At the early stages of the First World War, Africa was broken.
The continent, divided amongst the European powers of France, Britain, and Germany, yielded its share of harsh terrain and other environmental threats to the foreign troops; a far cry from the stifling trenches battles at Somme. Worse off, the borders failed to account for the thousands of tribes and subcultures protesting against the colonial rule. If Africa were to be involved into the Great War, the political crisis in maintaining the colonies would augment, leading to a subsequent loss in territories. In 1884, the Berlin Conference declared all foreign colonies to remain neutral in the outbreak of a war, and to collaborate with one other in regulating the civil unrest amongst the locals.
The truce was, needless to say, short lived as the German colony Cameroon (Kamerun) was invaded by British and French troops. Britain also led a fierce offensive against Togoland neighbouring Nigeria, leading to an immediate surrender of power to the Allies in less than a month. However, the high altitude terrain of the Cameroon colony proved to be a tactical advantage for the Germans in successfully defending territory against the Allied troops, made up of British and local Africans . Meanwhile, France was locked in combat against the Zaian alliance of Berber tribes in the Moroccan colony, maintaining most of their territory at the cost of over 600 casualties, leaving the French at a disadvantage in manpower.
The South African Union, led by the British, also prepared to overpower the German South West colony, already surrounded by the Allied Bechuanaland and Rhodesian colonies. Although their victory was swift, Britain and South Africa were met by heavy resistance from the Dutch Boer rebels – Afrikaans for ‘farmer’ – allied with the Germans as part of the Maritz rebellion. The unlawful death of a prominent Boer political prompted Lieutenant Mani Maritz – commanding officer of the invasion – to defect the Empire, causing his subordinates to rebel against the British and South African governments. In response, seasoned veteran General Jans Smuts was appointed to maintain order amongst the colonies in South Africa till the end of the year.
By November 1914, the British Navy proceeded to invade the sparsely defended, coastal colony at East Africa, outnumbering the German defenders 1600 to 1. However, as Britain demanded Germany to surrender by the hour, General Paul Von Lettow Vorbeck utilised the time to return with reinforcements of over 700 men. Not only were the British soldiers – most of the conscripted from India – tired from the arduous journey, they struggled to defend themselves against General Vorbeck’s guerrilla tactics such as attacking from concealed vegetation. Moreover, the British were overwhelmed by an aggressive hoard of bees amidst the gunfire, a natural element that would contribute to Britain’s failure in capturing East Africa. Despite their low numbers, the native askaris were trained by the German Empire to be competent schutztruppen, and sustained less than 100 casualties at the end of the battle.
Following the end of the Maritz Rebellion on February 1915, a small German offensive took advantage of the chaos and invaded the Kakamas province of South Africa by the Orange River. This was not only a failure to the German Empire but acted as a preamble to the mass invasion from the South African army, causing Germany to surrender their South West territory.
Having successfully conquered South West Africa, the British – now under the command of General Smuts – fixed their attention towards East Africa under General Vorbeck, whose success in repelling the British earned him the title ‘The Lion of Africa’. Smuts’s army, a juggernaut of 200,000 men, invaded East Africa once again on February 1916 with additional support from Belgium. General Vorbeck retaliated with guerrilla raids to disorganise the British’s swift movements. More African troops from neighbouring colonies in Anglo-Sudan, Nigeria, and South Africa were commissioned in the invasion.
With low supplies and ammunition, General Vorbeck attention drifted to the the Ruvuma River bordering Tanzania and poorly defended Portuguese colony Mozambique. The Germans continued to raid Portuguese supplies to reclaim all lost territories before news of the armstice and Germany’s surrender in Europe reached the General.
Although Britain and Germany sustained less casualties in their respective African campaigns, the local Africans ultimately suffered a mass decline in population due to forced conscription, disease, and more. Furthermore, the pillaging of farmland and crops by both sides in the war led to a great famine in 1917 killing appx. 300,000 civilians, with additional shelters and land scarred by the battles. Africa would also continue to burden decades of bloodshed during the Second World War and civil wars facilitated by the American and Soviet superpowers in the latter half of the 20th century. As a consequence, more African soldiers would struggle to find their national identity as their loyalty dwindled amongst the colonial masters. The imperialism of Britain and the European Powers suppressed diverse indigenous cultures in an attempt to civilise the colonies as per the standards of the Western World. To this day, modern media has presented a false image of Africa as impoverished and disease-ridden, a product of Western colonisers polluting the land and resources with aimless politics and conflict.