Africa’s First “High Tech” War

The Technological Impact of World War One on Africans

in Journal of African Military History

Abstract

Although some scientific innovations and technologies came to their continent during the process of colonization, only during the First World War did Africans experience the full potential of new weapons and engineering breakthroughs as well as transformative transportation methods and medical possibilities. The resulting encounters sometimes left them awe-struck, but Africans frequently seized the newer technologies and turned them into opportunities. Only a few rejected them as antithetical to tradition, though occasionally some Africans expected what seemed to be revolutionary advances alone to change and improve their lives. Ultimately few Africans were unaffected by the awesome wartime scientific and technological alterations brought to their lands and peoples as a result of the First World War.

Abstract

Although some scientific innovations and technologies came to their continent during the process of colonization, only during the First World War did Africans experience the full potential of new weapons and engineering breakthroughs as well as transformative transportation methods and medical possibilities. The resulting encounters sometimes left them awe-struck, but Africans frequently seized the newer technologies and turned them into opportunities. Only a few rejected them as antithetical to tradition, though occasionally some Africans expected what seemed to be revolutionary advances alone to change and improve their lives. Ultimately few Africans were unaffected by the awesome wartime scientific and technological alterations brought to their lands and peoples as a result of the First World War.

1 Introduction

Many historians have long agreed that technology is a critical component for understanding the global conflict which raged from 1914 to 1918. However William K. Storey argues, in his concise historical survey of The First World War, that “most of the key technologies of the war were refinements of technologies which already existed”. He goes on to suggest, in fact, that the many of the technical and scientific advances which played a part in the worldwide war had been introduced during the nineteenth and early twentieth century process of colonization worldwide. This was certainly true for Africa. Advances in engineering and medical care as well as weaponry and transportation systems were significant contributions in European efforts to establish colonial control on the continent. In each of these areas African experiences during World War One, as Storey also affirms, “changed the ways in which people thought about technology” and its impact on their lives.1 This essay is an attempt to make an overall assessment of those changes, recognizing that indeed much more than simply “European politics were exported to Africa … during the First World War.”2

Previous experiences with colonial technologies led Africans to expect new ideas and exploits in dealing with Europeans, and their involvement in this latest war intensified such awareness. Even the smallest occurrences frequently had some on edge. On the eastern shore of Lake Nyasa the African missionary Eustace Malisawa reported in 1915 that his parishioners “were very much made afraid for a ball fell from the south”. He explained further in a letter to his ecclesiastical superiors that “we were afraid for it is a time of war and we did not know the meaning of it … I sent it to the [British] Resident at Fort Johnston … [who] let me know that it was only a golf ball that the English use to play with”.3 Few African wartime encounters were as innocent, instead bringing their peoples into stark involvement with the weapons, transport, engineering, or medical technologies encountered as they were drawn into what many initially believed was merely “a white men’s war”.4

2 Weapons

During the First World War far too many African experiences were with the harshest elements of things European, such as “guns, aeroplanes, and battleships,”5 as well as other unexpected tools used to prosecute the war. In fact, at just about the same time as the golf ball incident in central Africa, north African soldiers in Europe were exposed to the German army’s first experiments with weaponized chlorine gas. Those Algerian troops—unequipped and unprepared for such an eventuality—quickly succumbed to the serious effects on their “eyes and lungs, causing victims to drown in their own mucus”.6 Many of them quickly died, prompting even more of their fellow soldiers to “retreat in some disorder … the likely response of most men given their lack of preparation to deal with such a frightening weapon”.7 Recognizing this potential, a desperate General Jan Smuts in late 1916 contemplated using weaponized gas against German askari during the East African Campaign, but practical considerations prevailed and his idea did not come to fruition.8 Nonetheless, European accounts of that singularly frightful experience in France continued to overshadow many subsequent accomplishments of African troops in the European theatre.

Africans did have a greater acquaintance with another ubiquitous weapon of the First World War: the machine gun. Perfected in 1884 by Hiram Maxim, within a decade and a half Europeans began to use the weapons to devastating effect in their colonial expansion on the continent. First in the Congo, then when subduing the Ndebele in southern Africa, and especially at Omdurman in Sudan, Africans felt the overwhelming power of those new firearms. And those who had not, or who had only heard rumors of the new technology, soon became aware of the effects such guns had in combat. By the time the world war began, Germany had produced thousands of MG 08 machine guns, adapted from Maxim’s original design. Other designs included the French Hotchkiss machine gun and the Chauchat machine rifle, as well as the Lewis gun, initially rejected by the U.S. Army but first produced in Belgium and then in Britain.9 Africans who served in colonial armies on the western front were quickly introduced to the horrific power of these weapons, both fearing them and using them in battle. But those who served in the African theaters did so as well, “the machine gun … [becoming] the most significant weapon regularly deployed” in Africa during the war.10 Following the end of the lengthy East African Campaign, Charles Hordern, the British official historian of the fighting there referred to the machine gun as “the King of weapons in the bush”.11

All of the combatant countries equipped local forces with machine guns of various types and began training Africans in their use, including the men carrying the guns, tripods, and ammunition for the soldiers who actually were to aim and fire them. As it was demanding work, in eastern Africa British authorities created separate military-style centers to train those specialized support carriers. Sitambuli Basale remembered he learned that, as machine gun porters “we were always to be with the battalion … I could not just walk without carrying the machine gun. My friend here could be carrying the legs of the gun while this other one could be carrying the bullets”.12 Their training was quite specific, insuring “the loaded belts were carried in wooden boxes on the heads of … belt porters [who] placed their boxes in position in the rear of the gun” for combat.13 Such careful instruction was often justified, as more than once when askari gunners were incapacitated, supporting porters took up defense of their positions; a few West African combat carriers actually received military awards for their bravery in doing so.14 During the war the weapons were occasionally used as demonstrations of colonial power to impress local populations. In south central Kenya, Henry Seaton, a young British official, recalled one such occasion when “the young men were enchanted” rather than awed, and “scrambled for the spent brass cartridge cases” as souvenirs.15

But the deadly nature of this particular military technology soon became more widely known, accounting for the majority of combat casualties in the African campaigns. As King’s African Rifles. askari Jonathan Phiri remembered in a song,

When the Germans opened machine gun fireThe British were worriedAt Mlangali, many men were slain.With machine gun fireAt Mlangali, many people were slain.16

The potential of these weapons to be decisive in this new and expansive war was not lost on another soldier, Anusa Makumba, who also sang a praise lyric about the expected results after the end of the conflict:

He has failed, the German has failed.Germany has failed.Take the machine gun and leave it at the door,Germany has failed, Oye! Oye!17

Even before the final demobilization of the soldiers and porters at the end of war, the importance of this military technology also came to characterize the widespread conflict in the African imagination. Nwose, a Nigerian combat carrier, was awed that “they fire cartridges like a string of beads as fast as a man can beat a drum”.18 Another veteran, Kathebu Agubiko, on returning to Nyasaland from service as an askari, told his family and friends “about the machine guns and how we could slaughter people”, adding that they “were afraid on hearing those murderous stories, but I was proud to tell them the war was over”.19 So widespread were the reactions to similar stories, throughout southeastern Africa it was an acoustic image which captured the public imagination, as the conflict became widely known as “the chiwaya war” since the machine guns made a sound similar to the familiar noise produced by maize popping in tin utensils held over a fire.20

Associations of familiarity also led Africans initially to describe airplanes—first used in African colonial warfare less than a decade before the Great War—as mechanical birds (ndege in Swahili), and the bombs they sometimes dropped as eggs.21 However, crafty pilots sometimes had to make do with rifle grenades as bombs:

To ensure their explosion on impact, two calico streamers were tied tightly around the retaining collar of the safety pins … When, therefore, the pilot dropped a grenade overboard, the drag of the air on the calico streamers pulled back the retaining collar and the safety pins dropped out and the grenade detonated on impact—with luck!22

For some Africans, these mechanical marvels at first seemed a mystery; though “they knew quite a fair amount about bombs”, they might “not quite understand where the human beings fitted in”.23 African infantrymen campaigning in Darfur believed the first “ship of the air” they had seen was magically conjured by their commander.24 On actually seeing two pilots in one craft flying above their first encampment in east Africa, some Nigerian soldiers wondered, “ ‘How do those men get any food?’ ‘O fool!’ came the answer, ‘of course they catch birds!’ ”25

