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Campaigns of World War One:
Africa and Asia  1915-1919


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In 1914 much of the world was under some form of colonial rule by a European power. Those of the Allies became important sources of manpower on the Western Front and other theaters of war, where colonials served as combat troops and laborers. Under Bismarck, Germany had acquired the African Colonies of Kamerun, South-West Africa, East Africa, and Togoland in the 1880’s, but little interest was shown in developing them. This made them more susceptible to invasion from neighboring colonies when the Great War broke out. The British naval blockade of Germany insured that their colonies remained isolated; they could not supply the homeland nor receive assistance in return. They would all become targets of Allied armies that needed to eliminate threats to their own colonies, while using the War as an excuse to expand their own empires. The most Germany could hope for was that its meager defenders could hold down Allied forces that could otherwise be deployed in Europe. There were also a number of rebellions in progress within the Allied colonies before the Great War started. In this new political climate some revolts benefited from the limited aid they received from the Central Powers and gained momentum. Though these far off colonies could not play any significant part in this great struggle, imperialist ambitions had seen to it that they would be drawn into the conflict and make it a true world war.

In the late 19th century each of the major European powers carved out spheres of influence in China and began creating their own protected concessions within its borders. In 1898 Germany had intimidated China into leasing the Klautschou Bay portion of Shantung Province to it. The Chinese had already begun fortifying the port city of Tsingtao against naval attack, but the Germans greatly strengthened both land and sea defenses after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Tsingtao then became the main naval base for Germany’s Far East Squadron. Japan, an ally of Great Britain since 1902 declared war on both Germany and Austria-Hungary soon after hostilities broke out in Europe. China then canceled its lease of the Klauschou Bay Concession to Germany. German New Guinea was another of their Asian colonies consisting of New Pommern and a number of Pacific islands stretching out to Samoa that had little defense beyond their local police. The only military importance to many of these small outposts was that they held radio towers, which allowed naval ships to receive crucial communications.

While it may seem that there would be great public interest in viewing episodes from this far off exotic part of the Great War, few cards were made, at least in proportion to the amount depicting the European theater of war. While Africa lacked a strong printing industry of its own, this was not true of Japan. Japanese publishers did produce many military cards but they were more focused on the European war, perhaps because it was more exotic to them. Their more limited participation in this conflict makes the numbers of cards they produced pale when compared to their output during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.



1914


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France had turned Morocco into a Protectorate in 1912, but as their armies pressed further inland they came up against the Berbers who resented their presence. Fighting erupted after tribesmen formed the Zaian Confederation to oppose the French occupation. Once the Great War broke out most of the French army returned to fight on the Continent, but they still maintained an aggressive stance in North Africa. In November a French force attacked the Berbers but were badly defeated at El Herri. Despite this victory and the arrival of German support for the Confederation, the French continued to slowly push the Berbers back into the Atlas Mountains. Irregular warfare would continue until 1923 when the Confederation finally accepted the French presence.

Between 1909 and 1920 the French also fought an irregular war with the Tuareg Confederation in West Africa. This conflict grew larger until it reached its height in 1916 and 1917 with the Kaocen Revolt.

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When war broke out in Europe, those residing in overseas colonies were uncertain if their neutral status would hold. When British forces stationed in Uganda began to launch attacks across the German East African border, it caught the German governor by surprise. He began negotiating the surrender of the colony after two British cruisers sailed into Dar-es-Salaam. Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, in command of the home defense forces (Schutztruppe) then took over executive power and let it be known that there would be no capitulation. Lettow-Vorbeck began organizing all German garrisons in the region into an army, and with this new force he began his own attacks against the Ugandan railway and British East Africa as well as on Lake Victoria.

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While Lettow-Vorbeck’s attacks were primarily designed to keep the British off balance and tie down enemy troops, they grew tired of his continual raiding and launched a major multi-front offensive in November to bring these German incursions to a halt. Instead of neutralizing the threat, the British army moving in from the north was defeated at the Battle of Kilimanjaro, and the Germans managed to take control of Lake Victoria. The British amphibious landing at Tanga, was also repulsed with heavy casualties. Captured weapons would greatly aid the German defense as they were now cut off from their homeland.

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While the Allied armies primarily used natives as carriers to transport essential supplies over roadless terrain, the Germans had already organized a highly trained group of local fighters referred to as Askaris that served within their ranks. Even though they were primarily used as an internal security force since 1881, they were well trained and considered an elite unit. Now led by white officers in the Schutztruppe, they would form an essential part of Lettow-Vorbeck army, and give him an edge over his opponents. Black troops would remain loyal through the entire course of the War, but this had less to do with their love for Germany than a calculation of who would win.

