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African Kaiser

 

General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck and The Great War in Africa, 1914-19181

 
 
   
   
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His only god, in the end, was the God of Battles.2

I. The Forgotten Genius

In African Kaiser, Robert Gaudi vividly details the masterful guerrilla campaign of General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, the only undefeated German commander in World War I.3 Von Lettow commanded the Schutztruppe, a racially integrated unit led by both German officers and African noncommissioned officers (NCOs).4 During four years of constant warfare in unforgiving German East Africa, von Lettow and his troops faced innumerable operational issues. They suffered from heat and disease.5 Surrounded by enemy territories and blockaded by sea,6 they endured chronic food, water, and materiel shortages,7 and they typically lacked modern rifles and artillery.8 Yet von Lettow never lost a battle, countering superior numbers by choosing his fights and seizing the initiative.9 Von Lettow only surrendered command after learning of the armistice.10 He returned home a national hero, honored by parade and monument.11

Although he constantly harried his enemies, he engendered both admiration and love.12 In 1927, the British Expeditionary Force invited von Lettow to its ten-year reunion, at which the Prussian general received a standing ovation.13 In 1945, after Field Marshal Jan Smuts discovered that von Lettow was destitute, he arranged a pension for his old adversary.14

Von Lettow’s leadership qualities remain as relevant as ever, as his East Africa campaign parallels current American conflicts in multiple dimensions. One century ago, his smaller force successfully resisted a more numerous, better-equipped foe. His enemy typically concentrated on defense, presenting static targets which he systematically exploited.15 He even utilized improvised explosive devices, provoking his opponent into a tit-for-tat series of measures and countermeasures.16 Understanding his success may illumine current counterinsurgent strategies.17

Despite his unprecedented accomplishments, von Lettow’s guerilla strategies have largely been obscured by the monumental scope and tragedy of World War I.18 A recent best-selling World War I history never mentions von Lettow,19 who operated on a considerably smaller scale and played only an indirect part in the central drama in Europe. Additionally, many von Lettow sources are in German.20 Despite historical interest in the German East African campaign,21 African Kaiser is the first von Lettow biography in over fifty years.22

Gaudi succeeds brilliantly at introducing von Lettow and his East African campaign to the military reader. Through evocative language and sweeping narrative, African Kaiser is immersive history that reads like fiction. Blending the styles of Robert K. Massie and Erik Larson, Gaudi merges biography (von Lettow) and history of an event (the German East African Campaign). This hybrid approach is not entirely successful, occasionally proving confusing. Regardless, Gaudi paints an indelible portrait of von Lettow, a one-eyed, chain-smoking, tradition-bound Prussian, whom his enemies respected, feared, and, paradoxically, loved. Gaudi’s hero is driven and resourceful, but compassionate and honorable. However, Gaudi eschews source notes, an omission which leads to accuracy and bias concerns. Ultimately, he avoids addressing unsettling questions about the Prussian general, whose legacy has become increasingly controversial. Nevertheless, von Lettow’s leadership lessons alone make African Kaiser a must read.

II. Biography and History

Like Massie and Larson, Gaudi does not limit himself to standard biographical or historical paradigms, nor does he clearly state a purpose, scope, or thesis. Rather, he merges history and biography in creative ways. In his magisterial Dreadnought,23 Massie explains an historical event (the German-British battleship arms race) by introducing a host of characters, whose personalities and conflicts drive events. In Devil in the White City,24 by contrast, Larson juxtaposes the seemingly incongruous history of Chicago’s World Fair with the biography of a notorious serial killer active during the same time and place.

Gaudi’s biography/history hybrid draws from both historical approaches. Like Massie, Gaudi uses personalities as the engine to drive events. Through Gaudi’s lens, the disastrous Tanga landing is explicable by von Lettow’s initiative and Major General Arthur Aitken’s complacency.25 Like Larson, Gaudi eclectically selects characters, events, and places, and even zips back and forth through time. In describing the German East Africa campaign, he creatively fuses von Lettow’s campaign with stolen signals, naval battles, spies, zeppelins, and aviation pioneers. However, Gaudi’s tangents occasionally prove confusing. For example, Gaudi opens by rapidly shifting from Giza to East Africa to a warship off the Estonian coast.26

Despite the eclecticism, African Kaiser is eminently readable and does not require prior historical knowledge. Gaudi has a gift for simplifying the complex. He carefully refrains from overwhelming the reader with foreign terms and clearly describes large-scale events, such as colonial uprisings and campaign military movements.

