Read an Excerpt
The Forgotten Front
The East African Campaign 1914-1918
By Ross Anderson
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Ross Anderson
All rights reserved.
The Strategic Background
As Europe slid towards war in July 1914, life in colonial East Africa continued at its normal pace. Senior officials and military officers were aware of the increasingly disturbing news, but for the vast majority of the population there was little expectation that conflict would come to them. Few of the white settlers or officials had any great enthusiasm for fighting their neighbours, while the African population was largely unaware of this remote quarrel between Europeans. In German East Africa, the authorities were preparing for a major exhibition to celebrate the achievements of the past twenty years. Certainly, East Africa seemed an unlikely place for hostilities between the rival empires. European rule dated back less than thirty years and, despite a steady influx of settlers, the overwhelming majority of the population remained African. By 1914, the population of German East Africa was over 7.5 million Africans, 14,000 Indians and over 5,300 Europeans, as compared to the nearly 7 million Africans, 28,000 Indians and 6,000 Europeans in British East Africa and Uganda. The proportions were similar in the surrounding territories of the Belgian Congo, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa.
Whether colonies, protectorates or chartered territories, they were all notable for their sheer size and lack of development. German East Africa was nearly twice the size of metropolitan Germany, measuring some 1,100 km north to south and 960 km east to west. Its terrain and climate varied tremendously, ranging from arid steppes to humid jungles and rugged mountains. Roads were very few and the main means of transportation was by the two railways, the Usambara Railway in the north and the Central Railway in the centre of the colony. They had been built in an attempt to stimulate economic development, but revenues were still very limited in relation to the cost of building. To the north British East Africa was equally varied, with its economic lifeline being the Uganda Railway that ran from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. In the west, the Belgian Congo was an enormous expanse of tropical forest and river, where movement was slow and difficult. Further south, British Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were notable for vast areas and poor communications, while the northern part of Portuguese East Africa was virtually untouched by Europeans. The region offered considerable potential, but in 1914 it had little economic or military value. As a consistent drain on the respective imperial exchequers, it was hardly a rich prize. But, whatever its value, East Africa was inextricably drawn into war, with few imagining the scope of the fighting that would bring unprecedented devastation.
East Africa's lack of economic strength was reflected in the weakness of its military power. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, European governments had tried to develop their territories through agriculture, trade and settlement. Faced by persistent budget shortfalls and constant demands for spending, they kept military expenditure to the minimum necessary to maintain European supremacy. Power was exerted through a combination of locally raised military units and paramilitary police, all commanded by whites. These were expected to keep law and order, but colonial governments were quite prepared to use force to control the African population. Punitive expeditions against recalcitrant tribes were common, especially on the frontier, although methods often varied.
In the opening months of the war, there was considerable criticism about the apparent lack of military preparation or planning. This was not actually the case for either Britain or Germany. The former, as the leading imperial and naval power, had put considerable thought into the problems of colonial defence. The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) had carried out a series of detailed surveys and draft schemes of defence. These ranged from the general principles, to details as to the position of regular army officers seconded to local defence forces, to the defence of cable communications. Furthermore, detailed studies of the various colonies and protectorates, including East Africa, were produced against the most recent intelligence estimates.
Sea power was fundamental to British imperial defence. The Royal Navy was the means by which the security of overseas territories and trade would be secured. The power of the fleet was augmented by a worldwide system of undersea telegraph cables, all landing in friendly territory, which provided unparalleled and secure communications. With this combination of naval strength and centralised decision-making, the British Admiralty expected to gain mastery of the ocean lines quickly in order to maintain the uninterrupted flow of shipping and trade. It accepted that in the early stages of a conflict, an enemy might find it possible to gain local superiority in distant waters and threaten overseas possessions. But ultimate victory would accrue to the greater naval power and the fate of the African, or any, colonies would depend on this rather than local military operations.
This meant that colonial defence policy was directed to the prevention and suppression of African uprisings and such forces were specifically not intended to match the strengths of the forces in neighbouring colonies. Based on these assumptions, the defence of British East Africa and its all-important Uganda Railway had been considered in detail and a comprehensive defence plan had been drafted and updated by 1912. Reflecting the political circumstances of the day, it focused on the potential threat from German East Africa. It was based on the latest, and quite accurate, intelligence estimates of German military strength as well as the terrain and likely enemy approaches. Particular detail was devoted to the importance and vulnerability of the Uganda Railway although it also took into account the difficulties of movement and the dispersed nature of the potential enemy forces. It recognised that with the King's African Rifles (KAR) focused on tribal operations in the far north of the protectorate, they would need up to two weeks to redeploy to the south. But the more dispersed German Schutztruppe (Protective Force) would take much longer to move north, giving sufficient time to parry any invasion. The plan was underpinned by recognition of the fundamental importance of the Royal Navy's obtaining ultimate supremacy.
