African theatre of World War I

African theatre of World War I

conflict=African Theatre
partof=World War I

date=August 3, 1914 – November, 1918
place=Cameroon, Togo, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique
result=Allied Victory, Loss of German Colonies, Treaty of Versailles
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
*flag|South Africa|1910flag|France
combatant2=flag|German Empire
flagicon|Netherlands Boers (South Africa)
The African Theatre of World War I comprises geographically distinct campaigns around the German colonies scattered in Africa: the German colonies of Cameroon, Volta Region a part of Ghana close to Togo, Togo, South-West Africa, and German East Africa.


The United Kingdom, with near total command of the world's oceans, had the power and resources to conquer the German colonies when the Great War started. Most German colonies in Africa were recently acquired and not well defended (German East Africa was the notable exception). They were also surrounded on all sides by African colonies that belonged to their enemies, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and, later in the war, Portugal.

West Africa

Germany had two colonies in West Africa, Togoland (modern-day Togo) and Kamerun (modern-day Cameroon). The small colony Togoland was almost immediately conquered by British and French military forces. The German troops in Kamerun put up a fierce fighting against invading British and French forces, but in 1916 (after many soldiers escaped into Spanish Guinea) the fighting ended with the surrender of the remaining German colonial armed forces ("Schutztruppe").

South-West Africa

German South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) was a huge and arid territory. Bounded on the coast by the completely desolate Namib Desert, the only major German population was based around the colonial capital of Windhoek, some 200 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The Germans had 3,000 soldiers and could count on the support of most of the 7,000 adult male German colonists. In addition, the Germans had very friendly relations with the Boers in South Africa, who had fought a rather bloody war with Great Britain just 12 years earlier.

The British began their attack by organizing and arming their former enemies, the Boers. This was dangerous, as the proposed attack on German South-West Africa turned into an active rebellion by some 12,000 angry Boers.

Boer leaders Jan Smuts and Louis Botha both took the British side against Christiaan Beyers and Christiaan De Wet. In two battles in October, the rebels were defeated and by the end of 1914, the rebellion was ended.

General Smuts then continued his military operations into South-West Africa starting around January 1915. The South African troops were battle-hardened and experienced in living in this type of terrain. They crossed the hundreds of miles of empty land on horseback in four columns. The Germans tried to delay the advance but without success. Windhoek was captured on May 12 1915. Two months later, all the German forces surrendered. South-Africa effectively ruled South-West Africa for the next 75 years.

German East Africa

In German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda) the British were unable to capture the German colony or subdue its defenders despite four years of effort and tens of thousands of casualties (99% due to endemic diseases). The German commander, Colonel (later General) Lettow-Vorbeck kept his army intact and fought a guerrilla campaign for the duration of the Great War. His achievement became the stuff of legend, though in military terms, his epic campaign had only the smallest impact on the course of the Great War.

German forces staged raids, hit-and-run attacks, and ambushes. Time and again the British army laid traps for Lettow-Vorbeck's troops but failed to catch him. The German army ranged over all of German East Africa, living off the land, and capturing military supplies from the British and Portuguese military.

In 1916 the British gave the task of defeating the Germans to the very capable Boer commander Jan Smuts along with a very large force. His conquest of German East Africa was methodical and moderately successful. By the fall of 1916, British troops had captured the German railway line and were solidly in control of the land north of the railway. However, Lettow-Vorbeck's army was not defeated and remained active long after Jan Smuts had left to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London in 1917. The German army moved into Portuguese East Africa in November 1917, and later back into German East Africa, finally ending up in Northern Rhodesia when the war ended.

Lettow-Vorbeck's small army agreed a cease-fire at the Chambeshi River on November 14 1918, after given a telegram informing them that Germany had given up fighting on November 11 (see Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial). The formal surrender took place on November 23 1918 at Abercorn. Lettow-Vorbeck's army was never defeated in battle, and he was welcomed in Germany as a hero.

After the War

The war marked the end of Germany's short-lived overseas empire. Britain and France divided up the German African colonies between them, but their colonial rule would be short-lived also. Most of the former German colonies gained their independence by 1960, Namibia (German South West Africa) was the last to gain independence, gaining political freedom from South Africa only in 1988.


*Hew Strachan: "The First World War: To Arms". Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0199261911 ( [ eingeschränkte Online-Version (Google Books)] )

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