30 August 1914 – African Germans

Surprisingly, the first time that British troops encounter deeply-dug German entrenchments, they are not on the Western Front. They are white officers leading six hundred Nigerian enlistees under Colonel MacLear, and a century ago today they have just launched a disastrous attack on the German colony of Kamerun.

Along with the Togoland colony, which surrendered four days ago, Kamerun is known as German West Africa. The allies are determined to take all the Kaiser’s colonies as prizes of war, casting aside an international treaty that was supposed to leave the African territories neutral in the event of a European conflict. The Germans are determined to defend their possessions; German nationalists have seen colonization as an imperative ever since the Second Reich was declared in 1871, and Kamerun is as large as Germany and France put together. It will prove much harder to conquer than tiny Togoland.

Late yesterday, the British troops arrived at Garua and dug in before the five German forts with their interlocking fields of fire. The defenses are larger than they realized, and the defenders more numerous. In the night, the British attacked by charging over 1,300 feet of open ground, eventually taking just one fortress at great cost. When the German defenders counterattack this morning, the Nigerian soldiers buckle and break, running away and leaving their white officers behind to die.

A trench fortress in Garua. German field fortifications were meticulous no matter where they found themselves on the defensive

The German defenses at Garua were as meticulously planned as any on the Western Front

With the enemy routed, the white German officers lead their native troops in pursuit nearly all the way to Nigeria. Meanwhile, French troops attack from Chad and French Congo with no greater success. Kamerun will not fall until February 1916, after the allies bring much larger numbers, more heavy weapons, and learn to do a better job of reconnaissance; their maps are nonexistent. It is extremely difficult to operate in a country with few roads unless you have a good map, and impossible to range artillery over the horizon with a bad one.

Logistics prove very difficult in these fever-ridden forests. African troops suffer from low morale, for they are serving a distant monarch in unfriendly territory, and the defenders offer stiff resistance in virtually every encounter. The fighting ends only when the last German troops escape to internment in Spanish Guinea, outnumbered and outgunned.

1st Battalion of the Nigerian Regiment in review some time before departing for Kaduna in 1914

NCOs of the 1st Battalion of the Nigerian Regiment in review before departing Kaduna for Kamerun in 1914

Just like the rest of the European powers, Germany has been colonized as much as she has been a colonizer. Several photographs exist of African-born soldiers serving the Kaiser in Europe during the war. And we know of veterans who remained in Germany until a Third Reich disavowed the nation’s debt to them, saying: ‘We no longer have colonies.’ Such are the ironies of history.

A Kameroun-born soldier in the 25th Landwehr Regiment some time between 1916-1918

An African-born soldier in the 25th Landwehr Regiment is posed at his NCO’s immediate right, indicating that he is trusted highly. This photograph was taken between 1916 and 1918

After being conquered, Kamerun will see some of its northern lands added to the British colony of Nigeria; following decades of French administration, the rest of the colony becomes the independent nation of Cameroun in 1960. After one more spelling change, she becomes the modern nation of Cameroon.

A map of the Kamerun campaign published by the New York Times in 1915

A map of the Kamerun campaign published by the New York Times in 1915