09 August 1914 – War In The Colonies

Today, British troops arrive in German Togoland. Ironically, the first British soldier killed in the Great War will not die on the Western Front, but in the Dark Continent.

The Kaiser’s nation was late to the colonial rush, and his destabilizing naval arms buildup has been a compensatory extravagance. Germany boasts three other African colonies as one follows the shape of the coast going West to East: Kameroun (Cameroon), present-day Namibia, and German East Africa (present-day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika). The Kaiser’s Empire will lose all of these possessions in that order, the first one this month and the last only with abdication and national surrender.

An imperial territory for just thirty years, German Togoland is an ocean-front property without a port of its own. But the colony’s roads and rails are the best in West Africa, linking the entire country to the capital of Lome. Of all the colonial powers, Germany has invested the most in infrastructure and done the most to educate its subject populations; the Swahili tongue remembers this period in the word shule, as the German schools are the  best in Africa. But once white German officers lead less than 700 native Polizeitruppen and 300 colonial volunteers North in retreat, the locals burn the government building to express their opinion of Germany’s benevolent rule.

At Kamina —  the Northern far end of the dual-track, meter gauge railway trunk line from Lome — a brand-new radio transmitter links the Kaiser to his colonies as well as his isolated naval units. This communications hub is the main strategic objective of the allied offensive, for Winston Churchill wants his enemy’s ships cut off from their command so he can destroy the scattered German surface fleet in detail.

The Eastern slice of German Togoland later became part of modern-day Ghana.

The Eastern slice of German Togoland later became part of modern-day Ghana.

Togoland has been under assault for three days, but the French have held up their advance in the South to wait for their British allies. Another French force attacks in the North from Dahomey today, falling back when it meets stiffer resistance than expected, for they lack artillery sufficient to assault German defenses. With the coastal regions secure, tomorrow the allies will march North along the fine, wide avenue of the best railroad in West Africa. The defenders destroy the bridges as they retreat, but this barely slows the allied columns down. At Agbeluvhoe on the 16th and Chra on the 22nd, the outnumbered defenders prove willing to defend, if not attack, but they capitulate within hours. On August 26th, the allies finally arrive in Kamina to find the radio transmitter destroyed.

Train station in Agbeluvhoe, German Togoland

Train station in Agbeluvhoe, German Togoland

Ironically, the allies feel free to violate international treaties that were supposed to guarantee the neutrality of African colonies because the Kaiser’s Chancellor has dismissed the 75-year old treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality as “a scrap of paper” while speaking to the British Ambassador. Germany is the first colonial power to leave Africa, and even though France and England split the Kaiser’s former colonies between themselves, it is the beginning of the end of the colonial era.

Decolonization will be a primary narrative for the 20th Century. In 1914, the greater part of the world’s territory and populations are governed from Europe. After the World Wars, dozens of brand-new independent states are born, becoming new fronts in a Cold War. One reason to blog about the Great War is that our world today began with the end of the world that preceded it.

A soldier of Kameroun's native police force

A soldier of Kameroun’s native police force