Zambia’s connection to World War I


MAYBE the first question to ask is: how did Zambia get involved in the First World War?
The World War I internationally brings to mind white faces with mud and blood and the battle of the Somme immediately comes to mind for a few who have watched movies about the First World War.
Some people will recall the name of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and very few will recall the East Africa Campaign.
What none will remember is that Zambia also participated in the First World War. The only reminders on Zambia’s participation are the Kitwe War memorial, which urges us to “remember all those who died in the two world wars”; and the cenotaph in Mbala (Abercorn), which stands as a reminder that the armistice was signed there. It was on Zambia’s northern border, not Europe, that the First World War was fought for the longest period.
It was in Mbala where the war eventually ended on November 25, 1918, two weeks after hostilities had ceased in Europe.
For those unfamiliar with World War I at all, let me give you a brief background. On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria and Hungary in Eastern Europe were once one country), Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were gunned down in the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina a province of Serbia. Today, Sarajevo is the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
As a result, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, automatically drawing big brother Russia into the war on the side of Serbia. Within a month, one European country after another became involved on the side of either the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) or the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia).
The totality of the war forced European countries to look to their colonies for financial and material assistance. With each defeat in Europe, the belligerents sought new war fronts on which to achieve victory. Thus, Africa became a battlefield as European countries struck at one another’s colonial possessions. Hence when the First World War broke out, Zambia, as a British colony, was forced to fight on the side of Britain.
The first shots of the First World War in Africa were fired in Togo on August 7, 1914, three days after Britain declared war against Germany. The war came to East Africa on August 8, 1914 when the British ships, Asteria and Pegasus, attacked German-controlled Dar-es-Salaam.
This was known as the East Africa Campaign. The German side was led by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and it is this man who has hijacked the spotlight of the First World War in Africa. His force comprised 3, 000 Europeans and 11, 000 African askaris. Askari is the Swahili word for soldier and perhaps is the corrupted Zambian version of abashilika.
The British Southern force was made up of settlers and Africans from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Malawi. This force was led by four generals between 1914 and 1918, Edward Northey, Jan Smuts, Reginald Hoskins and Jacob van Deventer.
As the most northerly British outpost in Zambia, Mbala became the focus of the war between Britain and Germany. Twenty-five kilometres from the Tanzanian border and 22 kilometres from Lake Tanganyika, Mbala was an important entry point to Zambia and was heavily protected, making it a front-line. In pre-colonial times, the area was under Chief Zombe but when the British South Africa Company (BSAC) formally took over in 1893, it was renamed Abercorn, after the chairman of the company at the time. Other important areas in the north were Isoka (Fife) and Kasama.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck invaded Zambia in 1915 but was repelled and forced to retreat and proceed to Mozambique (Portuguese East Africa). He returned through north-eastern Zambia on October 31, 1918 with the view of finding large British ammunition depots. He knew from captured British intelligence that the stores lay somewhere in Zambia. When his force reached Isoka, they encountered the British force and several shots were fired. Von Lettow-Vorbeck dispatched two patrols to proceed to Kasama and the whole German force followed on the first, leaving the Isoka depots in flames. As the German force approached Mwenzo mission, all the nuns and converts fled and the Germans consequently found it deserted.
At Mwenzo, intelligence gathered indicated a busy Kabwe-Kasama route and a depot near the Chambeshi River which supplied British troops. Von Lettow-Vorbeck decided then to capture Kasama. His troops devastated the population around the Isoka-Kayambi-Kasama road, capturing depots and taking prisoners. On November 6, they reached Kayambi mission. Upon learning of the German advance, the District Commissioner at Kasama, Hector Croad, sent all the women and children to Mpika for safety. He went one step further and instructed an overzealous officer to burn down the military supplies at Luwingu. But the officer also burnt the offices, destroying all the records for Luwingu district prior to 1918. One patrol of the German army under Spangenberg arrived in Kasama on 8th November and, after several exchanges of fire, took it on 9th November- reaching as far as Mwase mission. When Von Lettow-Vorbeck arrived in Kasama, he left a detachment under Koehl and took the rest of his men south towards the Chambeshi River. Spangenberg, who had gone ahead, began an attack on the rubber factory near the Chambeshi on 13th November.
It was as von Lettow-Vorbeck was following Spangenberg that Mueller appeared with a telegram detailing the surrender of Germany.
The telegram read: “Send following to Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck under white flag. The Prime minister of England has announced that an armistice was signed at 5 hours on Nov. 11th. And that hostilities on all fronts cease at 11 hours on Nov. 11th. I am ordering my troops to cease hostilities forthwith unless attacked and of course I conclude that you will do the same. Conditions of the armistice will be forwarded to you immediately I receive them. Meanwhile I suggest that you should remain in your present vicinity in order to facilitate communication.-General van Deventer. As message is also being sent to Livingstone, it is important Karwunfor receives this same time as enemy; every effort must be made to get message to him to-day.”
With the glorious image of capturing the heart of the British territory slipping before his eyes, a shocked von Lettow-Vorbeck agreed to cease fire. He quickly sent word to Spangenberg to return.
Soon, another telegram arrived from General van Deventer which “demanded the immediate surrender of all our English prisoners of war, and that we should march to Abercorn”. Consequently, von Lettow-Vorbeck went by car to Mbala while his force arrived on November 25. Germany formally surrendered to General Edwards of the First Battalion of the Fourth King’s African Rifles in Mbala. With the English flag waving gently in the cool breeze, von Lettow-Vorbeck handed over one Portuguese gun, 37 machine guns, 1, 071 English and Portuguese rifles, 208, 000 rounds and 40 rounds of artillery ammunition. A monument was erected on this spot.

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