When Elephants Clash

A Critical Analysis of Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck in the East African Theater of the Great War
Crowson, Thomas A.
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When Elephants Clash

Subtitle: A Critical Analysis of Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck in the East African Theater of the Great War
Author: Thomas A. Crowson
Master's thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 2003
Paperback, 22x28 cm, 109 pages, 8 map sketches


For over four years during World War I, Lieutenant Colonel (Later Major General) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German Schutztruppe led the men of the British East African Expeditionary Force on a chase over some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable. As the commander of German forces in East Africa, he was the author of one of the most successful guerrilla fights in history. His innovative and creative solutions to daily problems proved to be the undoing of a succession of British commanders, allowing him to bleed Allied forces from European fronts. Although he never had more than 3,000 European and 15,000 native soldiers, von Lettow-Vorbeck consumed the efforts of over 250,000 Allied (mostly British) soldiers.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck and the men of the Schutztruppe are little known outside of Germany, but they were never defeated and have the distinction of being the only Germans of World War I to occupy British soil. Despite their successes, their exploits remain obscured in the greater tragedy of the Great War.




1. African Colonies in 1914
2. German East Africa
3. German Plan of Attack
4. German Attacks on Uganda Railroad
5. British Plan of Attack
6. Smuts' Plan of Attack
7. Smuts New Plan of Attack Against the Central Railroad
8. Trek of the Schutztruppe from Kilimanjaro to Abercom

From Capter 2 “Politics, the Military and the Colonies of East Africa”:

Just before the outbreak of the Great War, an amusing story was circulating among the troops of the Schutztruppe. One sunny day in July of 1914, a lieutenant, bored with his field duty in the Schutztruppe of the German army, decided he deserved to have some fun. The young man was stationed in a remote site near Mount Kilimanjaro on the border between British and German East Africa. As this location seemed quite close to the middle of nowhere, he rode into the nearest town Moshi for a few beers; Knowing ahead his commander's answer would be "no," he did not bother asking for permission.

On the way to Moshi, he happened upon a civilian walking down the road chewing a piece of sugar cane. When the young lieutenant found they were going in the same direction, he magnanimously offered to walk with the man and protect him should anything unfriendly appear in the region. The civilian, a balding, pleasant man in his mid-forties accepted. Soon, the lieutenant was telling the older man his life's story and expounding upon what was wrong with the German forces in East Africa. He told of the boredom of duty on the plain, the poor quality of the weaponry, and his current "French" leave. His only concern was that "the new commander, von Lettow-Vorbeck, doesn't hear about it. They say he's a real bastard." To this his companion laughed knowingly and agreed.

As they rounded the final bend on the road into town, a senior officer saluted the affable civilian and addressed him as "sir." As it dawned upon him who the smiling old man must be, the younger officer blanched white, came to a stiff position of attention and gave his best parade ground salute. Images of a short career and a long boat ride home raced through his mind as the older man, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, Commander in German East Africa, looked at him with a grin on his face.

"At ease," commanded von Lettow-Vorbeck, "what you said was said to a comrade. No comrade would inform the commander, certainly."1 The lieutenant quickly turned around and raced back to his unit, adding one more page to the legend that would become von Lettow-Vorbeck.

It was his reputation as "a real bastard" upon which the German General Staff was counting when it ordered von Lettow-Vorbeck to assume command of the forces in German East Africa. At the time of his appointment, no active German officer could boast more combat experience.2 His familiarity with battle was hard earned, gained in some of the most remote, outlying regions of me world. At one time, he was even loaned by the German General Staff to work on the staff of General Louis Botha of the South African Army.

