The Second Year of the War in Africa

Written for CURRENT HISTORY by a Staff Contributor

[The New York Times/Current History, August 1916]

In August, 1915, CURRENT HISTORY gave some account of the rapid alienation of Germany's colonial empire, which, at the outset of the war, measured over a million square miles. It was made up of four sections of Africa, of the northeastern third of the vast Island of Papua, or New Guinea, and of groups of islands scattered over the Pacific, from New Guinea eastward. This widely spread empire was open to attack by several of the allied nations England, France, Belgium, Japan, and, later, Portugal while Germany, whose fleets were swept from the open seas, was wholly unable to support her forces there.

The first colonies to go were the insular possessions in the Pacific, taken over by British colonial troops from Australia and New Zealand the nucleus of the famous Anzac forces to whom French colonial forces from New Caledonia were added; and also by Japan, whose captures were for the most part turned over to Australia; at the same time Togoland, on the north shore of the great Gulf of Guinea, which indents West Africa on the equator, was captured by co-operating French and British forces. All these colonies were elements in the great scheme for a German colonial empire, developed by Prince Bismarck, beginning with 1885; and Bismarckburg, in Togoland, as well as the Bismarck Archipelago, north of German New Guinea, (Kaiser Wilhelm Land,) were intended to immortalize the great statesman's name.

The campaign of General Louis Botha gave to the Allies, and, more particularly, to the recently formed Union of South Africa, of which General Botha is Premier, the great region of German Southwest Africa, which thereon became a part of the realm jointly possessed by Briton and Boer. It is noteworthy that these conquests by her dominions beyond the sea bind these new nations more firmly to Britain, since to safeguard them the protection of the British fleet and Britain's command of the sea are essential. Their acquisition, therefore, strengthens the bonds of the British Empire.

There remained two great German colonies in Africa the Cameroon region, to the east of the Gulf of Guinea, so called by the early Portuguese navigator, Fernando Po, from the "Camerones," or "crayfish," which his sailors found in the river, an interesting etymology hidden by the German spelling, "Kamerun;" and, on the other side of Africa, the colony of German East Africa. Both these colonies are very large—larger than Germany and France combined—and much of them is covered with tropical jungle, spread over very mountainous country. In both, as events showed, the German authorities had been vigorously preparing for the expected world war, as the fact that they were able to fight continuously for many months without new supplies of ammunition sufficiently shows. They were also linked with Germany and with each other by an extraordinary system of wireless stations.

In both these German colonies fighting began at the very beginning of the war. In both there were considerable forces of German soldiers, and very much larger forces of well-armed native troops, under German officers. In both there was a network of strongly fortified German posts, with trenches, earthworks, barbed wire entanglements, (first used in Africa in the Boer war,) and the whole paraphernalia of modern warfare.


The Cameroon colony was surrounded by British and French colonies—British to the northwest, French to the east and south, while on the west it was open to the sea, and therefore commanded by the allied fleets. The allied plan of campaign was to work from the circumference to the centre, closing in on the German forces as these were gradually driven together. Their progress was as follows:

At the beginning of January, 1915, the French North Cameroon column arrived before the German fortress of Garua, seeking to make a junction with the British forces sent from Yola (in British Nigeria) under Major Webb-Bowen. Colonel Brisset, in command of this French force, made his camp at Nassaroa, to the north of Garua, and on Jan. 10 Major Webb-Bowen joined him, bringing three three-inch guns and fifteen machine guns. In April Colonel Cunliffe arrived, and took command of the allied forces, French and British, a total of 900 combatants. Completely investing the German fortress, they began a five months' siege. Two heavy guns were later sent from Dakar, a more aggressive attack was begun, and, on the night of June 9-10, the Germans, hard pressed, tried to escape. They failed, and on June 10 hoisted the white flag. The Allies were not supplied with a truce flag to hoist in reply. One of their officers pulled off his shirt, which "looked white from a distance," and a parley was begun, Captain von Krailsheim finally surrendering unconditionally. On June 11 the allied forces entered Garua, replacing the German flag by the British flag and the tricolor.

