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Posted on Dec 19, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Backwater Battles: Unknown Campaigns of the First World War

By Alex Wilson

Backwater Battle #2: Fight for the Cameroons

Another sideshow conflict of World War I, which gets even less publicity than the Siege of Tsingtao, was the battle between the British and the Germans over the Cameroons. Located slightly north of the equator and slightly southeast of Nigeria, the Cameroons were, like Tsingtao, held by the Germans at the start of WWI as part of their scattered colonial “empire.” The 8,000 or so German troops defending the Cameroons, however, faced a problem other than Japanese soldiers and artillery bombardments: they were thoroughly sandwiched between British Nigeria and French-controlled Congo, a none-too comfortable position.

The fighting for the Cameroons began in August of 1914, when Britain, along with France and Belgium, launched an invasion of the territory, with the British striking from Nigeria and the French from Chad. Unlike in China, though, the main problem which both sides had to deal with was not fighting; it was logistics. And, as if logistical difficulties weren’t enough, the Allies had attacked in the middle of the rainy season. This double-edged sword of supply and weather problems caused the British offensive to stall and bog down, a situation which the German defenders lost no time in taking advantage of. The German strategy was amazingly simple: let the British advance until their offensive slowly ground to a halt, and then proceed to counterattack and drive them out of the Cameroons. It worked like a charm, and by the beginning of September, the British were crossing the Cameroon border once again, this time heading in a direction opposite that which they had taken just one month before. The French were more successful, and managed to capture Kusseri in northern Cameroon.

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The indefatigable British, not to be outdone, returned later that very same month, this time bringing along naval support. With the help of British and French cruisers, the Allies took the town of Duala towards the end of September and drove the Germans into the back country. The Germans were not ready to give up quite yet, though, and formed a defensive position centered on the high ground around Yaunde.. By this point the Allies were again fighting the elements and the terrain more than they were the Germans, and their assault fouled up again in swamps and swarms of hungry mosquitoes. It took them until early 1916 to capture Yaunde, which they found devoid of Germans, who had opted out of fighting the Allies and instead headed towards neutral Spanish territory (Equatorial Guinea), where they were promptly interned. The 8,000 German defenders of the Cameroons, by using natural features and their enemies’ logistical problems to their own advantage, had managed to hold up and keep occupied a grand total of 24,000 Allied troops, not to mention about 40,000 natives. Of these men, countless fell victims to sickness and disease during a lopsided and little-remembered WWI face-off in the heart of Africa.

Backwater Battle #3: Mountain Fighting, 19th Century Style

A third backwater campaign of the Great War was the fighting between the Russians and the Turks in the Caucasus Mountains. This conflict was one of three Allied offensives (two British and one Russian – see article on T.E. Lawrence in November 2007 ACG) aimed at Turkey, a nation which played an immensely greater role in the First World War than did the German colonies, be they in the Pacific or in Africa. Turkey and her soldiers would, with regard to WWI, come to be remembered mainly for both their victory at Gallipoli and for their defeat at the hands of Lawrence of Arabia; however, they not only had to repel the British in the south and west, but the Russians in the north.

The fighting between the Russian and Turkish forces in the Caucasus Mountains, which well-known historian S.L.A. Marshall bluntly called “the tallest, driest, and hardest mountains in Europe,” posed significant challenges to both sides involved, with regard to terrain as well as to logistics. Overall, the difficulties faced by the Russians and the Turks during operations in the Caucasus bore great semblance to the difficulties faced in the Cameroons by the Germans and British: inhospitable terrain, both for fighting and for transporting supplies. To give but one example of the numerous difficulties which had to be surmounted, it was 500 miles from the Russian border in the Caucasus to the nearest Turkish railhead, located at Konya.

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1 Comment

  1. Another forgotten field of war is the War above the Clouds. This was between Austria and Italy in Tyrol. The rock formations there are metamorphosed at high pressure, so they fracture whenever hit by artillery shells. This was used during this campaign by both sides.

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