With Smuts in German East

By Cyrill Campbell

[The Atlantic Monthly, June 1917]

D'ye ken Jan Smuts when he's after the Hun?
D'ye ken Jan Smuts when he's got 'em on the run?
D'ye ken Jan Smuts when he's out with his gun
And his horse and his men in the morning?
Yes, I ken Jan Smuts and Jourdain too,
Van der V, and the sportsman Selous,
Springbok and Sikh, for they're all true-blue,
When they're strafing the Hun in the morning.
Marching song of the South African Troops.

My previous, account of the initial operations in this campaign brought the tale of events down to the seizure of Moshi, the railhead of the Tanga— Kilimanjaro line, and the establishment of Van der Venter at Kondoa-Irangi, threatening the central railway from Dar-es-salam to Tanganyika. Since then Smuts's men have made steady progress through a dense bush country, under blazing suns and torrential rains, turning elaborately prepared positions, and fighting an endless series of minor engagements which have ended, without exception, in the retirement of the Germans.

The first task of the invading army was to clear the enemy away from the Tanga railway, and Smuts set to work methodically, sweeping the country from the frontier to the Pangani with three mobile columns, which throughout their advance maintained constant communication with each other by means of wireless. It was a strange route that the invaders followed, especially the brigade operating along the foothills of the Pare Mountains, for they were working through practically virgin bush, under the most anomalous conditions. The tire-tracks of the latest-pattern armored car mingled with the spoor of ostrich and eland, while the reconnoitring aeroplane, ever in advance of the column, scared away the startled game in thousands.

By May 31 two of the brigades effected a junction, and drove back a German force which was astride the railway on a narrow neck of land between the mountains and the river. From here the lights of Wilhelmstal were visible at night, and on June 13 that important centre was occupied by the Union troops. In the meantime Van der Venter had been left at Kondoa-Irangi to attract as many troops as Vorbock, the German, commander, thought fit to detach; and the importance placed by the enemy on the British grip of this strategic spot could be best estimated by the furious attempts they made to recover it. For four days Van der Venter was beleaguered, and the garrison was on very scanty rations, since some expected convoys, warned by the firing, did not dare approach until reinforcements came up. At last, however, the pressure relaxed, and the brilliant cavalry leader lost no time in opening a new sweeping movement eastward, as soon as he was apprized of Smuts's intention of moving south from Wilhelmstal and trying to corner the Germans, who were retiring sullenly on Handeni.

Smuts's plans for the capture of this centre were elaborate to a degree, for, after detaching a brigade to complete the clearance of the railway and occupy Tanga (which was done by July 12, with little difficulty), he divided his main force into four different columns, all of which were timed to reach the same objective at dawn after a night march by different routes; and the success of this delicate manoeuvre speaks volumes for the ability of his staff and divisional commanders. Unluckily the Germans were warned in time by natives, and withdrew into the bush at the sacrifice of the big depot they had established close to the village.

On the following day a small force of the Fifth South African Infantry, under Colonel Byron, while moving through the bush in battle formation, discovered the enemy in a strong prepared position commanding an open laagte with a spruit running at right angles; and, despite the fact that they were outnumbered, forced an engagement. Attempts made by the Germans to outflank their assailants to right and left were defeated by counter-attacks, while the South Africans threw up improvised cover and prevented any rush en masse by the accuracy of their rifle-fire. After three hours of this, Byron found it necessary to consolidate the perimeter of his defense; with darkness coming on, however, the positions of the German machine-guns were revealed by spits of flame, and the British reengaged with such insistence that on the arrival of reinforcements the enemy fell back once more.

Despite the difficulties and dangers of pressing the pursuit through such country, Smuts moved off as soon as his scouts had learned something of the native tracks. On June 23 secret orders were given for a night march with unwheeled transport, the guns being carried on mules; and late that afternoon long lines of infantry, in Indian file, vanished into the dim recesses of the forest. The march was accomplished in silence, even smoking being forbidden. On the 24th the enemy was located on an intrenched ridge, protected by the Lukigura River, and General Sheppard contained this force with various feints at a frontal attack, pending the arrival of his colleague, General Hosken, who had been intrusted with a wide enveloping movement. About noon he was heard heavily engaged on the flank of the intrenched hill, which was finally carried in very clean style by a mixed force of Fusiliers and Kashmiris, while Sheppard repulsed an attempt to break back across the river.

