Lake Tanganyika in World War 1

If anyone knows anything about World War 1 in Africa, there is a good chance they’ll tell you about the two boats which were taken overland from Cape Town to Lake Tanganyika by the eccentric commander who wore a skirt. If they haven’t heard of the war taking place in Africa mention The African Queen by CS Forester and you’ll get some sort of recognition. I generally inform people that the big boat which features in the film is still ploughing the waters of Lake Tanganyika today known as MV Liemba and that she was a German boat during World War 1. In fact they only finishing reconstructing her just as war broke out … And I’ve sailed on her.

Of the various novels written of the war in Africa, most of the 45 identified to date concern East Africa, 5 are versions of this naval expedition across the wilds of Africa: The African Queen, The Alpha Raid by Alan Scholfield, Lord of the Loincloth by Christopher Dow, Utmost Fish by Hugh Wray McCann and A moment of Time by Alex Capus.The book by Alex Capus telling the story from the German perspective whereas the others are British oriented.

Two other books feature the Lake Tanganyika Expedition, namely The Phantom Flotilla by Peter Shankland – the first account of the expedition and Giles Foden’s Mimi and Toutou go forth. The latter two fall more into the realms of history texts rather than novels although the boundary is blurred with no referencing and the style of writing.

All, apart from Capus’ A matter of time, tell the same story and it was unsurprising to see a review on the main-online book seller website complain that there was nothing new in Lord of the Loincloth. As an historian of the war in East Africa, I could sympathise. Why were authors rehashing the same content when there is so much rich material for adventure and other stories to be written. The images conjured up in the 7 texts did not accord with what photos were portraying or what other historical documents were suggesting.

So, when a group of budding enthusiasts decided to retrace the steps of the expedition, it led to an indepth reading of what was available both fictional and other. The outcome has been the publication in 2016 of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology. Volume 2 is expected to be released in 2017 with volume 3 containing translations of the French, short biographies on the individuals and the index in 2017/2018.

This is a book with a difference. It contains transcriptions of all the known English correspondence and accounts of the expedition from the time and by those involved. This includes relevant official English translations of captured German documents, but there are also some in French as a result of Belgian correspondence with Britain. The Belgians were far more involved than the current publications make out and that in itself provides fresh material for chewing on.

The information has been split into information originating in Europe and that in Africa which provides a sense of the time lag influencing decision-making. Different accounts of the same event shows how information is processed over time and through one’s experience. But, what is most intriguing is the material left out of the printed accounts. Why did this expedition take place? What possessed the British Admiralty to want to take control of Lake Tanganyika when there were greater pressures in Europe and Gallipoli? The answers are all there in the correspondence.

Lake Tanganyika

In short, The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology edited by the Great War in Africa Association is a one-stop publication for people interested in the real story of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition and who do not have the financial resources to spend months in London visiting The National Archives, let alone the other material consulted and incorporated. In recognition of the importance of making documents available to wider audiences, The National Archives has allowed its logo to be used on the publication.

The book is available through limited channels only:
The National Archives bookshop
The Great War in Africa Association
TSL Publications
And for South Africans, BookDealers in Johannesburg (email if you cannot find it on the website).

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