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The East African Campaign of the First World War

On the declaration of the start of the First World War on 4th August 1914, the proximity of the German colony known as German East Africa to British East Africa and its neighbours, Uganda to the north, Zanzibar to the east, the Belgian Congo to the west, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) to the south made conflict inevitable in Eastern Africa.


In August 1914 there was in German East Africa (Tanzania), a well trained, equipped and ably led force of 5,000 troops which was immediately available to the Governor of the colony, this was subsequently to be expanded to 15,000 over the next 2 years. The German Colonial Protection Force otherwise known as the Schutztruppe was led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, an experienced and resourceful commander, who, knowing that Britain had control of the high seas that they would prevent supplies from ever reaching the colony from Germany. He soon resorted to guerrilla tactics.

German Askaris at Salaita Hill

An observation post on Maktau Hill 

Voi Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery

The fighting on the land took the form of substantial raids and skirmishes by the Germans, where on 15th August 1914 eleven days after the declaration, they occupied the Taveta enclave and fortified the strategically placed Salaita Hill.


The first fighting in anger started at about 3am on the 15th when the police corporal manning the frontier post just outside of Taveta, held his ground as he fired at 200 Schutztruppe askaris as they stormed the border post, the corporal in charge becoming the first British casualty of the East African Campaign. As the German askaris poured into Taveta, the District Commissioner and the remaining police section in the town responded with several volleys before retiring towards Voi 100kms away. They killed a German conscript who was the first German casualty.


With the Germans immediately taking the initiative, the first months of the campaign saw the development of a German threat towards the Uganda Railway by German led saboteurs, where many trains and transport were either destroyed or damaged. In their endeavour’s to get closer to their targets the Germans occupied Mt Kasigau, fortified the coastal border village of Jasin and invaded and occupied the town of Kisii, before being repulsed by British Empire forces.


The disastrous British attack on the northern port of Tanga in November 1914 by a British led Indian Expeditionary Force resulted in heavy losses and their defeat by a substantially smaller German force, giving the Schutztruppe a great moral booster and a new supply of much needed equipment and weapons.

During 1914 and 1915 saw the campaign in East African working against British military efforts. It became essential to contain this enemy force that was posed against the neighboring British, Portuguese and Belgian colonies as it would engage substantial Allied resources in men, supplies and shipping over the next four years, which could have perhaps been better used elsewhere.

During 1915, the German cruiser Konigsberg, which had been active in the Indian Ocean had earlier sunk the British light cruiser HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour in September 1914, was forced to seek refuge herself up the Rufiji River, with boiler problems and the lack of coal. Konigsberg was sunk by gunfire from British monitors a year later in September 1915. The guns from both ships were recovered and converted to artillery pieces. On the lakes, the allies gained control of Lakes Victoria, Kivu. Nyasa, and Tanganyika after the epic arrival of HMS Mimi and Toutou.

Loyal North Lancashire Regiment at Maktau

Battlefield Tour at Mashoti Fort

The Military Railway line to Taveta
with Bura Bluff in the Background.

In April 1916 the Allied forces, now much strengthened by the South Africa Expeditionary Force under the command of General Jan C Smuts, commenced the invasion of German East Africa – the British making their push from Tsavo and Namanga in (British East Africa); Whilst troops from Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia in the south deployed northwards. The Belgians from the Congo to the west who also shared a common border with German East Africa started their coordinated advance eastwards at more or less the same time. To the south east the Portuguese (who only joined the Allies in March 1916) attempted to invade the German colony but with disastrous results. By October 1916, the Central Railway linking Dar es Salaam, Dodoma and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika had been reached.

By January 1917 the Rufiji River had been reached and cleared of enemy forces. In the same month the south west area of the colony was cleared. Operations in the German held south east of the Rufiji continued throughout 1917. After sustained fighting a wedge was driven through the German defenses and the smaller western body of German troops was surrounded and capitulated in November, the main eastern body, under von Lettow-Vorbeck broke through and crossed into Portuguese East Africa early in December where they were able to restock and provision themselves from captured Portuguese supplies.

For the next eleven months the remnants of the German force eluded the perusing columns of British and Portuguese troops. They crossed through thick and virtually impenetrable forests, returning stealthily back into German East Africa in September before advancing and threatening Northern Rhodesia in early November 1918. On 14th November 1918 at Kasama in Northern Rhodesia , the German commander learned of the general armistice; thereafter hostilities ceased and he was required to  march his troops to Abercorn where they formally gave up their arms on the 25th November, 14 days after the surrender of all German forces in Europe.

There are memorials located at Nairobi, Mombasa, Tanga and Dar es Salaam. (East African, British, Indian and South African forces burials). At Abercorn and Harare (local forces burials) and at Kumani, Ghana and Lagos Nigeria, (West African forces burial commemorations). All known graves are located in war cemeteries which are monitored and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  

James G Willson at CWGC Maktau Indian Cemetery

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