From 1899 to 1901, he worked on the German General Staff3 where he gained a familiarity with and respect for good planning. During his time on the staff, he had the opportunity to make an impression of the British army while serving as an observer during the Chinese Boxer rebellion of 1900. His initial opinion of the British Empire at war was unfavorable. Despite the professional reputation of soldiers of the British Empire, Lettow was surprised by "the clumsiness of the English troops in battle."4 He would be given few reasons to alter this initial impression during the Great War. He was also given the opportunity to study the tactics of another future adversary while seconded to the pre-Boer War South African guerrilla leader Louis Botha. This experience impacted him favorably as he sang the praises of "the excellent qualities of this low german [sic] race."5

From 1904 to 1906, he served in German Southwest Africa as the adjutant to Lieutenant General von Trotha during the uprising of the Hottentot and Herero tribes.6 At the time, an adjutant functioned as a combination aide, chief of personal staff, and occasional line officer for his general. During his tenure he studied the African enemy and attempted to learn what made them such effective warriors. While many of his counterparts regarded the native Africans as inferior fighters and not worth their notice, von Lettow-Vorbeck saw them as ingenious fighters able to conduct war in a manner with which he was unfamiliar. To remedy this deficit in his military education, he spent a great deal of time interrogating prisoners in an attempt to find out how they fought. He learned how natives were able to survive in the wilderness when no supplies were available, where to find water in the most inhospitable climates, how to read African terrain and get his bearings, and how to push himself beyond what he perceived as his limits. Most of all, he focused on the essence of guerrilla warfare and native tactics.8

He would regularly patrol with native forces to get firsthand experience in their fighting style. On one of these patrols, he was wounded in the eye and had to be evacuated to Germany. Ironically, he was evacuated through German East Africa. A place he would come to know intimately within a decade.9 After his recovery, he was given command of a marine battalion in Wilhemshaven. This close interaction with the navy gave him a better understanding of what they had to bring to the land fight. Furthermore, the ship upon which he was embarked often sailed along the coast of German East Africa, giving him more knowledge of the land in which he would later fight.10

The roots of the German presence on the East African coast can be traced back to the period immediately after the unification of all German states in 1871. Ironically, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was vehemently against a colonial policy. “For Germany to acquire colonies would be like a poverty stricken nobleman providing himself with silks and sables when he needed sheets.” He continued in this manner repeatedly stating, "so long as I'm Chancellor, we shan't pursue a colonial policy."12 He gave four primary reasons for his belief. First and foremost was the question of who would pay for the cost of colonization. Germany had recently concluded a costly war with France and had a nation to build. There were few Marks in the coffers for colonial development. Second was public opinion. Bismarck believed the easygoing lifestyle in the tropics would be at odds with that of the Germans. Additionally, the bulk of the German public saw little to gain from acquisition of colonies. Third was the question of defense. Germany had a small navy and Africa was far away. There was no real way to defend a colony against aggressors. Finally, a colonial policy could damage the balance of power in Europe. Although powerful, Germany was a new nation that could not yet risk enraging other, more firmly established nations.13

Bismarck's stance changed quickly in 1884, when he announced the annexation of four German colonies in Africa. There were many reasons for his shift, but me most obvious was that public opinion had changed. In the late 1870s the German Union for Colonialism (Deutscher Kolonialverein) was formed.14 This organization, though not supported by the government, was intent on bringing colonies to the German nation. One of its more ambitious leaders Dr. Karl Peters went so far as to lead several expeditions to Africa, bringing back to Bismarck thumbprints and "signatures" from tribal chieftains ceding their land to German control.15 Although he was still against acolonial policy, referring to it as a "Schwindel” or "sham,"16 he realized the power of popular opinion and saw a means to block British desires to gain the entire East African coast. The Coast was strategically important, containing many outposts on the route to India as well as access to the Suez. In this one calculated move, Bismarck saw the opportunity to poke Great Britain in the eye. Internal German politics presented another reason to take action against the British. The German Crown Prince Friedrich had taken an English wife. Bismarck believed that the future Kaiser, a strong believer in colonial policy, was completely under his wife's thumb. He hoped a British reaction to German imperialism would create a feeling of Anglophobia, reducing her future power as it increased his.

