A Year of the War in Africa and Asia

By Charles Johnston

[The New York Times/Current History, August 1915]


Speaking on July 14, A. Bonar Law, British Colonial Secretary, announced that the Entente Allies have already occupied 450,000 square miles of German colonial possessions. Add Turkish possessions in Asia in the hands of the Entente powers, and the total reaches 500,000 square miles.

Two outstanding facts are that this transfer, if permanent, will change the destiny of all Africa and Asia, and that, for the first time in history, the oversea dominions of Britain have initiated and carried on wars of conquest, Australia and New Zealand, in union, having already taken 100,000 square miles of German colonies in the Pacific; while the Union of South Africa has conquered German Southwest Africa.

In other parts of Africa, France and Belgium are co-operating with English imperial forces, while in East Africa and on the Persian Gulf the brunt of the fighting is being borne by British Indian troops and troops provided by the Princes of India. The movement now in progress will, if completed, give the Entente powers the whole of Africa; will give Britain all Southern Asia, from the Mount Sinai peninsula to Siam; and will, in all probability, make the Entente powers heirs of the whole Eastern Hemisphere. These immense territories are the ultimate stakes of the battles in France, in Poland, on the Dardanelles. We lose sight of them, perhaps, in the details of local fighting. In reality, nothing less is being effected than the re-mapping of the whole eastern hemisphere.


On Aug. 1, a year ago, German colonial possessions in Africa totaled over a million square miles, in four regions Togo, Kamerun, Southwest Africa, and East Africa. Togo, running from the north shore of the Gulf of Guinea, is wedged between French and English colonies. In August, France and England joined in attacking it, and on Aug. 26 their occupation was complete, a rich area of 33,000 square miles thus passing from Germany to the Entente powers.

Kamerun, in the elbow of the Gulf of Guinea, is about ten times as large, one-third of this having been conceded by France to Germany in 1911, through the agency of M. Caillaux. Recent letters to The London Times describe the fighting there:

On the 7th (May) we had a trying experience. Our company commander went out with myself and another subaltern and about forty men. We crossed the Mungo River in canoes, and then did a long and very difficult march all through the night in absolute dense forest. However the guides managed it passes comprehension.

About 5 in the morning, when it was just getting light, our advance party were just on the point of stumbling on to the German outpost, when what should happen but an elephant suddenly walked in between and scattered our opposing parties in all directions. I was in the rear of our little column, and was left in bewilderment, all our carriers dropping their loads and every one disappearing into the bush. After a few minutes we got our men together and our scouts went forward again, and found the Germans had bolted from their outpost, but soon returned and opened fire on our scouts.

A British officer writes:
I hope you have heard ere this of our capture of Duala and Bonaberi, and our further advance along the Duala Railway to Tusa, and along the Wari River to Jabassi. The heat and climate are very trying. It's awfully hot, far hotter than the last coast place I was in; a drier heat and sun infinitely more powerful, and yet the rains are full on and we get terrific tornadoes. The nights, however, are cooler.

We are surrounded by mangrove swamps, and they breed mosquitos, and consequently malaria and black-water fever.

This is quite a pretty little place (Duala) with some jolly houses, typical German of the Schloss villa type; nice inside and out. The country is pretty, the soil good. A good deal of timber and rubber. I found some beautiful tusks the other day, worth a good bit. Elephants abound. The native villages around are totally different from other West African ones here their houses are mostly one long mud or palm erection, with thatched roof, and are divided into compartments instead of the smaller separate huts one is accustomed to see in these parts.

The notices all over the place are strangely reminiscent of, say, the Black Forest—'Bäkerei," "Conditorei," etc., and yet it is the heart of tropical Africa. None of the natives, strange to say, talk German; all pigeon English. The Hausa boys are splendid chaps, as different from the Duala boys or Sierra Leone boys as chalk from cheese. Smile and make an idiotic but beautiful remark, they rush with a roar of laughter for the biggest load.