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In August the British in Nigeria launched three offensives into the German colony of Kamerun. In the south they moved on Nsanakong and took it by September, but they were later defeated in a German counterattack and forced to withdraw. The Germans then pursued the retreating British back into Nigeria. In central Kamerun the British offensive managed to push the Germans back at Tepe, but they were repulsed when they attacked the forts at Garua. In the north the British headed toward Mara, which they began besieging after their initial attack failed.

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The British stationed in the Gold Coast along with French forces advancing from Dahomey also invaded the German colony of Togoland in August. The small force of German home guards stationed there briefly resisted their advance at Bafilo, but the colony surrendered shortly afterwards.

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In September British and South African troops launched an offensive into German South-West Africa but were defeated and pushed back at the Battle of Sandfontein. By October the South African army became preoccupied with the Maritz Rebellion in which Afrikaners seeking independence allied themselves to Germany and set up a provisional government for a South African Republic. The former frontier force under Colonel Maritz turned on the South African government but was defeated within a month. After many veterans of the Second Boer War took up arms again, the rebellion would continue in the form of irregular warfare for the rest of the year. By February of 1915 most rebels saw they had no chance of winning and put down their arms.

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German forces stationed in South-West Africa were largely organized as elite mounted infantry because the colony was reinforced to suppress the Herero rebellion. Once the Great War started they lost all communication with Germany, and were left unsure of the status of Portugal. After an incident in which Germans were killed in Portuguese West Africa (Cuangar Massacre), an attack was launched from South-West Africa against the neighboring Portuguese stronghold at Naulia taking it in December.

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At the outbreak of war the Germans began consolidating all their troops in Asia at their Klautschou Bay Concession in China, while their East Asian Naval Squadron was ordered to sea before they could be bottled up at Tsingtoa. Only an armada of small vessels were left when Japan declared war on Germany. The exception was the large Austrian cruiser Keiserine Elisabeth, but her refusal to surrender led Japan to declare war on Austria-Hungary two days later. This fleet engaged the Allies when they arrived in September to bombard Tsingtao. By October the Japanese were landing troops and an attack was launched against the city with British help. When the initial assault failed, the confrontation quickly developed into a siege. After intense fighting the Japanese finally breached the port’s main defensive line in November and the Germans surrendered.

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While the battle for Tsingtao was captured on artist drawn postcards printed by publishers in Japan, Germany, and Austria-Hungry, most images of this campaign seem to have been produced in Japan after the fact. These tend to be photo-based cards in black & white that show the ruins of German fortifications and their big guns.

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In September 1914, a joint Australian army-naval force landed at Rabaul in Neu Pommern (New Britain) in an opening move to seize German New Guinea (Kaiser-Wilhelmsland). After some minor fighting began for the German wireless station at Bita Paka the colony surrendered ten days later.

Skirmishes began erupting between German and Portuguese colonial forces where they shared common borders in Africa. Concerned over possible escalation of these small incidents led Portugal to reinforce its colonies of Angola and Mozambique in October.



1915


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In April the Germans in Kamerun launched an offensive into Nigeria but they were repulsed at the Battle of Gurin. The British reinforced by the French then made another attempt to take Garua by laying siege to it in May. It fell a month later and most German forces throughout Kamerun retreated into the mountains. By the end of the year these troops accompanied by thousands of German refugees began streaming into the neighboring colony of Spanish Rio Muni where most were interned.

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In February the Germans in South-West Africa launched a spoiling attack into South Africa at Kakamas but it had little effect on the pending British offensive. Not only did the British push northward into South-West Africa, but they landed troops along the coast at Walfish Bay and the German naval base at Luderitzbucht. The German army was quickly pushed inland by this overwhelming force, and they were forced to recall their troops still occupying the Ovambo region of Portuguese West Africa.

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A contributing factor to Germany’s problem in South-West Africa was the genocidal war they had begun against the native Herero peoples in 1904. Now they could not count on local support for supplies or to harass enemy troops. As the Germans began consolidating their forces, they tried to fight a delaying action at Otavi in July. After their defeat they found themselves nearly surrounded and with no access to further supplies; they surrendered a few days later. Without German support, the local uprising they inspired against the Portuguese was then brutally put down.

(See the May 6, 2015, Blog entry, The Herero for more information on the 20th century’s first genocide)

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Although fighting took place in many parts of Africa, it is the campaigns of South-West Africa that seems to have inspired the most representation on postcards during the War. This is largely due to the presence of Fritz Grotemener who provided the illustrations for many of the cards published by J.J. Weber in Leipzig.

