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Review by William Boyd
In the winter and spring of 1980/81 I was living in Oxford busy writing and researching my second novel, An Ice-Cream War, which had as its setting the First World War in East Africa, more precisely the long inter-colonial conflict between the British East Africa (today’s Kenya) and German East (Tanzania). How I would have welcomed Edward Paice’s superb history of that strange and deadly war. Sidelined by the greater carnage and momentous events of the European theatre, the war in Africa had produced few definitive books. There were a couple of popular histories, the odd novel, long out of print, but I remember searching the catalogues of the Bodleian library and Rhodes House for anything that would throw real light on the campaign. Even the multi-volumed official history of Great War was deficient. Of the two volumes meant to be devoted to the African campaign only one had been written, its author dying before volume two could be completed.
But now we have in Tip and Run, a detailed and authoritative account of the 1914-18 African war, meticulously researched and written with tremendous lucidity and brio. One feels that this forgotten corner of the Great War now, finally, has its own literary-historical monument — in the future everyone will start with Edward Paice.
As a novelist I was drawn to the war precisely because it was so little known; hidden corners of familiar history represent a mother-lode to the fiction writer. I was dimly aware of the war’s most documented and celebrated episode — the blocade and sinking of the German cruiser Konigsberg in the Rufiji delta in 1914 (later subject of a novel by Wilbur Smith and a Hollywood movie) but everything else I read about was completely fresh. To think that the war in East Africa had lasted two weeks longer than the war in Europe (the German forces, the Schutztruppe surrendered on November the 25th 1918), that the area of conflict was on a scale unimaginable to soldiers on the western front — two armies pursuing each other for four years over territory five times the size of Germany seemed extraordinary. And indeed the more one learns about the Great War in East Africa the more one’s clichéd images of the ‘14-’18 conflict dissolve, leaving one with a sense of a conflict so bizarre and surreal that it seems almost without precedent. Hence the title of my novel and hence also the title of Paice’s history. For the war became one long pursuit, effectively, once the British and colonial armies invaded German East Africa in 1916*. A succession of British and South African commanders pursued — over thousands of miles, in hostile bush, in appalling heat, afflicted with unending disease — a small but tenacious and elusive German army under the command of one of the most brilliant and lucky of World War I military leaders, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, a diminutive, ferociously tough Prussian (whom Paice brings vividly to life), and who, in 1918, having led the British a deadly and merry dance through German East and into Portuguese East Africa and then on to Northern Rhodesia was called to a halt only by the armistice in Europe and Germany’s surrender. At the war’s end Lettow-Vorbeck had by no means given up: he was planning to push on westward across Africa with his askaris and their porters until he reached the Atlantic Ocean.
The war Lettow-Vorbeck fought was more akin to modern wars against guerilla armies. Raids, ambushes, counter-attacks — small, confused. intense bouts of fighting between a few hundred soldiers and then moving on again. In 1918 one of the British pursuing columns calculated that they had chased Lettow-Vorbeck’s Schuztruppe through Portuguese East Africa for over 1,600 miles, crossing 29 large rivers and fighting thirty-two engagements with the enemy while they did so. This was a far cry from the war in Europe.
Yet in some ways the African war’s most memorable battle occurred right at its opening, in 1914. The war in Africa might have ended there and then had not the British Imperial Army fought one of its most disastrous engagements in the annals of its long history. The Battle of Tanga is still studied in staff colleges as an example of what not to do — of how massive superiority of numbers can still lead to dismal, shameful defeat. A large British expeditionary force from India was landed at Tanga, a port in germnan East and also the terminus for the country’s main railway. Had Tanga been captured and the railway line north opened the German forces, all concentrated to the north around Kilimanjaro might have surrendered. However, a combination of grotesque British over-confidence, catastrophic errors of judgement, seasick troops, hostile bees, and feckless leadership contrived to allow 1,500 German troops defeat an invading British army ten times it size, backed up with battleships and destroyers. After two days of confusion, mayhem and spirited German resistance the British withdrew to their ships (leaving vast quantities of stores and weapons behind) and sailed back to Mombasa. German East had been saved.
But only for a while. A new Imperial army was gathered together, equipped, trained, plans were made and the german colony was eventually invaded, from the north, under the command of General Smuts. And thus began Lettow-Vorbeck’s infuriating, deadly two year spree of cat and mouse, of tip and run. The war in East Africa did become a forgotten conflict because, to put it bluntly, it was almost impossible to know where the competing armies were as they tramed and fought across great swathes of virgin unmapped Africa.
It became, also, as disease took its toll of European and white South African troops a war between African armies: a German one and a British one. The presence of European officers can’t disguise this fact. Hundreds of thousands of East African peoples were actively involved in fighting this war whether voluntarily or under duress. One of the great merits of Paice’s book is to remaind us of this salient fact and to attempt to calculate the human cost of the conflict. British and german casulaties, by Western front standards were modest — total British casualties were approcimately 22,00 dead and missing, for example. But Paice also tries to enumerate the forgotten Africans — the carriers. Hundreds of thousands of carriers and porters were needed in order for the armies to barely function and Paice reckons that the death toll amongs the carrier force in East Africa was over 100,000. As he points out, tellingly, this figure is almost double the Australian, Canadian or Indian troops who gave uop their lives in the Great War. Given the nature of East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century and the size of its indigenous population this loss of able bodied young men is unprecedented and shocking. This is the forgotten tragedy of the Great War in Africa and the one that gives Paice his subtitle.
This article was first printed in The Sunday Times (2007).