Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa

Miller, Charles



'follows a little-known corner of World War I, as fought out on the plains of Tsavo between British Kenya and German Tanganyika - immensely readable.'

Roughguides Internet Bookreview 1996

Book ID 179

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 330
Extract Date: 1953

Haya Safari.

ON A SPARKLING blue-gold-green tropical morning in 1953, the Union Castle liner Rhodesia Castle steamed into the harbor of Dar es Salaam on her regular run between Europe and Capetown. Among the passengers on the upper deck was von Lettow. He was paying his first visit to the old battleground in nearly four decades, and he saw at once that the torpidly busy East African seaport had undergone little outward change in his long absence. Apart from a few new steamer berths and commercial buildings- and, of course, the Union Jacks which flew from rooftops in the capital of the British territory of Tanganyika-the place looked much the same. The coco palms and casuarinas on the shorefront seemed never to have stopped their contented sighing in the Indian Ocean breezes. The tiny, lateen-rigged coastal dhows called jahazis, with their ancient cargoes of mangrove poles and simsim, came and went as they always had, lurching with awkward grace over the harbor's short chop. One of the first things that caught von Lettow's eye was the spire of the Lutheran Church that his countrymen had built when the colony was still theirs. And he probably smiled to himself when Rhodesia Castle changed course in the channel to avoid the wreckage of a sunken floating dock; a German naval officer under his command had scuttled that dock to discourage Admiral King-Hall's cruisers at the start of the East African campaign. It was almost as if a time machine had carried von Lettow back to 1914.

But he was not likely to be deluded by surface appearances. Once a German and now a British colonial capital, Dar es Salaam would soon be neither. The Second World War had left in its wake a ferment of nationalism that bubbled with angry vigor in all the hot countries of the world that were still ruled by white men from harsher climates. Britain had already handed over India. The Dutch had been ousted unceremoniously from their Indonesian islands. France was about to get the same treatment in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And Africa had to be next. Harold Macmillan had not yet coined the expression "the wind of change," but the wind was blowing. Like any thinking man of the 1950s, von Lettow could hardly have failed to feel it.

Extract ID: 4398

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 331
Extract Date: 1929

Anniversary dinner of the BEAEF

Certainly his own life had witnessed more than its share of changes since his triumphal return to Germany thirty-four years earlier. Almost inevitably, that life had been an anticlimax, although not without its moments. For a brief time he had commanded a Reichswehr division-appropriately named for him-and helped suppress a Communist uprising in Hamburg, but this was the last military action of his career. In 1920 he resigned from the army and entered politics, serving for ten years as a deputy in the Reichstag. He also wrote several books, and his personal memoirs of the East African campaign may have found as many readers in England as in Germany.

For von Lettow was anything but forgotten by his onetime foes. In London in 1929, he was the guest of honor, seated next to Smuts, at an anniversary dinner of the British East African Expeditionary Force.

Extract ID: 4399

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 331b
Extract Date: 1930's

ambassador to England!

In 1930, as Nazis began emerging from the woodwork, a disillusioned von Lettow resigned his Reichstag seat. Five years later, he was given the opportunity to re-enter public life when Hitler offered to make him ambassador to England. The suggestion, interestingly, had come from von Lettow's friend, retired Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, during a visit to Berlin to meet with Hitler on behalf of German Jews. Meinertzhagen reported that Hitler enthusiastically endorsed the first idea and went into a volcanic tantrum over the second. Von Lettow was no less affronted by Hitler's overture, and declined with frigid hauteur.*

After that (possibly even before that) he was on the Nazi blacklist, and although Hitler was not quite up to doing away with the one man who had consistently humiliated Germany's enemies in the First World War, he could see to it that von Lettow was subjected to every possible indignity short of a concentration camp. He was kept under continual surveillance. SA troops sacked his office. No opportunity was lost to slander him. It did not matter that both of his sons were killed in action with the German army in the Second World War.

* During a conversation not long ago with the grand-nephew of a German marine who had fought in the East African campaign, the author brought up the subject of the spurned ambassadorship, remarking: "I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go fuck himself." "That's right," was the reply, "except that I don't think he put it that politely."

Extract ID: 4400

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 331c
Extract Date: 1950's


When peace came, the seventy-five-year-old General was destitute, subsisting for a time on the food parcels sent to him by Meinertzhagen and Smuts. With Germany's postwar recovery, however, he presently came to enjoy comfortable circumstances again. And even in his ostensibly declining years, his mind remained as alert as it had been on the day when he ordered the 13th Field Company to counterattack at Tanga.

