In August 1914 Lt. Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964) had been the commander of German forces in East Africa (now part of Tanzania) since April. His career had begun with great promise, appointed to the General Staff when a mere Lieutenant, but in 1904 he was sent to S.W. Africa (now Namibia) to deal with an insurrection and he must have gotten the reputation of being a good man in Africa, since in 1913 he was ordered to Cameroon and then to his post at Dar es Salaam.
His command numbered about 2,600 German regulars and civilian volunteers plus 2,500 Askaris (African soldiers).
As soon as the war broke out, all of the various German colonies were attacked by Belgian, British, French, Japanese, New Zealander and South African forces. Several fell without resistance, except Tsingtao, which required an eight day siege, SW Africa which held out for six months and von Lettow-Vorbeck’s East Africa, where his little army that never numbered more than 14,000 men eluded and humiliated a force of as many as 300,000, at various times consisting of British, British native, Indian, South African, Belgian native and Portuguese (mostly native) for over four years, fighting an asymmetrical war rather like Mao Zedong’s Long March of the 1930’s. On some occasions they would choose to fight, when the odds weren’t too long, and they usually came out ahead. Replenishing their losses, however small, was always a problem; they lived on what they could steal, mostly from the Portuguese in Mozambique. Territory meant nothing to von Lettow-Vorbeck – he wouldn’t defend any. The British declared German East Africa to be completely under their control in September 1916, but some of the bloodiest battles of the campaign had yet to be fought. Borders meant nothing as well; when he agreed to surrender on November 25th, 1918 his force was in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia), and numbered 158 Germans and 1,162 Askaris, with 3,500 bearers. On that day the First World War was finally over.
Although both Berlin and the governor of East Africa had initially ordered von Lettow-Vorbeck to stand down, he had willfully disobeyed them in order to tie up enemy resources, and he succeeded beyond all expectations. His insubordination was forgiven, he was promoted to General, received Germany’s most prestigious award, the Pour le Mérite Cross, and was called ‘The Lion of Africa’ by the German press. So great was his popularity that in 1917 an attempt was made to resupply his forces by Zeppelin.
Considered a national hero, a parade in Berlin honored him and 120 of his men in 1919. He was the toast of Berlin society, and he soon married a younger and very eligible woman. They would have four children in six years; their two sons would die in WW2. Von Lettow-Vorbeck left active service in 1920 and was never recalled. He became a manager at an import-export firm, had a short political career serving in the Reichstag with the monarchist party. He dissociated himself from the Nazis and, although he was watched by the Gestapo, he never was arrested.
At his funeral in 1964 West German Defense Minister Kai-Uwe von Hassel said von Lettow-Vorbeck “was truly undefeated in the field”. Later the same year the West German Bundestag voted to honor the pay that was promised to all of the surviving Askaris, backdated to 1918.
Of the 350 or so old soldiers who had survived, only a few still had the certificates that von Lettow-Vorbeck had given them. Others presented pieces of their old kit as proof of service. The German official in charge thought of a test: give the claimant a broom and order him in German to perform the old-style manual of arms. It was reported that all of them passed.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has two memorials to the missing in East Africa, at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya.
The Dar es Salaam memorial is inside the CWGC Cemetery, which is located in the northern outskirts of the city. It is a concentration site created in 1968 and is divided into four parts, called Memorial Gardens A through D. The A garden has 1,876 WW1 burials, 112 of which are not Commonwealth, and 41 WW2 graves. The B, C and D gardens are mass graves, the B for African Christians, the C for African non-Christians and the D for Muslims. There is also a Hindu Cremation site nearby.
The memorial to the missing is a simple cenotaph-like wall bearing the heading “THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE” and listing 1,528 names of British and Indian soldiers who were lost after 1916. The memorial was originally in the center of the city and was moved to the cemetery due to road construction. Remaining in the city center is a statue honoring the service of the African soldiers in WW1.
The Nairobi memorial to the missing is in CWGC South Cemetery, which was in a suburban location when constructed. There are 155 Commonwealth WW1 burials and two WW2 burials here, as well as a considerable number of civilians from the colonial era re-buried due to lack of maintenance and protection to their original gravesites.
The Memorial to the Missing lists the names of 1,234 Commonwealth personnel lost between the war’s onset and the end of 1916. The names are listed on panels set into the border wall of the cemetery. There are seven of these with the center one bearing the inscription
“ HERE ARE RECORDED NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN EAST AFRICA BEFORE THE ADVANCE TO THE RUFIJI IN JANUARY, 1917, BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH.”
As in Dar es Salaam there is a CWGC statue honoring the service of African soldiers in WW1 located in the city center, and there are also a CWGC WW1 Muslim cemetery elsewhere in the metro area and several WW2 cemeteries.