On the western front in Europe one wartime veteran of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, Kande Kamara, made a somewhat different association, remembering that “steamships … flew in the air” above the battlefield.26 And one sage African told a British intelligence officer in East Africa that the bi-plane he observed was nothing less than a “four-winged bird” which could only be controlled by a king.27 Even the lone German airship that ventured to Africa in an effort to resupply their East African forces produced similar reactions. When the 750 foot long zeppelin L59 cruised “low over the white roofs” of Dakhla Oasis west of the Nile, the German crew saw the “inhabitants kneel as … [the airship] approached and bow in the direction of Mecca”.28 At other times caravan travelers in the Libyan Desert spotted by the airship’s crew “dispersed in terror when they looked up and saw us”,29 which may account for reports that circulated in the British Arab Bureau shortly afterwards of Sudanese who saw “a noisy cigar marching explosively in the heavens”.30 After becoming aware of the resupply mission, the British command in East Africa did alert field commanders to be on the lookout for the airship, although as one later observed “none of the askari scouts had ever heard of a Zeppelin”, and he found it difficult to explain “how it functioned and how it differed from an aeroplane”.31

When asked about the most exciting thing they had seen while at war, many askari echoed Ruben Longwe’s experience: “The sight of airplanes on patrol flying over us excited me the most”.32 No matter how awed they were, or how they understood the new machines, Africans quickly grasped the potential of new aerial technologies. A young Nyasaland askari, Jonathan Phiri, put his new awareness in song:

Airplane, airplaneWhy do you keep knocking at the door?What do you want?Your friends are at the warI can’t see the airplane.33

His compatriot, Madi Wadi Selemani was more specific, if less lyrical: “Had it not been for the planes … we couldn’t win the war. Our planes played a very important role. They threw bombs to the German side … otherwise we could still be fighting”.34 Overall, Africans were “very uneasy” about the new aerial technology. As Isak Dinesen put it in a letter to her mother in late September 1914, Africans of her acquaintance “have heard about airplanes”, and following German incursions into British East Africa were “always asking us if the Germans are going to come and fly off with their cows and women”.35 That particular concern was perhaps far-fetched, as the only airplane at German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s disposal was destroyed in an accident at Dar es Salaam three months later.36 And two airplanes German forces in Cameroun had stationed at the interior railhead of Nkongsamba—“the first to be seen in West Africa”—were captured before they began military service and subsequently sent as prizes of war to Europe.37

Nonetheless, widespread use of airplanes as machines of war in Europe and the African campaigns—whether for reconnaissance, as weapons, or even for “carrying mail”38 and the occasional delivery of propaganda leaflets—led to a greater familiarity with the new technology and a diminishing sense of awe. Sometimes the Germans simply moved their encampments to skew the intelligence value of British airborne reconnaissance. German aerial surveillance encountered similar problems, with German pilots mistaking South African armoured cars for water trucks which, in fact, were vital for supporting the rapid advances characteristic of the South West Africa Campaign. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck reported that in 1916, when a British plane was shot down near Moshi, “it rather increased our prestige than otherwise”.39 And it was not long before British pilots noticed that the appearance of their aircraft above German encampments no longer was cause for alarm, as they observed the “askaris working away … quite unperturbed by our presence”.40 As a wartime prisoner in East Africa, the Australian scout Arnold Wienholt was escorted off the road by his German askari captors when a British plane appeared overhead. But they “otherwise took little notice”, causing him to muse “so much for the yarns of the native terror of our ‘indegi’ (bird)”.41 Two years into the war, though, the South African machine-gunner E.S. Thompson, campaigning in central German East Africa, noted in his diary when the first “aeroplane arrived natives very excited”.42

Surely the assessment of Captain W.E. Hellard, offered from a desk in the British War Office, that “the mere presence of aircraft overhead over the heads of natives [sic] inspires a terror in their minds”, was at best overly dramatic.43 Actually, European aviators were at pains to allay any potential fears, as did the small Belgian naval air squadron on Lake Tanganyika following their success in disabling the final German gunboat plying the lake. The victorious pilots flew their British seaplanes to Kigoma, on the German side of the lake, for “demonstration flights to impress the native population”.44 Even though they remained “countable”—that is, few—and “not as numerous as today”,45 before long Africans everywhere exhibited little surprise at the appearance of the European “birds”, seeing them as another mechanical device not unlike the automobiles to which they had previously become accustomed. And by the end of war, both had been incorporated into common African cultural expressions such as song, dance, and drama.46

3 Transportation

Certainly motorized transport—including not only automobiles and motor lorries, but also motorcycles—had come to various parts of the continent, even to the island of Madagascar, early in the twentieth century. But without a doubt, it was the experiences of World War One that “introduced the internal combustion engine, and with it, motorable roads to many parts of Africa”.47 Before the war, there were only “two small motor-cars and one fifteen hundredweight lorry in Nyasaland … [and] one lorry in the whole of German East Africa”.48 And whereas in August 1914 “one or two … cars or motor-cycles … might be seen in the streets of Nairobi”, within a year they were commonplace.49 Perhaps this lack of significant early experience with the technology led British War Office planners, even as they contemplated a full scale campaign to conquer German East Africa, initially to recommend—with the advice of supposed local experts—a “rest period of four months during the rainy season”,50 however impractical as a military suggestion that might have been. In southwestern German East Africa alone, “by early 1917 some 1,500 miles of motor road” had been completed only to be reconstructed after the next rainy season.51 In some cases, though, a single rainstorm was sufficient to handicap motor transport, even in dusty western Egypt. And South African machine-gunner Thompson, campaigning in East Africa made note in September 1916 that “there was no dust” on the road one day, but after a good rain the next, “the roads [were] in shocking condition”,52 what the missionary Robert H. Napier described as “impassable porridge” requiring human porterage instead “to plod off through the mud”.53 Although carriers remained vital to the war effort everywhere in Africa, the increasing use of motorized transport seems to have led to an inversion of the usual comparisons; a King’s African Rifles veteran, Dear Banda, recalled years later that military “carriers were like a lorry going to deliver its load to us”.54 One staff officer opined that “the neglect” of the originally recommended campaign lull during the rains “led to heavy wastage in men and transport and probably prolonged the campaign unduly”.55

Perhaps predictably, European forces employed both cars and lorries during every season and in every African theatre for the duration of the war, despite the concern of some officers that “the motor-car … as often as not breaks down far from help”.56 Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces “total vehicle strength consisted of 3 motor cars and 3 trucks” when campaigning began;57 however, they had little success in capturing motorized transport and fuel during military operations. In some areas of the continent, though, the impact of motor vehicles was immediately striking. General Botha’s successful deployment of mounted troops in arid South West Africa was only “made possible by the internal combustion engine” since men as well as “horses and mules … relied on lorry-borne water”.58 One missionary at the southern end of Lake Nyasa recognized a similar impact early on: “Motor-cars. Motor-bicycles! And motor-lorries run to and fro along the road. Excitement is in the air!”59 Much further north, Royal Army Service Corps “lorries … rumble[d] along the paved streets between docks and depots” in Alexandria, and by 1917 in some Egyptian Expeditionary Force encampments “Caterpillar tractors were … very numerous and rattled up and down the country night and day”.60 Yet even into the early 1920s the appearance of motor cars in some isolated African hamlets which the war seemed to have by-passed continued to produce astonishment among the local populace.61

At least one Nigerian recruited for carrier duty initially described the cars he saw during the Cameroun campaign as simply “canoes on wheels”,62 but the reception of the few armored cars was less benign, perhaps the reaction Winston Churchill had anticipated when he advocated their increased use in east Africa. Some of the first deployed there, actually supplied by the Royal Naval Air Service, were equipped “with revolving machine guns in revolving turrets”, but their firepower was sufficiently limited as they were forced to retreat at the prospect of even light artillery fire.63 The all too common thick dust or mud, and even small ruts and potholes—not to mention trenches dug by German forces “as a reply to this sort of engine”64—slowed or stopped their movement, their radiators then becoming particularly vulnerable to machine-gun and rifle fire. And although German African soldiers initially “called [them] ‘the charging rhino which spits lead’ ”, that impression changed quickly. In one case, several German askari who attacked one of the cars by boarding it were instead transported into captivity and were “enormously pleased at the new experience … and enjoyed their first ride so much … they absolutely refused to get off the car and had to be removed by force”.65

Not surprisingly there was little reluctance among Africans when they were recruited for motor transport duties. Members of the Cape Coloured Labour Battalion, once they reached France, “for the most part were engaged as drivers and went right up to the firing lines with their cargoes”,66 as did some similarly employed Africans from the French colonies. By early 1915 a few Rhodesian Africans were recruited as drivers, and soon after educated men in the Gold Coast enlisted as drivers for the East African campaign, as did others from Nigeria. Even among the Nigerian carriers recruited for overseas assignments, once they reached east Africa a number were seconded to motor transport duties in order to replace European, South African, and Canadian drivers wounded or invalided by disease and who could not otherwise be replaced.67 Other Africans were also enlisted for motor transport service, and “nearly a thousand drivers were trained in all”68 some of whom obtained “good paying jobs as motor lorry drivers … in Kenya” after the war.69 Though largely successful in such service, the increasing numbers of African drivers did not compensate for the inherent difficulties in using motorized transport in the various African campaigns.