Extract ID: 4401

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 332a
Extract Date: 1953

Return to Dar es Salaam

If anything, those mental facilities had become even more acute when, at the age of eighty-three, von Lettow stepped nimbly down Rhodesia Castle's gangway to board the lighter that would bring him ashore at Dar es Salaam. Noting a sizable crowd of Africans on the dock-many as old as he, some older-he asked one man whether any of them might have served with the Schutztruppe. Broad grins broke out at once, and the names of long-forgotten field companies and obscure battles were croaked back and forth among the venerable blacks. But why did this old Mzungu want to know? One great-grandfather, stooping but dignified in his nightshirt-like kanzu, turned to von Lettow and asked: "Na weave, Bwana? Ni jina lako?" -and who might you be, sir? "Pumbavu!" roared von Lettow. Idiot! Don't you recognize your old colonel? Whereupon the graybeard fell to his knees and clasped von Lettow around the legs. Tanganyika's deputy governor had just arrived at the dock to escort von Lettow to a reception at Government House, but no one paid any attention to the white official as the swarm of doddering ex-askaris hoisted their commander to their bony shoulders and carried him off.

In due course he kept his appointment at Government House, whose stately Arab style archways seemed no less graceful to him than they had when the place was called the Governor's Palace and was occupied by Schnee. Another kind of memory returned shortly afterwards when he stood in the reviewing stand at Colito Barracks and took the salute of the 6th KAR Regiment. As the askari companies passed by in stiff, well-tailored khaki ranks, the band struck up the regimental march. Von Lettow recognized the music at once. He should have. The lyrics, of course, had been changed, but there was no mistaking the jaunty upbeat lilt of "Haya Safari."

Extract ID: 4402

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 332b
Extract Date: 1958


The last decade of von Lettow's life witnessed few if any signs of senility. Visitors to his home in Hamburg-Altona inevitably remarked on the general's bright eye, his steel-trap mind, his crystal-clear recollection of the old campaigns and all their details. He even enjoyed a half-joking flirtation by mail with an elderly Danish baroness whom he had met in 1913 when both were passengers on the same ship for Africa-he bound for the German colony, she for the British. Von Lettow had given the young woman an autographed picture of himself. When the war broke out and she took four ox-wagons to the border with supplies and ammunition for the East Africa Mounted Rifles (no white men were available for the mission), she also carried the photograph as insurance-should she be captured by a Schutztruppe patrol. In 1958, the author Isak Dinesen visited von Lettow and told him of the trek she had made to the border. She also said that she regretted not having kissed him when she left the ship at Mombasa, and that, with his wife's permission, she would do so now. Two years later, on von Lettow's 90th birthday, she sent him flowers and wrote that another kiss was enclosed. Von Lettow replied that she would have to deliver the next one personally.

Extract ID: 4403

See also

Miller, Charles Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in East Africa, 1974
Page Number: 332c
Extract Date: 1964

Mimi ni askari Mdaichi.

He faded away in 1964. Anyone fancying symbolism can read something into that year. It was not only half a century since von Lettow had arrived in Dar es Salaam to take command of the Schutztruppe; 1964 was also the year in which his askaris finally got their back pay. The funds had been voted by the Bundestag in Bonn, but payment was made, fittingly, through the African government of Tanzania. By no means all of the claimants were still alive, but at least three hundred old men gathered at the Lake Victoria port of Mwanza, where a temporary cashier's office had been opened in a commercial building.

Then a problem of identification arose. Some of the men wore tattered scraps of Schutztruppe tunics, torn uniform trousers or frayed kepis. Several showed what they said were battle scars; one man lowered his shorts to reveal a long-healed wound on his left buttock. But only a small handful could produce the faded certificates that von Lettow had given them in 1918. Might not the others be masquerading as veterans?

The German banker who had brought the money came up with an idea. As each claimant stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered in German to perform the manual of arms. Other German commands were barked out: Attention ... About turn ... March ... Present arms . . . Halt ... Slope arms ... Not one man failed the test.

The few who are left today have probably forgotten those alien words. But it has not yet become entirely beyond the realm of possibility for a visitor to Tanzania, should he happen to ask some village elder about himself, to hear the reply: "Mimi ni askari Mdaichi." I am a German soldier.

Extract ID: 4404