Germany had rather different conceptions of colonial defence, owing largely to its status as a land power in Europe. As a relative newcomer to overseas imperialism, its empire was widely spread and vulnerable. Despite the naval arms race, the German Admiralty realised that it could never compete with the British outside European waters. Consequently, it adopted a strategy known as Kreuzerkrieg (cruiser warfare) which would attack British shipping at its weakest points. This meant that the cruisers and armed auxiliaries stationed abroad would put to sea as soon as hostilities threatened and would patrol their secret war stations with orders to attack isolated merchant vessels. They would avoid enemy squadrons and concentrate on the shipping lanes that maintained Britain's wealth and power. While aggressive, it was also a policy of weakness that implicitly acknowledged that colonial possessions would be left to their own defences. For Germany, victory on land would determine the fate of the colonies.
Bereft of naval protection, German East Africa's first line of defence was diplomatic, for it lay within the area described by the Berlin Act of 1885 that attempted to regulate responsibilities and rights in the exploitation of the Congo Basin. Critically, the Act permitted the neutralisation of that area in time of a general European war under certain conditions. Chapter III, Article 10 stated that each of the ruling powers had the option of declaring their part of the Congo Basin neutral so long as: 'the Powers which exercise or shall exercise the rights of sovereignty or protectorate over those territories, using their option of proclaiming themselves neutral, shall fulfil the duties which neutrality requires'.
This option was circumscribed by Article 11 which specified that such neutrality required common consent of the powers before becoming effective. Thus, while any power could attempt to neutralise its colonial territories there, its effectiveness depended on its neutrality being recognised by the others. Practically, the declaration of neutrality depended on whether it suited the respective imperial interests. German planners had considered this possibility in 1912 and had concluded that the British were unlikely to declare or accept such neutralisation as it would restrict their freedom of action. If neutrality failed, they would fall back on the Hague Convention to protect their coastal ports. This agreement had made it illegal to bombard undefended cities, so the Germans proposed to withdraw their coastal garrisons and to concentrate the troops inland. This would prevent the Royal Navy from using its formidable firepower while leaving many of the most important economic and trade centres intact.
The plan was far from being entirely passive as it envisaged a vigorous resistance in the interior of the colony. The two railway systems would be used to provide operational mobility and the Schutztruppe commander had full authority to conduct an aggressive defence. The plan was agreed in Berlin before being accepted fully by both the governor and the commander of the day. These military preparations were matched by detailed planning in the civil government departments. There had been a number of meetings in Berlin between various government departments to discuss and co-ordinate mobilisation and emergency measures. This included the production of a draft proclamation of emergency powers for the use of the governor in dealing with war, uprisings or simple unrest.
The German pre-war preparations were nothing if not thorough. If the means allocated to the defence of German East Africa were meagre and inadequate, that was the considered judgement of the government. In this regard, the policies of both the British and Germans were remarkably similar. Both realised that the colonies had negligible strategic value and allocated the minimum resources possible to guard their national interests.
Elsewhere in East Africa, Belgium and Portugal appear to have put less effort or emphasis into colonial defence. Neither had strong military or naval forces nor the financial strength to match Britain or Germany. The Belgian Congo had only emerged from the devastating exploitation of private ownership in 1908, while Portuguese East Africa was weakly governed and sparsely settled. Defence of colonial rule was the overriding consideration and they had no real territorial ambitions.
THE STRATEGIC SITUATION
Anglo-German naval rivalry had played its part in the coming of war. But in the colonial arena there had been some attempt to reduce tensions and the nations had initialled the draft of a secret treaty aimed at carving up the Portuguese colonies in the case of an expected financial default. This initiative ultimately foundered due to British reservations and the Portuguese learning of the double-dealings of its erstwhile ally. Apart from these fruitless negotiations, there were no burning colonial issues that separated Britain and Germany in Africa. Nonetheless, a group in government, including the colonial secretary, Dr Wilhelm Solf, aspired to a German Mittelafrika that would stretch from coast to coast. This would be achieved through generous helpings from the Portuguese and Belgian-held territories. But it was hardly a vital interest and the Germans realised that British naval power would be dominant overseas. As such, short-term losses would have to be accepted and the reordering of the imperial system would have to await a decisive German victory in Europe and the inevitable peace conference.