At least initially there were almost no appropriate roads, and certainly not in the bush country through which most troops and supplies passed. In fact, most African environments proved especially difficult for motor transport; where game tracks and pedestrian paths had to be converted to roads, “only the lightest of vehicles proved suitable”.70 As manpower and transportation demands increased, many better adapted vehicles came into use, especially lighter weight American-made Ford models. Nonetheless, as existing paths and tracks were expanded, the new roads frequently became “too deep in mud or dust” to ensure easy passage.71 Even one of the former “show roads” of German East Africa, once “broad, hard, and clean”, by mid-1916 had “two feet of dust on its surface … which”, as the Bishop of Zanzibar remembered it, “under the influence of motor or mule conveys created a splendid imitation of a London fog”.72

River crossings were particularly difficult, with few bridges already constructed and even an abundance of crocodiles in some places making what seemed to be potential fords problematic. Existing bridges posed a special problem for armored vehicles, owing to their weight. Though many were modified so that they “did not have armor on the roof, as this was found to make the cars unendurably hot inside”,73 their passage remained problematic in the face of water obstacles. In May 1916 when South Africa troops encountered “water … 4′–6′ deep & current swift” blocking an advance, they proceeded “to take off all magnetos from cars & lorries” so they might be “pulled through by natives”. But “when the tow rope broke & the whole string of them had full strain on” many of the Africans were “washed a distance down the stream”.74 In at least one case an “arial tramway” was constructed by hand from which “the vehicles were swung across the river”.75 Elsewhere a “frail bridge that spans a deep ravine” might be “made up of tree-trunks laid lengthwise on wooden uprights” to permit cars and trucks crossing, or primitive pontoon bridges constructed when possible. For wider rivers or even lake crossings the vehicles had to be partially dismantled by hand, transported by boat, and then reassembled for use. Without motor vehicles to complicate their advances, German troops frequently lashed African canoes together to speed up their river crossings.76

Retreating German forces attempted to destroy any bridges they could, even those once build only for rail traffic. They also disabled railway locomotives, cars, and carriages as they abandoned territory in both East and Southwest Africa, sometimes leaving “an indescribable mess of disabled engines and rolling stock”.77 But ripped out rails could often be re-laid and put to use, and frequently were. Near Dar es Salaam, British engineers used automobile engines to power “the bogie wheels of German trucks and sent a little fleet of motor cars along the railway”.78 At various other points along the line of rail, “motor lorries with adapted wheels” from some of the damaged rail cars “did duty as engines”.79 Nonetheless, rail transport was of decreasing significance in the East African Campaign after mid-1916 as von Lettow withdrew his forces south of the central railway. The conquest of Togoland, on the other hand, was so rapid that “the entire rolling stock, with four engines of the Togoland Railway … [was] surrendered unconditionally” by the Germans.80 In Cameroun the situation was somewhat different; the Allies did capture significant functioning rail assets such that by May 1915 “the whole of the Northern Railway running for some 120 kilometers from Duala had been … placed in full working order”.81 And as the Egyptian Expeditionary Force moved into Gaza, thousands of mainly local laborers frantically worked to extend the rail line from Africa east into the Levant to support the allied war effort against the Ottomans.

Other steam powered devices also came into military service, though large traction engines available in some areas of southern Africa were not of much significant use in transporting troops or supplies. A few of the massive machines were used in the campaign to conquer German Southwest Africa. Traction engines, however, did prove important to the Naval Africa Expedition of 1915–1916, helping to transport two Thames riverboats from South Africa to Lake Tanganyika, but only owing to the recruitment a large corps of Congolese women who carried water in jugs on their heads to keep the behemoths moving. The significant resources devoted to that expedition suggest the importance of naval technology on Africa’s great lakes during the war, especially the use of steamships as military transports.82 Effective movements of Belgian forces across Lake Tanganyika, as well as King’s African Rifles troops trained in Nyasaland and many of their accompanying porters depended on lake transport to join in the campaign against the German Schutztruppe in East Africa. To counter such deployments on Lake Nyasa, German military authorities even sent an African agent—codenamed Ndelemani (“the dynamite man”)—with “explosives, fuses, and a brace and bit, presumably to sabotage firewood intended for the lake steamers” used by the British. However, he was captured and executed before carrying out his plan.83 The Germans also re-captured the costal tug Adjutant, a British prize vessel, in the Rufiji delta; then, in similar fashion to the British Naval Africa Expedition, they disassembled it for transport by rail to Lake Tanganyika for relaunching, although it was destroyed by German forces in advance of an allied attack on Kigoma.84

Another German naval expedition which did alter the war in Africa was of a somewhat different character: the decision to abandon the fatally crippled German light cruiser Königsberg in the Rufiji River delta where it had sought refuge from British naval patrols in the Indian Ocean. Captain Max Looff ordered his men to remove the ship’s wireless and guns; then, “using several vehicles found on a neighbouring plantation”,85 the latter were taken to the naval workshops in Dar es Salaam for repair. There engineers designed specialized carriages for the Königsberg’s guns, enabling them to be moved about on land. Though not “the mightiest field artillery in East Africa” as claimed by one author,86 they did add twelve artillery pieces to von Lettow’s forces and were “those that gave [British troops] … the most trouble … with an effective range of 14,000 yards”.87 When the Germans finally surrendered in November 1918, one officer and twelve sailors along with one gun from the Königsberg were still with the Schutztruppe, keeping the ship “effectively … in action until the end of the campaign”.88

4 Engineering

Naval re-engineering—such as riverboat conversions into lake steamers and mounting naval guns on wheeled carriages—as well as makeshift airplane bombs and various automotive and railway adaptations, were characteristic of the responses to technical challenges common during the war, especially in Africa. As von Lettow’s strategy came to depend on rapid retreat, even through Portuguese territory, German fundis—African artificers with European direction—even created “collapsible boat[s for] … each unit … to negotiate the frequent rivers which impede[d] movement, especially during the rainy season”.89 To deal with the broadest rivers, such as the Rovuma, British field engineers installed a “flying bridge” using “a strong steel cable … across the river”. A floating barge was connected to a pulley system, “set at an angle across the … current of the river, … providing the motive power to propel the pontoon”.90

Communications was another frontier for engineering breakthroughs. The German colonial establishment had by 1914 installed four high-powered wireless stations at Windhoek, Dar es Salaam, Douala, and a major state-of-the-art communications center with worldwide reach installed at Kamina in the West Africa territory of Togo. The latter facility, perhaps at the time the most powerful ever built, could send and receive signals from as far away as Newfoundland, enabling messages not only to and from Germany to its African outposts but also the ability to communicate with naval vessels over much of the globe. As such, its capture might have enhanced allied communications, so in one of their last dispatches to local authorities German colonial officials ordered destruction of the Kamina station “out of necessity” once Togo was invaded by British and French forces.91 The other three principal German wireless outposts in Africa were eliminated by allied actions; only that at Dar es Salaam was partially rebuilt. Some such assets may have been turned to use against German forces, although reports suggesting attempts to resupply the east African Schutztruppe by zeppelin were only foiled by such a ruse—supposedly undertaken by British agents, including the celebrated Richard Meinertzhagen, to surreptitiously recall the airship—have been proved unfounded.92 Only near the end of the campaign were wireless messages regularly sent to British field commanders in Africa; Joseph Mandanda recalled that while serving as a headquarters cook and interpreter during the final pursuit of von Lettow’s forces, “we were told that the war was concluded. We got it by air telephone”.93

