Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: A Different View

29 Jul

For those of you who have never read the articles at Cracked.com, I can’t say I would heartily recommend the experience.  While they’re of some value, sometimes, in bringing to popular attention subjects and people that might otherwise languish in obscurity, the quality of the treatment accorded such things is very, very uneven.

This is doubly true of their articles on historical matters, and trebly true for military historical ones.  The tendency is towards flash and sensation and the “badass” — all well and good, I guess, but it is not worth the steep cost of nuance that every single article seems so cheerfully to pay.

One article that’s been making the rounds for a while is this one — Five Soldiers Who Kicked Ass in the Face of Death (and Logic).  The article has been viewed some 875,000 times.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the first page, you’ll see that no. 3 on their list is the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964), a legitimately remarkable character who served with distinction in the German East African campaign of World War One, and largely refused to serve with any distinction at all under the Third Reich.  His dislike of Hitler was well-known and cost him much of his reputation in Germany, at the time.

It’s the East African Campaign with which we are most concerned, here, and specifically with the hopelessly rosy view of it that the linked article paints.  Remember, this has been read over 800,000 times, and likely constitutes the first and only exposure of many of its readers to the person of Lettow-Vorbeck and to the East African Campaign.

The first claim of substance is true enough: Lettow-Vorbeck was ordered to maintain neutrality in East Africa as much as possible and to refrain from prosecuting a campaign there.  This was from his military superiors; the German governor of the colony similarly ordered him to stand down, worried that war in East Africa would have a serious and negative impact on the local economy.  Lettow-Vorbeck defied these orders in a bid to keep the Allied forces there locked down for as long as possible, and over the course of four long years he led them on a merry chase through jungles, down rivers, up cliffs and into thin air.  By the time the war was over, very little of Lettow-Vorbeck’s ragtag army remained — but it had not been defeated.  He formally surrendered on November 25th, 1918, waiting only for confirmation of the Armistice to reach him.

That does sound pretty amazing — so what’s the problem?

There are a few things worth noting, here, and the first of them is the article’s claim about Lettow-Vorbeck’s victory at the Battle of Tanga.  He apparently “handed the British their asses even though he was outnumbered eight to one.”  It is true that it was a remarkable action, and that LV and his army did indeed hold Tanga in the end, but there’s an element of luck involved in this that the article utterly fails to note.  The British attack on Tanga was sent into disarray by the sudden and explosive presence of African bees, which flew around stinging soldiers in the hundreds and sending a ripple of panic through the line.  To make matters worse, LV faced not seasoned British regulars but largely green and just-arrived colonial Indian troops.  This is to say nothing against the bravery of colonial troops generally, I wish to be absolutely clear, but a very important component of the defeat of the British attack on Tanga was the morale collapse and headlong rout of entire battalions of Indian infantry.

To make matters still more complicated, as we learn from the diaries of Dr. Ludwig Deppe — who was attached to LV’s army for the whole of the war, running the mobile sickbay — the initial assault on Tanga resulted in a truce after British shells accidentally landed on the hospital in Tanga where Dr. Deppe was working.  His meeting with the British envoy, the equally interesting Richard Meinertzhagen, inadvertently revealed the amazing news that the British planned to withdraw — a welcome discovery indeed for the German forces, who were convinced they were going to be overrun and who had intended to withdraw themselves as soon as possible.  Vorbeck’s troops were actually in the process of leaving the city when Dr. Deppe, suddenly realizing what one of Meinertzhagen’s remarks had meant, ran out into the street to call them back.

Is this really “handing the British their asses even though he was outnumbered eight to one?”

Of the rest of LV’s campaign I have little to say except as a thumbnail sketch.  The article doesn’t go into much more detail about it than I already provided earlier in the post, apart from pausing to note that he cobbled together artillery from guns salvaged from a sunken ship.  This is admittedly pretty cool.  LV and his forces spent the next four years racing around through the jungle, one step ahead of their enemies, pausing only to conduct lightning strikes against their much larger pursuers when and where they were least expected.  It does have the air of romance to it, and I completely understand why people are so happy to read about this.

But it comes at a price.  A terrible, often unspoken price.

The nature of the terrain over which this “war” was fought made transport extremely difficult.  Trucks were right out, as were boats, planes, any large number of horses or mules — even airships, though heaven knows they tried.  LV’s army had no lines of provision, no access to resupply, no home base, and no possibility of evacuation.  Attempts to resupply him from the air or by sea were thwarted by a strict British blockade and by Belgian troops holding much of the shoreline.  LV and his army were on their own.

Except, of course, that they really weren’t.

I mentioned above that transport was difficult, but all of their existing provisions, weapons, tents, medical supplies, tools, and artillery had to be moved around somehow.  It had to be carried on human backs — specifically, on East African backs.  These porters were culled from every village and town that could be found as the armies made their way through the bush.  Many went willingly, enticed by the promise of pay and adventure, or in the hopes of currying favour with the colonizers; many were pressed into service, or functionally left with no choice after their homes were destroyed in the running battles between LV’s men and his British, Belgian, Portuguese and South African pursuers.  Those pursuers needed porters too, make no mistake, and rather more of them than LV’s dwindling army did.  In all, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 East African porters were used between the two armies.

So, what were the consequences of this?

Catastrophe.  Black, bloody catastrophe of the most callous sort imaginable.

In the course of conducting his wholly unnecessary war — Lettow-Vorbeck had been ordered not to do this, remember — the combined German and Allied armies in the East African campaign worked between 200,000 and 400,000 native porters to death.  They died in unthinkable numbers, killed off by malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, accident, combat, reprisal and even execution for “desertion”.

Did it end there?  Of course it didn’t.

Apart from this massive wave of human depletion, one of the effects of having hundreds of thousands of men stamping around through a jungle for four years is that a lot of supplies were consumed.  LV and his army had no possibility of resupply, so they only survived by stripping the jungle bare of edible plant and animal life, when they could, and by regularly looting East African villages and towns that they passed.  For the Allied armies the situation was somewhat better, given the existence of a supply train, but it is impossible for the multi-annual passage of so many people through a region this small not to have a dramatic impact.

The despoliation undertaken by these armies during their wholly unnecessary jaunt left East Africa in a state of famine.  The food had all been eaten; rivers were corrupted, wells were drained.  Agriculture collapsed in many areas owing to all of the able-bodied men having been carried off as porters, and this absence would also have severe demographic consequences in the generations to come.  Cramped conditions in hastily-constructed prison camps for captured porters who refused to switch sides eventually saw the Spanish flu cut through them like a scythe.  Taken all together, this resulted in the post-war death over the next several years of another estimated 300,000 people — this, too, a direct consequence of Lettow-Vorbeck’s refusal to stomach the possibility of surrender and the Allied refusal to give up the pursuit.

So, to conclude, yes — it’s all very cool, I guess, but perhaps only up to a point.

[With credit to Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis' Intimate Voices from the First World War (2003) for references to Deppe's and Meinertzhagen's journals]

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