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Ownership over a small parcel of land known as the Kionga Triangle had been in dispute between Portuguese Mozambique and German East Africa since these colonies were first formed. After Portugal reinforced its garrison in Mozambique, they were deployed in November to capture the German settlement at Kionga.

Divided loyalties between the British King and their religious leader, the Ottoman Sultan caused many Indian troops stationed in Singapore to become apprehensive of their status. There were already tensions between them and their British commanders due to the growing influence of the Indian Independence Movement. In February, when rumors spread that they were going to be sent to fight against fellow Muslims a violent mutiny broke out. The insurrection was quickly suppressed by the arrival of fresh British, Japanese, and other Allied troops.

Lake Tanganyika was a huge body of water that separated the Belgian Congo from German East Afrika. German gunboats plying these waters had gained control over it and now they posed a risk to Allied forces. Supply lines to a Belgian army moving in from the north or a British army advancing from the south cut be cut if German forces were quickly transported across the lake. The British began the painstaking task of carrying motorized gunboats across land from South Africa, and in December they were launched in Lake Tanganyika to confront the Germans.

In November 1915, the tribes of the Volta and Bani regions of French West Africa thought the Great War in Europe gave them an opportunity to seek independence and they revolted against colonial rule. As the rebels raised a large army, the French dispatched a large expeditionary force to the region and a bloody war ensued. The war against colonial rule was one of the largest in Africa’s history, and was only suppressed after heavy fighting. Although the Volta-Bani War officially ended in September 1916, some insurgents fought on into 1917. Since the French suppressed news of this uprising in fear that it might inspire others, its events were not covered by postcard publishers.



1916


Although the war in Kamerun was basically over, the Germans besieged at Mara only surrendered in February. Although some Germans that crossed the border into Rio Muni found their way back to Germany, most were gathered up by Spanish forces and interned on the island of Fernando Po. There they were largely self-administered causing the Allies perceived them as a constant threat to the region. There is still debate over where Spanish sympathies lay in this matter.

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In February British gunboats on Lake Tanganyika destroyed the last of their German opponents. Having gained supremacy over the lake’s waters, Allied land operations could begin against German East Afrika without fear of their flanks being turned. After General Jan Smuts arrived in British East Africa with many South African reinforcements, he took command over all colonial forces in the area. Another offensive against German East Africa was then launched from Mombasa in March, which was supported by a secondary Belgian offensive out of the Congo in April. The Germans under Lettow-Vorbeck remained elusive. As long as he keep his army intact he remained a threat to the region and pinned down many more allied troops. This avoidance of major battles also caused him to inadvertently ceded much territory to his enemies, which would cause a drain on his supplies. With the Germans inactive, the Belgians advanced out of the Congo and seized Ruanda-Urundi by May. In September the British advanced again capturing Dar es Salaam and Tabora, cutting German supply lines. Lettow-Vorbeck’s army was then forced to move south of the Rufiji River, but supplies were still scarce in this region. This severely hampered further German operations and raised the desertion levels of his Askari troops.



1917


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The German army in Mozambique continued to attack Portuguese garrisons, and after a raid on the port of Quelimane, the British landed an army there. After joining with local forces this Anglo-Portuguese army launched a drive against the Germans in July but they were defeated at the Battle of Namacura. Without any armies to oppose him, Lettow-Vorbeck returned to German East Africa in September. In November an attempt was made to more adequately resupply Lettow-Vorbeck with weapons by way of a Zeppelins dispatched from Bulgaria, but the mission was aborted when the airship reached Sudan. The Germans then invaded Northern Rhodesia capturing Kasama on November 13th. After hearing rumors that an armistice was signed two days earlier with Germany, he opened negotiations with the British and then surrendered his army at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika at Abercorn. During four years of war there was barely a section of the region that was untouched by this conflict.

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Too low on supplies to exploit their victory at Mahiwa, the Germans moved into Mozambique and began raiding Portuguese garrisons in hopes of replenish themselves. Much of the Portuguese army at this time was busy suppressing a local revolt known as the Makonbe uprising but they still managed to gather an impressive army to drive the Germans out of Mozambique. While a detachment of Lettow-Vorbeck’s army surrendered, the Portuguese army was soundly defeated at the Battle of Negomano.