That this position had been long and are fully prepared by the Germans 'in case of accident,' was evident from the elaborate care given to its construction. One of their gun-pits in particular was a masterpiece. Imagine a trench thirty yards in length with sleeping-cubicles for the gunners and galleries leading to the officers' dug-out, magazine, and pit, the whole being covered with heavy timber and earth mounds on that. These were planted with aloes 'all alive-O,' so that everything looked innocent enough even in the case of aerial reconnaissance. Thorn bomas and machine-guns guarded every possible avenue of approach—from the front. The Germans seemed incapable of imagining an attack from any other quarter.

Any artillerist will understand at once that the unique nature of this forest fighting demanded the evolution of a special system of observing; and, as a result of some study of the local conditions, Brigadier-General Crewe developed the 'forward observing officer' into a 'coöperating officer.' Whenever infantry were attacking with artillery in support, he was sent forward to accompany the infantry unit; it was his special business to 'see for himself how and where the artillery fire may best be directed, and pass on and, as far as possible comply with, the requests of the commander of the regiment or brigade with whom, he is working.

This modern development meant that the artillery fire was directed from the advanced infantry firing-line—an immense advantage in such country. The big field-guns now in use are so sensitive that their accuracy is affected, not only by different lots of ammunition, but also by the weather and temperature, more especially in a tropical climate; consequently, the registering or ranging shots are of the utmost importance in correcting idiosyncrasies of the moment and judging distance. It was the duty of this forward observing officer to 'record the effect of such ranging shots, and to submit to his battery commander suggestions as regards the distance and direction of the areas to be bombarded or searched by shell fire;' points of reference which are particularly useful in indirect fire—that is, for guns firing from covered positions on an unseen target.

Another development introduced by the artillery brigadier was the 'artillery reconnoitring patrol' riding with the screen or, at any rate, the advanced mounted troops of a brigade or division going into action. Once the enemy was brought into touch in position, or whenever an outpost line or chance encounter prevented further advance, the officer commanding the patrol was intrusted with the task of reconnoitring suitable positions for guns, and of sending back in a report to the battery or brigade commander any information concerning the best lines of approach, roads for the advance of guns, and any other details likely to be of use from an artillery point of view. These measures converted artillery into a forward arm, and increased its mobility enormously—a consideration of the highest importance in this country of long distances. The Great War has forever quashed the old dictum that 'big guns never kill anybody;' and as for the artillery fire in this minor theatre, a pathetic but welcome tribute to its effectiveness was contained in a half-finished letter found on the body of a German officer and addressed to his wife: 'The English have brought up their 5-inch guns, and that is why we have had to abandon our positions.'

But to return to the main narrative. With the taking of Handeni, and the defeat of the enemy on the Lukigura, the resistance in the coast area died away, and Smuts was able to consolidate his positions and to occupy at his leisure, in cooperation with naval landing parties, the smaller ports of Pangani and Sandani. Tanga, as we have seen, had already fallen, and this afforded a new and valuable base, since all necessary supplies could be brought there direct by sea, thus saving the circuitous route from Mombasa along the new light railway linking Maktau and Moshi. Smuts then advanced to Mondo, and awaited further developments.

The cordon was now fast drawing close. On May 24 the Rhodesian column under General Northey made its first big offensive movement in the campaign, and cleared the enemy forces which were threatening the Stevenson Road, that great artery connecting Lakes Nyassa and Tanganyika. Northey had divided his force into four small divisions, with their respective bases at Karonga, Fort Hill, Fife, and Abercorn: and a simultaneous movement was directed against the German positions which dominated the frontier. These had been strengthened enormously during the previous period of inaction, and they evidently anticipated a frontal attack. If this had been attempted, the British losses must have been severe; indeed, it is doubtful whether any of the German intrenchments could have been carried in face of machine-gun fire. But Northey had not spent months in Flanders for nothing. He did not intend to throw away lives in a direct assault without the heavy artillery to blast a way through. Consequently, for a week previous to the attack, his column commanders were ordered to threaten the enemy continuously at various points along the two-hundred-mile front, and thereby keep him in a state of uncertainty as to when or where the blow or blows would fall.

