04 February 1916 – African Retreat
Marching in good order along jungle paths, today the first elements of the retreating Kamerun schutztruppe reach the border of Rio Muni, better known as Spanish Guinea, a colony now known as Equatorial Guinea. Over the next forty-eight hours, an estimated 14,000 Africans, including 6,000 native troops, will cross into the small coastal enclave to be interned in neutral territory for the duration of the war. They accompany less than a thousand white Germans.
It is the somewhat-anticlimactic culmination of a campaign which began just weeks after the Great War itself. Having finally brought superior numbers and weight of fire to bear, French and British forces marched into the abandoned German stronghold at Yaounde on the first day of the New Year. Governor Karl Ebermaier and Major Karl Zimmerman, the colony’s military leader, were unable to sustain a siege against enemies who were able to use their own railway against them, and chose instead to withdraw where pursuers could not follow. The last remaining white civilians in the southern portion of the Kamerun colony have trickled into Rio Muni for weeks; now the bulk of Germany’s remaining strength, mainly thousands of native troops armed mostly with rifles, follow them into a gentle captivity. In the north, where the longest siege of the war has taken place around Mount Mora, the German garrison capitulates on February 18th, ending the war in Kamerun at last.
News of the column’s arrival in Rio Muni reaches Madrid by wire, where it is forwarded to Berlin and the world’s newspapers. Leave it to the German papers to spin this moment into a victory, of course. As reported in the New York Times, the Frankfurter Zeitung describes the flight from Yaounde as one of “the most notable achievements” of the war in Africa: “That the enemy was unable seriously to interfere with the retreat allows us to draw agreeable conclusions as to the unbroken fighting spirit of the Germans” — fine words that fail to recognize the native tribes that have done the great majority of fighting, killing, and dying in Kamerun as a people separate from the colonists. Such sentiments will not last, unfortunately. The few Africans who choose to live in Germany after the war will later find themselves disowned by the Third Reich.
The majority of the Africans accompanying the Germans are from the Beti tribe living in the area around Yaounde. These include oberhäuptling (‘paramount chief’) Karl Atangana, more than seventy subordinate chiefs, and every significant rival they could persuade to accompany them rather than stay behind and possibly usurp their authority. Importantly, this cadre does not expect to be gone from their homeland for very long. Rather, Atangana and his colleagues believe a negotiated end to the war will return the colony to the Germans, so they have left loyal relatives behind to hold their places for an expedient return. Historian Frederick Quinn records one Beti with knowledge of the period saying that “[T]he First World War made a bad impression on the Beti. They spoke with horror of the White man’s war. They had never seen anything like it. Their own wars involved only a few people over a short period of time and were consequently less destructive.”
Unable to effectively govern the country, the French colonial authority is weak, and Kamerun slides into chaos. The eastern region, which Germans had divided into three districts run by fifty people, is unified into one district under just five or six Europeans. Former soldiers, self-appointed policemen, and police — basically, those able to procure some sort of uniform — seize whatever authority they can. Real power belongs to the strong, so looting, kidnapping, and raiding are general while law and order are nonexistent. As if reverting to some ancient default setting, a mystic ‘Leopard Society’ fills the vacuum of power with ceremonial sorcery and costumed vigilantism.
But the French still do not trust Atangana, who has spent most of the remaining war in Spain studying European ways with his cadre of chiefs. Judging him a tool of the Germans, they keep him at arm’s length throughout the postwar peace process until the end of 1921, when their hand-picked Chef supérieur Joseph Atemengue has proven incapable of collecting the expected amount of tax revenue. His attempt to govern the country through a western-style cabinet fails by 1925, but his return to power marks the end of the troubled days of disorder and the beginning of modern Cameroon.