Military communication in the field remained difficult during each of the African campaigns, as in Togo, where coordination between French and British “units was practically impossible … owing to the thick and difficult nature of the country”.94 Most commanders relied on dispatch runners in communicating with their forces, although occasionally supplemented with reports transmitted by airplanes or, more frequently, dispatch riders on motorcycles. Africans were well attuned to the arrival of such messages, quickly realizing that if “you could see notes being passed from one European officer to the other … you could be sure the fighting was about to start”.95 In East Africa the South African Motor Cyclist Corps operated in most areas of that theatre with mixed efficiency; “in May 1916, during the rainy season on the Irangi Plateau”, for example, “the daily average speed of the motor cycles was reduced to just three miles per hour”. Spare parts for the vehicles were at a premium and “men of the Corps were forced to improvise”. They “cannibalized … machines … to get parts” necessary for repairs, and in at least one case “mechanics converted a Maxim machine gun tripod using spare back wheel and parts of a window frame so that it could be used with a Lewis Gun”.96

Occasionally, bicycles were used as well, the German commander von Lettow riding one “a great deal for visiting his various detachments without warning”.97 He actually rode into the city of Tanga on the night of 2 November 1914—“to satisfy myself by personal observation”—that the major British assault on the city had not yet begun.98 Four years later he was still visiting his advanced positions on bicycle. Away on such a visit, von Lettow actually missed the first news of the armistice, sent to him on 13 November 1918 by the British, delaying his formal surrender.99 Military doctors sometimes cycled as well, rather than walking “on their rounds”; in one case a Rhodesian physician “called from Abercorn to Kasama on an urgent mission … cycled the 110 miles” overnight to treat his patient.100 Belgian forces actually made an effort to use a dedicated bicycle corps in the East African Campaign, not merely for communication but also in support of combat operations.101

Less personal methods of communication were actually more common. German forces in Cameroun attempted to use flag signals between fixed stations. British Army officers in East Africa, as they had done elsewhere for decades, attempted to use heliographic signals when possible, “turning level sunlight to the uses of war”.102 However, such line-of-sight methods were frequently inadequate where topography or vegetation intervened, as was the case when a 2nd Rhodesia Regiment patrol approached the German outpost at Saliata Hill in early 1916.103 Though the South African military deployed “two Marconi [wireless] sections which were of great assistance” in the Southwest Africa Campaign, somewhat overcoming a “shortage of material and signalers”,104 elsewhere on the continent wireless communications remained “chronically unreliable” until the very end of the war.105

More frequently British and Belgian forces made an effort to create and maintain wired telegraph networks. In East Africa the greatest obstacle to their success was not sabotage by German agents, but the accidental breaking of the carefully strung wires by migrating giraffe, one of the more humorous ironies of wartime experiences in Africa!106 “In some areas the poles carrying the line had to be double the normal height to allow the free passage of giraffe underneath”.107 The taller poles then became vulnerable to “elephants … and buffalos … using the posts to scratch themselves”.108 But repairing the lines was certainly not a laughing matter, requiring frequent vigilance and considerable manpower of signals officers and their men. Occasionally motor cyclists were assigned to escort signals officers in the British sphere in making repairs on the lines. The Schutztruppe also strung telegraph lines, sometimes even utilizing barbed wire with beer bottles or animal bones for insulation. During the latter stages of the campaign, German askari took up wire as the force retreated to extend their communication links forward, although “the combination of wear and tropical weather degraded its performance”109 and the lines were susceptible to being tapped by British scouts and intelligence officers.110 To overcome such problems, the British gradually tried to introduce wireless field communications as the East African Campaign continued into 1918.

German manpower was also frequently expended on creating substitutes for even military necessities. On Lake Victoria, German naval personnel crafted “an ingenious torpedo” intended to be used against British gunboats. In June 1916 British authorities found “a native dugout” canoe “with an Evinrude outboard motor affixed to the stern”, fitted with an exhaust silencer and “a detachable false bow with a cylinder full of dynamite”. However, the weapon was never deployed.111 A similar “infernal machine” was also used unsuccessfully in a 1914 effort to sink the British gunboat Dwarf in the Wouri Estuary.112 Also in Cameroun, a severe shortage of ammunition led to a cottage industry remanufacturing shells for use by the troops. Spent casings were retrieved and a store of black powder used to make supplies of new bullets for German guns. Although using black powder had disadvantages, especially as the smoke puffs it generated exposed troop locations, the soldiers were able to remain in the field. In east Africa, similar efforts utilizing powder from Königsberg supplies allowed the Schutztruppe sufficient ammunition for its artillery. By late 1917, however, only plunder from Portuguese military posts—what South African General van Deventer later referred to as merely “convenient ordinance and supply dumps”113 for the Schutztruppe—provided the Germans with sufficient small arms ammunition.

Supplying the allied troop opposing the Germans was also frequently problematic. Despite the extensive use of human porterage in Africa, supply officers of the British Army Service Corps struggled to keep wheeled vehicles functional, adequate new roads created, as well as well as old ones repaired. And in hostile African environments such efforts required considerable engineering ingenuity. During Egyptian operations, for example, the persistent sand hampered all travel for wheeled vehicles unless they were “fitted with ‘sand-wheels,’ rims of iron about 6 inches wide bolted to the ordinary wheel”.114 But for the most part motorized “vehicles were given up and … guns were moved by pedrails—a[n improvised] device … consisting of stout squares of planking … linked to each wheel by two circumferential chains” not unlike the automotive snow tires which had just come into use in Europe and elsewhere.115 Similar adaptions were required for the transport of artillery pieces, even the already modified Königsberg guns used by von-Lettow’s Schutztruppe. The Germans also made use of smaller weapons, including at least one quite mobile “little six-pounder … carried on a wooden frame by its askari crew” which was pejoratively codenamed “Big Bertha” by South African soldiers.116 Larger guns required 300 porters, so usually either animal, or sometimes mechanical, transport was preferred, despite the frequent severe limitations.117 One twelve-pound gun was all a single car could tow, and if its path were impeded by rain-soaked roads or other obstacles, considerable manpower was frequently expended to extricate both the vehicle and the gun.

At other times, artillery pieces were simply dismantled so that they might be taken across a river or even a stream swollen by rain. The 5th South African Artillery Battery on duty in East Africa once fashioned a raft utilizing “a large native dug-out canoe found lying close to … a bridge” deemed insufficient to carry the weight of a fully-mounted field piece over the Wami River. With alternate approach “ramps made of trees and branches on the river banks” also fashioned in place, the guns were “removed from their carriages and carried on the raft … [while] the gun carriages and ammunition wagons … were unlimbered, all the ammunition removed and carried over by manpower and each half vehicle run over [the bridge] separately by hand”. So adept were the men at these tasks, the entire battery could be moved across the river and reassembled in just about four hours.118 Another unit, operating in Portuguese East Africa at the end of the campaign, created “rafts … made up of reeds, waterproof rice bags and ‘tree cotton’ ” to at least begin such a transfer across the Luambala River.119 In Cameroun a joint French and British engineering detachment repaired a bridge destroyed by retreating German forces near Douala, “making a ladder … and a boardwalk over the bent and twisted steel tie-rods and beams” while the column’s “guns and mules were transported on a raft made of two surf-boats fastened together”.120 Similar improvised engineering solutions were often repeated elsewhere, especially during the epic passage of the Naval Africa Expedition through to Lake Tanganyika. Of course, each such effort always depended on a great deal of local African labor.

