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TANZANIA / RWANDA / BURUNDI – WORLD WAR I IN EAST AFRICA: German East Africa. Scale 1:2,000,000 or 1.014 Inches = 32 Miles.


A seemingly unrecorded special ‘emergency’ issue of Max Moisel’s groundbreaking map of Deutsch-Ostafrika (today’s mainland Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), issued in haste by British War Office immediately following the outbreak of World War I, whereupon East Africa became a surprisingly intense conflict theatre; the present example bearing evidence of field use, featuring contemporary manuscript additions.


Photolithographic print, with contemporary manuscript additions in coloured crayon and red and black pen, mounted upon original linen, curiously with the panels of an Italian map of Dalmatia mounted to verso (Good, some wear and toning along old folds, one panel toned, a few small stains, a tiny piece of blank margin excised in lower left corner), 80.5 x 75.5 cm (31.5 x 29.5 inches).

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Upon the outbreak of World War I, Britain was determined to invade the German colony of Deutsch-Ostafrika (comprising today’s mainland Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi).  They expected to easily roll over the small and poorly armed Schutztruppe, the German colonial defense force, attaining complete victory in only a matter of weeks.  However, to almost everyone’s surprise, the regional German commander, Colonel Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, later known as the ‘Lion of Africa’, galvanized his rag-tag army into a disciplined and wiley guerilla movement that drew the dramatically largee British imperial forces into an endless series of deadly ambushes and wild goose chases, depleting their numbers and dampening their morale.  While the British eventually conquered Deutsch-Ostafrika, at the end of the war Lettow-Vorbeck remained on the offensive, unvanquished, and was only compelled to surrender upon the general capitulation of Germany in November 1918.

In the summer of 1914, at the start of hostilities on East Africa, the British high command, despite their optimism and enthusiasm, had a problem.  They knew that invading Deutsch-Ostafrika would involve irregular combat in rugged, and often exotic terrain, little known to virtually any of their troops.  In this context, access to accurate, scientific cartography would be not merely important, but absolutely critical.  Fortunately, the Germans had long published what was the only existing accurate general map of the colony, predicated upon systematic surveys sponsored in the late 1890s by their Colonial Ministry, being Max Moisel’s Deutsch-Ostafrika. Neubearbeitung von Max Moisel, issued in several updated editions from 1900 until the eve of the war.  However, the British War Office and associated entities possessed only a few examples of the Moisel map, far less than what was needed for distribution to high-level planners in London, let alone field commanders operating in Africa.

The present map represents the provisional solution to this problem.  In the earliest days of the war, the Geographical Section of the General Staff (GSGS) of the War Office, the entity responsible for the British Army’s cartographic programmes, acquired a late edition of Moisel’s Deutsch-Ostafrika, and had it hastily and crudely photographically printed at the Ordnance Survey Office in Southampton, which was responsible for producing many of the the GSGS’s maps.  The result is the present work, which was almost certainly the very first general map of German East Africa produced by the British military during World War I and would have been made in only a handful of examples to be rushed out to very senior strategists and field commanders.

As a comparison between the present work and the Moisel map demonstrates, the Southampton edition faithfully duplicates all of the details of the antecedent, bearing the same scale of 1:2,000,000; however, here it has been retitled into the English language, while the original map’s German language legend and the regional inset map had been covered up (leaving a large blank space in the lower-left quadrant), while the scope has been truncated to leave out what could have been considered to be the Moisel map’s superfluous coverage of the areas to the north and south of Deutsch-Ostafrika (i.e. leaving out parts of Mozambique and Nyasaland, in the south, and the farther reaches of Lake Victoria, in the north).

The present map captures the topography of Deutsche-Ostafrika in great detail and accuracy, Elevation is shown through delicate shading, with spot heights given in metres (including the famous peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru).  Lakes, swamps and rivers are depicted, indicating where bodies of water are dry for part of the year.  The map also labels every city, town and village of any import.

Notably, the map labels the territories of the region’s native tribes, for instance the lands of the ‘Massai’ (Maasai) appear in the northeast.  Even though the legend had been here removed, the map nevertheless clearly employs symbols to denote district seats; German regional military headquarters; the locations of post, telegraph and customs offices; the placement of Protestant and Catholic missions; as well as the routes of major roads, telegraph lines, underwater telegraph cables, and railways (both already built and projected).

Of note, the map delineates the entire route of the Mittelbahn (Central Railway), that ran all the way across the colony from the capital Dar es Salaam to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika, which was completed in February 1914, after a decade of construction.  Taking control of the line would be a major British objective during the war.


The Map’s Manuscript Additions

Interestingly, the present map features evidence of wartime use, bearing manuscript additions seemingly added by a senior British officer involved in the East Africa Campaign.  Throughout the map, many strategically key towns and cities are underlined in red and blue crayon, while a few new locations are added in pen.

