African theatre of World War I
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The African Theatre of World War I comprises geographically distinct campaigns around the German colonies of Kamerun, Togoland, German South-West Africa, and German East Africa. The conflict was fought between German colonial troops or Schutztruppe and the Allied forces which included those of the British Empire, France, Belgium, and Portugal.
The British Empire, with near total command of the world's oceans, had the power and resources to conquer the German colonies when the Great War started. Most German colonies in Africa had been recently acquired and were not well defended, with the notable exception of German East Africa. They were also surrounded on all land sides by African colonies belonging mostly to their enemies, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and, later in the war, Portugal.
Germany had two colonies in West Africa, Togoland (modern-day Togo and the Volta Region of Ghana) and Kamerun (modern-day Cameroon). The small colony of Togoland was invaded in early August 1914 and surrendered that same month to British and French forces.
The German troops in Kamerun fought fiercely against invading British, French and Belgian forces, but in 1916 (after many soldiers had escaped into Spanish Guinea, which was neutral territory) the fighting ended with the surrender of the remaining German colonial armed forces (Schutztruppe).
Strategic assets in the German West African colonies included:
- 4 high power longwave transmitters (one in Togo, the remainder in Kamerun)
- port facilities containing coal refuelling depots
German South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) was a huge and arid territory. Bounded on the coast by the desolate Namib Desert, the only major German population was around the colonial capital of Windhoek, some 200 miles (320 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The Germans had 3,000 soldiers and could count on the support of most of the 7,000 adult male German colonists. In addition, the Germans had very friendly relations with the Boers in South Africa, who had ended a bloody war with the British just twelve years before.
The British began their attack by organizing and arming their former enemies, the Boers. This was dangerous, and the proposed attack on German South-West Africa turned into an active rebellion by some 12,000 Boers.
Boer leaders Jan Smuts and Louis Botha both took the British side against Christiaan Beyers and Christiaan De Wet. In two battles in October, the rebels were defeated and by the end of 1914, the rebellion was ended.
General Smuts then continued his military operations into South-West Africa, starting around January 1915. The South African troops were battle-hardened and experienced in living in this type of terrain. They crossed the hundreds of miles of empty land on horseback in four columns. The Germans tried to delay this advance, but without success. Windhoek was captured on May 12, 1915. Two months later, all the German forces had surrendered. South Africa effectively ruled South-West Africa for the next 75 years.
Even before the official declaration of war between Germany and Portugal in March 1916, German and Portuguese troops clashed several times on the border between German South West Africa and Portuguese Angola. The Germans won most of these clashes and were able to occupy the Humbe region of southern Angola until Portuguese control being restored a few days before the Germans surrendered, in July 1915.
German East Africa
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In German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda) the British were unable to fully subdue the defenders of the colony despite four years of effort and tens of thousands of casualties. The German commander, Colonel (later General) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, fought a guerrilla campaign for the duration of the Great War. His achievement became the stuff of legend, although in military terms his epic campaign had only a small impact on the course of the War.
German forces staged raids, hit-and-run attacks, and ambushes. The British army often laid traps for Lettow-Vorbeck's troops but failed to catch him. The German forces ranged over all of German East Africa, living off the land and capturing military supplies from the British and Portuguese military.
In 1916 the British gave the task of defeating the Germans to the Boer commander Jan Smuts along with a very large force. His conquest of German East Africa was methodical and moderately successful. By the autumn of 1916, British troops had captured the German railway line and were solidly in control of the land north of the railway, while Belgian–Congolese troops under the command of General Tombeur had captured the Eastern part of the colony, including Ruanda-Urundi and Tabora. However, Lettow-Vorbeck's army was not defeated and remained active long after Smuts had left to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London in 1917. The German forces moved into Portuguese East Africa in November 1917, and later back into German East Africa, finally ending up in Northern Rhodesia when the war ended.
Lettow-Vorbeck's small army agreed to a cease-fire at the Chambeshi River on November 14, 1918, after receiving a telegram informing them that Germany had given up fighting on November 11 (see Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial). The formal surrender took place on November 23, 1918 at Abercorn. Lettow-Vorbeck's army was never defeated in battle, and he was welcomed in Germany as a hero.
After the war
The war marked the end of Germany's short-lived overseas empire. Britain, France and Belgium divided up the German African colonies between them, but their colonial rule would be short-lived also. Most of the former German colonies had gained their independence by 1960; Namibia (German South West Africa) was the last to gain independence, doing so from South Africa only in 1990.
The 1976 film Black and White in Color, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud gave a fictionalized view of the Franco-German campaign in either Togoland or Kamerun. Savagely anti-militarist, it showed peaceful French and German traders shooting each other just because they were expected to. Eventually Indian troops under British officers arrive and take the spoils.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to African theatre of World War I.|
- Strachan, Hew (2001), The First World War: To Arms, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-926191-1
- Strachan, Hew (2004), The First World War In Africa, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-925728-0
|Maps of the war in Africa|