At the close of June the allied forces, pushing on to N'Gaundere, found it evacuated. The French there celebrated the national festival of July 14. On Aug. 11 Captain Jean Ferrandi reached Kounde. From Tibati the allied troops moved against Yoko, in connection with a column which General Cunliffe was leading from Kontcha against Banyo, from which he moved on Nov. 16 against strong German positions on Mount Banyo. To the east, two columns setting out from Bertua and Dume, marched on Tina. These different forces were intended to come together in the direction of Yaunde, the last German stronghold.

At the southwest corner of the Cameroon colony, on the Gulf of Guinea, there is an "inset" of neutral territory, the Spanish Congo. Making their escape from Yaunde, the last German forces crossed the border into this neutral ground, where they were interned by the Spanish authorities. The completion of the conquest of the Cameroons was announced on Feb. 18, 1916, in a cablegram from the Governor of British Nigeria, which stated that the German garrison at Mora, in the extreme north, had capitulated. Mr. A. Bonar Law, Secretary of State for the Colonies, telegraphed congratulations to General Dobell and General Cunliffe on the success of the forces under their command, and the organization of the Cameroons, under French colonial authorities, was begun. It is likely that both Togoland and the Cameroons are assigned, in the plans of the Allies, to France.


German East Africa, which was developed from concessions in the back country of Zanzibar, is, to a large degree, bordered by the great African lakes—Victoria Nyanza makes a deep cut into it on the north, Lake Tanganyika forms the upper half of its western frontier, while Lake Nyassa forms the lower half.

On the east is the Indian Ocean. The land frontier on the north is British East Africa; the land boundary on the west is the Belgian Congo. The land boundaries on the south are British Nyassaland and Portuguese Mozambique. Thus the German colony is beset on all sides by allied possessions; now that Portugal has entered the war on the side of the Allies—following the seizure of fourteen German steamships in the estuary of the Tagus—there is no adjoining neutral territory to which the German forces can retreat as the defenders of the Cameroon colony retreated to the Spanish Congo.

We may infer the completeness of their preparation for war by the fact that the Germans in East Africa now complete their second year of fighting without having received any considerable supplies from the outside. Here, as on the west coast of Africa, they had strongly fortified posts dotted all over the colony, and strong native forces, numbering some 50,000—a very large army, considering the immense difficulties of the country, much of which is heavy jungle, on the sides of the highest mountains in Africa.

In such country all the advantage is on the side of the party which is on the defensive; one or two well-placed machine guns—and the Germans have large numbers of these—can keep back a very considerable force, where the use of artillery is almost out of the question. There is some artillery, however; the Allies have several times announced the capture of Krupp field pieces, the same 77-millimeter guns that are used against Verdun.

Until the Spring of the present year the allied campaign in German East Africa languished somewhat. General Smuts, the famous Boer leader, who is a member of General Botha's Ministry, was then sent thither, with the temporary rank of a Lieutenant General in the British Army. After his arrival things began to move, and, an interesting feature of the situation, the Belgians from the west and the Portuguese from the south co-operated vigorously and systematically with the British. Recent successes were as follows:

On May 13 General Tombeur, leading the Belgians, compelled the retreat of the German force near Lake Kivu, occupying the Kama range of hills, and capturing a Krupp 77. Toward the end of May a British force, working forward from Nyassaland under General Northey, penetrated twenty miles into German territory between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyassa, and compelled the Germans to evacuate Neu Langenburg, to the north of Lake Nyassa, capturing large quantities of ammunition. A nearby German garrison, at Marema, was invested. By the beginning of June the Belgians had penetrated 125 miles into German territory; their left rested on the River Kagera, while their centre had crossed the River Akanjaru, and their right was approaching the town of Usumbura. The Belgian troops were everywhere well received by the natives, and established a provisional government in Ruanda.

