paul von lettow vorbeck

October 18, 1917 - Battle of Mahiwa

Pictured - Allied troops and porters wade through marshland in pursuit of the elusive Von Lettow-Vorbeck. Malaria and other diseases took a far harsher toll than combat in the East African theatre - up to 7,000 Allied soldiers and 90,000 African porters died from disease or starvation during the campaign.

The largest battle of the African war took place on October 18, 1917, southwest of Nyangao in what is now Tanzania and then German East Africa. Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had been fighting and eluding far superior Entente forces in Africa since the war began in 1914. He had defeated them multiple times, most notably at Tanga, and escaped every trap set for him. But in fall 1917 the British thought they finally had him.

General Gordon Beves and his Anglo-Nigerian Linforce Brigade (based in Lindi) had surrounded Lettow-Vorbeck’s 3,000 men at Nyangao. As Beves set in attacking columns, Lettow-Vorbeck chose to dig in on a ridge-line at a place called Mahiwa and try to save as much of his command as possible.

The battle pitted 5,000 Nigerian troops against the 3,000 Germans in a mini-version of Europe’s trench warfare. The Allied soldiers made repeated frontal attacks against the outnumbered Germans, taking heavy losses but eventually storming their positions. Lettow-Vorbeck counter-attacked with 1,500 men and two field guns, including one of those he had salvaged from the sunken light cruiser Königsberg all the way back in 1915. By the end of the battle the German soldiers, most of them colonial volunteers and Tanzanian askaris, had shot all of their limited modern cartridges and were reduced to using black powder bullets made for the old 1871 single-shot Mauser rifle. Nevertheless the Germans won the day, retaking their positions and forcing the British to retreat.

Some 2,348 British and Nigerian soldiers were killed or wounded compared to 519 German casualties and 918 taken prisoner. Although Lettow-Vorbeck had won his largest battle, it was a Pyrrhic one. He could not afford the losses the British could, and had to abandon the field, as well as his Königsberg gun, painstakingly hauled around Africa for two-years. With his remaining troops Lettow-Vorbeck retreated southward, again escaping his pursuers, to continue on his lonely, quixotic war.

General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (20 March 1870 – 9 March 1964).

Starting in 1914, he led a relentless guerrilla campaign in German East Africa that is considered  one of the most effective in military history.

With a force that never exceeded 14.000 men (many of whom were non-front line units and local porters), he managed to keep in check a force of over 300.000 British soldiers.

In November 1918, still oblivious to the Armistice that had been signed 2 days before, he captured the town of Kasama and kept advancing towards Katanga, to the south-west of his position. On the way he met a local British magistrate, who informed him of the Armistice. He then decided to surrender.

He had virtually never been defeated on the field since the beginning of the war.


Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (20 March 1870 – 9 March 1964) was a general in the Imperial German Army and the commander of its forces in the German East Africa campaign. His exploits in the campaign have come down “as the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful. In 1900, Lettow-Vorbeck was posted to China as a member of the international alliance forces to quell the Boxer Rebellion. He won the Pour le Mérite with oak leaves.