Let me say straight out that if all military histories were as thrilling and well written as Robert Gaudi’s “African Kaiser,” I might give up reading fiction and literary biography.
Anyone interested in 20th-century culture is bound to spend some time thinking about World War I. Yet while most of us are aware of the horrors of trench combat and the thousands lying dead in Flanders fields where poppies blow, what about the war outside Europe? What about German East Africa? Until I read Gaudi’s book, almost all I knew was that Lord Greystoke fought “Huns” in “Tarzan the Untamed” and that the sinking of an enemy warship provided the climax for the movie “The African Queen.”
Still, the war in Africa was more than a sideshow. A brilliant guerrilla strategist, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck forged his fanatically loyal Schutztruppe — a small colonial infantry consisting of largely black soldiers — into “a highly efficient fighting force, aggressive and completely self-supporting,” and one that was “the first racially integrated army in modern history.” As von Lettow bluntly said, “Here in Africa we are all equal. The better man will always outwit the inferior and the color of his skin does not matter.” These words were not mere lip service, either: His actions show that he genuinely believed them.
On his very first page Gaudi reveals his own awe of what von Lettow and his men accomplished:
“Cut off from the world by the British blockade in what remained of Germany’s last colony . . . they marched through bush and jungle and swamp and thorn scrub pori. They clambered up mountains and across arid, rocky plateaus, mostly without shoes. Their rifles were ancient or captured from the enemy; their artillery a few naval guns scavenged off a gutted battleship in the fetid sluice of the Rufiji [River]. They attacked, retreated, advanced, attacked, retreated to fight again. And though vastly outnumbered by British, South African, Belgian, and Portuguese armies, they could not be caught or beaten.”
“African Kaiser,” however, doesn’t just focus on these ragtag troops and their general. Gaudi tells us about Room 40 — center for British cryptography — and the history of zeppelins. We are given a brief account of the colonial wars in southern Africa. We learn myriad odd facts, such as the widespread belief that drinking sweet vermouth offered protection from malaria. Periodically, Gaudi veers off to recount the daring exploits of con artists, great white hunters and battleship commanders.
To illustrate his hero’s character he even retells the story of Gylippus from Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Under attack and blockade by the Athenians, Syracuse called on its ally Sparta for help. But the Spartans were themselves hard-pressed and could spare only one man, Gylippus. But that one man “by sheer force of personality and military skill” reorganized Syracuse’s army and “choosing the right moment to attack, turned the tide of the war against the Athenians.” As Gaudi points out and von Lettow’s operations repeatedly demonstrated, “in battle, numbers don’t matter as much as resolve.”
Described only as a freelance writer living in Virginia, Gaudi writes with the flair of a latter-day Macaulay. He sets his scenes carefully and describes naval and military action like a novelist. His sentences are models of clarity and vivacity, sometimes further enlivened with wry authorial comments. The academically inclined, however, may fault his decision to eschew source notes. Caught up by Gaudi’s skillful storytelling, most readers aren’t likely to care.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck came from a long line of soldiers. He was brought up with Prussian discipline, attended the military academy at Kassel, enjoyed reading philosophy and literature, mastered English, French and several African languages, and tasted first blood in China during mop-up operations following the Boxer Rebellion.
After his service in Asia, von Lettow was assigned to German South West Africa during fierce uprisings by the Herero and Hottentots. In 1906, an exploding shell cost him the use of his left eye. But his experiences taught him that Africans “fought with the country rather than against it; they generally eschewed pitched battles and were extremely mobile, drawing heavily laden, plodding German soldiers on long, exhausting marches through waterless bush tangled with thorn scrub where German firepower could not be used with effectiveness.” He would later apply these lessons against the British.
Back in Germany because of his eye injury, von Lettow worried that his career as a field officer was over. Eventually, though, he was given command of the 2nd Sea Battalion on the North Sea. Four years later, by now in his mid-40s, he was finally ordered to lead the small Schutztruppe in German East Africa, a colony that had earned the allegiance of its indigenous people through respectfulness and education. Typically, von Lettow immediately began to learn Swahili. En route to Dar es Salaam, he encountered a charming young Danish woman named Karen Blixen, with whom he shared a shipboard romance. Later during the war, Blixen — better known as Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”— used her admirer’s inscribed picture as a talisman against violence by German partisans.
The second half of “African Kaiser” follows von Lettow’s guerrilla operations, as he outfoxes the British time and again. His aim was almost always tactical — through his commando raids he could assist the Fatherland’s larger war effort by compelling Britain to divert men and material to Africa. In the end, he would be the only undefeated German general of World War I and a recipient of his nation’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor. Amazingly, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck lived on to oppose Hitler, survive another world war and die in 1964, just short of his 95th birthday.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
By Robert Gaudi
Caliber. 436 pp. $29