These tactics succeeded admirably; the first position on the extreme German left was evacuated for some reason without even a pretense of resistance, whereupon the garrison of the second fort, finding its communications threatened to right and left, also promptly retired without firing a shot. The two remaining contingents, at Luwiwa and Namema, were invested. Colonel Rogers, who was in charge of the tiny force round the former place, threw up a circle of fortified posts all round the enemy and gradually drew closer; but even so he had a perimeter of five thousand yards to hold with insufficient men, so that it was scarcely surprising that one night the Germans found a weak spot in the cordon and broke through. The Namema garrison, rendered desperate by scarcity of water and shortage of food, also smashed a way through, but their sortie cost them dear, and they were obliged to sacrifice their guns and supplies, while Colonel Murray followed hard on their tracks in the direction of Bismarckburg. On June 8, hearing that Simson, who was in command of the Lake Tanganyika Naval Expedition, had shelled the town he pressed on and occupied the place, the Germans retiring up country.

In the meantime the other three Rhodesian columns had coalesced, and pushed the enemy back on New Langenburg, from which they were driven out, and Northey's army advanced boldly straight through the colony toward Iringa, their ultimate object being to join hands with Van der Venter and Smuts. It is easy to criticize the failure to capture the two garrisons, but it must be remembered that the column commanders had neither the men nor the guns for a frontal attack; that the German positions were enormously strong against light field-guns; and that the perimeter to be held was so great that any determined enemy, careless of sacrificing lives, could pierce the line at some point and escape before supports could be brought up. Against this should be set the fact that even the temporary investment of these garrisons prevented the concentration of troops for the defense of New Langenberg, and that the separation of the German forces facilitated the rapid advance of the invaders.

Events now moved on apace. The Belgians, who had been engaged in the slow and laborious task of clearing away the Germans from the broken country between Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika, made a sudden swoop under General Tombeur on to Usambara, which formed a most convenient base for the succeeding descent on Ujiji, the lake railhead of the central line.

From here they steadily rolled back the enemy on Tabora, the inland capital and seat of the last official wireless installation which maintains communication with Berlin. During our advance, we had secured some amazing examples of the information ladled out to the troops: the total destruction of the British grand fleet in the Horn Reef battle; the capture of Calais; the burning of London and Paris, and fictitious victories fought and chronicled solely by Wolff's Bureau correspondents, and intended doubtless to spur on the drooping spirits of the colonial troops. That many of these ridiculous reports had been swallowed wholesale was evident from the naive remarks made by prisoners; and in consequence no little importance was attached to the destruction of this wireless, since that would cut off the enemy from all communication with the outside world, and make them dependent on their officers for scraps of encouraging information. To assist the Belgians therefore, Sir Charles Willoughby was placed in command of a separate British column; and after the motorboat squadron had cleaned up the myriad tiny islets which stud the southern half of Lake Victoria Nyanza, he established his base of operations at Muanza, and struck down country on the same objective. In the far southeastern corner the Portuguese had also come into action, and repulsed two German raids on Kionga and Unde, after which their forces crossed the frontier in combination with a light cruiser that sailed up the Rovuma and detached naval landing parties at two strategic points, and occupied a fairly extensive strip of territory along the northern banks of that river. The Germans were being quietly rounded up on all sides, and the time had now arrived for a vigorous effort by the main force, which had been steadily massing within striking distance of the rail.