Meanwhile, the British troops, working inland along the Pangani River, which flows into the sea to the north of Zanzibar, had come in touch with the Germans at Mikachesi on May 22. The enemy line was astride the railroad in the narrow neck between the Pare Mountains and the Panzani, and was strongly intrenched. On May 30 these trenches were assaulted and carried. The Germans retired up the railroad to Mkomazi, with the forces of General Smuts in pursuit. At the same time the Portuguese, operating from the south, had defeated the Germans at the mouth of the Rovuma River, near Kionga.

On Lake Victoria Nyanza the Island of Ukerewe was taken from the Germans, with two Krupp guns. On June 13 General Northey's forces occupied Alt Langenburg, while the Belgians took possession of the line between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria Nyanza, the British meanwhile taking Handeni. On June 22 it was announced that General Tombeur's Belgians had defeated the Germans at Kiwitawe, and had engaged them again on the road from Kiwitawe to Kitega, east of the River Ngokoma.

The allied strategy is exactly the same as in the Cameroons to work from many points along the circumference, in toward the centre, where the end will come.


Cameroon, the important German colony on the central west coast of Africa, passed into possession of the Allies on Feb. 18, 1916, when the garrison of Mora, in the northern portion, capitulated. The first mention of this district is by early Portuguese navigators, who sought its shores for food and water. In drawing their nets they found them laden with prawns, and named the district River of Prawns, or Rio dos Camaroes; this was in the seventeenth century. Two hundred years later the Niger Trading Company, an English company, sent steamships to that section for legitimate commerce, although it is suspected the slave trade was surreptitiously the chief purpose. In 1857 a British cruiser, sent out to suppress the trade, while anchored in the Cameroon River, was visited by a delegation of native chiefs, who asked that England take possession of the Cameroon country, and in compliance with this request the commander hoisted the British flag and took possession. The British Admiralty revoked this action and ordered the flag hauled down. Twenty-two years later the chiefs again asked England to take possession, but no action was taken.

In 1840 Hamburg merchants opened trade relations with the natives of the West Coast, and in 1859 they had factories near the Cameroon River. In 1883 the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce recommended the annexation of the Cameroon coast, and on April 20, 1884, the German Chargé d'Affaires at London notified the British Foreign Office that the German Consul General would "visit" the West Coast of Africa with authority to conduct negotiations "connected with certain questions," and asked that the German officials be "furnished with suitable recommendations." Shortly thereafter two German warships appeared at the coast—one the Möwe, curiously enough the predecessor of the Möwe which recently made a sensational sea raid near the coast, achieving a dramatic escape from the British fleet and returning safely to Hamburg. On July 5, 1884, the German flag was raised at Togoland, and a few days later at the Cameroon River.

This was a shock to England, revealing the fact that Germany had entered the lists in the scramble for colonies in Africa. As soon as the news leaked out that Togoland and the Cameroon had been taken by Germany, British agents made treaties with native chiefs to secure the mouths of the Niger and the Oil River, which were the choice possessions of that region.

The colony was increased in 1911 to an area of 295,000 square miles by the cession of part of the Congo territory by France in compensation for German concessions in Morocco. Its length is over 700 miles and its breadth 600 miles, being twice the size of the United Kingdom.

Edward Bond, in a study of the district for the Contemporary Review, gives some interesting data concerning it. About half the country is flat, with fine agricultural possibilities. The western part from the sea northward is mountainous, with some lofty peaks, one, the Mountain of Greatness, having an altitude of 13,370 feet. The forests contain much valuable hardwood, conspicuously ebony. The natives are Moslems, with Arabic civilization. Their chief occupation is stock raising. The chief town, Duala, had a population of 25,000, including 200 Europeans. It is well laid out and sanitary. In 1913 a railway 150 miles long had been built, another was under construction, and a third under survey. The total population of the colony is 3,500,000. There are four Government schools, with 868 pupils, and four missionary schools, with 24,000 pupils. At the time of the latest figures the imports were $8,000,000 and the exports $5,600,000.

The colony has been a liability to the German Government, the latest reported deficit reaching nearly $2,500,000 per annum. However, it has the very brightest prospects, as everything that will grow in tropical Africa can be grown there and the temperate climate in the vast mountainous areas gives all the possibilities of a temperate zone.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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