We get some beautiful sunset effects here. At sundown night before last, on the sea near mouth of river, it was absolutely gorgeous with the purple mountains standing clear out against the orange and emerald sky and tho dark gray shapes of our ships lying sombrely in the background, talking to each other in flashing Morse. The great mountain, Fernando Po, standing up out of the water to starboard and the Peak of Cameroon (13,700 feet) wreathed in mist to port; Victoria invisible, as also Buea—both hidden behind the clouds as we passed disdainfully by and entered the estuary of the Cameroon River.

As an added detail for West Africa, it should be recorded that, on March 19, a combined French and Belgian force occupied Molundu in the German Congo territory, and Ngaundere on June 29.


On July 13 a resolution, moved by Premier Asquith, was passed by acclamation in the House of Commons thanking General Louis Botha, General Smuts and the forces of the Union of South Africa for their work in "the remarkable campaign which has just been brought to a remarkable and glorious conclusion." Premier Asquith concluded:

The German dominion of Southwest Africa has ceased to exist. I ask the House to testify to the admiration of the whole empire for its gratitude to the illustrious General who has rendered such an inestimable service to the empire, which he entered by adoption and of which he has become one of the most honored and cherished sons, and to his dauntless and much enduring troops, whether of Burgher or British birth, who fought like brethren, side by side, in the cause which is equally dear to them as to us—the broadening of the bounds of human liberty.

The event which the British Premier thus read into the minutes of history marks the end of a campaign begun by General Botha on Sept. 27, when troops of the Union of South Africa first entered German territory. On Christmas Day Walfisch (Whale) Bay was occupied, and on Jan. 14 Swakopmund, a military railroad joining them being finished a month later.

The progress of General Botha's campaign from the south and west is thus summarized by The Sphere (July 3):

The occupation of Windhoek was effected by General Botha's forces. North Damaraland forces working along the railway from Swakopmund. At the former place General Vanderventer joined up with General Botha's forces. The force from Swakopmund met with considerable opposition, first at Tretskopje, a small township in the great Namib Desert fifty miles to the northeast of Swakopmund, and secondly at Otjimbingwe, on the Swakop River, sixty miles northwest of Windhoek.

Apart from these two determined stands, however, little other opposition was encountered, and Karibib was occupied on May 5 and Okahandja and Windhoek on May 12. With the fall of the latter place 3,000 Europeans and 12,000 natives became prisoners.

The wireless station—one of Germany's most valuable high-power stations, which was able to communicate with one relay only with Berlin was captured almost intact, and much rolling stock also fell into the hands of the Union forces.

The advance from the south along the Luderitzbucht-Seeheim-Keetmanshoop Railway, approximately 500 miles in length, was made by two forces which joined hands at Keetmanshoop. The advance from Aus (captured on April 1) was made by General Smuts's forces. Colonel (afterward General) Vanderventer, moving up from the direction of Warmbad and Kalkfontein, around the flanks of Karas Mountain, pushed on after reaching Keetmanshoop in the direction of Gibeon. Bethany had previously been occupied during the advance to Seeheim. At Kabus, twenty miles to the north of Keetmanshoop, and at Gibeon pitched battles were fought between General Vanderventer's forces and the enemy. No other opposition of importance was encountered, and the operations were brought to a successful conclusion at Windhoek.

A part of the German forces had retreated to the northward, intending to carry on guerrilla warfare in the hills. General Botha went in pursuit. A Reuter's telegram, dated June 26, announced that Otjivarongo, approximately 120 miles north of Karibib, on the Otavi Railway, was occupied on that day by General Botha, the enemy having retired northward during the previous night. General Botha's movements have again been characterized by rapid and extraordinary marching through dense bush country, which is almost waterless. The retirement of the enemy was more suggestive of a flight than a strategic retreat.

A telegram from Lord Buxton, the Governor General of the Union of South Africa, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, concludes the story:

This morning, July 9, General Botha accepted from Governor Seitz the surrender of all the German forces in Southwest Africa. Hostilities have ceased and the campaign has thus been brought to a successful conclusion.

The newly conquered territory, which is half as large again as the German Empire, is destined to become a part of the South African Union. As a great part of it is 5,000 feet above sea level, it is well adapted for white settlers. Its chief resources are diamond mines and grazing.

