Interesting facts about the German Colonies


After the war, the Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of all her colonies and overseas possessions. They were divided amongst the victors and their brief periods as German colonies largely forgotten or relegated to a footnote in general histories of the Great War. 

We should never forget the many victims of often brutal European colonialism and its wars but neither should we forget the many interesting precedents and aspects of their legacies that lived on long after the end of the war.


Chinese Beer and Japanese Sausages
One legacy of Germany's colonial past that is still with us today is the Chinese beer Tsingtao served in Chinese restaurants the World over. The brewery was set up by the Germans in their time there and still brews it's fine beer to the original German recipe today. The German prisoners of war from the colony who sat out the war in camps in Japan and are also credited with having introduced sausages to the Japanese culture.
Recommended External Link - Tsingtao Beer

The Cameroon Hussar and other Africans in the German Army
Not only did Germans serve alongside Africans in East Africa in mixed-race units, but some Africans also served in the regular Imperial Army in Germany. One was Cameroonian Vize-Wachtmeister Elo Sambo who served as the kettle drummer in the band of the Leib Garde Hussar Regiment, was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd class and later served in the 4th Cavalry Regt of the Reichswehr. Another was Gefrieter Josef Mambow who was a kettle drummer in the in the Grenadier-zu-Pferd 3rd Dragoon Regt. At least one former East African askari also served in the post-war Freikorps Lettow-Vorbeck as the General's personal driver during Germany's bitter revolutionary battles.
Recommended External Link - Discussion on Africans in the Imperial German Army and Navy at the Axis History Forum

Pilot's Escape from Tsingtao
Lt. Gunther Plüschow, known locally as "the Dragon Pilot" due to a tattoo of a dragon on his left arm, was the only German airman on active duty based in Tsingtao in 1914. During the siege he ran spotting missions in a Rumpler Taube over the Japanese and British fleets and was unofficially credited with the first aerial "kill" of the war. When the garrison surrendered and went into captivity he escaped and made his way back to Germany via China, Japan, America and Gibraltar where he was briefly captured by the British and taken to England, only to escape once more and make his way back to Germany via Holland. On his return he was ironically arrested as a spy at first, but was eventually recognised and awarded the Iron Cross First Class. He was the only German prisoner to escape from a British mainland POW camp during either World War. He later wrote several books including one on his experiences in China and his journey back to Germany called "Escape from England" (see Book Reviews page).

Bees at the Battle of Tanga
The hillsides around Tanga in German East Africa were notorious for their wild bees. During the battle for the port in 1914 the bees, no doubt stirred by the gunfire and noise swarmed, causing both sides to abandon part of the battlefield. The British later claimed that the Germans had deliberately set the bees against them.

British Press Coverage of the Battle of Tanga
Because of fears for public moral at home the British defeat at the Battle of Tanga was kept quiet. Indeed many British newspapers such as the Times didn't report the battle and the Official Times History of the War doesn't mention it at all.

Near Re-capture of Samoa
The Entente forces captured Samoa by anchoring warships off Apia and threatening to bombard the town (against the rules laid down in the Hague Convention), then sending in a New Zealand landing party to raise the flag. Two weeks after the surrender and the departure of the French and British warships, the German Admiral von Spee arrived off Apia with the SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau on the 14th September 1914. The New Zealanders prepared for action, but not wishing to waste ammunition von Spee sailed off again after 4 hours in search of more lucrative targets.

Reformed Fita Fita
Although the German surrender in Samoa meant the disbandment of the Fita Fita ceremonial guard, they were reformed by the Americans during the inter-war period and served on the allied side in the Second World War.

Petrol Substitute
The Entente blockade of German East African during the First World War prompted the Germans to find local substitutes and improvisations for many different daily needs such as candles, soap, quinine, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, military uniforms and boots, bandages and vehicle tyres. Perhaps the most amazing of these local inventions was a petroleum substitute made from copra, named Trebol. It was invented by a planter named Sch
önheit but his small factory at Morogoro fell into enemy hands before mass production could begin

German Aircraft in Cameroon
Two aeroplanes had been shipped to Cameroon for use by the Schutztruppe in early 1914. However their pilots were still in Germany when the war broke out and so the planes never flew. One of the pilots allocated to Cameroon was Hauptmann Eugen Kirch. He had served with the Schutztruppe in Cameroon in 1912, then returned to Germany for pilot training in 1913. His nickname was the Cameroon Flyer ("Fliegender Kameruner") thereafter.
Recommended External Link - Discussion on Airpower in the Colonies at the Axis History Forum

SMS Königsberg's Guns
When the SMS Königsberg was destroyed by the British on the River Rufiji in East Africa, the Germans salvaged its large 105mm naval guns, mounted them on makeshift gun carriages and proceeded to drag them around the mountains, jungles and plains of East Africa for years without motorized transport or horses. They were in fact the largest land artillery pieces of either side in this conflict. Two still survive, one in Mombassa, Kenya and the other in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Recommended Internal Link- Königsberg Guns

Last Parade for a Colonial Lance
When the Australians invaded German New Guinea, amongst many weapons they captured were some wooden hafted cavalry lances. It seems odd that the Germans would have lances in New Guinea as they seem to have had no mounted units there. The lances were taken back to Australia and kept in storage for many years. Some were destroyed in the 1950s but one was still in use on parade with the Australian Light Horse as part of the ceremonies for the opening of the new Australian Parliament buildings in 1988.

