The Longest Campaign

The First World War campaign that lasted the longest was not fought on the Western Front but in East Africa.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was the commander of a small army in German East Africa (Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda). He was determined to tie down as many Allied troops as he could in the region to prevent them from being deployed elsewhere.

During a four-year guerrilla campaign he successfully evaded a much larger number off British Imperial and Commonwealth troops sent to end the campaign. With an army that never numbered more than 14,000 men, comprising about 3,000 Germans and 11,000 askaris (African soldiers), he succeeded in occupying ten times that number of Allied troops.

Many troops suffered from the climate and tropical diseases. One unit, the 9th South African Infantry, began the campaign with 1,135 men in February 1916, but by October was down to 116, having hardly engaged the enemy.

For every man the Allies lost in battle, a further 30 were lost through sickness. Lettow-Vorbeck’s askaris, on the other hand, were more resistant to local diseases.

Letters from medical officer Captain Alexander Wallace in German East Africa to his fiancée in Scotland form an evocative account of the First World War’s longest campaign.

‘Having got the wounded away I rejoined the column. I found they had only gone two miles and were being held up by the Germans in the hills. Colonels Rogers and Murray thought the only thing to be done was to try and get round the Germans so at 6pm our column went out to do this. I can honestly say it was the worst night I have ever had in my life. It was bitterly cold and we marched through a succession of swamps… and pushed on up a steep pass through the mountains. Our men had just got to the top when they were fired on and for a time there was a regular duel… We had two men hit. We were rather lucky. The Germans must have got news of our flanking movement in the morning and rushed a force out to stop us. If they had got to the head of the pass a little sooner we would never have got up. The country here is simply a succession of hills. In the afternoon we pushed on another two miles, the Germans trying to stop us. We had to lie down every now and again when they were firing. Our scouts are out trying to find the whereabouts of the enemy… We then went on another four miles and got to a small mission flying a Red Cross flag. In it we found 15 Germans and 34 askaris, most of them sick, only a few wounded… All the Germans said they were tired of the war but that they were going to hold out until the very end. Most were from the crew of the Konigsberg… It is no good trying to prophesise about the end of this war – it seems as far off as ever.’

Letter from Captain Alexander Wallace to his fiancée Ethel, 6-13 September 1916

By October 1916 General Jan Smuts commander of the Allied forces began to withdraw many of his South African, Rhodesian, and Indian troops and replace them with Africans from the King’s African Rifles, Gold Coast and Nigerian Regiments, who were more resistant to the climate and local diseases. By November 1918 the ‘British Army’ was mainly composed of African soldiers.

Lettow-Vorbeck however was still raiding in 1918 when he learned of the Armistice, reputedly from a British prisoner. On 25 November 1918, he surrendered his unbeaten force, now reduced to about 1,500 men, to the British in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

During the campaign the British and Empire forces lost over 10,000 men. German losses were about 2,000. East Africans suffered the most. One estimate is that around 100,000 carriers and camp followers died on both sides.

By Dr Matt Thomas of the National Army Museum


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