Not too late to re­mem­ber

Un­told his­tory: the World War 1 bat­tles that lev­elled east Africa


DAR es Salaam, Tan­za­nia — 100 years ago, on Novem­ber 11, 1918, the armistice brought an end to World War 1 in Europe.

For the coun­tries of east Africa, how­ever, the war would go on for an­other two full weeks.

From 1914, Bri­tish Em­pire sol­diers fought a four-year guer­rilla cam­paign against a small Ger­man force in east Africa.

On Novem­ber 25, 1918, Al­lied and Ger­man forces re­ceived and ac­cepted the terms, bring­ing an end to four years of con­flict that had cost the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of African sol­diers and civil­ians over 750 000 square miles — an area three times the size of the Ger­man Re­ich.

His­to­rian Kath­leen Bo­mani grew up in Tan­za­nia and had been the class­room ex­pert on World War 1. “I knew it in and out,” she says. “Or so I thought.”

Now, she is show­ing her ex­hi­bi­tion “What Hap­pened Here” in Dar es Salaam as part of the World War I cen­te­nary.

It was while she was in her 20s that Bo­mani re­alised that not only had the war raged in Tan­za­nia, Zam­bia and Bu­rundi (then Ger­man East Africa), but that it lasted the en­tire du­ra­tion of the war in Europe, and brought com­pa­ra­ble dev­as­ta­tion.

She had ques­tions. Why was the war con­sid­ered a sideshow to the trench war­fare in Europe? And what traces were left of the fight­ing? So she trav­elled through Tan­za­nia, fol­low­ing the routes of African sol­diers and car­ri­ers, to ex­plore their his­to­ries.

Laura Cole (LC): What hap­pened in east Africa dur­ing World War 1? Was it dif­fer­ent from the fight­ing in Europe?

Kath­leen Bo­mani (KB): To un­der­stand the scale of the con­flicted area, you have to imag­ine that Ger­man East Africa as a colony made up much of to­day’s Bu­rundi, Rwanda and the ma­jor­ity of Tan­za­nia.

The size and na­ture of the land meant that the fight­ing took on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent style.

There was less trench war­fare. In­stead, the Ger­mans and the Al­lies chased each other up and down the re­gion, of­ten at a pace of 30 km a day.

They lev­elled vil­lages for sup­plies and en­listed civil­ians as sol­diers to fight, and car­ri­ers to shift their sup­plies. Most sol­diers and porters died from mal­nu­tri­tion, fa­tigue, malaria, tsetse fly and black fever, rather than bul­lets.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the war oc­curred just seven years af­ter one of the largest acts of re­sis­tance against colo­nial rule, the Maji Maji Up­ris­ing.

As a re­sult, the Ger­man forces utilised guer­rilla tac­tics that had been suc­cess­ful to them.

LC: What was the cost?

KB: For Ger­man com­man­der Paul von Let­tow-Vor­beck, the east Africa cam­paign was a dis­trac­tion, with the aim of draw­ing Al­lied troops away from the fronts in Europe.

Bri­tain leaned on forces from across its colonies: troops from Ghana, Nige­ria, the West Indies, Ja­maica, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa.

To­gether with the Al­lied forces of Bel­gium and Por­tu­gal, their num­bers made up 150 000 sol­diers. Ger­man forces num­bered around 25 000.

More stag­ger­ing was the num­ber of car­ri­ers needed over the four years, at a to­tal of more than one mil­lion.

And wher­ever sol­diers went, they re­cruited more. The of­fi­cial loss of life was around 105 000, although these num­bers are al­most cer­tainly down­played.

Fun­da­men­tally, the deaths of car­ri­ers were seen as dis­pens­able and not ac­cu­rately recorded. We may never know how many Africans died dur­ing World War 1.

LC: You have trav­elled around Tan­za­nia ex­plor­ing the traces of the war left in the re­gion. What do they look like?

KB: There are no of­fi­cial ceme­ter­ies for African sol­diers and car­ri­ers, and there are few traces of the bat­tle­fields.

What have en­dured are large Ger­man colo­nial build­ings that quickly be­came aban­doned af­ter 1918: a hos­pi­tal in Tanga, dis­used train sta­tions in Mwanza, a fort in Lindi and im­pres­sive houses for Ger­man gov­er­nors.

The first thing you no­tice about these build­ings is that they are stat­uesque. They were built to last.

The Ger­mans had clearly in­tended to keep their colony for a long time, like the Bri­tish af­ter them.

