Thursday, November 3, 2016

The 102nd Anniversary of the "Battle of the Bees"

On 3 November 1914, British Indian troops invaded German East Africa. The Africans won—with the help of bees, which is why the Battle of Tanga is sometimes known as the Battle of the Bees. Disturbed by the human combatants, angry bees attacked both sides, interrupting the battle. By the fifth of November, however, the battle had been won, but not solely by the bees. After the bee attack abated, the human battle had resumed, but the Indians were demoralized. Their British commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur E. Aitken, had assumed that his Indian troops could roll over any opposition from Africans. He was wrong. The African Askari troops were well-trained and led by a German army officer, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. This tough army was made up of soldiers from different tribes but especially the Dinka of the Sudan, and the Hehe and Ngoni of Tanzania (though the Ngoni tribe is actually spread over various territories in southern African). 

Aitken was demoted to colonel subsequent to the Battle of Tanga, although, eventually, he was rehabilitated and made an honorary brigadier general. Lettow-Vorbeck, on the other hand, became a general on his merits. He spent the entirety of World War I in Africa, fighting an undefeated guerrilla campaign against the British, Belgians and, later, the Portuguese, despite being out-numbered, out-gunned and out-supplied. His guerrilla force did not surrender until after Germany had surrendered in Europe.

We know that World War II was truly a global event because its major and minor battles took place in Europe, Africa and Asia, but we tend to think of World War I as a primarily European catastrophe, even though it was global, too. It was fought in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but it is also true, for example, that Japan was a participant in World War I (allied with Britain in this war but with Germany in World War II). Japan captured islands from the Germans in the Pacific and even sent a few ships to the Mediterranean Sea. World War I even saw sea battles fought off the coast of Latin America. The war affected Africa, too, just as World War II would, more than two decades later.

In war, famine and disease often kill far more soldiers and civilians than bombs and guns do. Both sides in Africa during World War I left behind them swaths of ruined crops and starving people, rendering everyone on all sides vulnerable when the Spanish Flu arrived in 1918 and decimated the region’s population. Tragically, many of the Askaris who had survived the war itself died from the flu while in British custody following their surrender.

Lettow-Vorbeck went back to Germany where he later tried to forge a political coalition against the Nazis before they came to power. When Adolf Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to England in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck is said to have turned it down with a stream of obscenities. Although he did not serve in World War II (He was 69 in 1939), both of his sons were killed in action. He was impoverished following the war but managed to survive until 1964. In that year, the West German government awarded long-overdue back pay to 350 Askari veterans who had served under Lettow-Vorbeck.

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