III. Leadership Lessons

Gaudi highlights specific traits or capacities that made von Lettow a successful military leader. In the crucible of staff officer work, military education, and gritty operational environments, von Lettow forged and refined strategies and innovations. He attended war college, served as a staff officer, deployed to China, and studied tactics and logistics.27 While deployed to Africa, he observed successful guerrilla methods practiced by Boer commandos.28 After studying the Battle of Sedan, he concluded that the French lost due to their rigid military structure and lack of initiative.29

As a corrective, von Lettow stressed self-reliance, in which a leader could act with conviction in the absence of specific direction.30 In selecting leaders, he used meritocratic principles. His leadership cadre included native NCOs, and he respected native fighters.31 He demanded total dedication.32 At the outset of his East Africa campaign, he specifically instructed his subordinates to take the initiative, move quickly, and make surprise attacks.33

Von Lettow cultivated a thorough operational knowledge of his environment. He conducted inspections, studied the land, and traveled extensively.34 He learned Swahili and interrogated natives to learn ways to adapt, which allowed him to live off the land.35 Adaptability was his forte. He constantly maximized his assets through innovation. He instituted native recruiting initiatives, developed a carrier corps, and acquired anti-malarials.36 He recognized that traditional war strategies may not work in specific environments, such as bush fighting.37 In response to supply and personnel shortages, he changed tactics to a guerrilla campaign.38 When faced with a superior force, he sought concealment and used the terrain for defensive advantages.39

As a result of his unique experiences, von Lettow became the indispensable leader—uniquely qualified to persevere against overwhelming odds in an inhospitable environment. As Gaudi writes, von Lettow had adapted his Schutztruppe into a “highly efficient mobile fighting force, aggressive and completely self-supporting.”40

IV. Scholarship

In assessing von Lettow’s leadership traits, a related issue is whether Gaudi has accurately portrayed von Lettow himself. Gaudi’s failure to use footnotes presents serious concerns of accuracy and bias and runs counter to current history and biography norms,41 though the casual reader may not care.42 He relies on both primary and secondary sources in framing his conclusions, but without pinpoint citations, his narrative is hard to fact-check. He erroneously refers to Loyal North Lancs as “white European residents of India,” when in fact they were British troops from a North Lancashire regiment.43 He also misstates that General Aitken was Lord Beaverbrook’s brother,44 though this mistake has been made elsewhere.45

Additionally, two of Gaudi’s key primary sources are Richard Meinertzhagen’s diaries and von Lettow’s memoirs. Modern scholarship has exposed Meinertzhagen as a fraud,46 of which Gaudi is keenly aware.47 Von Lettow’s personal accounts are likewise problematic, as he subtly omits at least some incidents that might harm his reputation. For example, as horses rarely survived, von Lettow relied on a steady supply of porters, brutally impressed natives who died by the thousands.48 To prevent escape, von Lettow roped porters together and ordered that escapees be shot,49 facts entirely omitted in his written recollections.50

Minor errors and problematic sources aside, Gaudi judiciously evaluates available evidence and avoids unsupported conclusions. For example, he delicately considers whether von Lettow had an affair with author Isak Dinesen before concluding that von Lettow intentionally omitted this romance from his memoirs.51 Moreover, his assessment of von Lettow’s achievements and character are largely consonant with extant literature.52

V. The General’s Legacy

In the 21st century, von Lettow’s memoir claims and achievements have come under increasing scrutiny. Gaudi clearly sides with the consensus of traditional scholars who view the Prussian general as an outstanding military leader and innovator.53 But some historians now question whether von Lettow was a true guerrilla warrior,54 or even whether he innovated at all.55 Additionally, recent scholarship indicates that von Lettow’s warfighting tactics had a devastating impact on African civilians.56