As to the question of whether or not me colonies would pay for themselves, again, popular opinion ruled. Reports coming from Africa related potential wealth just waiting to be taken. On 11 January 1876, The Times of London published a report by Lieutenant Cameron, a British explorer extolling the riches of interior Africa.

The interior is mostly a magnificent and healthy country of unspeakable richness. I have a small specimen of good coal; other minerals such as gold, copper, iron and silver are abundant, and I am confident that with wise and liberal (no lavish) expenditure of capital, one of the greatest systems of inland navigation in the world might be utilized and from 30 months to 36 months begin to repay any enterprising capitalist that might take the matter in hand.18 Bismarck hoped to capitalize on this reported wealth by creating a company to act as steward of German East Africa. His goal was to fulfill the perceived need of the public for an East African colony with little cost to Germany. The final consideration - how to protect the colony - was judged by the Chancellor to be unimportant The colonial government would use local natives with a few white officers to protect Germany's interests. Besides, it would give the newly forming German navy a reason to show a presence in the area.19

The British reaction to the annexation of colonies was decidedly unfavorable. Great Britain had been in the area since the eighteenth century, primarily to stave off French colonial ambitions. Despite a desire to control the entire east cost of Africa, the Crown had previously seen no reason to formally colonize the region. Now it was forced to do so. In 1886, the British sponsored a delimitation commission between the British, German, and French governments to establish the colonial borders within Africa. However, little was accomplished.20 In 1887, the British East Africa Company was established under the control of Sir William MacKinnon. However, rumors of the wealth of Africa proved to be false. The company quickly went bankrupt and asked for assistance.21 The German colonies did little better. Although colonists were able to establish cotton and rubber plantations, they were unprofitable. Since the colonies were primarily a status symbol and expected to be self-sufficient, there was little inclination to invest in infrastructure. Additionally, the coast was owned and controlled by the Sultan of Zanzibar. In 1888, Germany persuaded the Sultan to lease the coast to Germany for fifty years by parking a battleship off his coast.22

The colonial government, under the leadership of Dr. Peters, quickly abolished the slave trade in the region. The abolishment of slavery along with the many atrocities that had previously been committed by Dr. Peters in the name of Germany, incited Bushiri bin Salim and his followers to declare a holy war on Germany. As bin Salim's followers burned German property and killed German natives, Bismarck sent Captain Herman von Wissman to crush the rebellion. His orders were, "siegen Sie"23 or "go win." In the end it took a combined effort by both the Germans and the British to suppress the rebellion.

As the rebellion was put down, the governments of the two nations resolved to work together in East Africa. The result of this agreement was the Anglo German Treaty of 1890. The treaty established borders between German and British territory, which previously had only been marked by the empty vermouth bottles, the contents of which the original explorers had consumed as "protection" against blackwater fever.24 Under
this treaty, Great Britain obtained British East Africa, Zanzibar, and Uganda, which Dr. Peters had attempted to annex for Germany. Germany received German East Africa, to include the coast.25

The two countries took diverging routes in their handling of their East African colonies. Great Britain, the more experienced colonial power, took a more hands off approach.26 The British East Africa Company build three main railroads into the interior and Lake Victoria, the headwaters of the Nile. By 1913, there were approximately 3,500 British settlers in British East Africa. The region was treated as a resort that rivaled the French Riviera. Cricket, polo, tennis, and big game hunting were everywhere as were names found in Burkes Peerage.27 People at home in London could see posters extolling the wonders of East Africa. One such handbill showed pictures of smiling crocodiles, monkeys, hippopotamuses, and lions waving to a trainload of happy people arriving at the station. The caption boasted:

Uganda railway. The highlands of British East Africa as a winter home for aristocrats has become a fashion. Sportsmen in search of big game make it a holiday. Students of natural history revel in this field of natures own making. […]