General Botha's force is likely to be divided between the European seat of war, to which the South African Union has up to the present sent no troops, and German East Africa, much of which still remains in the hands of the Germans.


The early stage of the struggle for German East Africa is lucidly summarized in The Sphere for May 8:

The fighting in British East Africa (immediately north of the German colony) may be said to have really begun toward the end of September, 1914, when the Germans made a determined attempt to capture Mombasa, the commercial capital of British East Africa and the terminus of the Uganda Railway. Previous to this somewhat half-hearted attempts had been made by them to wreck the railway line at various points, destroy the telegraph, and occupy Voi and Mombasa. The Germans, who were in strong force, were, however, for various reasons, unable to cut the railway or even to destroy the bridge across the Tsava River, and they were beaten back both at Voi and the post at Taveta.

The attack on Mombasa itself was repulsed at Gazi, some twenty-five miles to the southwest. The German plan of action was to move up the road from Vanga to Mombasa, arriving at the latter place somewhere about the time the Konigsburg was expected to arrive and bombard it from the sea. The Konigsburg was, of course, prevented from doing this by the proximity of British warships, and the land attack was also frustrated.

The Germans were held at Nargerimi by a mere handful of Arabs and King's African Rifles—about 300 men all told—until the arrival of the Indian troops strengthened our position and the enemy was beaten back to his original lines.

The next big actions were the British attack on Tanga and Jassin very early in November; this was the direct outcome of the German attack, on Mombasa. Tanga is a post of considerable importance in German East Africa, and lies midway between Zanzibar and Mombasa. It is the seaport of an important railway line which connects it with Moshi, lying among the foothills of Kilimanjaro (18,700 feet) and which taps most of the intervening country.

The force dispatched for the attack on Tanga consisted of 4,000 Indian Imperial Service troops, 1,000 Indian regulars, together with 1,000 white regulars. The force took no kit of any kind except rations. It was disembarked from the troopship near Tanga, and then moved against the position.

The day the British attacked, however, 1,000 Germans had been rushed up from Moshi and then took up a position to the right of the town. With them were great numbers of quick-firing guns of various sorts. This unexpected reinforcement made the capture of Targa almost impossible by the forces present. During the fight many casualties were incurred on both sides.

As regards the advance against Tanga and Jassin, the German forces which had previously advanced on Mombasa were, up to as recently as January, maintaining themselves in the valley of the Umba River. To drive them from their positions a column of 1,800 men, composed of Indians and King's African Rifles, with artillery, was dispatched.

After gaining Jassin and leaving a garrison of 300 men, the post was attacked and subsequently surrendered to a force of 2,000 Germans. The minor operations along the Anglo-German frontier include the attack on Shirati—a German post on the southeast shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza—on Jan. 9.

Fighting also took place near Karunga in March, and on this occasion the German force was driven back in disorder and with heavy loss into their own territory, while Kisu—which had been captured by the Germans—was reoccupied after the defeat of Karunga. On Jan. 10 the large Island of Mafia, off the coast of the German colony, was taken by the British and is being administered by them.

The history of the war in this region is brought up to date by a British Press Bureau statement issued on June 30:

Further details are now to hand of the operations which have been taking place west of Lake Victoria Nyanza. It will be remembered that the general scheme for the attack on Bukoba was to be a simultaneous advance on the part of two forces, one starting from the line of the Kagera River, south of Uganda, the other starting on steamers from Kisumu.

The junction of the two forces was successfully accomplished, and the attack took place on June 22. During the action the enemy received reinforcements which brought his force up to 400 rifles, and he made a most determined resistance, the Arabs especially fighting most bravely. They were, however, heavily outnumbered, and eventually the whole force broke and fled, utterly demoralized. * * * Our troops distinguished themselves greatly, both in the arduous march from the Kagera and in the subsequent fighting. A telegram was sent on June 28 from Lord Kitchener to Major Gen. Tighe, commanding the troops in British East Africa, congratulating him on the success of the operations.


Turkey's entry into the war has had four results: 1. The annexation of Cyprus (previously a protectorate) by Britain on Nov. 5; 2, the British expedition against Turkish territory on the Persian Gulf two weeks later; 3, the loss of Turkey's suzerainty over Egypt, which became a British protectorate under a Sultan on Dec. 17, and, 4, the attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula, still in progress.