Perhaps over relying on von Lettow’s memoirs, Gaudi’s portrait of von Lettow does not fully capture the general’s ruthlessness.57 For example, when retreating in 1917, von Lettow ordered a scorched-earth strategy to deny cattle and food resources to the Allies.58 For natives, the result was starvation.59 African Kaiser’s greatest deficiency is Gaudi’s failure to address fully von Lettow’s ancillary effects. This lacuna is particularly glaring because Gaudi squarely describes the atrocities and hardships from prior colonial actions.60 He briefly mentions that von Lettow practiced the “wolf strategy” by plundering and ravaging villages.61 Gaudi includes ransacked towns but omits specifics regarding community consequences.62 Problematically, he seems fully cognizant of African impact research:

Of course, von Lettow got blamed for many things by many different people after the war. . . . He got blamed for the deaths of askaris and German soldiers and African carriers by historians as yet unborn, and also for the death of any native who died from the flu or starvation when their fields were stripped clean of yams by the invading Schutztruppe. 63

Gaudi’s omission may be attributable to a bias favoring von Lettow, whom he repeatedly terms a genius.64 He compares the Prussian general to Gylippus, a heroic figure from the Peloponnesian War.65 Perhaps too uncritically, Gaudi envisions von Lettow as a compassionate old-school gentleman, while systematically discounting or ignoring contradictory evidence.66 In Gaudi’s defense, while he does not specifically evaluate African village impacts, he does address high porter mortality rates.67 Regrettably, high civilian impacts were commonplace in World War I theaters.68

Criticisms aside, African Kaiser is aimed at the general public, like Larson’s Devil in the White City.69 In introducing von Lettow to a new audience, Gaudi intends to both educate and entertain. He succeeds marvelously at both, weaving a thrilling tale of heroism and high adventure. The military reader will find African Kaiser an accessible and entertaining way to learn leadership from one of history’s great generals. TAL

 


MAJ Shutt is the Chief of Administrative Law for the 7th Army Training Command in Grafenwoehr, Germany.



Notes

1. Robert Gaudi, African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914–1918 (2017).

2. Id. at 31.

3. Id. at 410.

4. Gaudi claims that the Schutztruppe became “the first racially integrated army in modern history.” Id. at 2.

5. See, e.g., id. at 195–96, 227, 230.

6. Id. at 137.

7. See, e.g., id. at 384.

8. Id. at 137.

9. See, e.g., id. at 228, 233.

10. Id. at 405.

11. Id. at 410, 419.

12. Edwin P. Hoyt, Guerilla: Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany’s East African Empire 449 (1981).

13. Gaudi, supra note 1, at 413–14. Von Lettow opposed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in numerous guerilla campaigns. See id.

14. Gen. von Lettow-Vorbeck Dead, N.Y. Times (Mar. 10, 1964), http://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/10/gen-von-lettowvorbeck-dead.html?mcubz=0. Field Marshal Smuts commanded the BEF in East Africa from 1916–17, during World War I. See generally Richard Steyn, Jan Smuts—Unafraid of Greatness (2015).

15. Gaudi, supra note 1, at 240, 393.

16. Id. at 240–44.

17. See generally Dan Lamothe, Meet Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the Pentagon’s New Mission in Afghanistan, Wash. Post (Dec. 29, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/12/29/meet-operation-freedoms-sentinel-the-pentagons-new-mission-in-afghanistan/?utm_term=.33dca8d3987f.

18. See Major Thomas A. Crowson, When Elephants Clash: A Critical Analysis of Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck in the East African Theater of the Great War 97 (Jun. 2003) (unpublished M.A. thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College), http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA417332. See also Lieutenant Colonel John C. Stratis, A Case Study in Leadership–Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (Apr. 9, 2002) (unpublished research project, U.S. Army War College), http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA404449.

19. G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (2007) (ebook).

20. See, e.g., the Lettow-Vorbeck family website, http://www.lettow-vorbeck.de/literat.htm#afrika (last visited Sep. 21, 2017).

21. See, e.g., Hoyt, supra note 12; Ross Anderson, The Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign 19141918 (2014).

22. See Leonard Mosley, Duel For Kilimanjaro: Africa 19141918 (1964).

23. Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991).

24. Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2004).