The sec­ond is that they are all empty. These are prime lo­ca­tions, of­ten beach front or strate­gic, very pub­lic spa­ces. De­spite that, they have not been used. They carry a feel­ing of un­rec­on­ciled trauma.

LC: You ex­plain in your ex­hi­bi­tion that the traces of the war are dif­fer­ent in the south of Tan­za­nia

KB: In the south, it is hard to find any trace of the bat­tles. Even at the place of one of the blood­i­est bat­tles, Mahiwa, where the death count reached the thou­sands in just three days, there is lit­tle trace of World War 1.

There is, how­ever, a church, which would have been a Chris­tian mis­sion from the same era. Such churches kept records of daily life in the run-up to the war: they recorded vil­lagers sell­ing all their live­stock so they would have enough money to flee, they recorded pupil num­bers in school plum­met­ing.

Car­ri­ers were fully aware that this con­flict was fun­da­men­tally a colo­nial project. Mean­while, Bri­tish mis­sion­ar­ies wrote op­por­tunis­ti­cally about the lands and con­gre­ga­tions of Ger­man missions that would be­come avail­able to them af­ter the war. Across the south­ern high­lands, these records give a sense of the scale of the war, and that the peo­ple in its path uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged its force.

LC: How do you feel, find­ing these

traces of World War 1?

KB: On the one hand, it is good these traces ex­ist, or you would have a hard time con­vinc­ing your­self that the war hap­pened here.

On the other, these traces left as they are, have not been dis­cussed or un­packed, and so re­mem­brance of WWI re­mains largely Euro­pean, even within Tan­za­nia. They are not mon­u­ments, but mono­liths that sig­nal the colo­nial past.

LC: You say in your ex­hi­bi­tion that re­search­ing World War 1 has be­come a per­sonal un­der­tak­ing. What do you mean by that?

KB: I am Sukuma, a peo­ple from north­ern Tan­za­nia. Tra­di­tion­ally, Sukuma are farm­ers and they use mu­sic to pace them­selves through agri­cul­tural work.

Through the years of the cen­te­nary, I looked into some of the songs that came from World War 1, when Sukuma were heav­ily re­cruited as car­ri­ers and sol­diers by Ger­man forces.

One song that struck me has the lyrics: “Boul­ders fight­ing one an­other on the plain/ the Ger­mans and the English/ they run about taken to flight/ be­cause of cat­tle”.

The “cat­tle” line means as­sets: re­sources, land, live­stock, money. In other words, the car­ri­ers were aware that this con­flict was fun­da­men­tally a colo­nial project.

I was struck too by the sub­ver­sive power of the songs — they con­tra­dict the image of the loyal askari sol­dier, which was used as pro­pa­ganda through­out wartime. They are a record of the larger African ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing World War 1, and it is im­por­tant to pre­serve them even as agri­cul­tural meth­ods change.

LC: How is the World War 1 his­tory usu­ally re­mem­bered in Tan­za­nia? Why do you feel this is im­por­tant to the fu­ture of the coun­try?

KB: There are usu­ally me­mo­rial ser­vices, of­ten in war ceme­ter­ies on Novem­ber 11, in­stead of Novem­ber 25. I have vis­ited these ceme­ter­ies in Dar es Salaam, Tanga, Moshi and Iringa, and there is no ac­knowl­edge­ment of the African sol­diers and car­ri­ers.

The lack of ac­knowl­edge­ment un­der­scores how vi­tal the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment is to­day. Be­cause even in cel­e­brat­ing one of the most well-known events in his­tory, there still has been a level of omis­sion of the loss to African lives.

LC: Has it been any dif­fer­ent for the cen­te­nary?

KB: This year, the Univer­sity of Dar es Salaam is host­ing a con­fer­ence on Ger­man colo­nial his­tory and ex­perts will be putting them­selves to the task of dis­cussing some of the un­com­fort­able truths of the war in Africa.

There is new talk of in­clud­ing the east Africa cam­paign in the school cur­ricu­lum. Ul­ti­mately, the na­tion is be­gin­ning to ad­dress it and move for­wards. While Europe marks 100 years of re­mem­ber­ing, we Africans are now just open­ing that chap­ter. While the cen­te­nary is al­most over, it is not too late. — Al Jazeera.


A Ger­man fort in the south­ern high­lands town of Tukuyu, known as Neu-Lan­gen­berg dur­ing the Ger­man colo­nial era, in Tan­za­nia. Although built to last, the Ger­man colo­nial build­ings are still empty, de­spite many be­ing in prime lo­ca­tions, as they carry a feel­ing of un­rec­on­ciled trauma.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.