Historian marks centenary of longest First World War battle in east Africa

WW1 Soldiers in east Africa QF 12 pounder 18 cwt East Africa WWI wikicommonsWhile western Europe celebrated the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918, there was no sense of jubilation in eastern Europe, Russia, and Africa where fighting continued.

Leading historian, Dr Anne Samson, an Elder at St John’s United Reformed Church, Northwood, coordinator of the Great War in Africa Association and author of numerous books on the subject, including World War I in Africa: The Forgotten Conflict Among the European Powers, explains why.

‘Eastern Europe and Russia developed into localised ideological conflicts, while that in Africa linked with western Europe.

‘Although notification of the end of the war was received in east Africa on 11 November from Reuters – the commander in chief telegraphing London to confirm the news – it took until 13 November for the message to reach the opposing German force which had that morning attacked Kasama in today’s Zambia.

‘The day before, at least eight lives had been lost in an encounter. Eventually, following negotiations, the undefeated German force laid down its arms on 25 November at Abercorn (Mbala) in Zambia bringing the war in Africa to an end.

‘This was the last of four African campaigns, the others having ended by March 1916.

‘East Africa was the longest of the war, 8 August 1914 to 25 November 1918 and, in effect, a stalemate. The conflict, covering an area larger than Europe, was fought under conditions unknown to many; nature was the victor with 75% losses due to malaria, dysentery and blackwater fever.

‘It has been referred to as the ‘last gentleman’s war’, following communications between both sides over prisoners, wounded and awards. Marked by ethnic and religious diversity, men (women and children) learned to work together and rely on each other.

‘In addition, an estimated 250,000 British allied (Belgian and Portuguese, black, white, South African “coloured”, Indian and Arab) soldiers served, alongside 1 million carriers who ensured the forces were supplied with food and arms against a total German force of 1,200 Germans, 14,000 black and Arab soldiers and an untold number of carriers (men, women and children).

‘The campaign has the strange phenomenon of men having served in both the German and British forces during the same conflict – African loyalties were different to European. It therefore seems fitting that the end of the war in Africa is commemorated two weeks after the European armistice at the spot where the events of 100 years ago took place.’

To mark the centenary of the end of the First World War in Africa, the Revd Philip Brooks, Secretary for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the United Reformed Church offers this prayer:

God of all peoples
We remember those caught up in the First World War in east Africa
Men and women of all religions and none
Who endured warfare even after the guns fell silent in Europe
Who lost their lives in conflict
Or struck down by malaria, dysentery and fever
Many without even a grave to mark their sacrifice
But held always in your eternal love

Picture: First World War British soldiers with a QF 12 pounder 18 cwt naval gun on improvised field carriage, during the east African campaign: wikicommons