25. Gaudi, supra note 1, at 172, 181.

26. Id. at 1–3.

27. Id. at 40 (war college), 61–63 (China), 64 (tactics and logistics), 83–90 (staff officer in Africa).

28. Id. at 40–41.

29. Id. at 33.

30. Id.

31. Id. at 2, 24.

32. Id. at 107.

33. Id. at 159.

34. See, e.g., id. at 144.

35. Id. at 101 (interrogations and bushcraft), 107–08 (Swahili), 394–95 (subsistence).

36. Id. at 224–25.

37. Id. at 101.

38. Id. at 235, 239–241.

39. Id. at 312.

40. Gaudi, supra note 1, at 2.

41. See, e.g., Massie, supra note 23 (biography with endnotes); Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) (biography with footnotes); Anthony Read, The Devil’s Disciples: Hitler’s Inner Circle (2003) (biography with footnotes); Roger Nelson, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Horatio Nelson (2005) (biography with footnotes); Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King (1994). For history, see, e.g., J.M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World (1995) (history with endnotes); Meyer, supra note 19 (history with endnotes). But see Bruce Catton, The Civil War (1960) (history without citations).

42. Michael Dirda, ‘African Kaiser’: A Sweeping Military History that Reads Like a Novel, Wash. Post (Mar. 15, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/african-kaiser-a-sweeping-military-history-that-reads-like-a-novel/2017/03/15/e9ec903c-05a0-11e7-b9fa-ed727b644a0b_story.html?utm_term=.94a6f01e8406.

43. Allan Mallinson, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: The Lion of German East Africa, The Spectator (Aug. 12, 2017), https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/08/general-paul-von-lettow-vorbeck-the-lion-of-german-east-africa/.

44. Id.

45. See, e.g., Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud 82 (2007) (arguing that General Aitken’s advancement was due to his brother, Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook).

46. See generally id. at 48.

47. See Gaudi, supra note 1, at 178–80.

48. William J. Astore, East Africa, in 8 History in Dispute: World War I, First Series 89 (D. Showalter ed. 2002).

49. See Dan Whitaker, The Uncatchable Lizard, History Today, Feb. 2013, at 31.

50. See Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, My Reminiscences of East Africa (1920), https://archive.org/stream/myreminiscenceso00lettuoft#page/n0/mode/2up.

51. See Gaudi, supra note 1, at 128, 130–31; Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa (1938). Gaudi puts a favorable spin on von Lettow’s reticence, noting that, as a gentleman, he was reluctant to discuss romantic matters. See Gaudi, supra note 1, at 37 (discussing the omission of other romantic relationships from his memoirs).

52. See Crowson, supra note 18; Hoyt, supra note 12; Mosley, supra note 22; Stratis, supra note 18. For revisionist interpretations, see infra notes 54–56.

53. See, e.g., Hoyt, supra note 12.

54. See Whitaker, supra note 49, at 31 (arguing that von Lettow engaged more in perpetual retreat than actual Guerrilla warfare).

55. See 1 Hew Strachen, The First World War: To Arms 569–70 (2003). See also Stuart Mitchell, Smuts, Lettow, and the War in German East Africa, in The Greater War: Other Combatants and Other Fronts, 1914–1918, at 101 (J. Krause ed. 2014). See generally F. Jon Nesselhuf, General Paul von Lettow-Verbeck’s East Africa Campaign: Maneuver Warfare on the Serengeti 8-11 (May 2012) (unpublished M.A. thesis), https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc115128/m2/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf (arguing that recent historical scholarship has shifted to an increasingly negative view of von Lettow’s campaign).

56. See Edward Paice, Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa (2007).

57. See Whitaker, supra note 49, at 31.

58. Id.

59. Id.

60. See Gaudi, supra note 1, at 118.

61. Id. at 27–28, 400.

62. See id. at 303–04.

63. Id. at 421. In his bibliography, Gaudi cites Tip and Run. Gaudi, supra note 1, at 424. Moreover, Gaudi details an Askari memorial warning label asserting that the German East Africa campaign claimed “about half a million people, most of them African civilians, killed directly and indirectly by acts of war.” Id. at 420.

64. Id. at 125, 304, 408.

65. Id. at 25.

66. For example, Gaudi dismisses as implausible an allegation that von Lettow handed a pistol to a disgraced subordinate and implied that the subordinate should kill himself. Id. at 303.

67. Id. at 18, 132.

68. See, e.g., Meyer, supra note 19, at 290, 305, 411–12, 514, 583, 609.

69. See Larson, supra note 24.