The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 3 - June 2014

A German literature review

By Dr Anne Samson

As the centenary of the Great War approaches, more and more people are discovering the East African theatre of fighting, where no less than 10 000 South Africans fought mainly between February 1916 and January 1917 under the command of General Jan Smuts. As I have covered South Africa's involvement elsewhere in this journal, this review aims to provide a brief introduction to the books on the campaign and particularly those offering a German perspective. Those in French and Portuguese will have to wait for another day, but for anyone interested in a complete list of known books in all languages on the campaign and the other Great War theatres in Africa, visit

It is generally believed that von Lettow-Vorbeck gave the Allied (i.e., British, including South African, as well as Portuguese and Belgian) troops the 'run around' for four years - this is open to debate as, for at least two years of the campaign, 1914-1915, fighting was more traditional around fixed positions, both sides achieving successes and receiving setbacks as noted in Peter Charlton's Cinderella's soldiers (2012); James Willson's Guerillas of Tsavo (2012) and Charles Hordern's Official history (1941). It was only after the Allies became more aggressive in their approach under Smuts' command that the 'run-around' began and the myth of von Lettow-Vorbeck developed. James Ambrose Brown's They fought for King and Kaiser is the most well-known of the books on South Africa's involvement, although JJ Collyer, who was staff officer during the campaign, wrote a semi-official account called The South Africans with General Smuts in German East Africa (1936). The books mentioned in this section, except for the Official history, all have a narrow perspective. For a wider overview of the war, the best books in English are Charles Miller's Battle for the bundu (1974) and Edward Paice's Tip and Run (2007).

What about the German side? There is a growing literature in German on the East Africa campaign and on von Lettow-Vorbeck, the most prominent authors being Michael Pesek, who published Das Ende eines Kolonialreiches: Ostafrika im Ersten Weltkrieg in 2012 followed by numerous articles (some of which are available on, Tanya Buhrer, Die Kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika: Koloniale Sicherheitspolitik und transkulturelle Kriegführung, 1885 bis 1918 (2011) and Eckard Michels, who has written the most comprehensive biography on von Lettow-Vorbeck, entitled Der held von Deutch-Ostafrika: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, ein preuBischer Kolonialoffizier (2008). Unfortunately, none of these has been translated into English (yet). One that is, and which provides a useful insight into the role of German women is that by Laura Wildenthal, German women for empire 1884-1945 (2001). There are also a fair number of autobiographies which over the years have come to light but, again, few are accessible in English. Of those that are, many are only available on the second-hand market such as the account by the German governor's wife Ada Schnee, Bibi Mkubwa: My experiences in German East Africa (1996). However, in 2012, Gerald Rilling of East Africa Books had von Lettow-Vorbeck's My Life translated into English and published and there are still first-hand copies of this available from the publisher at at $49.95. Another exception is von Lettow-Vorbeck's My reminiscences of East Africa: The campaign for German East Africa in the First World War which has seen a number of re-prints, the most recent being 2012. This book is also available on-line at

Where von Lettow-Vorbeck's Reminiscences give a more detailed account of how he saw the war, My Life puts his actions into the context of his military service, including his time in South West Africa during the Herero uprising. As with all autobiographies, one has to treat information cautiously as time erodes accuracy and events take on a rose-coloured tinge, particularly when the author is 85 years of age. An added factor in von Lettow-Vorbeck's memoirs is the later influence of others, such as Richard Meinertzhagen (British Library, 2014), on his recollections. Nevertheless, what von Lettow-Vorbeck has recorded is definitely worth consulting and adds to the collective memory of the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918.

Finally, for those who are looking for something a little lighter to read, there are a couple of German novels of the campaign available in English, if you can find a copy: Balder Olden's On virgin soil (1936) and Alex Capus, A matter of time (2009). Older's tale is based on his experiences of the campaign as a transport rider on the outbreak of war, whilst Capus tells the story of the Graf van Gotzen, more commonly identified as the Mimi and Toutou story.

References for texts mentioned

British Library, Untold Lives: Richard Meinertzhagen Hero or Scoundrel? (2014)
Buhrer, Tanya, Die Kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika: Koloniale Sicherheitspolitik und transkulturelle Kriegführung, 1885 bis 1918 (2011)
Capus, Alex, A matter of time (2009)
Charlton, Peter, Cinderella's soldiers: The Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve (2012)
Collyer, JJ, The South Africans with General Smuts in German East Africa (1936)
Hordern, Charles, Military operations in East Africa, August 1914-September 1916, Official history, Vol 1 (1941 )
Michels, Eckard, Der held von Deutch-Ostafrika: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, ein preuBischer Kolonialoffizier (2008)
Miller, Charles, Battle for the bundu (1974)
Olden, Balder, On virgin soil (1936)
Paice, Edward, Tip and run: The untold tragedy of the Great War (2007)
Pesek, Michael, Das Ende eines Kolonialeiches: Ostafrika im Ersten Weltkrieg (2012)
Schnee, Ada, Bibi Mkubwa: My experiences in German East Africa (1996)
Wildenthal, Laura, German women for empire 1884-1945 (2001)
Willson, James, Guerillas of Tsavo: An illustrated diary of a forgotten campaign in British East Africa 1914-1916 (2012).

There is a full and growing, searchable list of books and articles on the campaigns in Africa during the First World War which can be found at id=2134 including links to where copies can be found.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /