At the outbreak of World War I, the German troops were outnumbered by the British but it took the whole war period to defeat the valiant German Commander (Oberst) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck - creator of the famed askari battalions - who started the hostilities by attacking Taveta in August 1914. German troops kept the initiative for a long time but they were unable to resist the constantly improving fighting ability of the Allied Forces.
General von Lettow-Vorbeck is perhaps the most successful guerrilla commander in military history. Descended from a famous Prussian military family, he saw action in the Boxer Rebellion and served in German Southwest Africa during the Hottentot and Herero Rebellion of 1904-08. But it is his exploits in German East Africa during World War I for which he is world-renowned and rightly so; for you see, he never lost a battle.
At the outbreak of World War I Lettow, then a colonel, had two hundred eighteen white officers and two thousand five hundred forty-two askaris (native troops) under his command. The first thing he did was to kidnap the local civilian German governor, to keep him from surrendering. Then Lettow took the initiative against the larger British force in the theater.
Lettow had no communication whatever with his own government and no expectation that Germany would send reinforcements or supplies. He determined that his mission would be to use hit and run tactics to tie down a huge number of British troops in East Africa and thus prevent their joining the fighting in Europe. For more than four years he fought without pause and covered (mostly on foot) an area larger than the eastern United States. 130 different generals went into action against him during the course of the war. At times the Allied forces in the theater totaled over a hundred thousand; Lettow never had more than twelve thousand troops at his disposal.
Lettow began his campaign with a series of effective raids against British railway in Kenya. In two years' time twenty trains were destroyed along with miles of track.
The Battle of Tanga, fought on the night of November 3, 1914, is the most famous battle of the first two years. Despite being outnumbered by more than 8 to 1, Lettow repelled a British/Indian amphibious assault with devastating effect: more than four thousand casualties were inflicted on the invader; only fifteen Germans and fifty-four askaris were killed. In preparation for this battle Lettow blackened his face and, disguised as an African, reconnoitered between the lines. The confusion was so extreme among the British and Indians that they later said that Lettow had "mobilized the bees" against them; it happened that swarms of bees covered the battlefield that night!
Although he could not summon bees, Lettow did employ several inventive devices - like camourflaging his men with leaves, making bandages out of bark, and manufacturing boots out of animal hide. Herds of cattle were collected which moved with the army. Large amounts of arms and ammunitions were captured from the enemy to supply the troops. Lettow salvaged the 105mm guns from the beached German cruiser, Koenigsberg (which has an interesting story of its own), and employed these as field artillery. There was no quinine to fend off malaria, so Lettow made a foul-tasting substitute by brewing a kind of bark (since he did contract malaria on ten different occasions, the medicinal value of "Lettow's schnapps" is patently debatable).
Lettow had great admiration for his askaris, who were fanatically loyal to him. He treated them with fairness and shared their hardships. One luxury he permitted himself was a bicycle. He often led marches on this and even performed his own patrols.
One thing that distinguished the East African war was chivalry. From the beginning, Lettow adopted the totally unprecedented policy of freeing any European prisoners he took, even officers, if they would give their word of honor not to fight against Germany again during the course of the war. This was much more sensible than having to haul prisoners along with him, and guard and feed them.
In early 1916, the allied command put South African General (later Field Marshal) Jan Christiaan Smuts, the former Boer War General, in the field to beat the indefatigable Lettow. To defeat the Germans, Smuts tried to surround Lettow or to force him to fight a decisive battle. Smuts brought with him 45,000 fresh South African soldiers. A fantastic proportion of these soon became casualties through malaria and otherwise. Lettow kept winning battle after battle.
Smuts repeatedly called on his foe to surrender; he repeatedly refused. One day came a message from Smuts, a chivalrous foe, informing Lettow that the German government had awarded him the Pour le merite - the supreme German decoration for valor. Lettow replied to Smuts with a letter of acknowledgement saying that he was sure there had been some "mistake," since he did not deserve such an exalted decoration.
The last big battle of the campaign was at Mahiva in October 1917. Again the British were badly bloodied: they suffered more than 50% casualties (2700 out of 4900). Ninety-five members of Lettow's army were killed in the encounter. However his army had been reduced to less than a thousand men, so he withdrew.
The increasing weight of Allied numbers kept Lettow on the move. In December 1917 he launched a series of hard marches into Mozambique and routed the Portuguese forces stationed there. Lettow's army lived off the land and requisitioned war supplies from the ample Portuguese supply dumps.
In the Fall of 1918 Lettow invaded Rhodesia and on November 13th captured the town of Kasama - one of the only occasions on which a German Commander occupied British territory during the war. It was then, from a British POW, that Lettow learned of the armistice signed on November 11th ending the war and that the armistice terms included the evacuation of East Africa by Germany. Lettow had good stocks of cattle and ammunition; he had a regular influx of askaris to maintain an army; he was in no danger of being surrounded or defeated; he could have continued the war indefinitely. His first impulse was to fight his way from Rhodesia across the Congo and retire into Angola, where he would be impregnable.
He considered, however, that as a German soldier faithful to the fatherland he must honor the armistice. Lettow did so on November 23rd. Technically speaking, he did not surrender, but merely disbanded his troops and put himself at the disposal of the British commander. Lettow ended his campaign with 155 Europeans and even more askaris (three thousand) than he had started the war with. More than 300,000 troops were deployed during the course of the war to hem in and defeat Lettow's army, yet he did not suffer a single defeat. The Allies suffered sixty thousand casualties including twenty thousand British and Indian dead in East Africa during the war. Lettow returned to Germany in 1919 and retired in 1920. He entered politics and served ten years in the Reichstag, Germany's Parliament. He opposed the National Socialists. When the Nazis offered him an ambassadorial post, he refused. After the German defeat and collapse in World War II, he lived in poverty.
Smuts, down in Johannesburg, who always had profound respect and admiration for Vorbeck and was determined to give him help. He worked out an arrangement whereby Lettow-Vorbeck, an enemy general, received a pension from the victors! He continued to receive this pension until his death on March 9th, 1964.
[Brief history of German East Africa]
[1915 Interim Bank Notes] [The
20 Heller "gun metal" coin struck in 1916]
[1916 15 Rupee "Tabora Pound" Gold Coin] [1917 Interim Bank Notes - struck in the field]
[von Lettow-Vorbeck an extraordinary soldier] [Vorbeck's Despairing Post Card]
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