When war broke out in 1914, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Spain. All administered parts of the African continent.
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day, in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by the time of WWI.
Stationed in Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa) and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show to the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.
With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian and Portuguese troops, wearing them out in the pursuit.
Like the much better-known Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.
To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy action. In July 1916, Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1, compared with battle casualties.
In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics. Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “Killer” bees.
At one point in the Battle of Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true, who held to his station, directing the beach evacuation while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.
“Der Löwe von Afrika” – the Lion of Africa – returned to Germany a conquering hero. Of all German commanders in WWI, Lettow-Vorbeck alone was undefeated in the field. The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil, during the Great War.
Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler, and attempted to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi party. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to “go f**k” yourself. Describing the interview afterward, Vorbeck’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”
Such a blunt refusal was guaranteed to bring unwanted attention from the Nazi regime. Vorbeck’s home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment and surveillance. By the end of WWII, the Lion of Africa was destitute. Both of his sons were killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.
For a time, Vorbeck lived on food sent from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign. It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.
The old General never forgot his Ascaris, returning to East Africa in 1953, to the tears of his former warriors. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964, at the age of 93. A few months later, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to the African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms. Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.
The German banker who brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.
Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.
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