All these engineering feats, and the machines associated with them, certainly had an impact on the Africans who either participated in or only watched them, reinforcing the idea of the modern world having come to Africa. Significantly, the UMCA priest Petro Kilekwa recalled that when “young men were called out to be taught to drill, to be soldiers” they were also required “to learn signaling and engineering”.121 The historian of the Royal Army Service Corps, Col. J.H. Beadon, recognized that given manpower demands in East Africa “it was necessary to train natives of Africa … as artificers” or mechanics.122 A few West Africans, recruited for water transport duties in Mesopotamia, “formed crews for the river steamers [and] were trained as drivers of motor launches”.123 Drawing on both such basic instruction as well as seeing frequent displays of human capacities and ingenuity, Africans soon grasped that they might take on such feats themselves. Many learned to drive motor vehicles, taking up the same occupation or finding employment as mechanics at the end of their wartime service. One Nigerian soldier remembered that he had learned basic concepts of mechanics through observation and also by practicing “how to take … rifles and machine guns … apart and put them together again”. Following demobilization he purchased his own tools and found employment “fixing things,” a demonstration of initiative replicated elsewhere on the continent.124 Timothy Parsons, in analyzing the impact of “the number of tradesmen and specialists produced by the KAR” in wartime East and Central Africa, concluded that “for the first time some askaris left the KAR with more skills and education than they had when they enlisted”.125 Some of these men, and many others, collected metal from disabled or discarded vehicles, finding a use for such scrap in making hoes and other useful items following their wartime service.126

In most African colonial settings before 1915 artisans and tradesmen were brought from Europe to take up skilled positions, with only a very few Africans gradually introduced to such endeavors, and fewer still employed in even the most basic technical fields. But in other colonial situations, notably South Africa, the racial employment divide was much starker. Nonetheless, within the Union, the absence of so many white miners for war service led to a break in the mining industry’s color bar, with the employment of black miners “in semi-skilled jobs … which had previously been reserved for whites”.127 For French West Africans, though, the changes were more dramatic. With significant numbers of European colonial officials called into military service, Africans were expected to learn many new tasks in order to replace them. Increasingly Africans came into “a large number of fields hitherto predominantly occupied by Europeans” including “mechanics and surveyors of public works. Colonial officials also decided to establish a medical school … [to] train African assistant-doctors” for service in French colonies as well.128

5 Medicine

Such decisions represented recognition of the wartime crisis in modern medical care, which itself had only come to Africa with colonialism. After 1914 many doctors and even some nurses were conscripted into military medical service or occasionally to lead newly formed carrier units. But there were still shortages of qualified medical professionals. That was what led Martin Briggs, an architect, to an assignment with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt, where he supervised a sanitary section looking after the welfare of the many troops bivouacked along the Nile. His duties included efforts to reduce mosquito-borne disease and even the use of an ingenious, locally engineered portable “thresh disinfector” for cleaning soldiers’ uniforms and kit to prevent the spread of fungal infections such as those which diminished the effectiveness of soldiers forced into close proximity, especially in the trenches common in the Dardanelles as well as Europe.129

Medical care in each of the four major African theatres, however, did not seem to merit similar permanent “sanitary” units. As a combat carrier, Kakalala Phiri found that to be what “disappointed me the most” during his service in East Africa. The British forces he served with merely “dug a long trench” for use as a latrine, and “the stinking smell … was quite unhygienic”.130 It was not uncommon for persistent rains to wash though an area of allied operations, with flood-water from one unit’s latrines area contaminating the fresh water supply for another unit.131 Schutztruppe doctors, however, attempted to educate troops on appropriate hygienic practices, assigning a sanitätsaskari “sanitary boy”—in addition to other African assistants—to every medical officer in the field.132 In general, German medical officers “came to see prevention rather than intervention as the best cure” for disease in their African campaigns.133 The issue of inadequate sanitation, and the consequent spread of infection, was still greater in Africa than even in the trenches of Europe. In British East Africa matters were often so relaxed that military cooks, such as Hamisi Gichiko, were alternately pressed into service to bury the dead.134

Overall, the medical situation so troubled Provincial Commissioner Charles Hobley in British East Africa, he wrote to a subordinate that there was a “great danger of epidemics of malaria and dysentery” during the war.135 Although a few African veterans later recalled observing attention to some hygienic details, such as the provision of clean drinking water and careful food waste disposal,136 Hobley’s fears were largely realized in the extended East African Campaign, which was the longest in any wartime theater; in general, the medical situation there was not up to the standards achieved elsewhere. Matters finally became severe enough for the British War Office to order an official investigation and inquiry which concluded that there was “much to regret in the medical history” of the East African Campaign. Despite the scathing conclusions, very few medical officers faced serious consequences.137 Military officials—based on their mistaken, ethnocentric belief in African natural native immunities—hoped greater reliance upon African troops would diminish malarial and other tropical disease outbreaks which had proved so severe among European soldiers. Gradually, however, medical officers, and some unit commanders, began to realize that many African askari and especially carriers were indeed susceptible to malaria and other maladies, often taking special notice of their complaints and treating them as best they could.138

But for many Africans in France the situation was much different. Medical care was generally even better than they experienced in West Africa. “Tirailleurs sick or wounded, once evacuated from their regimental infirmary, were [often] directed … to one of the hospitals especially for Senegalese”. These were usually well organized and fully staffed, offering the most medically advanced care; “French authorities explicitly instructed officiers interprètes attached to hospitals not only to act as intermediaries between” African soldiers and medical personnel, but also “to work to boost the soldiers’ morale”.139 Many French hospitals also featured added attentions from “the ladies of the Red Cross”, whom one patient, Bakary Diallo, described as “angels”.140 In Africa such attentiveness was rare. British and other allied doctors did their best to apply their specialized training in new environments while acknowledging most medical situations required “the necessity of improvisation”.141 Few wounded Africa soldiers had the same experiences as Mwenyedawa Chitala, who recalled that, “should you happen to get wounded in the presence of a white officer, he would take his whiskey and let you have a drink, then the people who carried stretchers would come to take you [to] … a hospital in the bush. They would bandage you”.142 However, after he was wounded Corporal Issa Lipenda remembered that the field dispensary where he was taken merely had “big holes to the size of a person and all the wounded were laid down in those holes waiting for treatment”.143

When Francis Brett Young joined an East African Field Ambulance unit, he was the lone physician in his section with his “only technical assistance … that of two half-educated … [Indian] babu sub-assistant surgeons” who too often “hindered rather than helped”. Adept at making accommodations to circumstances, Dr. Young at one point bemoaned that “the thick bush … was no place for a dressing station”, but concluded “it was doubtful if anywhere in this unchanging bush we should find better”.144 As a field surgeon, Captain Robert Dolby, RAMC, who had been a prisoner of war in France before being posted to East Africa, knew many of his peers would “have found much to disapprove of” in the makeshift Handeni hospital northwest of Dar es Salaam where he and his equally makeshift staff “did good work … and got splendid results”. Treating the most severely wounded—African, British, German, and others—they “improvised splints” from “corrugated iron roofing” and set broken limbs to be “slung from home-made cradles … [of] metal hoops”. With the assistance of just a few skilled nurses, both British and German, as well as some African stretcher bearers and other volunteers, they made do with “liberal morphia … to compensate for nursing defects”145 even though at times the hospital was “chock-full of wounded South Africans … [who] had not even stretchers to lie on”.146 In Nyasaland a British missionary nurse, Florence Spindler, recalled in her memoirs the general disorder of the Zomba military hospital. Even mosquito nets, the most efficacious treatment to prevent malaria, were “so small they looked more like shrouds, … propped up off the beds by sticks and bits of string”.147

During much of the campaign British forces had to make do with what they could find to put their medical expertise to work. Sometimes medical supplies were woefully deficient; carrier “conductors”, such as R.H. Napier, had to reply on their own “chemists show” as long they could.148 One South African infantry commander even privately ordered supplies of quinine for his soldiers. And Dr. Gordon Colville, medical officer of 2/2 KAR was astounded that his unit at one point in 1916 went into battle, yet “there was not a single bandage among them!”149 But for some commanders such predicaments did not seem to pose significant stumbling blocks; in his Reminiscences, for example, von Lettow noted that “we never had any difficulty in improvising whatever was necessary” in caring for the wounded,150 For example, “bandages and compresses were … made from beaten tree bark which could be sterilized … and surgical cotton wool was made … from raw cotton”; animal fats—“hippopotamus and elephant”—were mixed with wax and peanut oil to create a base for salves and ointments.151 Similarly, the Germans perfected a method of producing quinine from locally available bark, yielding an effective if unpleasant malarial prophylaxis referred to by those required to use it as “Lettow-schnapps”; yet the prophylaxis disciple remained high among German troops, including askari.152 While British soldiers found malaria drugs equally distasteful, despite frequent Quinine Parades—ordered at least for some South Africa units—“probably as much quinine is [surreptitiously] ‘disposed of’ as is taken”.153

