17/7/1917 Narungombe: a British advance in East Africa thwarted

The war in German East Africa should be coming to an end. The Germans here are heavily outnumbered and completely cut off from Europe. British Empire forces have overrun the colony’s coast but the Germans have retreated inland. Now the British attempt to follow them, under orders from London to eliminate Germany’s last overseas colony as soon as possible.

This is not purely a white man’s war. The British are fielding troops from India and their various African possessions alongside European and white South African soldiers. They have also forcibly recruited a vast corps of Africans to serve as bearers in slave-like conditions. The German army meanwhile is mainly locally recruited Askaris, with a small number of European officers.

British forces attack the Germans today at Narungombe. The Germans here are outnumbered but Lettow-Vorbeck, the overall German commander is racing to reinforce them. The fighting is confused, with brush fires reducing visibility. The Germans inflict heavy losses on the British but Lieberman, the local commander, fears being overwhelmed. He orders a withdrawal, which comes as something of a surprise to the British.

When they join forces Lettow-Vorbeck is furious that Lieberman did not wait at Narungombe for his arrival. Nevertheless the battle has so battered the British that for now they must abandon any further plans to advance.

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Askaris (Delville Wood)

21/5/1917 A minor success for the Allies in East Africa

The war in East Africa continues. The Germans here are cut off from their homeland but they continue to resist the Allied invasion of German East Africa. Their army is mostly locally recruited Askaris led by European officers. British Empire and Commonwealth forces are finding the war here tough going, as are their Belgian allies. Although they greatly outnumber the Germans, the terrain and climate are unforgiving and the Germans are adept at playing a game of cat and mouse.

For both sides, supplying their men is difficult. The Germans are living off the land, looting the colony’s civilian population and leaving famine in their wake. Both sides find the transportation of food extremely difficult. The colony lacks paved roads and has a very limited railway network. Supplies must be carried on the backs of men, which means that large numbers of bearers must be deployed. The British in particular have forcibly recruited a vast corps of bearers, whose numbers greatly exceed their men under arms. These bearers are underfed and suffering terribly from disease as they are moved out of their native areas. Their mortality rates are greater than those of soldiers on the Western Front.

The British have a stroke of luck today. Captain Max Wintgens has been leading a German raiding party that has spread chaos behind the Allied lines. The Allies have made great efforts to track him down, but these have been a costly failure. The British pursuit force sees a tenth of its 2,500 bearers die of disease and a greater number again become too sick to continue the campaign. Today though Wintgens himself is obliged to surrender to the Belgians, now suffering from typhus. However his subordinate officers escape with the rest of the raiders to continue harassing the Allies.

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Bearers (DW: Africa and the First World War)

Max Wintgens (Axis History Forum)

25/1/1917 East Africa: the rains bring an end to the British advance

The British Empire continues its efforts to conquer German East Africa. Some successes have been achieved, with territory overrun and German units forced to retreat. But the main German force under Lettow-Vorbeck remains intact. The Germans have a lot of space to retreat into and winkling them out is not going to be easy.

Now the rains arrive, making it more or less impossible to move large bodies of troops through the colony. The British advance grinds to a halt as the trails turn to mud. As they shelter from the rain, Lettow-Vorbeck and his lieutenants take satisfaction from the knowledge that they remain undefeated, ready to fight on against the enemy once the weather improves.

20/1/1917 Smuts leaves East Africa for London

South Africa’s General Smuts has been commanding British Empire forces invading German East Africa. At one level the campaign has gone well, with the invaders making great advances and overrunning large swathes of territory, particularly the area around the coast. But in other regards the invasion has proved less successful. A decisive defeat has not been inflicted on the Germans, whose forces in the colony remain largely intact. The British Empire forces have suffered relatively few casualties in combat but are experiencing a steady attrition from disease. Their press-ganged African bearers are experiencing an even higher attrition rate.

Now that the rains have begun, the invasion’s progress comes to a halt, giving the Germans a much needed respite. Still, with the coast overrun and the Germans confined to the interior, the process of mopping up enemy resistance should not take too long.

Smuts will not be around to see the final victory in East Africa. He is now on his way to London, to represent South Africa at the newly formed imperial war cabinet, where he intends to claim the benefits due to his countrymen for their successful invasion of German East Africa.

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Captured German Askaris, December 1916 (Africans And West Indians At War)

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.

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

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

27/10/1916 Segale: Ras Tafari cements his control of Abyssinia

In Abyssinia, a group of nobles have overthrown Emperor Iyasu V. Iyasu had been courting his Muslim subjects in the east of the empire, but there were rumours that he was intent on making Islam the state religion of the mostly Christian country. The Allies meanwhile were afraid that Iyasu would throw in his lot with the Ottoman Empire, transforming Abyssinia into a base for the destabilisation of their surrounding colonies. They encouraged the revolt of the Christian nobles, who proclaimed Zewditu empress, with Ras Tafari Makonnen as regent.

Iyasu responded to his ouster by raising an army and making an attempt to regain his throne by force of arms. He was defeated, but then his father, Ras Mikael of Wollo and Tigre came to this aid. Mikael’s army won its first battle with the rebels, but this was just a prelude to today’s decisive clash between the two sides.

The armies meet at Segale.40 miles north of Addis Ababa. Tafari’s army stage a great outflanking manoeuvre, Mikael’s army is crushed. Mikael himself is captured and his men are granted quarter providing they swear fealty to Empress Zewditu.

Iyasu himself remains at large, but now he is a fugitive in the land he recently ruled. Allied representatives are pleased that the threat posed by this dangerous man has been eliminated. They are also pleased at seeing Tafari cement his hold on power, as he is regarded as a man of impeccable pro-Allied views.

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The Battle of Segale (Wikipedia)

19/9/1916 Belgium joins the invasion of German East Africa

The Allies are invading the Kaiser’s last overseas colony, German East Africa. South Africa’s Smuts is commanding British Empire forces that are moving south from British East Africa. Meanwhile a Belgian force has crossed over from the Belgian Congo and is pushing into German territory. The Belgians have secured the Ruanda-Urundi territory on the Congo’s border.

Belgian and British forces were racing to capture the key interior town of Tabora. The Belgians won the race, taking the town after the Germans decided to retreat rather than fight to the end against superior forces. This leaves the railway from Dar Es Salaam to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika in Allied hands.

Since the Allied invasion began in earnest earlier this year the Germans have retreated rather than fight to the finish. After this latest victory the Allies cannot but wonder how long it will be before the Germans have nowhere to retreat to and find themselves obliged to surrender.

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Belgian colonial troops (Belgians have been everywhere on our planet)