The blow was struck, not for the first time in this campaign, by Van der Venter, who made one of his characteristic sudden dashes with a quadruple mounted column, and cut the line at Dodoma. His force met with a determined resistance, but once again Van der Venter's dispositions rendered absolutely abortive a magnificent series of intrenchments on Dodoma Nek. Commanding a tortuous ravine, and buttressed at either end by hills with a well-defined glacis, this position, with its guns, trenches, rifle-pits, and barbed wire, might have held up a bull-headed general for a month. The weaker party, if he be wise, makes up for his weakness by intrenchments; the stronger party should leave the intrenchments alone and use his strength to go round them. Van der Venter went round them, and by these tactics—at once simple, efficacious, and, best of all, almost bloodless—forced them to evacuate the nek, and in a few hours established himself astride of the railway, while the Germans fell back on Mpapua. But this turning of their flank had not prevented them from doing a lot of indiscriminate firing, and an examination of their gun-pits proved instructive, many of the shell-cases being found marked—

XI.           1915

thus affording the most damning confirmation of what had long been suspected —that even up to the end of last year, and despite the British command of the sea and the total disappearance of the German merchant marine, the enemy had obtained secret supplies from some source. Doubtless many an ostensibly neutral cargo consigned to Beira or Delagoa Bay could have told a strange tale, had it found speech, before the intervention of Portugal put an end to a profitable trade.

Having secured a firm grip of the railway, Van der Venter now swung eastward again, and after a real old-fashioned action in the open took Mpapua and linked up with an advance column sent by Smuts from Mondo. The position of the Germans was now precarious in the extreme. Not only were their two main forces hopelessly cut off from each other, but the severed remnants had to face the prospect of being driven very shortly from the tiny span of railway left to each respectively.

The pressure was not relaxed. Van der Venter, continuing his rapid progress, came up with the German rear-guard outside Kilossa, and after a brisk engagement scattered them toward the coast, and occupied that important post; while Smuts, losing no time in following up this advantage, sent one of his brigades to cooperate with a strong naval landing force, which on September 6 entered Dar-es-salam. In this way the British flag was hoisted over yet another German capital, while the Germans notified the removal of their seat of government from Dar-es-salam (which means in the native tongue 'The Haven of Peace') to Moro-Moro. Some time later the news came through that after ten days' desperate fighting the Belgians had occupied Tabora, so that there is no alternative left the enemy save surrender or a desperate attempt to carry on a guerilla war among the swamps and forests.

The accompanying map will give a better idea of the various moves in this campaign than the unavoidably disconnected narrative I have patched together. To give a detailed account of the operations of even one column would exhaust an issue of the Atlantic and be very dull reading for any but a military student; but the broad lines on which it was worked are sufficiently clear, I hope, to show that it might well be taken as a model by any general who has to fight in a difficult country. Danton's maxim, 'De l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace,' was Smuts's motto, to which he added, Mobility, mobility, mobility.

The men themselves cannot be praised too highly. Though it would be an idle exaggeration to compare their troubles with those cheerfully undergone daily in Flanders, it is no small test of fortitude to march and fight for months in a tropical climate, often on the scantiest rations, and always tormented by the myriad insect pests of the bush. The motor-cycle despatch-riders in particular had a most arduous task, and it was marvelous how they and their machines stood the strain; but perhaps a true incident will best illustrate something of their dangers.

One day a Rhodesian patrol came across a white man, stark naked and apparently insane, staggering along a native path. They brought him into camp, and after some days' rest and attention he recovered his senses and could narrate his experiences. He was bringing a despatch for Northey from Van der Venter, and left the main road in order to escape a nasty bit, where it was also possible he might run into a German outpost. His détour took him into a terrible maze of bush, and, as he bumped along, he lost an important part of the machine, and was unable to find it. He spent a day trying to contrive a makeshift from odd spare parts, but failed, so he was obliged to abandon the machine. As luck would have it, he came across no game, and though he managed to shoot a small bird with his rifle, he was too weak by the fourth day to carry this weapon. Then he could remember nothing more save walking blindly forward, till at last, half unconscious, he turned into the track where he was so luckily picked up.

One of the most gratifying things, from the point of view of the future, was the hearty welcome accorded the invaders by the natives of the colony. The strict respect paid to property won the chiefs over at once, since the Germans had requisitioned all the foodstuff they could lay their hands on, and gave nothing in exchange save handfuls of the Austrian 20-heller piece of 1916, which is valueless, for the equatorial savage disdains all save gold and silver coinage. From these willing allies we learned of the depression among the enemy native troops, who never fought with the same vim after the Salaita battle; while the porters and carriers melted away from the German camps whenever they had the chance. Fair and honest treatment, even in the purchase of a little Indian corn, works wonders with the native, although, the Teuton colonizer was never able to master this simple fact; and the square dealing of the invaders will go far to establish a sense of friendliness and security despite the change of masters.