In Africa, both the French and British armies were generally not so well staffed or supplied as were their German adversaries. Certainly when the conflict began there were comparatively more medical staff to serve the German forces, but with little expectation of replacement staff, the wastage of war reduced their numbers considerably. Near the end of the East African Campaign, von Lettow-Vorbeck left some of his sick and wounded behind “in the middle of the bush, [aware] it was a risk” but believing “they could then be taken over by enemy hospitals”.154 In fact, a full Belgian field hospital was sent to south-eastern Tanganyika to aid in providing just such medical treatment. And from late 1917 in Portuguese territory, British “sick and wounded men were sent back from the field … in the cars of the Motor Ambulance Convoy … when it was possible for these to reach the column by road”.155

In an effort to compensate for their other inadequacies, the allied armies in Africa did undertake to train Africans to assist in the care of the sick and wounded, as had the Germans from the start of hostilities. Even before ordered to do so, some Rhodesian medical officers were “training native orderlies and stretcher-bearers”, subsequently known as “blue boys”, to care for the wounded, “the weary or the sick … even when the bullets flew”.156 Some Nigerians “received special training … as medical assistants for base and field hospitals” in east Africa,157 as did some Nigerian carriers in Cameroun who became “trained medical assistants and stretcher bearers”.158 Uganda authorities authorized the creation and training of a Uganda Native Medical Corps to serve as more specialized “medical attendants” supplementing the stretcher bearers who were already serving; however, the unit was largely disbanded after the German surrender of Tabora in September 1916. But with the continuation of the campaign, a new and much larger unit, the African Native Medical Corps was created and trained, though at least one of their number, Kasakamula Chirikutali, remembered that as a dresser he relied on traditional African medicine, in addition to his new knowledge in treating the wounded.159 ANMC recruits were “dispersed throughout the Force” still in the field, from the Ethiopian border to Nyasaland, serving with “markedly favourable” results and improving hospital conditions for the diverse African units still campaigning against the Schutztruppe.160 Indeed, members of the Corps were treated as soldiers with appropriate rank and privileges, the most senior among them having major responsibilities for supervising the care of thousands of military patients. Less formally organized, the Kikuyu Mission Volunteers, ostensibly a carrier corps largely of stretcher bearers, also supplied ad hoc nursing care to wounded and ill soldiers they were charged with transporting.161

The success of these units, and other experiments with Africans serving as medical assistants during the war, had a direct impact on subsequent colonial medical practice. A number of the ANMC bakawonawa (veterans) took up positions in missionary or government medical service, occasionally joining other Africans with Schutztruppe medical training.162 In Nyasaland, the success of mission enlisted “dispensary boys” was so successful that following the war their training was intensified, with some “of the more senior boys [placed] in charge of a village dispensary” or in other significant medical care positions,163 not unlike the results expected from wartime training programs in France’s West African colonies. And almost immediately after the armistice, the Nigeria Regiment’s medical officers sought the creation of a permanent African medical establishment within the ranks, though the effort lapsed due to shortages of funds. In many ways it was true across the continent, as John Iliffe concluded more specifically, “the First World War made a positive contribution to the emergence of an East African medical profession.”164

Despite this legacy, in many areas of the continent the immediate post-war period brought other medical difficulties, not just for the demobilized troops but also for beleaguered African peoples. Wartime population movements increased the spread of disease, foremost among these the great influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 which presented a severe challenge to colonial doctors everywhere in Africa just as many of the troops and carriers were demobilized and returning home. Some military doctors at first thought the ill Africans were simply “malingering” and at worst “suffering slightly from bronchitis”.165 Likely as a result of such hasty diagnoses some men were simply ordered to make their way home, not infrequently dying in the attempt. As former missionary and later Professor C.M. Doke remembered, “such happenings were common” during the height of the influenza pandemic.166 But the disease continued to spread, and the shortage of effective medicines became acute; in West Africa the situation occasionally suggested “a scene of abject misery and social dislocation”.167 In Nyasaland, British missionary nurse Alice Simpkin was astonished when a Chewa village headman simply asked her during the epidemic, “Do not my people prefer to die of the sickness rather than of the European medicine?”168 Facing increasing evidence of a medical emergency, it was not uncommon that hard-pressed colonial officials scrambled to offer more up to date, if seemingly unconventional, medical advice. One such admonition offered Nyasaland Africans was that they “combat the influenza by dissolving wood ash in water, sieve the solution, and drink the solute”. Such an improvised suggestion, though, was remarkably similar to many alkaline-based treatments advocated in standard medical journals of the time—and also akin to some African traditional treatments—and thus made sense to at least some Africans becoming accustomed to European medical advice.169

Despite difficulties they encountered, and in spite of the war-induced improvisation in medical practice, many Africans remained grateful for the care they received. One askari who lay mortally wounded after the battle of Mahiwa recalled his amazement at “the big ships, the long convoys of motor cars, the guns, and many other wonderful things he had seen”. But he reserved special praise for the medical care which allowed him to return home. “I thank you” for that, he affirmed to a friendly KAR officer just before he died, “and so do my wife and child. I have been able to see them again”.170 Even years after the war, numerous triailleurs fondly recalled the quality of care they received from military doctors as well as in French hospitals,171 as did several Nigerian veterans. Baba Tunde, for example, remembered years afterwards that it was military doctors who made it possible for him to “walk like a man again” following a severe foot wound. Another Nigerian veteran, Private Oyeleke remained certain that he owed his long term survival to British military doctors teaching him “how to live long”.172

Notwithstanding the unexpectedly high mortality rates from wartime service and the subsequent influenza outbreak, Africans seemed to be impressed by the medical, and other technological experiences of the war. Unable to continue as a transport carrier, Kagunda Chirwa believed even the limited care he received for a leg wound “was the best medical treatment I have ever had”.173 Another patient, a British askari, was both thankful—“I owe my life to the doctor”, he announced to a visitor from his hospital bed—and yet consumed with further expectations. “Where’s my present?”, he inquired of that doctor later; “surely you have brought me one after all the trouble you have taken in saving my life!”174 With similar wartime experiences, many soldiers, carriers, “and perhaps their families and friends [were] more likely to accept modern technology in general and western medicine in particular”.175

6 Conclusion

In Africa as elsewhere the impact of science, and especially its application to medical treatment and technological innovation, was one of the great legacies of World War One. A South African Native Labour Contingent Corporal was clear about the effect of his experiences, noting in a letter from France that he had “learnt and seen lots of things”.176 Just as Eustace Malisawa had expected to find a rational, if not precisely scientific, explanation to a mystery he and his flock encountered near Lake Nyasa early in the war, many Africans—and not merely those employed on the battlefield—came to see the entire conflict between Europeans, now played out in their lands, as an exercise in colonial power, though perhaps not precisely the last stage in the “scramble” for Africa.177 It was the use of technologies, born of scientific discovery and refined in the crucible of war, that accounted for African experiences of “the most awe-inspiring, destructive, and capricious demonstration of European … power displayed in the most terrifying way” especially during the longest of all World War One campaigns, in eastern Africa.178 That marked Africa’s “Great War” as surely “the first war … carried out in a tropical climate over a vast terrain by large forces using every modern contrivance”.179 It was certainly, Africa’s first “High Tech” war!

