The other end of the First World War. ‘Tipperary mbali sana, sana’

Imagine a human chain of sixteen and a half thousand people, mostly barefoot and carrying heavy burdens – sixty pounds, twenty seven kilos – on their heads. Some pulling carts.

Walking up to fifteen miles a day under the searing glare of the tropical sun, or in the sweltering heat of the rainy seasons. Feet grabbed by black, grasping cotton mud or floundering in soft, hindering sand.

Clambering rocky escarpments, pushing through jungles, wading rivers. Transporting essential supplies to a thousand other people, hundreds of miles away.

Those 16,500 humans were what it took to transport just one day’s supply of food to the British front line in ‘East Africa’ in 1916.

Fourteen thousand of those men and women – carriers, porters or ‘tenga tenga’ – carried food for the column itself. Only two and half thousand bore supplies for the troops.

Many of these people died, serving a cause which was not theirs. Sometimes willingly, for decent pay, sometime the reverse. Falling as much to disease as injury, like the troops they supplied.

They were not the only ones. This was just one chain in a very long series of chains on the British side. The Germans depended on 350,000 human carriers.*

And yet these people are largely un-commemorated. As, indeed, is the whole ‘East African’ action of World War I.

I put ‘East Africa’ in inverted commas because my first brush with its legacy came in South Central Africa – Zambia to be precise. There I saw a small – and not very visible – memorial on a roundabout in a small – and not very visited – town.

But this week, on 25 November 2018, that town will be busy. Possibly busier than it has ever been since the end of World War I.

Because many dignitaries, including British High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane Dyet and General Lord David Richards, of Sierra Leone fame, will converge on that small town, Mbala.

The Great North Road, Zambia’s main route north to Tanzania, runs through Mbala and yet the tarmac peters out as it approaches the border (or did when I was last there, en route to Kalambo Falls).

It is a long, long way from any city, never mind Ireland, and to this day the logistics of visiting are far from easy (especially if you travel from South Luangwa up the escarpment as we did in 2006).

In 1914 Tanzania was German East Africa and Zambia was Northern Rhodesia – and there lies the crux of it. German one side of the border, British the other.

It was Mbala, then called Abercorn, that saw the final surrender, the other end and other ending – of the First World War.

Taken from a website devoted to 1950s & 1960s Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, posted by Amanda Parkyn this view of Abercorn shows the main road stretching up from the left crossing the watercourse fringed by mbala palms – which provided the new name-  & the Tanzanian hills in the distance.

It had widely been assumed that the colonies in East and Southern Africa would not join hostilities, but Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (a friend, by-the-by, of Karen Blixen) had other ideas.

German attacks on Abercorn and Fife in Northern Rhodesia and Karonga in Nyasaland (Malawi) made sitting out the war impossible.

Germany at war had visions of extending its colonial rule over Portuguese- and Belgian-claimed territories, to make a vast ‘Mittelafrika.

Map of colonial southern Africa in 1905, from Encyclopedia Britannica online

In German East Africa, von Lettow-Vorbeck, Commander of the Schutztruppe (the Germany colonial army, Kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika) already had a force of trained, disciplined troops, askaris, at his disposal.

He also had a network of telegraph and heliograph (signalling with mirrors using sunlight) stations, which enabled him to coordinate his forces and move them around swiftly and effectively.

Northern Rhodesia had no such infrastructure.

It began badly for Britain.  But she had an Empire to draw on – and allies.

The British South Africa Company, BSAC, which administered Northern Rhodesia, was not allowed to raise an army, though it had a police force trained on military lines – with its headquarters in Livingstone, over 700 miles (more than 1000 kilometres) away.

Abercorn was the northernmost town of BSAC-administered territory, a massive expanse of land stretching from South Africa to Tanzania, bordered by Portuguese, German and Belgian colonial territories.

One of the reasons such a vast expanse of territory was handed over to a company to run was to delegate responsibility (and avoid the cost) for developing a transport infrastructure.

For commerce to prosper, for ‘government’ to be imposed and order maintained, railways and roads were a prerequisite.

But commercial priorities proved a weakness in time of war. The railways had gone no further than commerce necessitated. No commercial justification, no railway.

Abercorn was more than 600 miles (1000 kilometres) from the nearest usable railway line (at Broken Hill, now Kabwe, famous for the discovery of ‘Broken Hill’ man).

There were no roads suitable for an army’s mechanical vehicles, whether steam or petrol powered – and no supplies of fuel.

In August 1914, the War Office in London delegated this ‘other end’ of the war, in East Africa, to the India Office, who sent in Indian Expeditionary Force B.

They were joined by the King’s African Rifles, comprising soldiers from across British territories in East Africa, including modern-day Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. Other British colonial forces came from the nations that are now South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Zimbabwe. Troops even came from the West Indies. And of course, Britain itself.

Belgian and Portuguese allies then joined the fray, from the Congo and Mozambique.

The Germans, though a much smaller force, had their highly skilled, disciplined army of askaris, well trained in bush warfare and skilled at guerrilla tactics. Their aim was to keep the enemy on the run and constantly draw in more troops in to hinder the British war effort on the Western Front.

It was a gruelling war.

The territory covered was huge, 750,000 square miles, an area three times the size of the German Reich.  There were some pitched battles, but most of the action was by isolated columns of men, moving at times through elephant grass so tall that, while they could not be seen, they themselves could not see.

It was very different from the trench warfare of the Western Front.

