R. (1973). Tanganyikan Guerilla. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-34509-801-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stapleton, T. (2005). The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East Africa Campaign of the First World War. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 978-0-88920-498-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stevenson, W. (1981). The Ghosts of Africa. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-34529-793-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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External links