At one level, the wartime impact of western science and the technologies born from it seemed overwhelming to Africans. After his experiences in France, one South African Native Labour Contingent veteran bemoaned the changes he had seen. “Our assegais [spears] are no good now”, he realized; “they cannot reach an aeroplane”.180 Certainly “participation in the great war quickened the consciousness” of many Africans who embraced and adapted to the new ways they experienced during wartime.181 “Before the war most of us were ignorant”, admitted Amisi Saidi who as a teenager was too young to enlist, working instead as a personal servant to European officers in Nyasaland. “But after the war”, he admitted, “people got clever”.182 As skilled artisans and laborers many of his acquaintances took advantage of technologies and knowledge they had used and observed to improve their lot in the post-war world. They, along with other veterans, realized “the world was no longer the same” and, even if they did not personally take advantage of new opportunities, many encouraged their children and grandchildren “to be clever” and learn from the new experiences.183 Such testimonies might easily lead to the idea that after wartime service “many of the carriers and askaris came back to their tribes and villages with changed ideas.”184

As affirming as such a conclusion may be, it is nonetheless true that for many others the war did not offer such positive opportunities. German askari had enjoyed “status as respectable men,” and they expected “the Schutztruppe … to restore them to that status once the war ended”. Instead, as defeated soldiers they “lived out marginalized, even destitute, existences”.185 With limited exceptions, their exposure to wartime technologies seemed to offer few advantages in the new colonial realities in which many found themselves. Even among the Nandi of Kenya, victorious KAR and carrier veterans appeared to have had “neither the desire nor the skills to become active in fashioning the [new] economy … such as it was in the 1920s”.186 Though “few … [African] families were unaffected” by the war, its full impact “was not apparent” to many of them.187 Rather its import may have been far more subtle. Remembering the trials of wartime Kenya and the highland Africans she knew there, Isak Dinesen believed one of the principal results “of all our activities in the land, of the scientific and mechanical progress there … the only practical use” Africans had for the awesome power of European technology which was on display during the First World War was a hope that somehow it might deliver them from misfortune.188 Sadly, any such expectations seem to have only been partially fulfilled. Rather than precipitating great changes across the entire continent, Africa’s first “High Tech” war had an uneven impact on Africans, at best. Despite the great hardships they had seen and endured, their exposure to the great European war did more to foster expectations that their lives might change in some ways, rather than actually bringing such changes to their peoples. Only as Africans were able to seize the initiative, draw upon their acquaintance with the unexpected and often astounding tools used to prosecute the war, and turn them to their own use, did those experiences fundamentally alter their world.

The author wishes to express his appreciation to the editors of 1914–1918 Online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War http://www.1914-1918-online.net/ for providing the impetus crucial to both expanding and sharing his research concerning this topic. He is also indebted to the interlibrary loan services at Murray State University and East Tennessee State University whose assistance over many years greatly facilitated the foundational research for this essay, as well as to the authors cited whose historical acuity has aided in providing both significant depth and breadth to this essay.

Storey, 2009, 3–4.

McCracken, 2012, 147.

Malisawa, 1916, 18–19.

See Duff, 1925, passim.

“British East Africa”, 1918, 275.

Storey, 2009, 48.

Echenberg, 1991, 36–37.

Paice, 2007, 258. Many South Africans believed, reportedly even some African military veterans, that African soldiers “would not stand … gas and liquid fire attacks, which they would ascribe to ‘umtagati’ (witchcraft)”. “The Mad Suggestion”, 1916, 421.

Bruce, 1988, passim.

Strachan, 2004, 11; also 104.

Hordern, 1941, 517; also see Sheppard, 1919, 152.

Sitambuli Basale, interview 77, Malindi, Mangochi District, Malawi, 14 Apr 1973, conducted by Sigele Chilole. For details regarding this as well as other interviews and questionnaires cited below, see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Langham, 1954, 80.

Hodges, 1986, 152–154.

Seaton, 1962, 75.

Jonathan Phiri, interview 23, Moyale Barracks, Mzuzu, Malawi, 5 Sep 1972, conducted by Melvin E. Page and Soloman Liwewe; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Anusa Makumba, interview 74, Makumba Village, Malawi, 2 April 1972, conducted by Sigele Chilole; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Quoted in Matthews, 1983, 122.

Kathebu Agubiko, interview 104, Mtalimanje Village, Malawi, 25 Jul 1973, conducted by C.M. Manda; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Page, 2000A, 3. Chiwaya is the word in Chichewa, the most widely spoken language in Nyasaland; Scott & Heatherwick, 1929, 91. Similarly, the word in Yao, spoken by many Nyasaland askari, is ciwaya; Sanderson, 1954, 64. The term remained significant in the cultural history of southeastern Africa, with dance groups claiming even a half century later that their skill made them “as powerful as a machine gun [waya-waya, boma litu chiwaya]”; Mushani, 1973, 27. On the importance of identifying the “acoustic traces” of such memories, see Hunt, 2013, 48, and passim.

Buchanan, 1919, 29; also Hoyt, 1981, 100.

Langham, 1957, 260.

Walmsley, 1919, 808; 1920, 57.

“Passing of an Empire”, 1931, 350.

“The Apes at Sea”, 1918, 548; the unnamed author observed, without apology, that “the officers of the West African Frontier Force usually refer to their native rank and file as the Apes”, 539.

Lunn, 1987, 39.

Thornhill, 1937, 146–147.

Robinson, 1959, 118.

Quoted in Marben, 1932, 182.

Phillips, 1933, 453.

Langham, 1957, 265.

Reuben Longwe, interview 132, Gongontha Post Office, Nkhata Bay, Malawi, 8 Sep 1973, conducted by C.M. Manda; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Jonathan Phiri, interview 23, Moyale Barracks, Mzuzu, Malawi, 5 Sep 1972, conducted by Melvin E. Page and Soloman Liwewe; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Madi Wadi Selemani, interview 89, Mzikizi Village, Mangochi District, Malawi, 12 Apr 1973, conducted by Sigele Chilole; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Isak Dinesen to Ingeborg Dinesen, 23 Sep 1914, in Dinesen, 1983, 16.

Lettow-Vorbeck, 1920B, 86.

Hutchison, 1920B, 1.6, 13.

Chikwenga, 1972, 18.

Lettow-Vorbeck, 1920B, 81.

Walmsley, 1920, 67.

Wienholt, 1922, 173.

Thompson, 1988, entry dated 6 Nov 1916.

Quoted in Osuntokun, 1979, 254.

Houart, 1960, 44.

James Mbalazo, interview 169, Mangochi Boma, Malawi, 1 Sep 1973, conducted by Sigele Chilole; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

See, for example, Ranger, 1975, 48.

Crowder, 1985, 304.

Mitchell, 1954, 39.

Thornhill, 1937, 17. The claim of an Indian Army staff officer that “motor transport did not come into use until 1916” in the East African Campaign inaccurately reflects merely when automobiles and lorries began to be deployed in much larger numbers; Orr, 1926, 60.

Bridges, 1938, 147.

Paice, 2007, 265.

Thompson, 1988, entries for 22–24 Sep 2015.

Napier, 1925, 146.

Interview 108, Chifira Village, Nkhata Bay District, Malawi, 7 Aug 1973, conducted by C.M. Manda; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Bridges, 1938, 147–148.

Lloyd-Jones, 1926, 147.

Bourquin, 1986.

Strachan, 2004, 91.

Wilson, 1916, 21.

Briggs, 1918, 16, 260.

See, for example, Mitchell, 1954, 39.

Quoted in Matthews, 1981B, 11.

Hector James Lucas, n.d., 61.

Young, 1918, 224.

Whittall, 1917, 189–190. Similar reactions were common elsewhere; see the photo, “KAR askari with motor transport, Nyasaland”, in Page, 1987, plate 6.

“Our Natives at the Front”, 1917, 483.

Killingray & Matthews, 1979, 16.

“Work of the Royal Army Service Corps”, 1930–1931, 1498.

Killingray & Matthews, 1979, 23.

Hordern, 1941, I, 519.

Dolby, 1918, 54.

Quoted in Blood, 1957, 90.

Sibley, 1973, 97 (photo caption).

Jackson, 1985.

McLaughlin, 1980, 44.

Lettow-Vorbeck, 1920A, 137, including photograph.

“Old Days and War Days IV”, 1927, 847.

Dolby, 1918, 204.

Shackleton, 1940, 122–123.

Hutchison, 1920A, 11.

Strobart, 1916, 435.

See Shankland, 1968, passim, and Foden, 2005, passim. Despite its technological achievement, the claim of one naval historian that “the Lake Tanganyika expedition was one of the few bright spots for the British in a generally frustrating and dismal campaign” seems excessive praise; Halpern, 1994, 83–84.

Page, 2000A, 129. One respondent, Johns Ndazamu, suggested the German agent was intent on much wider acts of terrorism in Nyasaland; Questionnaire LK/2, recorded by Andrew C. Mndalasini, Mbamba Village, Likoma Island, Malawi, 22 Aug 1973; see Page, 200A, 236–238.

See Hoyt, 1968, 106–107, 156, 190–191, and Anderson, 2004, 133.

