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Book Review 288: On to Kilimanjaro

July 7, 2013 - Harry Eagar
ON TO KILIMANJARO: The Bizarre Story of the First World War in East Africa, by Brian Gardner. 190 pages, illustrated. MacFadden-Bartell

Writing amusing stories of war is somewhat out of fashion today, but in 1964 it was still possible to be amused by “little wars,” and for anyone with a fine sense of the ridiculous German East Africa (today Tanzania) in 1914-18 was the place.

Brian Gardner says it sometimes seemed to have come from the pen of G.A. Henty (now forgotten but once a very popular writer of war adventure stories for boys), but in the end it hardly came from the pen of anyone. The British started but never bothered to finish an official history.

Many records were lost, or never written down in the first place. Yet it retains its interest for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a classic example of the success of the strategic defensive. Defensive wars are often cheaper in money and lives than offensive ones, but there is not much glory in them, so both generals and politicians usually prefer offense.

During the runup to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2002-3 (a place where the United States had been successfully conducting a defensive campaign for 12 years), the morons in the Bush administration explicitly claimed that it was impossible to win a defensive campaign. Wellington would have advised them differently.

So would Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander-in-chief in German East Africa, who conducted perhaps the greatest defensive campaign in modern times. He might have changed the outcome of World War I.

Rather than surrendering, Lettow set out to tie down as many allied troops as possible. In the end, the British sent more men against him than were used to subdue the Boers, not to mention Portuguese and Belgians. In the desperate summer of 1917, when the Western Front nearly collapsed, Lettow’s strategy came within measurable distance of winning for Germany.

He seems to have been an attractive character. Gardner does not say what sort of discipline he used to hold his force (mostly askaris, African mercenaries who, however, were not being paid) together for four years of privation, danger and hardship. But evidently he was not as quick with the whip, noose or firing squad as the British.

Sick from malaria most of the time, sometimes so sick he had to be carried in a litter, he was tough enough after four years to mount his bicycle and ride off 40 miles (80 round trip) over rough country to do his own reconnaissance.

Once he surrendered, he carefully gave each surviving askari a paper documenting his back wages, and back in Germany he worked to get them paid. The Social Democratic government, despite its troubles, did pay. Considering the behavior of the British toward the their colonial troops, or the Americans toward theirs, it is impossible to imagine either of those capitalist states doing the same.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Lettow despised Hitlerism.

The conditions were terrible. Both sides starved much of the time, and each had to deal with long list of diseases up to and including plague. After the fighting, ‘flu killed many who survived. Attacks were sometimes broken up by rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses or crocodiles, giraffes kept breaking the telegraph wires and lions ate sentries.

Lettow, who never had more than about 6,000 soldiers, tried to avoid fighting, retreating thousands of miles, but the fighting was real enough when it happened. Toward the end, there was a standup battle in which each side lost about half its strength. The Europeans fared terribly; up to 90% of many units did not survive.

Gardner does not say much about the local people. It wasn’t their fight, but they suffered from it. Each side had to divert effort to putting down insurrections.

Nor does he say much about perhaps the most remarkable people in the story, the wives and camp followers of each army. These women often gave birth along the way. In addition to carrying supplies (the askaris never carried any), they marched with children slung over their shoulders.

The only thing in the 20th century to compare with it was the Long March of the Chinese Communists in the ‘30s.

Gardner is a good story teller. His attitudes seem dated, but the only serious flaw in the book is his reliance on the diary of Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, the British intelligence officer in the early part of the campaign. Meinertzhagen had a fabulous career. Just how fabulous became apparent after this book was published when he was exposed as a liar, fraud and murderer.

Gardner might well have been suspicious of the unlikely adventures that Meinertzhagen enjoyed, always when he was off alone, but he wasn’t. We can now say with confidence that all these episodes were imaginary, and Meinertzhagen’s pithy judgments (always negative) of the other officers are not to be believed either.

 
 

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