5/1/1917 Victory proves elusive in German East Africa

British Empire forces are pushing into German East Africa, the Kaiser’s last overseas colony. The campaign is commanded by South Africa’s Smuts. Just 15 years ago he was fighting against the British in the Boer War but now he hopes to advance his country’s interest by aligning it with the Empire.

The invaders have covered impressive distances but victory is elusive. The Germans, under the overall command of Lettow-Vorbeck, have declined to stand and fight against superior forces. Instead they fight rearguard actions and retreat. Some on the Allied side have suggested that this suits Smuts, whose South African troops have apparently preferred manoeuvre to combat.

Conditions in East Africa are difficult. The paucity of paved roads and railway lines, combined with the susceptibility of horses and mules to the tsetse fly, means that large numbers of bearers are required to carry supplies. Africans have been forcibly recruited for this task by both sides. These are being worked in conditions akin to slavery. The sufferings of these men (overworked, underfed and moved into areas where they have no immunity to local diseases) is extreme.

Both sides are also using African soldiers. The bulk of the German army is made up of Askaris, locally recruited troops, with officers and some NCOs from Europe. The British are fielding white South Africans but also Nigerian troops and men from Nyasaland, Uganda and British East Africa. Indian troops are also fighting in the campaign, as well as white Rhodesians and some from Britain and Ireland.

A mixed force of mainly Nigerian and Indian troops had been advancing towards the Rufiji river, hoping to catch a German force in the area. The episode is illustrative of the fighting in East Africa. After a few skirmishes (in which the noted British explorer and big game hunter Frederick Selous was killed by a German sniper), the Germans retreat away, crossing the Rufiji before they can be caught behind it. To slow the British further they destroy the bridge behind them. The fighting has taken a minimal toll on the British column, but the tropical conditions of East Africa and the difficulties of supply have left them exhausted.

image sources:

Nigerian troops on parade (Africans And West Indians At War)

Bearers on the march to the Rufiji (Africans And West Indians At War)

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