Chatterton, 1932, 223.

Houston, 1989, 143.

Sheppard, 1919, 154.

Hall, 1974–1976, 54; two of the converted guns from the Königsberg, taken as prizes during the East African Campaign, were subsequently put on public display in Pretoria. Also see Hoyt, 1968, passim. From at least one naval historical perspective, however, the continued involvement of the Königsberg’s guns and crew “was almost irrelevant”; Halpern, 1994, 78.

Lloyd-Jones, 1926, 201.

“Campaign in Portuguese East Africa”, 1920, 1.9, 9; a photo is included.

Quoted in Maroix, 1938, 68.

Although British authorities had intercepted news of the relief flight, the signal recalling the airship was sent by German colonial officials. Radio difficulties aboard the L59 caused some of the crew to urge their captain to press on rather than return to Europe. See Robinson, 1959, 118; Villard, 1992, 77. The claims of British agency in the recall message were given currency with the publication of Marbin, 1932, and its favorable review in the journal East Africa, [“Von Lettow’s Rescue Zepplin”, 1932, 1264]. Despite nearly immediate questions raised about that theory in the same magazine [“The Zep. Sent to Von Lettow”, 1932, 56], and eschewing new evidence from German official records, Occleshaw, 1989, 116, repeated the false account, based on suspect testimony of Richard Meinertzhagen. On Meinertzhagen and his veracity, see Garfield, 2007, 125–127, 281n.

Joseph Mandanda, interview 78, Malindi, Mangochi District, Malawi, 4 Apr 1973, conducted by Sigele Chilole; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Reynolds, 1926, 318–320.

Village Headman Mpanangombe, interview 117, Mpanangombe, Ntchisi District, Malawi, 27 Aug 1973, conducted by Soloman Liwewe; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Blair, n.d.

Lloyd-Jones, 1926, 199.

Lettow-Vorbeck, 1920B, 38–39.

Lloyd-Jones, 1926, 195; Moyse-Bartlett, 1956, 412.

Cripwell, 1959, 553.

Muller, 1935, 143–151.

Young, 1917, 111.

Hector James Lucas, n.d., 57.

King, 1919, 147.

Sibley, 1971, 106 (photo caption).

See Page, 1981, 470; also Pauwels, 1916, 142.

Bourquin, 1976.

Houart, 1960, 35; also see Slosson, 1916, 23.

Strachan, 2004, 125; also see Langham, 1954, 79.

Russell, 1967, 47.

Chatterton, 1932, 267–268.

“Proceedings”, 1915, 513; Chatterton, 1931, 134–138.

Quoted in Anderson, 2004, 299.

Briggs, 1918, 232.

Bowman-Manifold, 1922, 21.

Reitz, 1933, 115.

Strachan, 2004, 11.

Adler et al, 1958, 61, and photo f. 49.

Maker, 1977, pt. 2.

Reynolds, 1927, 398–399.

Kilekwa, 1937, 49.

Quoted in “Work of the Royal Army Service Corps”, 1931, 1498.

Lucas, 1924, 18; also see Hall, 1921, 185–186.

Private Oyeleke, quoted in Matthews, 1982, 496.

Parsons, 1999, 19.

Questionnaire RU/6, C. Mkandawire, respondent, recorded by Omen F. Harawa, Mzokoto, Rumphi District, Malawi, 18 Aug 1974; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Katzenellenbogen, 1973, 114–115.

Crowder, 1968, 240.

Briggs, 1918, 93; also see 10, 164.

Kakalala Phiri, interview 114, Kachere Village, Nkhata Bay District, Malawi, 5 Sep 1972, conducted by C.M. Manda; see Page, 2000A, 236–238. Nonetheless another respondent, Eneya Lungu, recalled the practice of digging pit latrines at every carrier encampment as one of the most significant of his wartime memories; Questionnaire MZ/10, recorded by S.W.D. Chavula, Mlaba Village, Mzimba District, Malawi, 11 Apr 1973; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Langham, 1953, 59.

Taute, 1939, 8, and passim; Iliffe, 1998, 35.

Strachan, 2004, 124–125.

“Mzee Hamisi Gichiko”, 1985, 9.

Quoted in Paice, 2007, 281.

See Page, 2000A, 95.

Paice, 2007, 393–394.

Rodhain, 1918, 157–158; Heatherwick, 1925, 118–119.

Fogarty, 2008, 146.

Quoted in Balesi, 1979, 166; also 106–107.

Dolby, 1918, 67.

Mwenyedawa Chitala, interview 5, Old Soldiers Memorial Home, Zomba, Malawi, 10 Aug 1972, conducted by Melvin E. Page and Yusuf Juwayeyi. Another former askari recalled the use of stretcher bearers for transporting wounded where he was campaigning, as “there were no cars to carry away such people;” Daisa Songolo, interview 13, Old Soldiers Memorial Home, Zomba, Malawi, 17 Aug 1972, conducted by Melvin E. Page and Yusuf Juwayeyi; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Corporal Issa Lipende, interview 170, Mangochi Boma, Malawi, 14 Sep 1973, conducted by Sigele Chilole; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Young, 1917, 81–82, 135–136.

Dolby, 1918, 61–69.

Young, 1917, 233.

Quoted in Paice, 2007, 308.

Heatherwick, 1925, 118–119.

Notes on East African campaign, October–November 1916, Sir Gordon Colville Papers, Rhodes House Library, Oxford, MSS. Afr. S. 386.

Lettow-Vorbeck, 1920B, 46.

Taute, 1939, 10.

Gardner, 1963, 91; Lettow-Vorbeck, 1920B, 71, 195. Also see Sampson, 2015.

Reid, 1918, 82.

Taute, 1939, 9.

“Campaign in Portuguese East Africa”, 1920, 12, 31.

Cripwell, 1959, 554.

Matthews, 1982, 495.

Killingray & Matthews, 1979, 16.

Questionnaire DZ/10, Kasakamula Chirikutali respondent, recorded by T. William, Chimalina Village, Dedza District, Malawi, 11 Apr 1974; see Page, 2000A, 236–238. This approach was not uncommon among Africans with wartime medical training; see Iliffe, 1998, 34.

Keane, 1919–1920, 298, 300–302.

Iliffe, 1998, 36.

Iliffe, 1998, 37.

Blood, 1957, 270.

Iliffe, 1998, 34.

This was an assessment made by the 1/2 King’s African Rifles medical officer in February 1919; quoted in Page, 1998, 4.

Doke, 1975, 73.

Tomkins, 1994, 68.

Simpkin, 1926, 52.

See Page, 2000A, 173. The tensions between “traditional” African and “modern” European medical practice, even among Africans with wartime medical experiences, seems to have continued into post-war practice; see Iliffe, 1998, 34.

“Maulana”, 1924, 208–209.

See, for example, the accounts described in Balesi, 1979, 106–107 and 117, and Lunn, 1987, 41.

Both quoted in Matthews, 1982, 496.

Kagunda Chirwa, interview 130, Mungali Village, Nkhata Bay District, Malawi, 1 September 1973, conducted by C.M. Manda; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Quoted in Wilson, 1952, 126.

Matthews, 1982, 496.

“Letter from an African in France”, 1917, 122.

Paice, 2014.

Ranger, 1975, 51.

Orr, 1926, 58.

Quoted in Grundlingh, 1987, 60.

“Consciousness of Colour”, 1919, 329.

Amisi Saidi, interview 76, Chilinda Village, Mangochi District, Malawi, 3 April 1973, conducted by Sigele Chilole; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Stambuli Likuleka, interview 14, Old Soldiers Memorial Home, Zomba, Malawi, 17 Aug 1972, conducted by Melvin E. Page and Yusuf Juwayeyi; see Page, 2000A, 236–238.

Farwell, 1986, 361.

Moyd, 2014, 3, 147.

Greenstein, 1987, 88.

Strachan, 2004, 12, 184.

Dinesen, 1937, 111; also see Page, 1991, 51. Isak Dinesen was convinced Africans (or at least “her people”) saw the awesome wartime changes brought by Europeans and their technologies as, at best, making her into a “kind of Guardian Angel” in their midst; Dinesen, 1937, 281–282.

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Africa’s First “High Tech” War

The Technological Impact of World War One on Africans

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References

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