East Africa was divided into British and German spheres of influence by the Anglo-German agreement of 1886. British East Africa (now Kenya) came under the formal control of the British government in 1895, while immediately to the south lay German East Africa (now Tanzania). In 1914, it has been estimated that there were between 3 and 4 million Africans, over 12,000 Asians and approximately 3,500 Europeans in British East Africa.

When war broke out in August 1914, British and German colonial authorities directly faced each other across a long border. The governors of the two colonies, Sir Henry Belfield and Heinrich Schnee, had previously agreed to remain neutral in the event of a war in Europe. However, Britain had devised a plan to invade the German colony in 1897, in response to Germany’s offer of support to the Transvaal Republic before the Anglo-Boer War (WO 106/46). East Africa was to see a long running military campaign which lasted until the end of the First World War.

Raising troops

CAB 45/11 (2)

Captured German gun, East African Campaign, 1914-1918. CAB 45/11 (2)

British East Africa was an important recruiting ground for the campaign against the Germans in East Africa. At the outbreak of war, the armed forces consisted of the 3rd Battalion of the King’s African Rifles and a police force of around 1,600. Martial law was declared and a volunteer European volunteer unit, the East African Mounted Rifles (WO 95/5337) was established, as well as a reserve.

In September 1915, a public meeting was held in Nairobi, where it was decided that the resources of the country should be made available to the Governor. This resulted in the Registration of Persons Ordinance 1915, which enabled the government to require everyone in the territory to register for service.  Shortly afterwards, a War Council was established to run the war effort, and in December 1915 another ordinance was passed for compulsory military service (CO 542/9).

The forces were reorganised after the arrival of South African troops in 1916, and recruitment was extended. Africans from British East Africa made up several battalions of the 3rd and 4th King’s African Rifles. Many South African troops were withdrawn from East Africa from the beginning of 1917 to fight in Europe. From then on, the campaign was increasingly Africanised, with African soldiers making up the majority of the troops. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 11,000 African troops from British East Africa served in the armed forces during the war.

German East Africa campaign

CAB 45/11 (6)

East African Campaign, 1914-1918. CAB 45/11 (6)

In August 1914, the Germans and their askari carried out raids across the border, while British warships bombarded Dar es Salaam. During November 1914, a British Indian Expeditionary Force under General Arthur Aitken attacked the coastal town of Tanga. The aim was the complete defeat of the German forces, leading to the capture of German East Africa.  But they met fierce resistance and were decisively defeated by troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (WO 32/5810).

British and German forces fought border skirmishes throughout 1915, but there was also naval action off the East African coast and on the African lakes. The German cruiser SMS Königsberg raided British shipping in the Indian Ocean, sinking the cruiser HMS Pegasus. The Königsberg was eventually trapped in the delta of the Rufiji River, south of Dar-es-Salaam. Under attack by British ships, the crew scuttled the ship on 11 July 1915 and joined von Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops (CO 323/689/26, ADM 137/10, ADM 137/4297).

It was not until the end of December 1915 that the British Cabinet, taking advantage of South Africa’s offer to send troops, decided to renew the attempt to conquer German East Africa (CAB 24/1/43). Incursions were to be launched from all the neighbouring British colonies. South African troops began to arrive in German East Africa during January 1916, with Lieutenant General Jan Christiaan Smuts taking overall control. On 12 February 1916, Allied troops attacked the German lookout post on Salaita Hill near Kilimanjaro. The post was heavily fortified and the attackers were forced to withdraw, suffering 172 casualties.

After this initial setback, Smuts was unable to win a decisive victory, but soon managed to clear the border area around Kilimanjaro (WO 32/5820). The outcome was a long, drawn out campaign, in which the British forces pursued the Germans through East Africa, without winning a decisive victory.  In January 1917 Smuts left to join the Imperial War Cabinet, with Major-General Reginald Hoskins of the King’s African Rifles taking overall command. He was soon replaced by the South African Major-General Jacob van Deventer. At the end of 1917, von Lettow-Vorbeck retreated into Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and finally to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He only surrendered in November 1918, after he had received news of the armistice (WO 32/5829).

Military labour

CAB 45/11 (5)

Porters, East African Campaign, 1914-1918. CAB 45/11 (5)

The Imperial forces pursued their enemy through remote and wild areas which had almost none of the transport infrastructure needed to supply a modern army. Lines of supply for goods and equipment became very long.  As a result, the army needed large numbers of African carriers or porters to keep them supplied them with food and equipment.

In August 1914, Oscar Ferris Watkins, one of the Protectorate’s District Commissioners, was appointed Director of Military Labour. He established the East African Carrier Corps. To meet the demand for military labour the Protectorate government implemented a Native Followers Recruitment Ordinance in August 1915. This enabled the authorities to conscript Africans to the Carrier Corps, and any other duties that might be required, according to a quota system (CO 533/216,CAB 45/14).

The need for porters increased from early 1917, as the German forces had retreated into remote Portuguese East Africa. In March 1917, John Ainsworth, another District Commissioner, was appointed Military Commissioner for Labour. He imposed the ‘Grand Levy’, which required the conscription of the maximum possible number of men. The number of Africans conscripted from the East African Protectorate doubled from around 30,000 at the end of 1916, to around 65,000 by June 1917 (CO 533/216).

The East Africa Carrier Corps drew heavily on African societies across what later became Kenya, the eastern parts of Uganda and occupied parts of German East Africa.  In July 1917, the Corps included approximately 120,000 porters.  Conditions were tough and mortality rates were high, mostly due to disease and malnutrition, rather than enemy action. This was made even worse at the end of the war by a drought-induced famine and an influenza pandemic (WO 95/5311).

The imposition of conscripted service was resented among African people. Africans evaded conscription and deserted from service, and the Military Labour Bureau struggled to meet its recruitment targets. Nevertheless, there was no overall expression of grievance or rebellion. Many chiefs and headmen assisted the Military Labour Bureau and were rewarded for their co-operation (CO 533/179).

Key figures

Sir Henry Belfield

Sir Henry Belfield

Governor, East Africa Protectorate

Oscar Ferris Watkins

Oscar Ferris Watkins

Director of Military Labour

John Ainsworth

John Ainsworth

District Commissioner

Heinrich Schnee

Heinrich Schnee

Governor, German East Africa

Jan Christiaan Smuts

General of the South African Army and member of the Imperial War Cabinet

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

German Lieutenant Colonel

Key documents

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