Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Very British View of the Great War in Africa

Digging deep in the Internet, I came up with this interesting centennial "talking points" paper from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  It is very interesting, but remember the point of view as you read along. The authors included this disclaimer: "This is a subjective and partial account of the First World War from an African perspective, intended to give an idea of the issues which might affect African states’ attitudes to the centenary. It is not a narrative of the Great War in Africa."

Native Troops & Bearers in East Africa

The First World War followed hard on the heels of the Scramble for Africa, that period immediately following the 1885 Berlin Conference marked by a precipitate grab by the European powers for African territory, regardless of its economic or strategic value.  In some parts the Scramble had not yet finished, and campaigns of colonial conquest continued even as colonial powers squared up against each other.  In other places Africans tried to exploit the distraction of their masters to win back their independence.  But even more than they were during the Scramble, Africans were helpless – if not always passive - victims of the Great War.  The feeling of futility which characterises popular European perceptions of the War is even more true of their former African subjects.  But set against that, African soldiers who fought for France in Europe returned emboldened with new (to Africa) political ideas which contributed to the growth of modern nationalism (a trend greatly reinforced by the experience of French African soldiers in the Second World War).

By 1914 all of the western European powers had major holdings in sub-Saharan Africa.  In spite of being the largest landowner there, Britain always considered it secondary to India, the “Jewel in the Crown”.  But it was home to much of the French empire, most of the German and Italian, and all of the Belgian.  There were only two independent territories, Liberia and Ethiopia, the former a virtual American colony and the latter only free because of some deft diplomatic (and military) footwork at the end of the 19th century.  Although the continent had almost provoked European wars (including the famous Fashoda incident in 1898 ),all of the colonial authorities got on fine with their neighbors, sharing the “white man’s burden”.  

German Mounted Forces Near Kilimanjaro 

There was little to choose between colonial authorities.  The ruthlessness which had characterised the Scramble (and the early excesses of Belgian and German colonialism) was tempered by the humanitarian (if paternalistic) impulses which had always been part of Europe’s approach to Africa.  The colonial authorities looked forward—as far as scarce resources allowed—to bettering the lives of their charges (mostly by making them productive units in the global economy).  All this was overturned by the outbreak of war, which intensified certain aspects of colonialism (economic exploitation, for example) while diminishing others (like education and health care).   Again, there was a reverse to this coin in that—for France at least—development became part of a “blood debt” owed to Africans for their sacrifices in the war.

The Berlin treaty had included a clause which forbade the export of European wars to Africa.  Although the governor of German East Africa tried to invoke this clause, any pacific civilian impulses were trumped by their military colleagues, infected by the same bellicosity which afflicted their metropolitan counterparts.  Before the end of August 1914 the Times was proclaiming Britain’s “first naval victory in the war” on Lake Nyasa (now Malawi) an outcome facilitated by the German commander’s ignorance of the outbreak of hostilities.  Across the continent Allied forces mobilized to conquer their German neighbors.  South Africa—delayed by a short Afrikaner rebellion—was not far behind, anxious to demonstrate that it was a loyal dominion worthy of sharing the spoils of empire.

Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
Most of the German colonies fell relatively quickly.  Only in East Africa did they hold out to the end—and beyond.  Led by Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, the colony’s Schutztruppe fought a peripatetic guerilla war which took it through Mozambique and Northern Rhodesia, surrendering only when it heard of the Kaiser’s abdication.  Characteristically, though, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s aim had  been not to preserve the German colony but to divert Allied resources from the decisive theatre in Europe.  The vast majority of his troops were black Africans, whose tenacity—unwittingly—meant that South Africa did not get the mandate over German East Africa (also, known as Tanganyika, now part of Tanzania) which it acquired over South West Africa, which in turn meant Namibia’s independence was delayed almost 30 years after Tanganyika’s.

Other than in East Africa, the most tenacious resistance to the Allies came from indigenous Africans led by fellow Africans, sometimes in ostensible alliance with the Turks.  Ominously, and not coincidentally,the hardest campaigns were fought in places all too familiar to 21st-century diplomats.  A Tuareg rebellion against the French (in what is now Mali and Niger) linked up with the Senussi rebellion against the Italians (and their British allies) in Libya, the first and only time until 2012 that Tuareg resistance to outsiders took on the nature of a jihad.  In Somalia the so-called “Mad Mullah ” fought a long hard jihad against the British which only spluttered to a close in 1920.  Worried that the outbreaks of Islamic militancy in East and West Africa might join up, the British conquered the Sultanate of Darfur in 1916.  In northern Nigeria the Native Authority in Bussa province (south west of Sokoto) was massacred by rebels in June 1915, prompting the dispatch of a military expedition.


  1. It was an interesting campaign. Hundreds of thousand troops, mainly South African and African troops pitted against a much smaller force, able to maintain itself almost to the end of the war

  2. A historical first, it seems: The Germans tried to supply their East African forces by Zeppelin, but the British put out the "fake news" that Lettow-Vorbeck had surrendered, and the airship turned back.

  3. For anyone interested in finding out more, visit The Great War in Africa Association -
    There are also numerous articles etc on and