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The Last Germans to Surrender in World War I

News of the war's end didn't necessarily travel fast.

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  • Demobilization after World War I.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

World War I officially ended on November 11, 1918. But in a war that spans continents, there are always people who don't get the memo for a while. One German force fought a guerilla war in German East Africa that successfully tied down thousands of British troops and continued for two weeks after the end of the war.

The small German force of World War I

While Germany served as an industrial powerhouse of World War I, German leaders in remote colonies and outposts often found themselves undergunned and undermanned for the conflict. That was especially true in German East Africa. German army Lt. Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck led a force that started around 2,700 men and grew to 30,000. This small force fought against Allied armies that started around 15,000 and grew to 250,000.

Lettow-Vorbeck had the advantage of heavy artillery, having salvaged guns from a scuttled cruiser. But an effective blockade by the Allies meant that he rarely received significant resupply or reinforcement. And, aside from the cruiser guns, his men carried mostly obsolete and old equipment.

Knowing that he could not hope to win a conquest in Africa, Lettow-Vorbeck decided to tie down Allied forces. He rightly reasoned that war in Europe would be a war of attrition. If he avoided a decisive battle but constantly interrupted British operations, he could tie down multiple divisions.

He led one of the most successful guerilla campaigns in history. The Germans lived off the land in the bush. Working together with local Askari allies, they bled the British and their allies constantly for four years. His first opponent was relieved of command for failing to take a port from Lettow-Vorbeck despite having greater numbers and firepower. Commander after commander and unit after unit failed to dislodge the "Lion of Africa."

But Lettow-Vorbeck and his German troops, often living in the bush with his African allies, got scant word of events in Europe.

Lettow-Vorbeck in Northern Rhodesia

Lettow-Vorbeck and his men evaded their pursuers, in part, by attacking their colonies. When Allied forces got close in German East Africa, he invaded Portuguese East Africa and then Northern Rhodesia, a British colony. These incursions allowed his men to raid enemy towns. The raids provided ammunition, replacement parts, and fresh weapons as well as other supplies.

His invasion of Northern Rhodesia was the only instance in the war of a Central Power taking British territory.

On November 9, 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck attacked and captured the town of Kasama. The Germans seized full supply depots with medicine, arms, ammunition, and goods to trade. Their African allies had a herd of 400 cattle. Lettow-Vorbeck later said, “The men were well armed, equipped and fed, and the strategic situation at the moment was more favorable than it had been for a long time.”

And so he and his men were quite shocked four days later. On November 13, a British commander told them the war was over. Lettow-Vorbeck remained on the defensive for almost two weeks, but marched his men into Abercorn on November 25, 1918.

He was down to 155 Europeans and about 3,300 African soldiers. His medical supplies consisted of bark bandages, and Lettow-Vorbeck wore undersized boots captured during the fighting and modified to fit his feet.

Future German leaders, including a German ambassador, said that this moment was when the war ended.

European leaders, including the general who fought against him and England's Queen Mary, voiced admiration for him and his men. That prestige served him well after the war, since he clashed with Hitler before and during World War II. He reportedly told the Fuhrer to screw himself when Hitler recruited him to be an ambassador.