Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

Germany Loses Her Colonies

"And courage never to submit or yield."


The whole force of the British Empire was now leveled against Germany, and to the newly made South African Union was allotted the task of conquering her African Colonies.

How, late in the day, she began to look round for "places in the sun" has already been told. Other countries had acquired the best places in Africa, and Germany had rather to take what was left. Thus, when war broke out, she had two strips on the west coast known as Togoland and the Cameroons, a vast waterless desert in the south-west, and a yet larger district, twice the size of the German Empire, in the east.

Even before these colonies were taken from her, Australians and New Zealanders had hastened to Kaiser Wilhelmsland, part of New Guinea, and seized the Bismarck Archipelago, thus sweeping all German outposts from the Pacific Ocean quite early in the war. Again, she had lost her Chinese province of Kaio-Chau in 1914—a great blow. The Kaiser had lavished money on the capital, which was to be the German centre for the East. It was the "apple of his eye," and the base of his Pacific Fleet. When, on the outbreak of war, the Allies demanded the return of this province to China, the Kaiser had ordered his German garrison to hold out to the last man, and they endured a bombardment from land and sea for a month. Then the 4000 Germans were obliged to surrender, and the Kaiser's Eastern stronghold was occupied by the Allies.

Of the African colonies, Togoland was the first to fall. Situated between British and French territories, it was invaded from both sides. The Germans retired along the railway to defend their famous wireless station at Kamina. It was one of the finest in the world, but, seeing the game was up, they destroyed it and surrendered.

The Cameroons were larger than the German Empire. Without adequate preparation, British troops entered from Nigeria, only to be driven back over the border by the Germans. With the help of gunboats on the coast, the capital, Duala, was taken, and the final conquest of the vast territory stretching from the coast to Lake Chad was in time accomplished.

The conquest of German South-West Africa was a more serious matter. The country is as large as the Transvaal and Orange Free State together, involving some 300,000 square miles of barren and waterless rocky land, to defend which a stubborn defence was made. Along the thousand miles of "storm-beaten inhospitable coast," there were but two harbours, one of which, Walfisch Bay, was British. At the other harbour, with its open and wind-swept roadstead at Swakopmund, the Germans had built, on a foundation of deep and shifting sand, two well-constructed towns, from which they had run a railway into the interior to the capital, Windhok, where the most powerful long-range wireless station in the world had been constructed, with 300 feet high masts and mile long aerials, capable of talking direct to Berlin.

It is known now that, in the event of war, German West Africa was designed to be a base for an attack on British Dominions. Great masses of war material were found—guns, rifles, and ammunition, and a secret poison gas factory all told the same tale.

"Yes," said the Germans, "we expected India to rise; we expected trouble in Ireland; we expected a triumphant rebellion in South Africa; we anticipated that the British Empire would be torn in pieces."

Had it not been for General Botha's prompt and brilliant exploits in quelling the rebellion which broke out in the Transvaal on the eve of the expedition to South-West Africa, the Germans might well have been right after all. But it delayed matters seriously. Another unexpected delay came, too, in November 1914, when Admiral Cradock's squadron was sunk by the German admiral, Von Spee, off the coast of Coronel. Might not the victorious German admiral make his way to the defence of German West Africa? The sinking of his fleet in December put an end to any such possibility, and General Botha arrived at Walfisch Bay early in February 1915 in supreme command of his Union troops, well-equipped and enthusiastic, and struck his camp at Swakopmund. Four separate forces were acting in the campaign, which was brilliantly organised by General Botha, and carried out without a hitch by his loyal officers. In all, the total number of troops was about 40,000 men—far exceeding the Germans, who numbered about 9000 and who were very fully equipped with heavy guns and prepared positions. Swakopmund had been hastily evacuated by the Germans, who left behind, among other things, a gramophone in one of their larger houses, with records marked "English lessons," consisting of a series of English sentences, from which Germans could acquire some slight knowledge of English!

The other three forces were already making their way into the country "according to plan," when, toward the end of April, General Botha began his advance, the mounted men leading the way along the dry bed of the Swakopmund river, and the infantry following through the sandy and waterless waste along the track of the railway. For rapid trekking, none could beat General Botha, and a record-breaking march, "causing two hemispheres to talk," was now made, covering 200 miles in five days over a waterless desert land. The Germans, who had boasted that the way to the capital was strewn with mines and that all water was poisoned, were surprised, and when General Botha moved in force on Karibil he found the foe in full retreat. They had left their wives and children at the mercy of the conquerors. Perfect order and confidence prevailed as the General hoisted the Union Jack over Karibil. After an arrangement with the Germans over the telephone, General Botha and his staff left Karibil, and received the surrender of 3000 Germans at Windhok, the capital of the province. The Germans had been taken by surprise, and they had barely time to destroy the famous wireless station before fleeing from that picturesque German town in the very heart of Africa to take up their last stand in the north. But round about Otavi the other forces were concentrating, and soon the Germans, cut off from their base and surrounded, were obliged to surrender.

