The MegaMilitary Project | Online Edition #373
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World War I - Africa and Asia Theater (1914–1918)

World War I - Africa and Asia Theater (1914–1918)

Combat in the colonial possessions

36 nations fought in World War I, and combat extended to the colonial possessions of the principal powers, although on a small scale compared with the titanic struggle in Europe. The great powers fought on the peripheral fronts, hoping to shorten the war and gain territory. In fact, the peripheral action probably served only to prolong the war, by drawing troops and materiel away from the major theaters.


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As formidable as Germany’s European-based army was, its ability to defend most of its colonial possessions was limited. The British planned to capture all the German colonies throughout the world, ostensibly with the objectives of preventing German warships from gaining access to ports and of protecting Allied colonies from German aggression, but also of reaping the rewards of imperial expansion at the expense of Germany. In Africa, German colonies included Togoland, Cameroons, and German Southwest Africa on the continent’s west coast, and German East Africa on the east.

map of togoland 1914
Togoland was a protectorate of the German Empire in West Africa from 1884 to 1914, with an area of ​​approximately 90,400 km2 (29,867 sq mi), including the present-day country of Togo and most of the present-day Volta region of Ghana.

On August 7, three days after England declared war, four companies of British-led native troops from the Gold Coast (Ghana) and a unit of French-led native troops from Dahomey (Benin) invaded Togoland on their own initiative. After 20 days of sporadic combat, German colonial officials surrendered the colony. The immediate dividend of this victory was the capture of wireless (radio) stations that regulated the operation of German surface vessels raiding in African waters.



A combination of French, British, and Belgian colonial troops invaded Cameroons on August 20, 1914, from the south, the east, and the northwest. By sea, they also attacked in the west. German resistance was more formidable than it had been in Togoland. The German Cameroonian Army was a small but capable force of 12 companies. It withdrew to a stronghold at Mora and held out there against repeated attacks through February 18, 1916. With its defeat, Cameroons fell to the Allies.


South Africa

British regulars were withdrawn from South Africa for western front duty on August 10, 1914. To take their place, the white civilian residents of South Africa formed four irregular units and invaded German South West Africa (Namibia), beginning in September 1914. The British irregulars enjoyed a superiority of numbers that enabled them to gain control of all major ports; however, invasion of the interior was delayed by an uprising of pro- German South Africans, who had fought against the British during the Second (Great) Boer War (1899-1902). It was not until January 1915, by which time the ranks of the British irregulars had grown to 50,000, that an offensive was launched to put down the rebellion. It was quelled by February, except in Cameroons, where many Germans continued to fight a guerrilla war of sporadic skirmishes. The Germans in South Africa surrendered on July 9, 1915.


Germany’s Pacific and Chinese Holdings

By the beginning of the 20th century, Germany had made a few colonial inroads into China and among the Pacific islands. These holdings included Qingdao (Tsingtao), a harbor town in the Chinese province of Guizhou (Kwei-chow); the Marianas, the Caroline Islands, and the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific; and Western Samoa, Neu-Pommern (New Britain), and a portion of New Guinea in the South Pacific. Japan entered the war at the end of August 1914, honoring an alliance with Britain.

Beginning in September, it launched an attack on Qingdao, eventually with the support of Allied warships. The port fell on November 7. Simultaneously, with the attack on Qingdao, Japanese forces invaded the Marianas, the Caro- line Islands, and the Marshalls, all of which fell by October. The German colony of Western Samoa yielded to a force of New Zealanders, supported by Australian, British, and French warships, at the end of August 1914, without having offered any resistance. In September 1914, Australian troops invaded Neu-Pommern and took over all of German New Guinea in a matter of weeks.


German East Africa

Territory comprising present-day Rwanda, Burundi, and continental Tanzania made up German East Africa. In contrast to Germany’s other colonial holdings, it was defended not only well but also with genius and determination, by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870–1964). This officer possessed great skill in guerrilla warfare and commanded a force of askaris, superb European-trained native African troops.

