We call it "World War I" -- as our parents, in the years of innocence before the 1940s, used to call it. "The World War." But in the minds of those who still pause today to think about that quaint, old-fashioned conflict, the "world" in which it took place is usually confined to a few muddy provinces of Europe where trenches became a way of life.

In "The Ghosts of Africa," William Stevenson (author of "A Man Called Intrepid" and "Ninety Minutes at Entebbe") gives a semi-fictional account of another World War I -- the very different kind of war that was fought in Africa and was essentially a victory for Germany. In the perspective of later history, and in the way Stevenson tells it, this relatively unfamiliar war casts a curious shadow across the rest of the century. It marked the beginning of the end for the British Empire in Africa and for colonialism generally, though two more generations and another war were needed to complete this process.

In the style of fighting, it echoed America's beginnings in the Revolutionary War and foreshadowed America's partial downfall in Vietnam. The attitudes underlying the conflict sometimes foreshadow those of Adolf Hitler, and some historic figures in the cast of characters went on to play roles in World War II. The ghosts in Stevenson's title are not only the spirits of those who died in that African war but ideas and historic forces that still haunt the world today.

Stevenson has chosen an epic subject, and he tackles its full thematic richness with an ambition that is fortunately matched by his skill. The first stirrings of African independence are woven in, along with the efforts of early Zionists who hoped at that time to establish a Jewish homeland in Uganda. The real conflict of the book(as much as the war itself, which almost seems a family feud between the related monarchs who ruled England and Germany) is between nimble imagination and stupidly arrogant power, between guerrilla warfare and the traditional tactics taught in military schools, between military bureaucrats and front-line officers who fought with their minds as well as their guns.

Stevenson's cast of thousands, one figure towers above the rest as Kilimanjaro towers above the story's landscape: Lt. Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who is known as "The Kommandeur" and who is responsible for the book's entire action. When the war breaks out in Europe, both sides are eager to keep it from spreading to the colonies, where the spectacle of a struggle between the masters might inspire hopes and ideas in the minds of the subject peoples. The Kommandeur spreads the fighting to Africa by defying an order to resist the occupation of German colonies by British troops who will "maintain order" among the native population. He does not have enough German soldiers to fight the British effectively, so he enlists native troops and adapts his style of warfare to theirs. The implications of his decision are the novel's basic theme -- spelled out baldly (with overtones that neatly define the racist attitude of colonialism) in a British news report printed on the book's first page:

"The commander is reported to be training thousands of native askari soldiers in defiance of the Governor, who accepts the belief of all the colonial powers that blacks, once trained and armed, will develop a dreadful capacity for killing white men and in time will plunge the Dark Continent back inot bestiality and ignorance. Since the European war broke out three months ago, white settlers in both English and German colonies had avoided becoming embroiled in the conflict on the very grounds that nothing must shake black respect for white superiority . . ."

What Lettow did, essentially, was to open a second front, tying down hundreds of thousands of British troops who would otherwise have been able to fight in Europe. But he also helped, as his British oppenents predicted, to strike a death blow at colonialism, and his resourceful guerilla tactics gave othe anti-colonial fighters of later generations a useful model. One man on the British side, Capt. Myles Hagen, understood him but could not shake the British military bureaucracy's dedication to traditional styles of fighting. "I go through the ritual of fighting Hagen," Lettow muses at one point in the story, "but he really should be with me fighting Kitchener and the Kaiser."

Stevenson writes his story primarily from the German point of view, and he peoples the German side of the struggle with dozens of vivid characters (notably the women, who fight and die alongside their men) while the British characters tend mainly to be variations on Colonel Blimp. Sub-plots are woven deftly into the epic structure, ranging from love triangles to the saga of the Zeppelin L-59, which was sent by Kaiser from Europe to aid his entrenched forces on Kilimanjaro. The book mixes historic fact with fiction in a rich texture whose elements are carefully detailed in an afterword, and it should give readers an eye-opening glimpse of a relatively unknown but significant corner of 20th-century history.