East Africa, and Tanga in particular, were much affected by a war whose genesis was far away
and whose major theatre was in Europe. East Africa had suffered domination by two giant colonial powers for several decades
- two powers whose settlers had farmed the land and managed to get along, with one another, relatively peacefully. The start
of the 1914-18 war changed all that. It also significantly changed the lives of the indigenous Africans, the Indian traders
and the Arabs who had lived there for generations.
This campaign was responsible for the deaths of many Africans; some were conscripted to fight,
others coerced to act as carriers for either Germany or Britain.
Rumblings of war in the summer of 1914 caused confusion in Africa. The British felt it would
be dangerous to let Africa remain neutral; the German-built railways were lifelines linking the eastern ports with the interior
and Lake Victoria.
To those Africans who had joined up to train
as askaris with the German Schutztruppe, it was a chance to show their worth and their loyalty. They were much admired for
their prowess in the field, but for others of the indigenous population, who knew nothing of the reasons for a war so far
away, it must have been unimaginably confusing and disturbing.
War really came to East Africa on August 8th 1914 when the radio tower at Dar es Salaam was
shelled by HMS Astraea. In the meantime Britain was mobilizing a large contingent of Indian soldiers and British officers
to sail from India to ‘take Tanga’ and sweep on through to conquer German East Africa.
On 16th October 1914, the convoy of seventeen British ships left the port of Bombay for the
long hot voyage to East Africa. On board were 8,000 men. The ships were overcrowded, the Indian troops poorly trained and
their dietary needs ill-considered. The general in command was both arrogant and ignorant of the situation he was approaching.
The British command had not reckoned on the brilliance and resourcefulness of the German leader,
Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had come out to Africa to assess German troops prepared to put down potential Arab uprisings.
Von Lettow had 1,000 men - Africans who were well trained, well disciplined and knew the country - men who were ready and
anxious for the fight.
On November 2 the British convoy anchored off the Raz Kazone peninsula and noted three buildings
that stood out against the lush vegetation: a low red-roofed house, a two storey white house and a signal tower. General Aitken
issued the order, “Tanga is to be taken tonight.”
The shore itself was an obstacle course of twisted mangrove roots and the lighters were unable
to move close into shore due to shoals and a falling tide.
Von Lettow, who had waited to see exactly where
the enemy would land, now rushed his troops down to Tanga from Moshi by train.
The narrow strip of beach below the so-called Red House was chosen for the landing the following
day, November 3. The men were to scale the twenty foot cliff and regroup at the Red House.
If you have seen this beach, you can imagine thousands of men wading to shore, tripping over
the mangroves, stumbling over the equipment piling up, then lugging their packs and ammunition up the cliff. Once there they
waited for the order to move out, not actually given until noon next day. The sun beat down and food and water had been neglected
by the time they received the order to attack.
The German force had barricaded the bridges over the railway track, were well prepared, and
The three days of battle were a disaster for
the British. Although some men fought their way as far as the centre of town others were ambushed at the Railway cutting or
lost in the plantation and long grass. Many panicked and threw down their arms. Those who could ran for the beach and swam,
if they knew how, to the safety of the ships.
Dr. Harris wrote that the wounded (850 fell in three days) were “in or about a planter’s
house" (the Red House). At that time there would have been outbuildings for agricultural equipment and servants. The British
would likely have used tents for the overflow. We know that initially the wounded were operated on the kitchen table and without
anaesthetic. Medical supplies were slow to be unloaded.
After three days a temporary truce was agreed upon for the removal of wounded. German officer
Capt. Hammerstein and the British intelligence officer Capt. Meinertzhagen signed the agreement on the balcony of the Bombo
hospital having had a good breakfast of asparagus, eggs and cream. They then rode together on mules down Askari road to take
parole - not to fight again against Germany in that war - from those wounded and too ill to be taken off when the force retreated.
But this skips over the three days of hell endured by those who fought on. The odds were eight
to one, yet the British were routed. Those of you living in Tanga know where the railway cutting is. In front, about 200 yards
to the east is a ditch and between the two, flat open space. It was so then. Some enterprising British soldiers tried to reach
the railway cutting but were mown down as they crossed the open land. The Germans were well camouflaged in the vegetation
on the banks. Over the three days a few British soldiers did fight their way into the town found themselves cut off. Many
Indian troops, through no fault of their own, had no battle experience, were ill from the sea voyage and tortured by thirst.
Many turned and ran. Efforts of the British officers to stay the stampede were mostly unsuccessful.
By the third day the fleet sailed away defeated. The Germans were jubilant.
Dr. Temple Harris and four other doctors were left behind caring for the hundreds of wounded.
Two days later a hospital ship returned to take those not too ill to be moved from the Red House field hospital. During this
time these “disconsolate medicos” as my understating grandfather described them, had no idea whether they would
be overrun and slaughtered, taken prisoner or just forgotten by the British. Fortunately, a hospital ship was sent to rescue
the less severely injured and the medical staff. The German doctor, Ludwig Deppe and his nurse wife laboured on at the Bombo
hospital treating all comers, Africans, Indians, British and German alike. He wrote his story later and interesting reading
The “White House” used as Headquarters, which had been seen from the sea, stands
today as does the signal tower.
The war in East Africa continued for four long years, isolated from the main fighting in Europe.
It is a campaign little known except to military historians but the legendary guerrilla tactics of von Lettow-Vorbeck and
his askaris are worth reading about. Tanga was later retaken by the British but Lettow-Vorbeck’s men remained the only
German force not beaten in that war. He and his bedraggled but determined men surrendered with honour at Abercorn.
We remember with pleasure our visit to Tanga in
March of 1999 to see the landing beach, the battle area, the town, the railway cutting, the various cemeteries, German (which
includes their askaris), British and European, the Red House and the mangrove swamps. We found the people of Tanga friendly
and helpful. With its lovely old colonial architecture and handsome harbour, Tanga is a town worth learning about.