An excellent summary of the Persian Gulf expedition is given in The Sphere, May 15:

The Shatt-el-Arab, (the united Euphrates and Tigris), for the greater part of its course, forms the boundary between Persia and Turkey. Some twenty miles below Basra (or Bussorah) it is joined by the Kasun, near whose course, about a hundred miles from its mouth, are the Anglo-Persian Company's oil fields.

The effective protection of these is necessarily an object of vital importance. It was also of considerable importance to create a diversion which should cause the Osmanli Generals to feel uneasiness as to a possible advance up the Euphrates. Whether more than the occupation of Basra and the protection of the oil fields was or is intended cannot, of course, be at present definitely stated.

The expeditionary force, under Lieut. Gen. Sir Arthur Barrett, consisted—apparently—of three Indo-British infantry brigades, a brigade of Indian cavalry, and artillery and auxiliary services in proportion in all probability some 15,000 to 18,000 men. It included at least three British battalions—the Second Dorsets, the Second Norfolks, and the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.

The advanced brigade reached the Shatt-el-Arab on Nov. 7, and after a brief fight occupied Fao, a few miles up the river. On the 9th a night attack was made upon it by a force from Basra, which was easily beaten off. Shortly afterwards the main body of the expeditionary force began to arrive, and by the 16th it had entirely disembarked at Saniyeh, a place above Fao.

The weather was wretched. Rain converted the alluvial flats into a wilderness of mud. The men were drenched and caked with the riverine clay, the very rifles were often choked.

Meanwhile the advance guard carried out a reconnaissance up the river and located the enemy in position at Sahilo, about nine miles distant. They numbered about 5,000 men, with twelve guns, under General Subr Bey, the Vali (Governor) of Basra. The reconnaissance carried an advanced position with a loss of sixty killed and wounded, and withdrew unmolested to report.

On the 17th General Barrett paraded for the attack the bulk of his force. After a trying march through a veritable quagmire, the troops sometimes up to their waists in slush, the division at about 9 A.M. came within range of the Turkish position, and the leading brigade, the Belguam, (Major Gen. Fry), deployed for attack.

The ground was absolutely open, and the Turks had a perfect field of fire. On our side the men had the greatest difficulty in getting forward through the clayey mud-beds and the worn-out horses could not bring up the field artillery. Nevertheless, the Belgaum brigade steadily advanced, and the attack being presently supported by other troops and assisted by the first of the two gunboats on the river, at last closed upon the Turkish intrenchments and carried them, capturing two guns and one hundred prisoners, besides inflicting a very heavy loss in killed and wounded.

The retreat of the enemy was assisted by a mirage which disconcerted our gunners. Subr Bey retreated on Basra, but he had no hope of being able to hold the big spreading place with his small force, and evacuated it. He retreated to Kurna, where the Tigris joins the Euphrates. There he intrenched himself. His main body was in Kurna, a large village encircled by palm groves, in the marshy angle formed by the two rivers, with a strong detachment in the straggling village of Mazera, on the left bank of the Tigris.

On Dec. 7 General Fry advanced upon the Kurna position. The defenders of Mazera made a hard fight of it, assisted by the strength of their position among a maze of pottery works backed up by the ubiquitous palms, but in the afternoon the village was carried.

Kurna was now isolated, but its capture presented great difficulties. All through the 8th General Fry bombarded it from Mazera, while his infantry were slowly ferried over higher up. This was prepared by some daring sappers, who swam the broad river and fixed a wire rope by which the boats were worked backward and forward, and an advance was made against Kurna from the rear.

Subr Bey had lost very heavily at Mazera, so he accepted the inevitable and surrendered. So a brilliant little episode came to a victorious conclusion. Subr Bey was returned his sword and complimented on his stubborn defense.

The capture of Kurna secured the possession of the Basra region. Since then operations have been directed to securing it against Turkish attempts at recovery.

