The Allied victory in World War I was, like that of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 CE, a “near… run thing.”
One example of this is the way in which Germany bled Italy dry in the Battles of the Isonzo 1915 -1917. Italy’s claim to a place at the victors’ table in Versailles was not taken seriously outside of a clique of strutting non-entities in the Italian government.
Another example can be seen in the way the German army, unlike their allies in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian forces, consistently beat the Russians on the Eastern front. An exception is the initial phase of the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, but this returned to the normal pattern when envious Russian generals crippled Brusilov’s efforts by withholding support for the drive. Russia was in the end decisively beaten. Germany began to found a Black Sea Province in the Ukraine in 1918. This effort ceased only with Germany’s defeat on the Western Front and the spread of the Russian Civil War [1917 – 1922].
But in Africa Germany was victorious, achieving its key military goals against great odds and the opposition of its own colonial government. This success was largely due to the genius of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck [1870 – 1964].
His career was varied. In 1900 – 1901 Lettow-Vorbeck participated in the Allied suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. He complained that it was not an appropriate use of German troops.
In 1904 he went to what is now Namibia to fight against the Herero insurrection. Badly wounded, he was sent to South Africa to recover before the German campaign degenerated into a program of genocide. The actions of colonial governor Heinrich Ernst Göring, father of Hitler’s Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring, were crucial to this first genocide of the 20th century.
The outbreak of World War I found Lettow-Vorbeck a Lieutenant Colonel appointed to command approximately 2,600 Germans and 2,500 native Askari troops in Tanganyika. Knowing Africa would be a sideshow to the main conflict, he decided his greatest contribution would be to tie up Allied forces in Africa so they could not be sent to bolster English and French strength in the trenches of the Western front. This put him into immediate conflict with the German colonial governor, Heinrich Schnee, who wanted to negotiate neutrality for German East Africa.
Disregarding orders from Schnee and Berlin, Lettow-Vorbeck plunged into what is arguably the most successful single guerrilla campaign in history. He was chased by Allied forces with more than 150,000 troops accompanied by over 1,000,000 military porters. Lettow-Vorbeck never commanded more than roughly 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris, the latter of whom he armed, trained, and deployed on a basis of equality with the white soldiers, thereby evoking condemnation and abuse from a number of Allied commanders. Those who met Lettow-Vorbeck in person, however, held him in high regard, including the South African Jan Smuts and the noted author Karen Blixen [Isak Dinesen].
Never defeated in the field, Lettow-Vorbeck was ordered to surrender by the German government after the war in Europe ended. He had been promoted to Major General, with significant victories despite Allied numerical advantages at Tanga, Jassin, Mahiwa, Ngomano, and Namakura, not to mention many successful guerrilla raids. By the end of the campaign, Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops had captured more weaponry, food, and medical supplies than they could transport. He came under criticism for taking food supplies from villagers unconcerned with European squabbles. French and British led forces regularly did the same, even in peacetime.
He returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany. Lettow-Vorbeck participated in the suppression of communist and anarchist revolts that took place in Germany during the months that followed the end of World War I, but he carefully avoided association with the more disreputable right-wing elements of the Freikorps movements. In 1919 he put down a Spartacist revolt in Hamburg without resorting to force.
Lettow-Vorbeck pointedly declined honors from Hitler, resulting in search of his home office and constant surveillance. When the nephew of one of his officers was asked if Lettow-Vorbeck had told Hitler to “go fuck himself,” the nephew responded “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”
Lettow-Vorbeck’s two sons died fighting for Germany in World War II.
In 1964 the government of West Germany decided to give back pay to Lettow-Vorbeck’s surviving Askaris. Approximately 350 old men showed up to make their claim. Few had the document Lettow-Vorbeck had given them in 1918 to prove their service. Several had discolored rags and tatters from their uniforms.
The German banker who had brought the money solved the problem. As a claimant was ushered alone into a room with a review committee, a broomstick was shoved into his hands, and he was ordered in German to perform the manual of arms. No claimant failed the test.
- The most approachable comprehensive introductions to the history of World War I’s eastern front in English are Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 and David Stone’s The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917. Italy’s disasters in the First World War are well presented in Mark Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915 – 1919.
- Edward Paice’s World War I: The African Front puts Lettow-Vorbeck’s achievements in East Africa into a broader perspective.
- Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My Reminiscences of East Africa is richly rewarding.
- Robert Waite’s Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany 1918 – 1923 is probably the best place to start on this subject in English.
- The Young Indiana Jones series portrayed its fictional hero meeting an almost equally fictional Lettow-Vorbeck in Chasing the Phantom: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck [Season 2, Episode 9, December 2007].