Record Breaking Airship Flight
Zeppelin L59 made the first inter-continental airship flight (and also the first flight South of the Tropic of Cancer) in November 1917, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Ludwig Bockholt. Its daring attempt to re-supply the Schutztruppe of German East Africa was aborted mid-mission after news that Lettow-Vorbeck had been forced to retreat from the intended landing zone. By the end of the mission it had flown the 6756km journey non stop from Jamboli in Bulgaria to Khartoum in Sudan and back in 95 hours- the longest flight ever at the time.

A Narrowly Averted Conflict with Brazil 
When the First World War broke out, the gunboat SMS Eber was off the coast of German South West Africa. There being no useful ports or river estuaries to hide in along the colony's coast (unlike those available to the SMS Königsberg in East Africa) the Eber sailed across the South Atlantic Ocean to Brazil and there was safely interned as a neutral rather than falling into Entente hands. When in 1917 Brazil declared war on Germnay, the Eber became under threat of capture. In the event the captain of the Eber managed to scuttle the ship just as Brazilian troops arrived thus narrowly averting the only direct conflict between Brazilian and German forces to occur in the war
Recommended External Link -  Discussion on The SMS Eber in Brazil at the Axis History Forum

Inter-Allied Colonial Rivalry
One of the factors delaying the allied conquest of German East Africa was inter-allied colonial rivalry. Despite French offers to send troops from Madagascar to fight in East Africa they were turned down by Britain who feared French expansionism in post-war East Africa. In fact Britain had been in negotiations with Germany prior to the outbreak of war to split the African colonies belonging to Portugal (Britain's "oldest ally") between them.

New Zealand Influenza
One tragic side effect of the allied occupation of German Samoa was that the New Zealand troops brought the influenza virus with them, killing 8,000 of the local population.

African Musicians After the War
Although the Germans had initially found amusement and frustration in trying to teach Africans how to play Western instruments and German marching themes for their bands, they also found many talented and keen musicians. After the war one group of former native bandsmen in what had been German South West Africa, donned uniform again and reformed their band playing local shows and events in the 1920s.

Australian Marks
Directly after the fall of New Guinea the German Mark was still retained as currency by Australian authorities. Trouble came when Australia printed new Marks to replace the old worn out notes. Only a few of these were issued before anti-German protests back in Australia forced their withdrawal in January 1915.

German Pidgins in New Guinea
Even today German words and phrases are still in use in the Melanesian Pidgin spoken in parts of New Guinea. "Gris God" from the German "Grüss Gott" is used as a greeting while words such as "raus" (go away), "haus" (house/ building) and "blut" (blood) all have clear German origins. Interestingly "mak" (from the German "Mark"), survived well into the Australian period as a word for a unit of currency despite the Australian shilling having been introduced by then.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck's Surrender and Homecoming
The commander of the German forces in East Africa heard of the armistice in Europe from a British POW his men had captured on November 12th 1918. He turned himself and his men in to the British on the 23rd. He and his German troops then came back to a parade and a hero's welcome in Berlin in 1919 as the last undefeated German General of the war. In 1964 he returned to East Africa to another hero's welcome as many of his former askaris turned up to pay tribute to their wartime leader and to shake his hand.

Four Years amongst Cannibals
Von Lettow-Vorbeck and his men weren't the only Germans who lasted out the war in the colonies. On New Guinea, Hauptman Herman Detzner and his small band of followers refused to surrender to allied forces and spent the rest of the war in the forest wilderness of the island's interior as he wrote in his book 'Vier Jahre unter Kaniballen'. He was eventually deported to Australia in 1919.

German South West Africa Today
Despite more than 6,000 Germans being deported from South West Africa after the war, modern Namibia still retains many aspects of its colonial past. 20,000 Germans still live there and German is still one of the official languages of the country with place names, buildings, statues and schools still surviving as reminders of its colonial past.

The Askaris' Pensions
In 1952 the West German government agreed to paying war pensions to the East African askaris of 1914-18. When they finally sent a delegation to Tanzania it was received by hundreds of old men with a little knowledge of German but even less proof of service. To sort out the genuine applicants they were given a broom handle in place of a rifle and shouted drill instructions. The vast majority had not forgotten their Prussian training from decades ago. Von Lettow-Vorbeck himself however, was granted a pension out respect by his old adversaries in the South African government.

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