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World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent

World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent

4.0 2
by Edward Paice
The definitive history of World War I's forgotten front: Britain versus Germany in East Africa to secure the belly of a continent.

On August 7, 1914, Britain fired its first shots of World War I not in Europe but in the German colony of Togo. The campaign to eliminate the threat at sea posed by German naval bases in Africa would soon be won, but in


The definitive history of World War I's forgotten front: Britain versus Germany in East Africa to secure the belly of a continent.

On August 7, 1914, Britain fired its first shots of World War I not in Europe but in the German colony of Togo. The campaign to eliminate the threat at sea posed by German naval bases in Africa would soon be won, but in the land war, especially in East Africa, British troops would meet far fiercer resistance from German colonial forces that had fully mastered the tactics of bush warfare. It was expected to be a "small war," over by Christmas, yet it would continue bloodily for more than four years, even beyond the signing of the Armistice in Europe.

Its costs were immense, its butchery staggering (in excess of100,000 British troops and 45,000 native recruits dead). Utmost among the tragic consequences, though, was the waste laid to the land and its indigenous peoples in what one official historian described as "a war of extermination and attrition without parallel in modern times." Imperialism had gone calamitously amok.

This eye-opening account of the Great War in East Africa does not flinch at the daily horrors of an ill-fated campaign—not just the combat but also a hostile climate, disease, the terrible loneliness—nor does it fail to recount tales of extraordinary courage and the kind of adventure that inspired fiction like C. S. Forester's The African Queen, William Boyd's An Ice-Cream War, and Wilbur Smith's Shout at the Devil. In all, it demonstrates dramatically why even the most hardened of Great War soldiers preferred the trenches of France to the trauma of East Africa.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Paice, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, has written what is by a significant margin the best book to date on the Great War in East Africa. Paice integrates an impressive spectrum of archival and printed sources into a comprehensive analysis based on the premise that, for economic and emotional reasons, "Africa mattered to the European powers." Paice accurately and evocatively describes a campaign in which modern technology was consistently frustrated by terrain, climate and disease. He acknowledges the tactical brilliance of German Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He demonstrates as well that the Germans sustained their operations through systematic brutality that has led too many historians to mistake Africansa' fear for loyalty. In that respect there was in practice little difference among the combatants. In East Africa horse transport was ineffective; supplies had to be moved by humans. Among more than a million Africans recruited by Britain alone, at least a tenth died. Subsistence economies were wracked by famine and disease, culminating in the influenza epidemic of 1918. While the voices of East Africaa's Great War remain largely Western, the burdens were disproportionately borne locally. 16 pages of photos; maps. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

This very detailed history of the World War I African campaigns focuses on the Allied efforts-ultimately unsuccessful and at great human cost-to root out a stubborn German colonial force. Numerous historians have examined the remarkable exploits of Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German East African campaign, who outthought a series of Allied commanders with many times his own force and denied masses of matériel and men to the European front. British historian Paice (Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of 'Cape-to-Cairo' Grogan) manages to bring into focus the immense logistical problems, hostile terrain, startlingly high casualties, and political disruption of a battleground that stretched from South Africa to Somalia. Readers will be particularly interested in the complex situation faced by General Smuts, Britain's South African commander, both in the field and on the highly charged home front, where the Boer War had not been forgotten. The author does an excellent job of untangling tactical issues while not losing sight of the big picture. Highly recommended for most libraries with interest in Africa or military history.
—Edwin B. Burgess

Kirkus Reviews
Masterly study reconfirms the significance and staggering human cost of the 1914-18 campaigns in East Africa. Considered by many then and now as a "sideshow" to World War I's European theater, the battle waged by Great Britain and its allies against the Germans in their respective East African colonies claimed more than 100,000 lives and cost a veritable fortune (£2.8 billion in today's money). And not everyone thought it was a minor field of conflict: "The Great War was more occasioned by conflicting colonial ambitions in Africa than by German and Austrian schemes in the Balkans and Asia Minor," argued British explorer Harry Johnson in 1919. It started badly for the British, who ran into immediate German resistance when they tried to secure the coast for shipping. Determined not to let the British cross the border into German East Africa, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck rebuffed them in the famous battle of Tanga. For four years, the German commander defied incursions by Allied troops in vastly superior numbers led by British generals Arthur Aitken, Michael Tighe and Reginald Hoskins, as well as South African commander Jan Smuts. He did not surrender until November 25, 1918, two weeks after the European armistice. English scholar Paice, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, puts enormous amounts of research to excellent use in his first book. The intricate narrative shows South Africans overcoming their resentment from the Boer War to join with the opportunistic Portuguese on the side of the British. In addition, a million able-bodied Africans were pressed into work as carriers for these armies over difficult, insect-ridden terrain. At least 95,000 died, alongside 11,189British troops. An authoritative summing-up of a grim, complex and little-known part of World War I.

Product Details

Pegasus Books
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6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Edward Paice was a History Scholar at Cambridge and winner of the Leman prize. After a decade working in London, he spent four years living and writing in East Africa. Paice is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a visiting Fellowship by Magadalene College, Cambridge in 2004. He lives in Kent.

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World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Willp More than 1 year ago
The First World War wrecked not only vast areas of Europe, Russia and the Middle East, but also huge tracts of Africa. Edward Paice¿s book studies this almost ignored disaster.

In Africa, the First World War was fought between Britain and Germany across German East Africa, an area five times the size of Germany, which became in 1919 British Tanganyika, later modern Tanzania.

On the British side, at least 100,000 people were killed, including 95,000 African carriers. Britain had recruited a million carriers from the five British-owned territories bordering German East Africa - the majority of the adult males. As one Colonial Office official noted, the campaign ¿only stopped short of a scandal because the people who suffered most were the carriers - and after all, who cares about native carriers?¿

Germany recruited an estimated 350,000 carriers, who probably also suffered a one in ten death rate. At least 300,000 civilians died in Ruanda, Urundi and German East Africa.

As Paice notes, German East Africa¿s ¿most productive areas had been fought over and ravaged by both sides.¿ Both sides stole grain and cattle as well as men. The war devastated the whole of East Africa, weakening the population so that they suffered a great famine in 1918, then the `Spanish flu¿, and then another famine.

The imperialist war between the British and German ruling classes laid waste some of Africa¿s most fertile land and killed probably half a million Africans, wrecking East Africa¿s prospects for decades to come.