Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (22 Sept. 2016)
After 100 years of writing and discussion, there’s really no such thing as a neglected field of research when it comes to WW1. Look around and you will find books about what you want, especially general ones. Rather there is a curve which is categorised by volume; Which aspect has the most written about it against those that have comparatively little in print, yet when compared to other subjects are actually quite well off. The East African campaign of WW1 fits into this latter category. First you have the war in France, then most probably the Turkish fronts of Gallipoli and Palestine, then without doubt the eastern front and right down at the bottom you find a clump made up of Asia, Africa and most probably Italy.
In Africa you not only fight he enemy, you fight nature. In East Africa the brush grew so thick and high that it hid both friend and foe. A climate so inhospitable that disease reduced regiments to companies and took such a toll on baggage animals (four wheeled transport was almost impossible), that gangs of human labourers were required to haul howitzers. It’s temperatures so great that the entire arena acts as a giant mound of kindling, meaning muzzle flashes and smouldering cartridges can easily ignite the bush. Imagine then fleeing a sudden bushfire, as dozens of Cobras are doing the same, six foot slithering torpedoes of venom keyed up to strike at any obstacle that seems to block its escape route.
Africa was a totally different type of warfare. It would have challenged even the best Guerrilla leaders. Even in the broad merciless light of day veterans likened bush fights to night battles and command and control was a nightmare. It was so unlike European conventional warfare that army organisation was changed from traditional brigade and division structures to columns based on a given situation. So unlike WW1 was the war in East Africa, to even that of Palestine, that Askari KAR units and their German counterparts, who made up the majority of the soldiers in this theatre, were fighting in a manner that almost mirrored the tactical thinking of 20 years later.
The key reliance on light machine guns, 5 inch mortars and howitzers, so greatly parallels the modern infantry commander’s constant need for similar ordinance and helicopters that it at times becomes uncanny. With long prolonged firefights in which the enemy was rarely seen as a target, just a muzzle flash, and huge emphasis was put on containment and encirclement with strong reserves to fall back on or feed forwards. Always the tactical unit was essentially the battalion, with operational reality coming down to company and platoon sized forces.
Gregg Adams takes us into the frontline of this much neglected part of WW1, putting the reader in the shoes of the Askaris and their European officers as Kings African Rifles duelled the Schutztruppe in the Bush of the East African colonies of Germany, Portugal, Britain and Belgium. Legend in their own time the outnumbered forces of Lettow-Vorbeck have been lauded as always superior to their enemies. Adams’ take on the matter partly refutes this. Arguing that after initial reverses the British colonial and war office rethought their strategy and the result in 1917-18 was a much more even playing field which saw the often disparaged KAR engage and defeat their hitherto much better adapted foes in a number of battlefield situations.
This is not to say that the Schutztruppe is maligned here. All praise is rightly given to the German commander and his men, who by this time was faced with overwhelming odds and an enemy who could therefore afford to take more casualties. In the battle of Mahiwa, the outcome is often called indecisive, but clearly the Germans tactically won the day in terms of winning the field and casualties, yet even those few men were irreplaceable. Vorbeck was never trapped or forced to surrender until compelled to by the surrender of Germany. Yet new “British” commanders, ironically in the form of former Boer officers such as Jan Smuts and Jacob van Deventer, mixed with experienced bush war fighters such as General O’Grady, could now fight Vorbeck on his own terms, at his own level. The result was essentially the elimination of the Schutztruppe as a formal force, and the Germans went on the run into the bush.
Three engagements are discussed here, as well as organisation and equipment. Some excellent first hand accounts are used to bring the action to life. I have not read more vivid accounts of being under machine gun fire than these snippets. Clear, simple maps accompany full colour artwork by Johnny Shumate, who as usual deploys photoshop to great effect, especially in the scene depicting the battle of Narunyu (where, though I’m unsure how the system works, I’d bet on the artist using a base model and changing some of the limb postures to individualise the prone marksmen).
Many photographs from the IWM also illustrate the text of this handy little book. The only weak point is the inevitable comparison that this series tends to promote between the two sides. For me such a conclusion is impossible, however the author uses it to illustrate his point that the KAR and Schutztruppe were equally matched by this period in the war. This theatre, usually neglected because the war was won in Europe, is full of fascinating material for discussion and study. Not least the heroism of the African soldier who gave his life in the service of his distant colonial overlord. But more than that, for to the ordinary Askari, it didn’t terribly matter which European government ran their country, these soldiers fought for their comrades and for the traditions of their regiments, like soldiers principally do around the world.
For those of us who are unsure as to what the term Askari refers to. It is a generic term to refer to an African colonial soldier. Much like the usage of the word Sepoy to designate an Indian soldier. This book helps to bring to light the fighting prowess of these men, who by circumstances beyond their control found themselves fighting each other for an arbitrary cause, yet did so with dedication, courage and honour and in doing so played their own part in the struggle of the Great War.