Common justice demands that, before closing the article on the campaign, a few words should be said about the great leader and organizer of the operations, though space will allow but a thumbnail sketch. Smuts was born near Malmesbury in the Cape Colony, and after doing well at school was sent to Cambridge, where he took a brilliant degree. He was given a government post under Kruger, and was marked out as one of the rising young men whose possibilities were bounded only by their talents. The outbreak of the South African War changed his prospects, but he soon came back into prominence after the war by proposing at the Pretoria Customs Conference of May, 1908, six resolutions on the subject of closer union. On the realization of union, he entered Botha's first cabinet, which was dissolved and reformed owing to the independent attitude of Hertzog. But trouble soon threatened the government from a new quarter. At the beginning of that eventful year, 1914, the Johannesburg strikes threatened to paralyze the communications of the country. The crisis called for a strong man; and just as Briand had shown his mettle in smashing the French railway strike by utilizing the military despite the howls of his quondam colleagues, the Socialists, so Smuts displayed no hesitation in calling out the burghers for the protection of law and order, while the subsequent rioting afforded him the pretext of deporting the Labor leaders—an act which, though it may be condemned as arbitrary and unconstitutional, was. eminently effective at the time.

The autumn of the same year saw the opening of the Great War and the South African Rebellion, with the consequent disclosure of Beyers's treachery, which first became known by the publication of the correspondence that had passed between the two former comrades. The letter of Beyers, announcing his resignation, was a specious but laborious apologue, based on false premises and therefore leading to false conclusions. The reply of Smuts was a masterpiece of trenchant remorseless logic, with the skilled brain which belongs by training and profession to the lawyer apparent in every line. An intellect that combines such delicacy with such massiveness can aptly be compared only to one of those machines which can be regulated at will to crack an eggshell or crush to powder some stubborn substance. Smuts then took over the portfolio of Minister of Defense, and on the victory of his party at the October polls, offered his services to the Imperial Government. That fifteen years of civil life have not blunted his military skill can be seen in the above narrative; and after a careful study of the campaign, one might well think that it had been intrusted to a man who had spent his life in absorbing the manoeuvres and combinations of the great masters of war. Despite all the alterations in the methods of war, the principles of strategy are immutable, and Smuts has grasped them to some purpose. His tactics in the Cape Assembly are just what one might expect from his record in the field. His powers of debate are of the highest order; his speaking would command attention even in the hall whose walls have echoed to the voices of Pitt, Sheridan, and Burke—for it is a model of all that has, in every age, been held in the highest estimation by English Parliaments—ready, weighty, perspicuous, condensed. His sense of the feeling of the House is exquisite, while he is a past master of parliamentary tactics; indeed, such is his dexterity on occasions that, if one fault can be found in a demeanor otherwise faultlessly courteous, it is that he sometimes displays a contempt for consistency or accuracy in petty details. In political circles, even among his own friends, he is marked by an air of lofty reserve and cold indifference, which does not suffer his person to be familiarized out of reverence. No one can study the features of this great Afrikander, the lofty forehead, the keen penetrating eye, the resolute chin, and the firm indomitable mouth, without realizing that here is a man who has the talents and the will to achieve anything. Much indeed has he done already, and if Germany's two sub-continental colonies are to be added to the Union, Smuts must be ranked with Rhodes and Botha as the third member of the great Triumvirate which foresaw and strove for the realization of a great ideal—the foundation and construction of another great white nation, fit to rank with the other great offshoots of Anglo-Saxon stock.

Not unnaturally it is work of this kind which is gall and wormwood to bigoted recalcitrants like Hertzog and his Nationalists, and forms the mainspring of their usual gibes against 'The Englishman' or 'The Imperialist.' But the stirring words which Smuts sent to the British Parliament on the second anniversary of England's declaration of war were by no means the empty grandiloquent phrases of the patriotic platform hack. They are redolent of the fragrance of liberty, and in soundness of judgment, unselfishness, and rectitude of intention, they might have been uttered by any of the great figures of the past who have striven for the good of humanity.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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