A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Guerrilla in the mist - a great German military maverick outwits the British again

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s irregulars kept thousands of Allied troops tied down in the east African bush for years. Sean O'Grady reflects on his finest hour

There was only one German general in the First World War who managed to occupy British territory.

Not Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Falkenhayn or any of the more celebrated, or notorious, figures.

The only one who did, albeit a long way away from the Western Front, was Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the Germans in their East Africa possessions, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and present-day Rwanda and Burundi.

It was he who led a remarkable guerrilla war against British, South African, Nigerian, Gambian, Kenyan, Portuguese and Belgian forces in the region, managing to score a series of remarkable successes – and remaining at large when the Armistice arrived in 1918.

Alone among Germany’s overseas possessions, Deutsche Ostafrika never surrendered. Indeed, Lettow-Vorbeck would have a special clause in the Armistice of November 1918 specifically devoted to the arrangements for the safe conduct of himself and his men at the end of the war.

At the outbreak of war, Lettow-Vorbeck had been commander of a small garrison in Tanganyika, which came under British attack at Tanga in November 1914. He denied the British victory on that occasion, and continued to do so, through brilliant guerrilla tactics, for the rest of the war.

When he finally returned to Germany, in March 1919, he was treated as a hero. An old-school soldier, he told Hitler to “get lost” (or stronger) when approached to become ambassador to London in the 1930s; and it is thought he heartily disliked the Nazis.

When Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964, at the ripe old age of 93, the Federal Republic laid on a formal ceremony, and invited some of his surviving Askari troops to attend the funeral. He’d had a tearful reunion with them in 1953, and, indeed, is remembered for running his army on (relatively) non-racial lines. “We are all Africans,” was reportedly one of his mottos.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s “army” comprised some 14,000 men, at most: 11,000 African Askaris, and about 3,000 Germans, of whom some were “proper” soldiers, others recycled sailors rescued from a scuttled cruiser, the Konigsberg. Cut off even from radio contact with the fatherland, they were left to their own devices. They lived off the land and whatever supplies they managed to capture from their foes – notably the Portuguese, based  in Mozambique.

The German/Askari army were pitted against larger forces from the British, Belgian and Portuguese empires, but brilliant  soldiering meant that he evaded capture  every time.

Genius in the art of bush warfare: German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (Getty) Genius in the art of bush warfare: German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (Getty) This, of course, was Lettow-Vorbeck’s great contribution to the Kaiser’s war effort; Tanganyika was not much of a prize in anyone’s book, but it meant that disproportionate imperial allied forces – perhaps 300,000 strong – would be tied down in a fringe theatre, far away from Flanders, where they might have been of more use.

The Battle of Mahiwa – perhaps his most-famous triumph – was in many ways typical. Throughout the latter part of 1917 the British and their allies had, as usual, been chasing this Afro-German pimpernel around south-eastern Tanganyika. Finally, at dawn on 17 October, they thought they had him cornered. A British/Nigerian/Gambian attack force was led by two indifferent British commanders: a Colonel Christopher Tytler and the magnificently named Brigadier-General Henry de Courcy O’Grady (no relation).

Lettow-Vorbeck moved quickly, and fortified a ridge with 1,500 men and a couple of field guns (salvaged from the Konigsberg). By dawn the next day the British had suffered some 2,348 casualties against 519, plus one of the field guns, for the Germans.

More importantly, with the British forced to withdraw, Lettow-Vorbeck was at large again, and continued to tie down British forces for the rest of the war.

As late as September 1918 he led another raid into the then British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and occupied the town of Kasama. Again, it was not much of a prize in itself, but it was a handy symbolic victory at a time when German triumphs were rare indeed.

A few years after the end of the Great War, one of his opponents, Colonel  WD Pownes MC of the Royal Sussex Regiment and the Nigeria Regiment, summed up Lettow-Vorbeck thus: “I do not think that in the whole  history of the war there has ever been a more striking character than General von Lettow-Vorbeck.

“He was a genius in the art of bush warfare, a man of indomitable spirit – a most remarkable leader of men, who did not know what it was to be beaten. To him discomfort, hunger, heat, shortage of ammunition and supplies were all as nothing.

“He had one object in life only, and that was never to be taken by the British.  He has at least earned for himself enduring fame for being a brave man and a worthy enemy.”

General Paul Emil von  Lettow-Vorbeck deserves to be better remembered today.

Tomorrow: Hunger in the streets of Berlin

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003