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Blunders, Booze, and Boats: How WW1 Erupted in Colonial East Africa

When Mr Webb received the telegram: ‘Tipsified Pumgirdles Germany Novel’ it probably took him a moment to register that it was a coded message. It probably took him another moment to dust off his code book, and a final moment to realise the significance of the message. On the Aug. 5 1914, as the District Commissioner of Karonga, a small trading post in British Africa, Mr Webb now had to prepare for war.

Whilst Flanders fields were a long distance from the nearby Rift Vally Lake, it unfortunately lapped up against not only the British colony, but also German East Africa. Colonial Governor George Smith bravely ordered that the entire German fleet on the lake was to be destroyed. His precise wording was- ‘sunk, burned, or otherwise destroyed’.

Colonial personnel better antiquated with the lake knew full well the extent of Germany’s naval arsenal on the lake. It consisted of just one gunboat, the ‘Hermann von Wissmann‘.

This bothered him because he’d spent many an evening drinking with his good friend Herr Berndt, who commanded the enemy vessel.

Commander E L Rhoades was given the job of dismantling the German boat. This bothered him because he’d spent many an evening drinking with his good friend Herr Berndt, who commanded the enemy vessel.

The men were so close that they had often practiced mock attacks with one another’s boats as jokes in the past. Now Rhoades would have to do it for real, but first he had three problems to solve.

The first issue the British fleet (That also consisted of a sole gunboat.) had, was that no one in the Colony’s defense force knew how to operate the hotchkiss gun mounted on-board the British ship.

Colonial officials marched out of their office head-hunting for anyone who knew how to get the thing working. Eventually an African Lakes Corporation salesman, who had received some ballistics training several years back, volunteered.

The next issue was that no one could find any ammunition for the gun. Eventually some out of date, archaic three-pound ammo was found in an old storeroom. With little choice available, it would have to do.

The final issue was that once the makeshift taskforce had been assembled, the water on the lake had gotten unseasonably choppy. So bad was the combination of bouncing waves, dud ammunition, and not having any practice, that it took the hapless volunteer 15 minutes to hit the enemy boat. And it was sat stationary on the shore for repairs.

After finally landing a single shell onto the enemy vessel, the British boat was ready to call it a day; but as they pulled away the crew sighted a strange man running onto the beach. Dressed in shorts and a singlet, the man proceeded to hop into a rowing boat, and oar furiously towards the Brits.

‘Gott for damn, Rrrrhoades… Gott for damn: vos you dronk?’ came a cry from the bewildered Herr Berndt.

Rhoades allowed his friend to clamber aboard, poured him a whisky, and then informed him he was now a prisoner of war.

Three days later German colonial HQ caught on to the fact that their telegraph line had been cut, they had a missing captain, and a damaged vessel.
Their response was something out of knightly chivalry, not the coming industrial war.

Their response was something out of knightly chivalry, not the coming industrial war. A runner was sent to the British side of the lake with the following message:

‘Thanks to your extreme kindness in preventing the forwarding of dispatches into out colony, I am not clear whether England is at war with Germany or not…

‘If you therefore wish to attack our province, I must most courteously remark that we are prepared to greet you in a somewhat unfriendly fashion.

‘The position decidedly needs clearing up and therefore I beg you most politely and urgently to let me have a clear answer.’

Although a successful German guerrilla war prevented British forces from capturing the colony until three days after the European armistice was signed, after the fighting the League of Nations was keen to carve up the territory between Britain and Belgium.

If only more of the First World War could have been fought so whimsically.

The facts from this article were taken from Jeremy Paxman’s brilliant book, Empire, so you know it’s all true.

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