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I’ve done a lot of reading on the First World War as of late; one of the more recent discoveries from my Wikipedia rabbit-holes is that there was, as it turns out, a pretty significant amount of fighting between the Germans and the British in Africa starting in 1914. With the sub-Saharan portion of the continent divided amongst European colonial powers, there naturally was a lot of contention amongst land claims, etc. mirroring those amongst their parent countries. Unlike in Europe, however, Germany ended up reigning supreme, beating back wave after wave of British advances while badly outnumbered, thanks almost exclusively to the brilliance of one man: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
Born: March 20th, 1870, Saarlouis, Prussia
Died: March 9th, 1964, Hamburg, West Germany
Occupation: Military commander
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was a military man for his entire life. Commissioned into the Imperial German Army as a lieutenant in 1890, he travelled all over the world, first to a post in China in 1900 to quash the Boxer Rebellion, and later in 1904 to German South-West Africa, which is now Namibia. In this posting, he was injured in the Herero and Nama rebellions with wounds to his chest and eye, and was evacuated to South Africa for medical treatment, not involved in the later genocide the German Empire carried out against these tribes.
In 1907, von Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Major, and returned home to Saxony to command a sea battalion. In 1914, when war broke out in Europe he was posted to German East Africa (which is part of what is now Tanzania); he was promoted again to Lieutenant Commander and placed in charge of the army corps stationed there. It was a tiny force – just 2600 German nationals and 2472 Askari tribal warriors. Hardly enough to stop any serious onslaught from any of the colonial powers. Fortunately for the Germans, von Lettow-Vorbeck was a very clever man indeed.
It’s important to note that the Governor of German East Africa, Heinrich Schnee, had a treaty of neutrality with the other European colonies in Africa should war broke out. He instructed von Lettow-Vorbeck to not prepare for battle, and to await for further instructions. He was subsequently ignored. When war broke out, and the British invaded Tanganyika in November 1914, that proved to be a very wise decision.
The British showed up at the port city of Tanga outnumbering the German forces about eight to one, with naval artillery, troop transports, airplane reconnaissance to go along with over ten thousand ground troops. Knowing from the get-go that they were badly outnumbered, the Germans split off into small guerrilla units and retreated into the jungle surrounding the city, obscuring their artillery pieces as well. After firing on the British ships in the harbor from a ways away, the British foolishly followed the Germans into the jungle, and proceeded to get their asses handed to them on a silver platter. Final casualties from the battle? 4000 killed, wounded and captured Brits, and 15 dead Germans and 54 Askaris.
From this stunning victory, von Lettow-Vorbeck went on the offensive, and launched the only raid into British-controlled territory by a German commander in history. Legit. Before and since, German armed forces have never once set foot on British-run soil. After the big win, the German troops set to attacking the British railway system snaking throughout East Africa, and later destroying forts, communications stations, and supply depots.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was well aware that Africa was not the focal point of the war whatsoever, but his rationale for keeping his troops busy and engaged was that it tied up more resources from his enemies from being re-deployed to Europe; the busier they were in Africa, the less help they could provide back home. All the same, he knew he was facing incredibly difficult odds, and thus had to improvise greatly in order to survive.
A selection of what makes the man such a badass:
- von Lettow-Vorbeck is considered the greatest guerrilla fighter in history; he was never once defeated in battle during his adventures in Africa, despite being outnumbered ten to one in some instances.
- The only reinforcements that the German troops received during the war were in the form of recruited Askari warriors and the crew of the scuttled German ship SMS Konigsberg; at its peak, the Schutztruppe – the German African Army – never numbered more than about 14,000 – 3000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris in all. These 14,000 were up against combined British, Belgian and Portuguese forces of estimated 300,000 in size.
- von Lettow-Vorbeck became fluent in Swahili during his African adventures, and treated his Askari warriors as absolute equals; he promoted many of them to his officers’ ranks, and addressed them fully in their native tongue. He was the first German commander to have black officers in his regiment, and when the war was over, brought a number of them home with him to serve in the Freikorps as his delegate officers.
