The forgotten front: East Africa 1914-1918

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the East African campaign of the First World War is the largest conflict yet to take place on African soil in terms of scale and impact. Yet, it has languished in undeserved obscurity over the years with many people only vaguely aware of its course of events.

In Britain, most of the commemorative events held to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War have been firmly focussed on Europe and the heavy fighting that took place there. In contrast, the remembrance of far-way theatres has been much more subdued despite the enormous impact and devastation of the conflict on the societies that it touched.

East Africa stands out as the prime example of this relative neglect; it was the battleground for four empires and their African subject peoples with fighting that ranged from modern Kenya and Uganda in the north through Tanzania to Mozambique in the south, leaving hunger and devastation in its trail. Despite lasting for over four years and impacting the lives of millions of people, it still remains one of the least known theatres of the war.

While the name and exploits of the famed German commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the 1950s film The African Queen, which was inspired by an episode of the campaign, remain in the public consciousness, it is less appreciated that apart from the famous King’s African Rifles, the British brought in troops from the United Kingdom, India, South Africa, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, the Gambia, the West Indies, Nyasaland as well as both North and South Rhodesia to fight alongside with those from the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Mozambique. The opposing Germans, cut off by sea and blockage, used ingenuity, endurance and ruthless exploitation of their colonial subjects to survive in the field until the final Armistice in November 1918.

In contrast to the Western Front, the distances in East Africa were enormous and troop levels were low. Although there were a number of pitched battles, operations in East Africa were dominated by that of patrols and isolated columns moving through heavy bush with the nerve-wracking and constant threat of ambush. It was not uncommon for columns to advance a hundred miles through dense bush with their bases far in the rear and dependent on civilian carriers to move their supplies on their heads. Most of this had to be accomplished while marching on foot in terrain that ranged from arid deserts to tropical jungles to formidable mountains and usually on inadequate rations and in ragged clothing. Apart from the enemy, soldiers had to contend with dangerous wild animals such as lions, elephants and hippos as well as the clouds of voracious insects that carried pestilence and made life a misery. The results were unprecedented levels of sickness, including malaria, dysentery, and pneumonia, for humans, while nearly every single pack animal perished from disease.

In 1914, the British brought in substantial reinforcements from the Indian Army to reinforce the King’s African Rifles and then subsequently two divisions of South Africans for the offensive of 1916. But decisive victory eluded them while disease and overwork ravaged their ranks. It was to be a greatly expanded African force that led the clearance of German East Africa in 1917 and then the pursuit through Mozambique in 1918. They were backed by the thousands of carriers who moved their food, equipment and ammunition as well as the hundreds of thousands of others who worked the war economy.