World War I Around the World
Part II The War in Africa
See also Part I The War in Asia and the Pacific
The continent of Africa did not escape the deadly consequences of World War I. Before the war, Germany had expressed broad ambitions to develop an African empire. In 1914, Germany controlled four principal colonies in Africa: German West Africa, Togoland, German East Africa and German Southwest Africa. Together, these colonies covered an area of approximately one million square miles and had a population of almost fifteen million people.
The Mittleafrika lobby had advocated the annexation or the acquisition of both the Belgian Congo and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as the British colonies of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Additional British and French territory would also have been acquired had Germany triumphed in the war. The result would have been the creation of a German colonial empire from the Guinea coast to the Indian Ocean covering one-third of the continent.
Instead, German colonies, mostly lightly defended, were subject to campaigns by armies of the British Empire, France, Belgium and Portugal. Germany's African empire, by the end of the war, was dismantled, with the victors dividing the spoils between them.
German colonial troops in the West African country of Togoland, nowadays Togo, and the Volta region of Ghana, surrendered to British and French forces very early in the war. In Kamerun, modern-day Cameroon, the fighting continued until 1916. Many German soldiers eventually escaped into the neutral territory of Spanish Guinea.
In their attempt to take German Southwest Africa, today's Namibia, the British committed the error of arming their former enemies, the Boers of South Africa. They paid the price when 12,000 Boers rebelled. Once the rebels had been vanquished, Boer General Jan Smuts advanced on the capital, Windhoek, and succeeded in capturing it in May 1915. South Africa was to remain effective ruler of southwest Africa for the next 75 years.
German and Portuguese forces clashed on the border between German Southwest Africa and Angola in March 1915. Despite their early success, the Germans surrendered in July.
It was a different story in German East Africa, where the German colony comprised the modern-day states of Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. The colony comprised a territory of over 384,000 square miles, an area three times the size of modern Germany. Here, in a sustained guerrilla campaign led by the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a force of approximately 14,000 men, including 11,000 African soldiers held the combined, 300,000-strong, armies of Britain, Belgium and Portugal at bay for four years.
By 1916, the British, tired of the hit-and-run tactics, had handed command to Smuts. It was only after being informed of the German capitulation in Europe, in November 1918, that Lettow-Vorbeck agreed first to a ceasefire and then to surrender. While his actions had little influence on the overall outcome of the war, he returned to Germany a national hero.