On 9th July 1915 they laid down their arms. The conquest of their land had been completed in six months with but few casualties, and the Peace Conference handed over the "South-West Territory," as it was afterwards called, to be administered as a part of the South African Union, under a mandate from the League of Nations.

But there still remained the last and most valuable of the overseas colonies. German East Africa was twice the size of Germany herself, with some 8,000,000 natives and 5000 Europeans. She had a coast-line on the Indian Ocean of 470 miles, while her western frontier from Lake Victoria to Lake Nyasa was some 700 miles in length.

It was a magnificent country of unrivalled scenery, with its great mountain ranges and huge plains, its primeval forests, pathless and trackless, its rich black soil turning to mud in the rainy season and dust in the drought, with fierce tropical heat and the deadly tsetse-fly. It was the land of the big-game hunter, with its wild beasts and impenetrable jungle, rather than a land for military expeditions. All attempts to invade the country during the early part of the war had met with disastrous failure.

In her commander, von Lettow-Vorbeck, Germany had a brilliant man, courageous, determined, and courteous. He knew his country well, and the Kaiser had ordered him to hold out to the last—a command he obeyed loyally by being still at large when peace came in 1918.

It was not till 1916 that the South African Union was ready to co-operate in conquering this last colony, and that General Smuts arrived at Mombasa as Commander-in-Chief in charge of the campaign. He was faced with the tremendous task of driving the Germans across the frontier and rounding them up in a vast area, and this must be done before the rainy season set in and the country became a vast swamp. He had taken part in the campaign for conquering South-West Africa, and now followed somewhat the same plan so successfully carried out by his friend and comrade, General Botha. The colony was to be invaded from four quarters—two small Belgian forces from the Congo, a British force from Rhodesia, and the largest force, numbering some 20,000 men, from the Union under General Smuts himself.

On 5th March the movement began in the north of the Colony, south of the line of the famous British railway from Mombasa to Myanda, on which stood Nairobi, the capital of British East Africa, known as Kenya Colony.

The rainy season was soon due, and there was no time to be lost. General Smuts knew, too, that the enemy must be taken by surprise, so "he adopted a plan which Lettow-Vorbeck had not dreamed of, and flung himself into the wilds." With the help of his skilful officers he entirely succeeded, and in little more than a fortnight the great mountain of Kilimanjaro, whose highest peak had been named after the Kaiser, had been conquered, and headquarters secured at Moschi, the terminus of the Tanya railway, while the enemy retreated south. The Germans had lost the richest part of their country with its vast plantations of coffee, while the loss of Kilimanjaro, the most beautiful of solitary peaks, brought home to the native army the reality of their defeat.

An invasion of the interior was now directed against the German railway running from the shores of Lake Tanganyika to the seaport capital of Dar-es-Salaam. A start was made on 3rd April. The rains now began, and progress was difficult. Horses became exhausted, armoured cars stuck in the swollen fords, but magnificently the men made their way. On the 17th the main enemy's position was attacked and carried by the weary but not disheartened troops. Cooking now grew impossible by reason of incessant rain; men had to live on short rations. Toward the end of July the railway was cut, and 100 miles of line fell into the hands of the invaders, though every bridge had been destroyed by the retreating foe. By 3rd September the capital Dar-es-Salaam was occupied by General Smuts and his victorious troops, and the conquest of German East Africa practically achieved. True, the southern part of the colony yet remained in the hands of the brilliant and resourceful Commander Lettow-Vorbeck, who, knowing his country and his men, had made such a gallant stand, but there was now no doubt as to the result.

Before the end General Smuts was called back to England to take part in the Imperial War Conference. To him belonged the chief credit of the campaign. "He inspired his whole command with his own magnetic spirit, and lifted it over hard places, which might well have proved unconquerable without such leadership." It has been said that his was one of the most remarkable campaigns of the whole world war. His own words give a graphic picture of the hardship and suffering of the men:

"Their work has been done under tropical conditions which not only produce bodily weariness and unfitness, but which create mental depression and, finally, appall the stoutest hearts. To march day by day, through the African jungle or high grass in which vision is limited to a few yards, in which danger lurks near, supplies a test to human nature often in the long-run beyond the limit of human endurance."

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