A recent stage of this campaign is thus described in The Pioneer Mail (Allahabad), June 4, 1915:

It is announced from Simla that on the morning of May 31 a further advance up the Tigris River was made by the British expeditionary force in close co-operation with the navy. Notwithstanding the excessive heat the troops advanced with great dash and determination, and successively captured four positions held by the enemy. As far as reported we suffered only a few casualties. Valuable work was performed by our aeroplanes. The operations are proceeding.

The British force at the end of June had reached Shaiba.


The splendid work done by Indian regulars and Indian imperial forces (the forces supplied by native Princes) in Europe, in Africa, in Egypt, in Mesopotamia is a sufficient answer to the suggestion that British influence in India has been weakened by the war. The enthusiastic formation of volunteer corps, both of Europeans and of natives, is a further proof that the peoples of India, now more than ever, realize the benefits of liberty and security which they enjoy. In India the torpedoing of the Lusitania made a profound impression, as the native press proves.

A notable trial, the Lahore conspiracy case, disclosed the curious fact that almost the only case of "unrest" in India was "made in America" by returned emigrants from Canada and California, who, on their way back, were interviewed by the German Consuls at Chinese ports and advised to stir up an insurrection. This they tried to do, using bombs made of brass inkpots, and bombarding the houses of well-to-do natives, seeking in this way to raise money to finance the rising.

The Pioneer Mail (Allahabad) gives an interesting account of the trial of these peculiar patriots, half of whom seem to have informed on the other half. It appears that they, or others like them, were instrumental in causing the recent riot at Singapore, in which some twenty European men and women were killed.


A curious result of the world war has been the expeditions initiated by the great oversea dominions of Britain and by India. The work of two of these, in Africa and Mesopotamia, has been already described. There remain the joint Australian and New Zealand expeditions against the island colonies of Germany and the great semi-continental area of New Guinea.

A lively account of the expedition against the Samoa Islands is printed in The Sydney Bulletin for Sept. 24:

The recent expedition to Samoa furnished many surprises, chief among which was the adaptability of the Maorilanders to military discipline. When the men came on board the transports (Moeraki and Monowai) discipline simply wasn't in their dictionaries. They acknowledged orders with a "Right O, Sport," or with an argument. Companies were referred to as mobs, the commanding officer as the boss or the admiral. * * *

The night before we reached Samoa an English military officer on board told me it was remarkable, and highly creditable, the rapidity with which the men had adapted themselves to the changed circumstances. * * *

The expedition called at Noumea to pick up the French warship Montcalm, also the Australia and Melbourne of ours. Noumea had been very worried since the war began, lest the German fleet from Samoa would come along and bombard the place. Had notices up to the effect that five shots would signify the arrival of the Germans, and that every inhabitant was then to grab rations and make for the horizon. The welcome the French handed to us would have stirred the blood of a jellyfish.

Samoa proved a walk-over. Not a gun, not a ship, not a mine. A bunch of schoolboys with Shanghais and a hatful of rocks could have taken it. The German fleet that was supposed to be waiting to welcome us hadn't been around for eleven months. Seemingly the German fleet has gone into the business of not being around.


The Australasian (Melbourne) for Sept. 19 prints the following, describing the conquest of German New Guinea, which, with the Bismarck Archipelago, off the coast, has an area of 90,000 square miles—something less than half the size of the German Empire:

The Minister for Defense (Mr. Millen) has received the following' further information by wireless regarding the operations at Herbertshohe and Rabaul, from Admiral Patey: The Australian naval reserve captured the wireless station at Herbertshohe at 1 P.M. on Sept. 12, after eighteen hours' bush fighting over about six miles. Herbertshohe and Rabaul, the seat of Government, have been garrisoned and a base has been established at Simpsonshafen.

Have prisoners: German officers, 2, including commandant; German non-commissioned officers, 15; and native police, 56. German casualties about 20 to 30 killed. Simpsonshafen swept and ready to be entered Sept. 12.

Naval force landed under Commander Beresford of the Australian Navy met with vigorous opposition. Advanced party at dawn established landing before enemy aware of intention. From within a few hundred yards of landing bush fight for almost four miles. Roads and fronts also mined in places, and stations intrenched. Officer commanding German forces in trench 500 yards seaward side of station has surrendered unconditionally.Our force have reconnoitred enemy strength holding station. Have landed 12-pounder guns, and if station does not surrender intend shelling. Regret to report following casualties: 4 killed, 3 wounded.

