42 Smuts Commands Regulars
From The New Nation Falters Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

MEANWHILE, away up on the coast of the Indian Ocean, close under the equator, the English and the Germans were fighting on the frontier between their East African Colonies. The German commander, von Lettow-Vorbeck, had advanced to the north, entered British territory, and threatened Nairobi. Not having sufficient forces, he had entrenched himself in the Kilimanjaro Mountains and from them raided down, almost at will, on to the railway that ran from Nairobi to its port at Mombasa.

In British East Africa were the King's African Rifles and some volunteer units. To help them, from India, had been sent a small force. These had tried to thrust the Germans back and had failed. They had been severely handled in several engagements, attempted to land from the sea at Tanga and outflank the German position and been beaten off; and dispirited they had sat back on the defensive.

Late in 1915 the British Government decided not only to thrust the Germans out of British territory but to conquer the German colony. Lord Kitchener, who was Minister of War, protested: he disapproved of these sideshows; he said that Germany must be defeated in Europe, and an expedition of this sort would only bleed England of necessary men and transports. But the Cabinet over-ruled Lord Kitchener, ordered a sufficient force to be dispatched, and appointed General Smith-Dorrien to command.

Smith-Dorrien fell ill. Botha had just completed the conquest of German South West and returned to Cape Town. It seemed only logical and sound that South Africa should deal with German East also. The British Government asked Botha for help. Botha agreed and sent out a call for volunteers, who came flocking in, Dutchmen and Englishmen alike, from all over the Union. Giving them little training but forming them into some organization, he began to ship them up to Mombasa. The British Government offered the command to Smuts, who accepted, was gazetted a Lieutenant-General in the British Army, and appointed in February 1916.

The command had been offered to Smuts before, but he had been busy with politics and he had refused. Now he accepted gladly. He was not jealous of Botha. Between the two men there was never any jealousy, personal or official, but Botha had had his success in German South West and Smuts was human enough to want a success to himself. He believed in himself as a general and that he could with a few brilliant strokes finish off this campaign. He considered also that he must go, either he or Botha or some South African general must go, for there were, he said, some seventeen thousand South Africans in German East, and a South African general ought to be there to lead them and look after them.

Above all he wanted to get away for a time. He had been very roughly handled in the elections, and his enemies, especially Hertzog, were still at him. The newspapers, led by Dr. Malan in Die Burger, produced every possible story which could hurt him. When he accepted the command, Die Burger wrote that "he was escaping his difficulties. . . . Had to go because of cabinet disagreements.... Was after an English general's pay in addition to a South African Cabinet Minister's salary." He yearned to leave all this behind, the niggling criticism and the sneers of the Nationalists, and get out into the open, feel again the kick of action and of commanding men, the surge and thrill of those great days when he had led his men raiding across the Cape.

He wasted no time, went to his house in Irene to pack up, and down to the little local wayside station to catch the night train to Durban. Two staff officers from Pretoria and a few local friends saw him off. He came hurrying along at the last moment with his family: Mrs. Smuts, grown from the sedate, serious little girl of the Stellenbosch days into a typical Dutch wife, homely and shrewd; his children bare-footed and lusty urchins of the farm. He said good-bye briefly under the dim light of the station lamp, picked up his eldest son, carried him to his carriage, and then, with a sigh, as if he could not bear to leave him, put him down, climbed up into the coach, and steamed away into the darkness.

He landed in Mombasa on the 19th February, 1916 and went straight to Nairobi; he refused all receptions and social functions, and set off at once to investigate the whole front personally. He found the troops depressed, their morale low. They had little confidence in their leaders, and they had an exaggerated idea of the fighting value of the enemy, and especially of their black askari troops.

The staff had prepared a scheme for attacking the Germans. Smuts considered it and decided with some modifications to use it. The Germans held a line from the Kilimanjaro, by the Pare Mountains, down to the sea. Through these ranges was a gap in which stood the town of Taveta and beyond it Moschi. This was the gateway into German East, and it was held by the main body of the enemy. The staff scheme aimed at holding the Germans while the first division marched down from Longido round the mountains on to their rear, then forcing them back, and so trapping the whole force.

Smuts agreed and decided to move at once. The staff advised him to wait. The rains were expected within three weeks and the rain would turn the whole country into a quagmire, flood the rivers, make all transport impossible; but Smuts would have none of it. He would attack at once. He wanted a quick, spectacular advance. He rattled and bustled everybody and everything. He would wait for nothing. He concentrated his main force in front of Taveta and started the first division on its march from Longido. He had all the commanders up, showed them personally over the ground, explained to each exactly what he had to do, and attacked. He did not attempt to pin the enemy down, but by a skilful flank movement he jockeyed them out and so acted too quickly, for in the time allotted to it, the first division could not get behind the Germans.

Smuts had given the first division three days to march the fifty miles from Longido and get into position, and it was too little. The country was unmapped and unknown and turned out to be thick jungle without roads or even paths. The general commanding the division was not prepared to risk a blind march into the bush, where there were Germans hidden. He took the normal precautions; but this was not Smut's idea at all. He sent a wireless message to hurry and then another, and after that an aeroplane. The first division arrived too late to block the enemy in the gap, and they slipped out and made southwards. Smuts promptly replaced the general.

As his column came into Taveta, Smuts was up with the advance troops and pushed on to Moschi. He was through the gate and in German East [Africa].

