By Edward Paice.
Published in 2007 by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson.
ISBN-13: 9 780297 847090
ISBN-10: 0 297 847090
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
Imagine a place that seems once removed from Hell itself. Where wild animals stalk and kill with abandon. Where insects spread disease and all manner of agonies. Where the weather can burn a man’s hide or rains freeze him to the bone. Where heat exhaustion, dysentery, malaria and typhoid walk hand in hand with starvation and privations unimagined. Where on top of all this, you have to fight a war. This was East Africa 1914 to 1918.
The “Scramble For Africa” is well documented. The governments of Europe vied to acquire vast tracts of the “Dark continent” to plunder riches, gain massive status and get one over everyone else. People like Cecil Rhodes had a dream of creating a red carpet from the Med to the Cape and by the end of the war the British had achieved just that; but at immense cost.
Colonialism is a dirty word today and this can be stated with little wonder when coupled with the facts of the suffering meted out to the peoples of Africa. The Portuguese ran colonies often little more than slave states providing human traffic along the traditional routes maintained by Arabs. The Germans brutally crushed any opposition to their authority. In 1904 the suppression of the Herero in South West Africa cost one hundred and twenty thousand people their lives. King Leopold II of Belgium went one better than everyone else and grabbed a country just for himself. Twenty odd years of rapine and plunder in the Congo Free State are estimated to have cost eleven million lives. This is made harder to swallow when you consider he got his private playground with the help of no lesser man than Henry Morton Stanley.
As to the British, their problems with natives and settlers alike are well documented.
We’ve all seen Zulu, may know of the Ashanti wars, and most people are aware of the horrors of the two Boer wars. These were mere overtures for things to come.
The outbreak of war in 1914 found South Africa an intensely divided country. Boer even fought Boer as factions vied to gain the ascendance, broadly divided in favour of or against Britain and sometimes even in favour of Germany. A decisive conquest of German South West Africa by Jan Christian Smuts did not end the matter. But an ebullient mood in the country soon led Smuts and others to join the growing war that had broken out in East Africa between Britain and Germany. The fighting would continue two weeks after the Armistice in Europe. By the end soldiers from Britain, Belgium, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Portugal, Germany, the Gold Coast and the east African colonies would fill cemeteries the length and breadth of the land. Tens of thousands would die sad lonely deaths abandoned in the bush. Reputations would be made and broken, myths created and dispelled, in a war for the very future of the continent; fought in progressively devastated country five times the size of Germany.
It all started very badly for the British with a humiliating defeat at Tanga in November, 1914, where a superior landing force was routed. Things did not get better for quite some time. The senior German military officer, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck would lead the Allies on a bloody dance through modern day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, down in to Mozambique, Malawi and the borders of Zimbabwe. Along the way he would rise to be a general, win the Pour le Merite and become a hero to friend and foe alike.
Edward Paice’s meticulously researched Tip & Run tells in gripping detail how von Lettow and his forces set about causing chaos at every turn. In a book that has a twenty-page bibliography alone, for a war we barely know, we learn how competing armies could pass each other the dense bush. How political intrigue between the Allies reached such crazy proportions it is sometimes hard to think they were on the same side at all. Where the consequences of revolutions and inflated national pride could lead to disaster on the battlefield and misery everywhere else. A demonstrable fear of a Muslim ‘jihad’ against the Allies made for even more nightmares, but it failed to materialise.
Amazing episodes are sprinkled through an increasingly grim tale. Read of Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson who commanded a three thousand mile expedition to transport two four-ton gunboats to Lake Tanganyika to wrest control from the Germans in 1916. On delivery of the boats, he fought and won a crucial naval battle. We have General Kurt Wahle, the oldest recorded combatant of the entire war who came out of retirement to fight for his country while on holiday and finished it with an Iron Cross 1st Class and the Pour le Merite.
The amazing adventures of the cruiser Konigsberg and the bizarre tale of a zeppelin sent to supply the Kaiser’s army make for fascinating reading. Other characters fill the pages, men like the ideally named Major Kraut (!), the hunter and pioneer Ewart Grogan and M’Ithiria Mukuria, one of the last surviving African veterans, still alive in 2003.
The reputation of Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts is central to the book. A man who had famously defeated British in battle during the Boer War, he led the large Anglo-South African force attempting to bottle up von Lettow’s troops. He failed in almost every respect, but this did not stop him claiming a wholly premature victory in 1916 before leaving the war to others but continued meddling with appointments and events from London. An ally of Churchill, his star rose in every sense. In fairness to him, he, along with diplomats and other military men had a trying time dealing with the bewildering machinations of the Belgians and the wholesale unreliability of the Portuguese.
There are plenty of heroes in this book; but the true stars are the Askari, the African soldiers who fought for the four colonial belligerents. This is where the lasting and deserved fame of the King’s African Rifles was made. As to victims there are far too many. Tens of thousands died serving as labourers and carriers for the armies. The statistics make for horrible reading. The eventual number of deaths in the war runs to three hundred thousand or more.
Worse was to come. Just as victory was secured the terrible Spanish flu pandemic spread through the ravaged continent like wildfire killing Africans, Europeans and Indians in huge numbers. Two million people died. Even the animals were not spared; witnesses seeing thousands of baboons wiped out by the virus.
This was a war of heroism, ingenuity, stoic endurance and, above all, immense suffering; dismissed as a sideshow “at home”. It is a forgotten war. The most we are exposed to it today are occasional re-runs of The African Queen, Out Of Africa and the Shout At The Devil on TV. This is a tragedy in itself.
The Great War fought in Europe and the Dardanelles will always take precedence over the African conflict and this is difficult to argue with. But the events in Africa, described as “A war of extermination and attrition without parallel in modern times”, deserve a much closer look. A sideshow, it was not. A Cinderella, it remains.