Later a wireless message from Rear-Admiral Sir George Patey informed the Minister for Defense (Mr. E. D. Millen) on Monday, Sept. 14, that, as a result of the operations of the Australian Expeditionary Force, Rabaul, the seat of government in German New Guinea, had been occupied. The British flag was hoisted over the town at 3:30 on Sunday afternoon (Sept. 13, 1914) and it was saluted. A proclamation was then read by Rear-Admiral Patey, formerly setting out the occupation.

Apia (Samoa) had been occupied by British forces on Aug. 29. The Caroline Islands, first occupied by Japan, were turned over to New Zealand. The Marshall and Solomon Islands were likewise occupied on Dec. 9, thus completing the tale of Germany's colonial possessions in the Pacific.

There remain large areas in Kamerun and East Africa, but in both cases the coast line is in the possession of the Entente powers.


The first considerable battle in the Caucasus, after Turkey entered the war, was decided in favor of Russia, on Jan. 3. On Jan. 16 the Eleventh Corps of the Turkish Army was cut up at Kara Urgaun. On Jan. 30 the Russians occupied Tabriz. On Feb. 8 Trebizond was bombarded by Russian destroyers. On May 4 the Turks were again defeated, leaving 3,500 dead. The most recent considerable action was the taking of the ancient and important City of Van, which is graphically described in Novoe Vremya, June 19:

"When our armies scattered the forces of Halil Bey and gained marked successes in the western part of Azerbijan, the question of taking Van and the more important towns on Lake Van arose. At the same time we received news of the desperate situation of the Christians (Armenians) of the Van vilayet, who had been compelled to take up arms against the Kurds.

"Our division was directed to go to Van through the Sanjak of Bajazet, crossing the Tatar Pass under fire of Turkish regulars and Kurds. In spite of the Spring season, the whole pass was covered with a thick carpet of snow, in places up to our men's belts. At the highest point of the pass, 10,000 feet, we were forced to halt. After a brief rest we reached Taparitz and were immediately in contact with the enemy, who attacked with shell and rifle fire, but we soon silenced them with our rifles and machine guns. Scattering, the Turks and Kurds hid among the rocks and sniped at us.

"From Taparitz we advanced much more rapidly along the Abaga Valley, then turned to the west along the River Bendimach-Su, the best route to Van. We were informed that Begri-Kala was strongly occupied by Turks who were determined to defend it to the last.

"They began an irregular fire, which soon developed into a hotly contested battle. We were compelled to reply with bullet and bayonet. We took several mountain guns, many rifles and cartridges and much ammunition. Many of the enemy threw up their hands and surrendered. We liberated several dozen Christian girls who had been captured by the Kurds at the time of the Turk and Kurd raid on the Armenian villages.

"We then resumed our march on Van, after driving the Turks from the Village of Sor. The enemy gathered in the Town of Janik, one march from Van, on the northeast shore of Lake Van. To take Janik cost us several days' fighting. The Turks fought desperately, undaunted by enormous losses, their dead falling in heaps on all sides. The Turkish infantry fought a brave and honorable fight, but the Kurds are foul fighters, murdering and looting.

"Attacking directly with only a part of our forces, we sent the rest by a long detour around the enemy's position, taking the Turks in flank; then our men charged with the bayonet, and the fight was over.

"The fall of Janik decided the fate of Van. On the night of May 5 (18) the Turks evacuated Van, leaving twenty-six guns, 3,000 poods (a pood equals 36 pounds) of powder, their treasure and documents; they went so silently that the inhabitants did not know of it until the next morning.

"On May 6 (19) the birthday of Czar the streets and decking our soldiers with Nicholas II., we entered antique Van, the centre of the large and once wealthy vilayet of the same name, amid extraordinary rejoicings, the entire Christian population coming forth to meet us, strewing flowers and green branches in the streets and decking our soldiers with garlands.

"The capture of Van is as important politically as it is strategically. The advance on Mush and Bitlis is a necessary consequence."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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