Conditions were atrocious.

Lorry driver W.W. Campbell wrote of conditions in German East Africa:

‘Distressed and depressed beyond measure, we felt that death and ugliness lurked everywhere. It was in the air we breathed, the water we drank, the sun that warmed our bodies; it crawled on the ground, dropped heavily from rain-sodden trees, hung suspended in the humid, reeking atmosphere. Every living thing went in fear of its life, or turned upon another in self-preservation. Human life itself was an embodiment of ignorance and suspicion. It permeated our very souls, turned bright thoughts into dark, and made one long for the fate that he feared.’

[from ‘Forged in the Great War‘ by J-B Gewald, originally cited in Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa: 1914-1918 p 274]

As well as the human enemy, there was the natural world to contend with, the lions, snakes, elephants, hippos, tsetse flies, mosquitoes.

Disease was rife: not just the debilitating and often fatal malaria, but sleeping sickness, meningitis, smallpox, dysentery, pneumonia – and as the war drew to an end, that devastating Western import, Spanish influenza.

The tsetse flies meant death to pack animals, hence the need for so many humans to take their place.

And their absence took its toll on the civilian population. They were not at home, raising crops tending to animals. The disruption to life across the vast territories affected was immense.

It was as if a vast plague of locusts and disease moved around, ravaging the whole region for the four years of the war. And when the fighting stopped, the angel of death flew in, spreading deadly influenza.

The abandoned fields, the ruined crops, the starving men, women and children. It hardly bears thinking about.

So far from Sarajevo.

So far from Tipperary.

Yes, Tipperary mbali sana, sana – Tipperary, very, very far – was apparently a marching song of the King’s African Rifles. Fighting for a cause they probably could not comprehend (did anyone?) in a war which was not of their making.

And I somehow doubt that any of the native soldiers’ hearts lay in Ireland.

A Zambian woman once exclaimed, when I said I’d been to Mbala, ‘Ah! How can that be? I am Zambian, it is very far away.’


There is so much more to say about this smaller ‘great’ war, about its human costs, about its political implications, about its significance, about its causes, but I’ve already well overrun my usual allotted space.

And so, to that other ending, of that other end of that terrible, ‘Great’ War.

As the last battle ended at Chambeshi Bridge, on 14 November 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck received the news that the Armistice had been signed in Europe. And the news he could hardly believe – Germany had been defeated.

Memorial at the site of Chambeshi Bridge. It reads: “On this spot at 7.30 am on Thursday 14th November 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck, commanding the German forces in East Africa, heard from Mr Hector Croad, then District Commissioner Kasama, of the signing of the Armistice by the German government, which provided for the unconditional evacuation of all German forces from East Africa”. A second plaque in Bemba ends with the words: “Twapela umuchinshi kuli bonse abashipa abalwile mu nkondo iyi” – we honour all brave soldiers in this war.
Image By Carrol Fleming – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

On 25 November General von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered to Britain’s General W.F.S. Edwards, at Mbala.

The surrender to the British by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck at Abercorn, now Mbala, Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, as seen by an anonymous African artist. Picture held by the National Museum of Tanzania

My thoughts on 25 November will be with the vast numbers of porters who lie buried, forgotten, their graves unmarked.

At least, in 2018, a few more people, thanks to a few tenacious historians, will remember them – and hope that they might rest in peace.

Zambia Tourism Facebook page’s image of the memorial on a roundabout in present day Mbala

The plaque on Mbala’s memorial

*Statistics taken from Edward Paice’s very readable online article,  ‘How the Great War Razed Africa,’ published by the Africa Research Institute, which contains maps, illustrations, a very good bibliography and more detail than I could include here.

It is impossible to condense such a vast undertaking in such a short post and I am sure I have made mistakes. I can only apologise. Here are some better informed sources which I consulted, along with the above:

An excellent, readable, thought-provoking analysis of how the war was managed and what the war meant for government of the future British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia:

Forged in the Great War: People, Transport, and Labour, the establishment of Colonial Rule in Zambia 1890-1920 by Jan-Bart Gewald

A good, personal, short introduction:

A Bloody Tale Best Ignored, by Richard Sneyd, for The Centre for Hidden Histories:

A very detailed but concise account of the early stages of the war in East Africa with pictures and sources:

The Soldier’s Burden

This book cropped up again and again (and was well reviewed by novelist William Boyd whose book The Ice Cream Wars was set in the context of this conflict):

Tip and Run: the Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, by Edward Paice


This entry was posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both, Zambia and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The other end of the First World War. ‘Tipperary mbali sana, sana’

  1. Larry Barham says:

    I learned a lot, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. MELewis says:

    What an ambitious undertaking to try and tell so much history in a blog post. You certainly opened my eyes to this lesser known chapter of history. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ellen Hawley says:

    This is a side of WWI that I knew nothing about. Thanks for writing about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christa says:

    It is shameful that we (or should I say I?) know so little about this ‘other’ WWI. Thank you for an enlightening and well-researched blog. Is Africa ever mentioned at Armistice Day events here I wonder? Or on 25th November in this country?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know, and no, it’s not just you. Even Larry and I who’ve spent so much time in Zambia, other southern African countries knew nothing about this other than seeing the rather pathetic war memorials. Apparently the input of African troops is now mentioned but not the actual ‘war’. Shameful indeed.


  5. A brilliant piece. Very informative of a little known part of WW1 history.

    Liked by 1 person

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