- With supplies limited, the Schutztruppe managed to salvage the guns off of the sunken SMS Konigsberg, and convert them into land-based artillery pieces; these became the largest standard artillery pieces in Africa thanks to the ingenuity of his engineering corps managing to recover them successfully out of the Rufiji River delta.
- The Germans won the battle of Mahiwa in October 1917 despite being outnumbered by the Brits 4900-1500, and it wasn’t close either – 2700 British troops killed or wounded to 500-600 Germans and Askaris killed or wounded. They also captured the British camp, which von Lettow-Vorbeck would later write about as having “so much wine and schnapps that even with the best will in the world it was impossible to consume it all.”
- In November 1917, with combined British, Belgian and Portuguese forces turning up the heat on the Germans, von Lettow-Vorbeck made the difficult and gutsy decision to cut his own supply lines, becoming a fully nomadic company by crossing over into Portuguese Mozambique after months of being pursued. On literally their first day across the River Rovuma, the Germans attacked the garrison of Ngomano and managed to replenish their supplies until the end of the war. They replaced all their old weapons and ammunition with brand-new British-built Lee-Enfield rifles, and also added machine guns and mortars to their arsenal. By war’s end in November 1918, they still had more ammunition than they could adequately carry.
- While they still never defeated the Germans in battle per se, the British were finally able to control the threat of the Schutztruppe by enlisting one of their former mortal enemies, South African commander Jan Smuts. Smuts was a Boer who fought a guerrilla war against the British in South Africa from 1899-1902; his knowledge of guerrilla tactics proved to be the only thing that could effectively slow down the Germans. 45,000 British, South African and Indian troops still weren’t enough to catch the Germans, but it was finally enough to keep them from outmanoeuvring them at every turn. The Germans only stopped fighting once the news of the cease-fire had made it to Africa.
- At war’s end, after the armistice had been signed in Europe, the British sent German troops and POWs to Dar-es-Salaam to await passage home to Europe. However, seeing the terrible treatment of Askaris under the British forces, von Lettow-Vorbeck refused to leave Tanganyika until they received the same treatment as his white officers – which he secured for them in the end.
- Returning home to Germany, he and his officers received heroes’ welcomes – von Lettow-Vorbeck had been promoted to major-general while out in the field, and his company got a parade down the streets of Berlin.
- After leaving the army, he entered politics, serving in the Reichstag, and working hard to oppose the politics of one particular founder of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t prevent the party’s rise to power, though despite his unpopular conservative politics, was still revered by the entire country as a hero of the old regime.
- In 1935, as a token of goodwill, von Lettow-Vorbeck was offered an ambassadorship to the UK – and in response, he said this, and I swear to God that this is a direct quote: “Adolf Hitler can go fuck himself.” Needless to say, this pushed him even further out of favor with the Nazi party, but his popularity amongst everyday German citizens prevented him from being purged or murdered. The Second World War was difficult for him – his sons had been killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his house destroyed by Allied bombing, his pension withheld by the Nazi party, and he was broke, relying on food packages from outside Germany to survive – but fortunately, with economic aid returning, he was able to rebuild his life.
- In 1953, at the request of his old adversary Jan Smuts, who was now the president of South Africa, von Lettow-Vorbeck returned to East Africa, where his old Askari warriors greeted him heartily; he also received British and South African military honors as well as a pension from the South African government.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck died eleven days before his 94th birthday back home in Hamburg; the West German government flew in two of his old Askari officers as offical guests of the state in order to attend the funeral. Shortly thereafter, all surviving Askari warriors received backpay and pensions from the West German government, making amends for their rapid departure from the continent. Despite the devastation of the First World War, it’s extremely clear that a man who managed to command this much respect from all sides of the fighting is without a doubt a true badass of history.