Lieutenant Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck was dispatched to German East Africa early in 1914. With limited supplies and a small army equipped with outmoded weapons, Lettow-Vorbeck resolved to strike preemptively. As soon as war was declared in Europe, he staged a series of raids against the British railway in Kenya. Next, he attempted to capture Mombasa. Although he was driven back by September 1914, he successfully defended against a British amphibious attack on the port town of Tanga in northeastern Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) during November 2–3, 1914. Lettow-Vorbeck inflicted heavy losses on the British and also captured a large cache of badly needed arms and ammunition.

general paul von lettow vorbeck
The German commander Lettow von Vorbeck was a remarkable figure. He was never cornered, despite the allied superiority of numbers, and did not surrender until after the armistice of November 1918.

He forced the British, themselves poorly supplied, into a defensive posture, which tied up a disproportionate number of men. Even after the Royal Navy sank in the Rufiji-River Delta, the German cruiser Königsberg (the vessel on which Lettow-Vorbeck depended heavily for support) the German commander refused to give up. He put his men to work salvaging most of the stricken vessel’s guns and even commandeered the Königsberg’s crew as land troops.

To deal with Lettow-Vorbeck, the British put a large force of British and colonial troops under the command of South African general Jan Christian Smuts (1870–1950). The operations of this invasion army were coordinated with those of a Belgian invasion from the west and with those of an independent British invasion from Nyasaland in the south. Hopelessly outnumbered, Lettow-Vorbeck met this formidable threat with cool patience, employing delaying tactics to keep the invaders exposed to the merciless jungle. He made an ally of a hostile climate and terrain; in the end, tropical diseases caused far more Allied casualties than German bullets. Lettow-Vorbeck’s askaris were comfortable with the climate and therefore less vulnerable to regional disease.

Their losses notwithstanding, the British continued to pour men and resources into the invasion. Lettow-Vorbeck slowly yielded to the advance, ensuring that the invaders paid dearly for every mile they claimed. At frequent intervals, he turned on his pursuers with surprise counterattacks carried out with lightning speed. At Mahiwa, during October 15–18, 1917, although outnumbered four to one, he inflicted 1,500 casualties on the British, sustaining only 100 himself. It was clear to Lettow-Vorbeck that the superior numbers of the British would ultimately drive him out of German East Africa.

He decided not to make a useless stand in defense of a lost cause, but invaded the Portuguese colony of Mozambique in December 1917. By looting Portuguese garrisons, Lettow-Vorbeck could supply his 4,000-man army sufficiently to enable him to raid as far south as Quelimane on the coast during July 1–3, 1918. Here, he turned back north and reentered German East Africa during September and October. By this time, the war was all but over in Europe, but Lettow-Vorbeck, out of communication and isolated, did not know of the fate of his countrymen on the western front. He launched an invasion of British-held Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and took the principal city of Kasama (in modern Zambia) on November 13, 1918, two days after the Armistice had officially ended the war.

After taking Kasama, Lettow-Vorbeck began to hear and follow rumors of the German surrender in Europe. He opened negotiations with the British, and on November 23, 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered his undefeated army at Abercorn (Mbala, Zambia). His was the last German force to lie down its arms in World War I. On the day of his surrender, Lettow-Vorbeck’s entire army comprised 155 Europeans, 1,168 African askari troops, and 3,000 other Africans.


Principal Combatants (only Africa and Asia Theater of World War I)

Britain, France, Germany, and Japan

Principal Theaters (only on the Africa and Asia fronts)


Togoland, Cameroons, German Southwest Africa and German East Africa


Tsingtao (China), Marianas, Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands, Western Samoa and Neu-Pommern (present-day New Britain - Island in Papua New Guinea)


Sources & further reading

  • Justin J. Corfield, Bibliography of the First World War in the Far East and Southeast Asia (Lewiston, N.Y., Edwin Mellen, 2003)
  • Hermann J. Hiery, The Neglected War: The German South Pacific and the Influence of World War I (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1995)
  • Melvin E. Page, Africa and the First World War (New York, St. Martin’s, 1988)
  • Helmuth Stoecker, German Imperialism in Africa: From the Beginnings until the Second World War (Leiden, Neth., Brill Academic, 1987).
WWI (1914-1918)
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