Before him lay an immense country, bigger than the whole German Empire. Across his front from Moschi down to the sea at Tanga ran a railway. Two hundred miles to the south was a main line running seven hundred and fifty miles right across the colony from the Belgian Congo to Dar-es-Salaam on the Indian Ocean. On this were placed the German main stations and depots. Except for these two there were no lines of communication except a few rough roads, and the whole country was an immense jumble, unmapped and little known, of waterless deserts, marshes, great rivers often in. flood and without bridges, huge primeval jungles, tropical forests infested with every poisonous, biting insect, and full of savage animals and a few primitive wild tribes. Every tropical disease was rife, but especially malaria in its worst form, with pneumonia and dysentery.

Smuts' staff of trained soldiers were of the opinion that there were two alternatives. Either he must hold the Germans beyond the mountains out of British territory and leave them to stew and weary in the great forests, occasionally attacking them to make them apprehensive and to keep the offensive; or he must plan some great manoeuvre by which the enemy might be encircled and, before he could escape and scatter or begin guerilla warfare, destroy his armed forces, as Botha had done in German South West and so completed that conquest in one swift, brilliant campaign.

But Smuts did neither. The vastness of the country, the risks, and the immense difficulties did not warn or deter him. He was at heart a raider and not a soldier. His only experiences of war had been his guerilla fighting and raiding in the Cape. In German South West he had treated his forces in the south as raiding columns. To dash ahead, each man carrying his own rations, fending for himself and his horse, overleaping difficulties: that was his experience, and he treated this campaign as a magnificent raid. He calculated to finish it in six, or at most nine, months and get back to Cape Town.

To gain speed he quickly reorganised the force and ejected several of the older and more cautious commanders. He had with him Deventer, his old comrade. Giving him a division consisting of South African Infantry and five regiments of South African Horse, he told him to push on, get on to the back of the enemy, make a detour and get down to the central railway, and cut it in the middle, while he himself would take the main force and move on a line to the east nearer the coast into the same railway and the temporary capital of German East at Morogoro.

Deventer too was a raider. He gave a few verbal orders, took five thousand mounted burghers of the South African Horse, told his infantry to follow as best they could, and rode out like a hot blast, as hard as he could go. He detoured through Aruscha, his men picking up what food they could, the horses reduced to a little grass and mealie stalks. A river in flood held them up. His troops swam the fierce current. He marched into the Massai desert, where there was no water. When his men slackened under the pitiless sun he drove them on and entered Kondoa Irangi, a hundred and fifty miles to the south of Moschi, just as the rains came down.

Here he was held up. Von Lettow had moved his main force across to check him, and had entrenched them in the hills overlooking the town. Of Deventer's column of five thousand men over eleven hundred were down sick. All the horses needed rest and care. There were no rations and no transport to get these to the troops, who eked out the scraps they had got with country fruit—paw-paws and ground-nuts. The rain had made all the country a sticky bog of black mud. The horses sank up to their chests in the treacherous stuff. Deventer was almost isolated, and he was at a standstill, immobilised.

The rains had caught Smuts also, and he was forced to stand fast until they slackened. He fumed and fussed to be off, and the minute it was possible he pushed down the Pangani River to Buiko and then turned south to Handem.

His staff begged him to go slow and rest the troops. They had marched a hundred and forty-five miles in thirteen days, through swamps and marshes full of malaria, through forest where they had had to break tracks and cut roads yard by yard through thick jungle and giant thorn bush. Sometimes they had marched all night, at others, from two in the morning to the dusk. When not marching they had been building roads and bridges. They had been wet through day after day with mud and rain, and worked gasping in the steaming heat. All the way the Germans with their askaris had sniped and machine-gunned them from the forests and the bush, for they knew the country and the paths, and could dash in and be gone with impunity. The men, the staff officers said, were worn out.

The Transport and Supply officers and the doctors also begged Smuts to halt. The whole transport system had broken down. The railway needed much repair before it could be used. The lorries were stuck in the flooded rivers or bogged in the mud. There was no repair organisation. The oxen and mules were plodding along miles in the rear and dying like flies. They could get no food up to the men and no medicines. The only ration left was a hard dry biscuit which when soaked made a porridge, but which gave the men acute dysentery; there was no meat or bread or sugar or tea, except sometimes some mealies, and occasionally oxen which had died from the tsetse fly and were almost uneatable. This meat the native troops would not eat, and they were dying of starvation. Many had eaten roots and herbs gathered at random and been poisoned. Over nine thousand men had already gone to hospital seriously ill.

But Smuts would not listen to them. He knew nothing of scientific staff work and he despised it and the staff officers, who were, he considered, always making difficulties. He told them he would not be worried with details. "I am sick and tired of experts," he said. "The experts have hopelessly broken down in this war."

It was typical of his lack of staff training and experience that on one occasion he decided to halt and went forward to choose the camp and then still farther forward to reconnoitre personally. Only late in the afternoon he ordered the troops into camp. As a result they arrived in the dark: there were no camping arrangements; all was confusion. The camp was badly sited and covered with high elephant grass. The weary men, dispirited and hungry, lay down, each man where he was, in discomfort and waited for the dawn. The place was near a native village and was alive with red ticks, which gave the men an intermittent fever.

For doctors he had no respect: he had said that often before. Experts of all sorts he distrusted. Graphs, marching hours, lines of communication protection—what were all these details about? He had already told them not to worry about the lines of communication, even about the railways. Leave them unguarded. A few breakdown gangs were cheaper than patrols and could quickly repair any damage the Germans could do. Transport! Rations! What was all the fuss about these things? "Hunger! Thirst! " he exclaimed. "There are no such things when the success of a big operation hangs in the balance." Somewhere just ahead of him in the impenetrable forest, always just beyond his reach, was von Lettow and his men. He must get at them. He gave the order to push on and at once.

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