Book Review – The Forgotten Front 1914-18: The East African Campaign

Ross Anderson, The Forgotten Front 1914-18: The East African Campaign. Stroud: Tempus, 2007. 351 pp. £12.99. Paperback.

Tempus first published Ross Anderson’s The Forgotten Front in hardback, in 2004, to wide acclaim. As one reviewer put it, ‘It fills a yawning gap in the historical record.’ It certainly does. The book represents the first comprehensive assessment of the East African campaign since the official history, but goes far beyond it in the range of sources its author draws upon. One of the most impressive things about the book is the fact that it sees the campaign as far as possible from all sides, making good use of material from German, French, Belgian and Portuguese archives as well as British and South African. Anderson displays a firm grasp of this material and writes authoritatively about the various combatant nations and their forces. His judgements on military and political matters are judicious and his estimation of the campaign’s importance, realistic. Anderson readily acknowledges that events in this backwater of the war were of little strategic significance, despite the claims later made by some of the protagonists. However, he also correctly alludes to the significance of the war for those who lived in the theatre of operations. As well as marking the end of German colonial ambitions and the transfer of its territories to Britain and Belgium, the campaign brought modern technology to many parts of the region for the first time. More importantly, it left massive devastation in its wake. The many thousands of Africans pressed into service by the opposing forces paid the true cost of the war.

The welcome appearance of The Forgotten Front in paperback invites us to consider its historiographical significance and to examine certain aspects of the campaign which the book does not cover in detail. One of the most striking things about the campaign – and which comes through strongly in Anderson’s book – is the vast geographical area over which it was fought. The theatre stretched from the Indian Ocean in the East to Lake Tanganyika in the West, from the British colony of Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) in the South to Nairobi, in British East Africa, in the North. This huge expanse of land encompassed three distinct zones: the coastal strip, the highlands, and the low country around Lake Victoria. Each presented unique challenges to the combatants, tactically, logistically and medically. Indeed, this campaign was as much as war against nature as a clash of arms. The distances involved, the dense jungles of the low country and the coastal strip, and the lack of transport infrastructure presented formidable obstacles to the movement of men and supplies, with the result that troops were often poorly equipped and half starved. The prevalence of sleeping sickness meant that draft animals – the only potential means of transport in many areas – rarely survived for long. All the armies had to rely on human porters and these bearers themselves died in their thousands from malaria, dysentery and other diseases. The British African bearers alone suffered 40,000 casualties officially, although many more went missing. Disease, of course, bore heavily on the combatant armies, too, and Anderson devotes considerable attention to this often neglected feature of military campaigns. High casualty rates among the South African troops under the leadership of Smuts – principally from malaria – were one of the mean reasons why these men were withdrawn from the theatre. For medical reasons, the theatre was regarded as particularly unsuitable for white troops, although the Indians and most of the Africans suffered equally badly.

Anderson is also adept at analysing military leadership in the theatre. At each point in the campaign we learn much about the strengths and weaknesses of the troops deployed and about the qualities of their commanders. His assessments are balanced and based on painstaking research. Smut’s aggressive campaign, for instance, is judged as sound in terms of its operational objectives, but deeply flawed in its execution, especially the lack of attention given to logistics. His eventual successor as commander, van Deventer, is given credit for having learned from Smut’s mistakes and restoring vital supply lines.

That British and Imperial troops faced a ‘steep learning curve’ will come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with the historiography of the Great War. Although conditions differed markedly outside Europe, it was a similar story in most theatres in which operations continued for any length of time. Perhaps the best comparator for East Africa is Mesopotamia; a campaign of similar duration and dogged by severe logistical and medical problems. In both campaigns operations suffered initially from being poorly resourced and poorly led. Indeed, one of the most striking similarities between the East African and Mesopotamian campaigns was the degree to which logistics was an afterthought in the minds of commanders (Smuts in East Africa; Nixon and Townshend in Mesopotamia) who were hell bent on rapid advance at all costs. As Tim Travers has written of the Gallipoli campaign – in another book in the ‘Battles and Campaigns’ series – part of the problem lay in the fact that commanders outside Europe carried with them attitudes more suited to the small colonial wars of the Victorian era. Their hierarchical and charismatic style of leadership was fundamentally unsuited to the management of large or complex operations.

One of Anderson’s many achievements in The Forgotten Front is that he gives equal weight to the German leadership and to an assessment of the fighting qualities of German forces in the theatre. The German commander Lettow-Vorbeck was headstrong and contemptuous of civilian authority but was often more adept than the British at fighting in the hostile terrain of East Africa, especially defensively. Although all sides suffered heavy casualties from disease, he was rather better at preserving his experienced troops; much to the consternation of van Deventer, among others. And while the British began to gain the advantage from 1917, Lettow succeeded in evading outright defeat until the Armistice, notwithstanding some rather wasteful and unnecessary offensives. He later claimed that his primary objective had been to draw British troops from other fronts but his achievements in this regard were limited. As Anderson points out, the only troops that were effectively diverted from other fronts were the Indian contingent. Black African troops were recruited locally and the large white South African contingent that served under Smuts had volunteered specifically for service in East Africa.

The Forgotten Front is an exceptionally well-rounded campaign history, the excellent coverage of operations in East Africa being complemented by analysis of the wider political context in Africa and in Europe. And yet there are some aspects which are less well developed than others, especially the politics around the Indian Army contingents (Expeditionary Forces ‘B’ and ‘C’). The author does not use the large collection of material relating to the Indian contingents which is collected in the Military Department of the Government of India (L/MIL/17), and which may be consulted at the British Library. These documents cover all aspects of the deployment but are particularly illuminating as regards the morale of the contingent and the circumstances surrounding its eventual withdrawal. Among other things, they show grave concerns about the loyalty of Muslim sepoys and attempts in East Africa to induce them to desert. The documents also contain much information on the effects of the high casualty rate upon recruitment in parts of north-western India and the Indian government’s insistence on the return of troops to man the unstable North West Frontier. David Omissi’s The Sepoy and the Raj (1994) might also have helped to contextualise the discussion of the Indian Army in East Africa.

These comments are meant less in the way of criticism than as an indication that certain dimensions of the campaign in East Africa have yet to be fully explored. No single monograph can cover everything. Those wishing to examine the campaign further might also find it enlightening to examine some of the non-official sources – letters, diaries and memoirs – relating to the campaign. Anderson uses some of these but scholars with a particular interest will find more in archives such as the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds.

All things considered, Ross Anderson’s The Forgotten Front is one of the finest campaign histories to have been written in recent years – a landmark in the historiography of the Great War.

By Professor Mark Harrison, University of Oxford

Printable version is downloadable here.

Citation: Mark Harrison, ‘Review of Ross Anderson, The Forgotten Front 1914-18: The East African Campaign’, Birmingham “On War”, 7 September 2012

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