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At the request of the United States, China severed its relations with Germany in March to protest to the U-boat war against the shipping of neutral nations. Then in a move to give them better leverage over the fate of the former German colony at Kiautschou Bay, China declared war on Germany on August 14th. Chinese nationalist forces then seized the German concession within the city of Hankou and the Austro-Hungarian concession at Tianjin. China then offered to send troops to fight in Europe but the offer was refused. Large numbers of Chinese would be recruited by Britain and France to work in Labor Corps on the Western Front.


1918


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The German army in Mozambique continued to attack Portuguese garrisons, and after a raid on the port of Quelimane, the British landed an army there. After joining with local forces this Anglo-Portuguese army launched a drive against the Germans in July but they were defeated at the Battle of Namacura. Without any armies to oppose him, Lettow-Vorbeck returned to German East Africa in September. In November an attempt was made to more adequately resupply Lettow-Vorbeck with weapons by way of a Zeppelins dispatched from Bulgaria, but the mission was aborted when the airship reached Sudan. The Germans then invaded Northern Rhodesia capturing Kasama on November 13th. After hearing rumors that an armistice was signed two days earlier with Germany, he opened negotiations with the British and then surrendered his army at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika at Abercorn. During four years of war there was barely a section of the region that was untouched by this conflict.

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While resistance to Allied advances had been carried out in all German colonies, the lack of manpower, supplies, and connections to the homeland quickly doomed these efforts. The exception is the campaign in German East Afrika, which against all odds the German army held out to the very end of the War. This was largely due to the efforts of one man, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, and his exploits made him a hero. Even before the conflict was over, German publishers were placing the likeness of him on postcards. This was an unusual honor, especially for someone fighting on such a far away front. Distance of course helped to make Africa exotic. This allowed the romance of these campaigns to be heightened above the bloody battlefields of Europe. Many reeling from the terrors of modern warfare preferred to embrace old and familiar story lines that presented war in a more romantic manner.

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American, Russian, and Japanese interests had all been vying for greater control over the Manchurian-Siberian region in prewar years, and the outbreak of the Great War opened many new opportunities, especially for Japan. Japanese troops began landing at Vladivostok in May after an incident involving Japanese nationals. Instead of leaving quickly as promised their presence grew, and they were joined by other Allies, including Americans in August as part of an intervention supposedly to prevent the Germans from seizing large stockpiles of military supplies that they had shipped to Siberia when Russia was still a participant in the Great War. The bulk of these troops were Japanese who had already been funneling men into Manchuria and Korea in preparation for an invasion before they had an excuse to do so.


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Once Russia left the War, the Czech Legion began being transferred across Siberia to Vladivostok from where they could sail back to Europe to fight on the Western front. When this movement was halted in May because of German protest, the Legion revolted and joined forces with local Whites fighting the Bolsheviks. They were pressing westward by July, and as they approached Ekaterinburg, where the Czar was under house arrest, it caused their panicky custodians to executed the entire Romanov family. By August the Allies linked up with the Czech Legion but there was no clear course of action to be taken. While the British were hoping that they might be able to bring Russia back into the conflict if the Bolshevik government were overthrown, competing American and Japanese agendas led to a standoff. While all the Allies saw limited action against the Bolsheviks and former Hungarian prisoners of war now allied with them, the bulk of the fighting was forced upon the Czech Legion for them to have more say in their struggle for independence. They would form a new Siberian Republic but much local support for it ended when if came to be led by a brutal White regime. This opened a new Eastern Front that would not be resolved until well into the Russian Civil War.



1919


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Germany lost all her colonies after signing the Versailles Treaty. Control of these lands would theoretically pass to the League of Nations, who in turn would grant stewardship over them to imperialist powers to govern as mandates. Togoland and Kamerun was allocated to France, Belgium continued to administer Ruanda-Urundi (later Ruanda and Burundi) until 1924, and South Africa took control over South-West Africa, and most of German East Africa became British Tanganyika with the Kionga Triangle added to Portuguese Mozambique. Although China was technically at war with Germany the Allies awarded their former colony at Kiautschou Bay to Japan. This would cause continual diplomatic problems until the former colony was returned to China in 1922. The islands of the Pacific were divided between Japan and Australia. New Zealand retained control over Samoa.

After the Red Army captured the Siberian capital of Omsk in November 1919 the military situation for the Czechs Legion and the Whites quickly deteriorated. As resistance collapsed, the Legion began an eastward flight toward Vladivostok, but their attempts to reinstate a neutral stance was plagued by partisan activity as the countryside rose up against them. An armistice with the Red Army was signed in Irkutsk the following year allowing them to finally return home to a new Czechoslovakia.




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