Book Review: “World War I: The African Front” by Edward Paice

Wars, for much of history, have been filled with drama. The epic clash of huge armies, with the fates of nations at stake. At the personal level, there are tales of heroism and endurance. Most often, our attention is focused on a main front – that’s where all the big battles are. Yes, battles between many thousands of men can be interesting, but so can the battles on the fringes and flanks where the numbers are only in the hundreds.

Subtitled “An Imperial War on the African Continent”, Paice’s book looks at World War I in East Africa. The fighting there was basically the last mad grab for colonies, as Britain went after German East Africa (modern Tanzania). Belgium (Belgian Congo, now DR Congo) and Portugal (Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique) were also dragged into the fighting.

There’s no reason the campaigns there cannot be made exciting. Appalling conditions and minimal supplies led one hardened veteran of both the East African campaign and the trenches in France say that he preferred the latter. But for whatever reason, Paice drops the ball.

He seems more interested in listing what units were where when than describing the actual situation on the ground. If he does go into any detail on a battle, it’s usually to say how much supplies and machine guns were captured.

The most egregious example is probably in his retelling of what was called “The Battle for Lake Tangyanika”. The lake, one of the world’s largest at some 400 miles long, marks the western edge of German East Africa. A lake steamer, the Goetzen, had been converted into a gunship by the Germans, giving them control of the lake. To challenge it, Britain came up with the idea of building two small gunboats, then schlepping them to the lake by rail and river – and by dragging them via tractor across the hundred and twenty mile portage in the middle. Epic stuff, which deserves a book of its own! But how much does Paice devote to the “Lake Tangyanika Expedition”?

Two pages.

There’s plenty of drama worth writing about in the theater. The hunt for the SMS Königsberg in the Rufiji river delta, the Xenophon-like wanderings of the German army under General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, heck, even the photographs are more interesting (a Belgian bicycle company?) than the text!

I gather that Paice’s intent is more to show the war as the last gasp of Imperial/Colonial Europe. Fair enough. But he can’t even manage to make the political intrigue interesting.

There has got to be a good book about World War I in Africa. This one isn’t it.

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