There is a legend that Queen Victoria ceded Mount Kilimanjaro to her nephew, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, as a gift when he complained that she had two great mountains — the other being Everest — while he had none. But this tale is just a parable by Edwardian satirists, for the mountain was drawn within the boundaries of German East Africa under the same 1890 treaty which included Mombasa in British East Africa, and therefore represents a compromise between empires.
Nevertheless, Africa’s greatest peak is certainly a jewel in the Kaiser’s crown. It also happens to loom over Moshi, the western terminus on the opposite end of the northern railway corridor from the harbor at Tanga, which is why the new British theater commander has his eyes on Kilimanjaro today. South African General Jan Smuts reckons he can crush his enemy, Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, in the north by bringing superior forces to bear and fighting his way along the German railroads, just as a South African army conquered Namibia last year by constructing a rail link to support their invasion. Smuts is convinced that East Africa will fall in a matter of months, just like the German Southwest Africa colony, and there is an equivalent project to link the Kenya-Uganda railway to German’s Usambara Line. But whereas Namibia was already entirely connected by rail, East Africa has two separate and unconnected lines running east to west through a land three times larger than Germany itself. There will be no repetition of the previous easy victory.
The last two days have seen skirmishes as South African Cavalry attacked Taveta and its defenders fell back on Latema Hill, but today the battle begins in earnest at about noon when the 3rd Kings African Rifles and 130th Baluchis of the Army of India attack the Latema-Reata ridge line, or Nek. They are supposed to have supporting artillery fire, but the British forward artillery observers spend the whole day squinting into the sun, and the fire is woefully inadequate. Some shrapnel shells keep falling short, landing on friendly troops. During the afternoon, Smuts’s reserves begin to arrive, and there is another big push with the 2nd Rhodesian Regiment. The commander of the 3rd KAR is killed leading a bayonet attack, and all three attacking units find themselves pushed back from the foot of the Nek.
After darkness falls, it is the turn of the 7th South African Infantry (SAI), who storm the ridge again and fall back again, but this time there are pockets of success. Baluchis, KAR troops, and South Africans occupy a few positions on the hill, holding out against German counterattacks despite their dwindling ammunition and exhausted canteens. Lettow-Vorbeck, who has two battalions lying in wait for the South African Cavalry, needs to cover their line of retreat by holding the Nek. During the night, he becomes convinced that he cannot hold the ridge against more strong attacks, and orders his force to begin an orderly withdrawal. Tomorrow morning, British patrols discover friendly troops alone on the Nek, and Smuts orders an immediate advance by fresh troops of the 8th SAI to secure the hilltops.
By dawn, about 270 men have died to win Latema and Reata. Casualties evacuated to the railhead will wait in pitiful conditions, for the hospital train has remained behind in Nairobi. By contrast, about half as many Germans and askaris (native troops) have died, and Lettow-Vorbeck’s casualties are evacuated with perfect efficiency. Had he kept his nerve, the German commander might have inflicted stunning damage on the South Africans. Instead, he slips away from the fight and gives up Kilimanjaro, taking all the rolling stock down the line and tearing up the rails as he retreats. It is a typical example of his methodical guerrilla tactics which will forestall a British victory all the way to the end of the war.
Of course, tropical diseases will soon prove to be an even greater threat than combat. By the beginning of April, the 1st East African Brigade suffers more than one hundred casualties from illness per day and rising. Though resolute and tough, the Indian troops fare worse than the white soldiers. But whereas most of Lettow-Vorbeck’s combat and support troops are black Africans, the British Empire will continue resisting the clear need to enlist large numbers of Africans to fight their battles. This is undoubtedly due to the deep racism not only of white South Africans and Rhodesians, but of British imperial policy, which does not recognize ‘warrior races’ in Africa the way it does in India. Smuts has also begun his attacks without any specialized troop training for the terrain or any long-term planning for an extended campaign.
While East Africa seems to be vulnerable from all sides, with great lakes on its borders that can serve as invasion routes and full British command of the coast, the huge expanse supports Lettow-Vorbeck’s strategy better than Smuts’s. Indeed, the wily German will consider his borders an invitation to take the war where he wills, invading Portuguese territory and keeping a much larger enemy force at bay. That is in fact his primary goal. By tying down as much of the enemy’s strength as possible here, he hopes to harm British success elsewhere. One mountain will make no difference, but distracting an entire army just might.