Chasing Lettow-Vorbeck — A Forgotten Catastrophe?

For those of you who have never read the articles at, I can’t say I would heartily recommend the experience.  While they’re of some value, sometimes, in bringing to popular attention subjects and people that might otherwise languish in obscurity, the quality of the treatment accorded such things is often unserious and always very, very uneven.  This is doubly true of their articles on historical matters, and trebly true for military historical ones.  The tendency is towards flash and sensation and the “badass” — all well and good, I guess, but it is not worth the steep cost of nuance that every single article seems so cheerfully to pay.

One article that’s been making the rounds for a while is this one — Five Soldiers Who Kicked Ass in the Face of Death (and Logic).  The article has been viewed some 875,000 times.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the first page, you’ll see that no. 3 on their list is the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964), a legitimately remarkable character who served with distinction in the German East African campaign of World War One, and largely refused to serve with any distinction at all under the Third Reich.  His dislike of Hitler was well-known and cost him much of his reputation in Germany, at the time.

World War I poster of German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964). “Kolonial-Krieger-Spende. Von Lettow-Vorbeck.” Grotemeyer 1918. Image has no known copyright restrictions. Available via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s the East African Campaign with which we are most concerned, here, and specifically with the hopelessly rosy view of it that the linked article paints.  Remember, this has been read over 800,000 times, and likely constitutes the first and only exposure of many of its readers to the person of Lettow-Vorbeck and to the East African Campaign.

The first claim of substance is true enough: Lettow-Vorbeck was ordered by the colonial governor Heinrich Schnee to maintain neutrality in East Africa as far as was possible, and to refrain from prosecuting a campaign there.  There were broader military concerns about tying up too many resources in a theatre that would inevitably be a “sideshow” to the war at large, but more than that the civil authorities were worried that war in East Africa would have a serious and negative impact on the local economy.  Lettow-Vorbeck defied these orders in a bid to keep the Allied forces there locked down for as long as possible, and over the course of four long years he led them on a merry chase through jungles, down rivers, up cliffs and into thin air.  By the time the war was over, very little of Lettow-Vorbeck’s ragtag army remained — but it had not been defeated.  He formally surrendered on November 25th, 1918, waiting only for confirmation of the Armistice to reach him.

That does sound pretty amazing — so what’s the problem?

There are a few things worth noting, here, and a lot could be said in contrast to the article’s account of the Battle of Tanga.  It makes it sound as though Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces triumphed out of some sort of unorthodox brilliance or unusual competence (outnumbered eight to one, and they still won! Wow!), but there was a great deal of luck and folly involved.  That might be worth talking about in a later post, but Tanga is only tangential to what I wish to address.

Of the rest of LV’s campaign I also have little to say except as a thumbnail sketch.  The article doesn’t go into much more detail about it than I already provided earlier in the post, apart from pausing to note that he cobbled together artillery out of guns salvaged from a sunken ship.  This is admittedly pretty cool.  LV and his forces spent the next four years racing around through the jungle, one step ahead of their enemies, pausing only to conduct lightning strikes against their much larger pursuers when and where they were least expected.  It does have the air of romance to it, and I completely understand why people are so happy to read about this.  As guerrilla campaigns go, it ranks very high on the list of successes.

But it came at a price.  A terrible, often unspoken price.

Askari on the march in German East Africa. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA7209 / Walther Dobbertin / CC-BY-SA

The nature of the terrain over which this war was fought made transport extremely difficult.  Trucks were right out, as were boats, planes, any large number of horses or mules — even airships, though heaven knows they tried.  LV’s army had no lines of provision, no access to resupply, no home base, and no possibility of evacuation.  Attempts to resupply him from the air or by sea were thwarted by a strict British blockade and by Belgian troops holding much of the shoreline.  LV and his army were on their own.

Except, of course, that they really weren’t.

I mentioned above that transport was difficult, but all of their existing provisions, weapons, tents, medical supplies, tools, and artillery had to be moved around somehow.  It had to be carried on human backs — specifically, on native East African backs.  These porters were culled from every village and town that could be found as the armies made their way through the region now comprising Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.  Many went willingly, enticed by the promise of pay and adventure, or in the hopes of currying favour with the colonizers; many were pressed into service, or were functionally left with no choice after their homes were destroyed in the running battles between LV’s men and his British, Belgian, Portuguese and South African pursuers (the latter notably under the command of Britain’s former Boer War antagonist, Jan Smuts).  Those pursuers needed porters too, and rather more of them than LV’s dwindling army did; most were formally employed in the Carrier Corps, with its members drawn largely from neighbouring Kenya.  In all, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 East African porters were used between the two armies.

So, what were the consequences of this?

Catastrophe.  Black, bloody catastrophe of the most callous sort imaginable.

In the course of conducting his war of dubious necessity — Lettow-Vorbeck had been ordered to avoid doing this, remember — the combined German and Allied armies in the East African campaign worked between 200,000 and 400,000 native porters to death.  They died in unthinkable numbers, killed off by malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, accident, combat, reprisal and even execution for “desertion”.  Both armies routinely attempted to gain the upper hand by attacking the other’s baggage trains, and it was the porters who bore the brunt of these attacks.

Did it end there?  Of course it didn’t.

Apart from this massive wave of human depletion, one of the effects of having hundreds of thousands of men stamping around through a jungle for four years is that a lot of supplies were consumed.  LV and his army had no possibility of resupply, so they only survived by stripping the jungle bare of edible plant and animal life, when they could, and by regularly looting East African villages and towns that they passed.  For the Allied armies the situation was somewhat better, given the existence of a supply train, but it was very long and often unreliable.  In any event, it is impossible for the multi-annual passage of so many people through a region this small to not have a dramatic impact.

The despoliation undertaken by these armies during their jaunt left the region in a state of famine.  The food had all been eaten; rivers and streams were corrupted, wells were drained.  Agriculture collapsed in many areas owing to all of the able-bodied men having been carried off as porters, and this absence would also have severe demographic consequences in the generations to come.  Cramped conditions in hastily-constructed prison camps for captured porters and Askaris eventually saw the Spanish flu cut through them like a scythe.  Taken all together, this resulted in the post-war death over the next several years of another estimated 300,000 people — this, too, a direct consequence of Lettow-Vorbeck’s refusal to stomach the possibility of surrender and the Allied refusal to give up the pursuit.

So, to conclude, yes — it’s all very cool, I guess, but perhaps only up to a point.  In the end, the main accomplishment of either army was to ensure that its opposite number accomplished virtually nothing, but in war this is not necessarily an achievement to be lightly dismissed.  Lettow-Vorbeck’s successes are certainly worthy of recognition — even of respect — but they and the campaign of which they were a part should not be divorced from their often unacknowledged human cost.


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About Nick Milne

Nick Milne is an adjunct professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on the intersection of literary scholarship and historiography in the study of the First World War, with a particular emphasis on how this has impacted the study of the war's British propaganda writing. He has had work about the war appear recently at Slate and on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Further updates on these and related subjects may be found at his blog, Wellington House, or through his twitter feed.
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