As the world's leading trading nation, Britain's position depended on the ocean lanes being kept free from threat. This was not only for sound commercial reasons, but also once war had broken out, for food imports and the unimpeded movement of men and material from the far-flung corners of the Empire. In practical terms, this meant concentrating its efforts on attacking the German system of overseas naval bases and communications without detracting from the efforts in the main theatre of war. Such a policy was also attractive to the government as it could be largely achieved by naval power and limited amphibious operations against coastal installations. Most importantly, it required neither the conquest of substantial inland territories nor the deployment of large bodies of troops.
In the pre-war years, the British Admiralty had followed a programme of withdrawing its best ships to home waters in order to counter the growing threat of the German High Sea Fleet in the North Sea. This deliberately left the more remote stations with ageing and second-rate vessels. Such ships were deemed adequate to deal with the principal expected opposition in the form of the German overseas cruiser force. The bulk of their naval power, the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, was based at Tsingtau in north China and possessed two new armoured cruisers together with three light cruisers, one of which, Emden, would ultimately influence East Africa. The remaining ships included two light cruisers in the Caribbean with another, SMS Königsberg, stationed at Dar-es-Salaam, in German East Africa. There were also a considerable number of merchant ships at sea that were intended to act as auxiliaries for the warships. Together, such a force posed a considerable threat to seaborne trade and the all-important troop convoys destined for Europe. The Indian Ocean was a particular area of weakness as German cruisers could easily swoop undetected onto the vital shipping and troop convoys moving between Australia, New Zealand, India and the Suez Canal. In this context, even a single enemy warship could wreak considerable havoc and damage on British interests if left undisturbed. This put great pressure on tracking down and destroying the enemy raiders as quickly as possible.
However, the Royal Navy still remained superior in numbers and could easily reinforce the overseas stations, whereas the High Sea Fleet could not. Furthermore, Germany had only a handful of overseas ports, notably Tsingtau, New Guinea and Dar-es-Salaam. In the age of coal-fired ships, this was a critical limitation as ships needed regular replenishment of fuel that was both slow and laborious to carry out. The plans for Kreuzerkrieg recognised this problem and attempted to solve it through a system of supply ships and prearranged coal stocks in neutral ports. Such vessels would sail unobtrusively and link up with the raider before finding an isolated anchorage to conduct coaling. Stealth and access to neutral ports were critical to the success of the strategy as the only alternative was to offload the coal from prizes, a most unreliable method. In contrast, Britain had an extensive system of bunkering stations across the globe.
Communications were the other key link. The British undersea cables were complemented by a growing network of wireless stations that enabled their warships to range freely, yet remain linked to the Admiralty in London. The Germans had nothing comparable and the cable to Dar-es-Salaam passed through British-held Zanzibar, only 16 km distant. This left their communications vulnerable to interception or disconnection in times of tension or hostility. To counter this, and impressed by British advances in wireless telegraphy, they had established their own system with the main transmitter at Nauen, outside Berlin. This station could send signals up to 6,000 km, but not reliably. In order to reach Dar-es-Salaam or the Pacific colonies, a system of relays was set up. The main link station was at Kamina, in tiny Togoland on the West Coast of Africa. It then re-broadcast messages to Windhoek in South-West Africa and to Dar-es-Salaam in East Africa and thence onward. Dar-es-Salaam had a regular range of about 2,000 km, making it useful for controlling shipping as well as passing information to two short-range stations at Bukoba and Muansa, with ranges of 200 and 600 km respectively. Within the colony, a system of telegraphs and telephones linked most of the major stations, although the south and interior remained isolated. The system was technically advanced and was the indispensable link between Europe, the Navy and other colonies.
Wireless was still very primitive and storms and unfavourable atmospheric conditions could delay the reception of important messages for several days. By nature of its range, its signals were easy to intercept by the enemy and the very traffic could give a ship's presence away. Transmitters were large, bulky and fairly immobile, making them vulnerable to attack and destruction.
In August 1914, the opposing naval forces in the Indian Ocean were relatively weak. The protection of East African waters was the responsibility of the Cape of Good Hope Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Herbert King-Hall. It comprised three ageing light cruisers, the oldest of which had been in service for twenty years. His flag and most modern ship, HMS Hyacinth, of 5,600 tons and mounting eleven 6-inch guns, had a top speed of 19 knots; Astraea, the oldest, was of 4,360 tons with two 6-inch guns and could make 19 knots; while Pegasus, the smallest at 2,135 tons, had an armament of eight 4-inch guns and a maximum speed of 21 knots.
Excerpted from The Forgotten Front by Ross Anderson. Copyright © 2014 Ross Anderson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.