Most importantly, however, the map features a “V” made up of dashed blue lines seemingly referring to troop movements in the critical Romuva River sector near the Deutsche-Ostafrika – Mozambique boundary.  Here, in the autumn of 1917, British forces unsuccessfully attempted to prevent Lettow-Vorbeck’s men from invading Mozambique.  In this zone, Lettow-Vorbeck’s force of 1,500 men defeated a British force of 4,900 at the Battle of Mahiwa (October 15-8, 1917), before going on to cross the international line and utterly vanquishing the Portuguese military base at Ngomano (November 25, 1917), which is underlined on the map.


Another curious detail is that the panels of an Italian military map of Dalmatia (Croatia) are mounted the back of the preset map.  During this period of wartime era rationing, paper and linen were in short supply, so it was not uncommon for cartographic materials to be re- or dual-purposed in this way.


The Present Map: Seemingly Unrecorded

The present map seems to be unrecorded; we cannot find even a reference to it, let along the location of another example.  This is perhaps not so surprising as it was printed as an ‘emergency’ issue in only a very small quantity for the exclusive use of senior British commanders, while the survival rate of such ephemeral field maps is very low.  The map is this a rare survivor, bearing valuable insight into how cartography was employed in to meet sudden, urgent needs during at onset of global warfare.

It is worth noting that the Topographical Section of the General Staff of Union Defence Forces of South Africa, which was a key component of the British imperial coalition, issued their own version of the Moisel map, printed in Pretoria in 1915.  Also, the Geographical Section of the British War Office produced a more polished, revised edition of the Moisel map in July 1916 (coded as GSGS map 2814).  Both of these works are today great rarities.


World War I: Britannia versus the ‘Lion of Africa’

The present map is a remarkable artefact from World War I’s East Africa Campaign, which was in many ways the most extraordinary, yet popularly forgotten, aspect of the war.  In essence, a German-African force, that never numbered more that 14,000 troops, held down a British-Entente army that, at its height, numbered 300,000 men.  The reason that the conflict has since escaped popular memory is likely that it was the only theatre of the war where Germany had gotten the better of Britain.  As a result, British historians were loath to discuss this ‘embarrassment’, while Germans very much wanted to forget the war altogether.

On the eve of the war, Germany possessed Deutsch-Ostafrika, a colony it had established in 1885, which comprised all of modern mainland Tanzania (Tanganyika), Rwanda and Burundi.  This vast land of 7.5 million indigenous inhabitants was ruled by barely 5,000 Germans.

Immediately to the north, was British East Africa (modern Kenya), with featured the great port of Mombasa and its new, bustling capital, Nairobi.  The colony was anchored by the Uganda Railway, which connected Mombasa and Nairobi with Kampala, considered to be one of the great strategic assets of the British Empire.

When World War I broke out in Europe, many on both sides hoped that their respective parties in East Africa could remain neutral, while the conflict was fought elsewhere.  However, this proved to be incredibly naïve.

As the hasty nature of the production of the present map suggests, neither side was well prepared for mass conflict in East Africa.  The Germans could only count on the Schutztruppe (‘Protection Force’) of 260 Europeans and 2,470 Askari (Native African) solders, in addition to 2,700 irregulars (German colonist militia).  It was made clear from the outset that there would never be any chance of reinforcements from Germany.  Moreover, the German arsenals were full of outdated guns that were low on ammunition.

On the other side, the anchor of the British army in East Africa, the King’s African Rifles (KAR), could count on about the same strength as the Schutztruppe.  However, the British knew that they could, in time, count upon the arrival of thousands of auxiliary troops from India, as well as reinforcements from South Africa.  Moreover, they were much better armed than the German side.  Beyond that, they could count on the assistance of their Belgian allies (from the Congo) and, from 1916, their Portuguese allies (from Mozambique), although their capabilities were questionable.

One factor that everyone, including the German political command, underestimated was Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870 – 1964), the commander of the Schutztruppe.  He would prove himself to be one of the greatest guerrilla fighters in world history, popularly known as the ‘Lion of Africa’.  He trained his small Askari force into a highly motivated, skilled unit, specialized in lightening, stealth operations of asymmetric warfare.

Lettow-Vorbeck knew from the outset that upon the arrival of the British reinforcements, he would be hopelessly outmanned and outgunned, such that he would have a zero-percent chance of winning a conventional war, or firmly holding German territory.  Thus, his goal was to wage a guerrilla conflict, forcing the British to dedicate vast to East Africa, so that they could not be otherwise used to fight Germany in Europe.  The results were phenomenal, as the late military historian Edwin Palmer Hoyt remarked, Lettow-Vorbeck mounted the “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful.”

Upon the start of hostilities in East Africa, Lettow-Vorbeck drew first blood.  He ordered some of his detachments to make forays across the border into British East Africa.  However, the British mounted a powerful reprise, in the form of a two-pronged operation to invade German East Africa.  At the beginning of November 1914, the so-called British ‘Force B’, consisting of 8,000 Indian Expeditionary troops, mounted a naval invasion of the German port city of Tanga.  Meanwhile, a force of the KAR, the so-called ‘Force C’, invaded German territory to the west of Mount Kilimanjaro, aiming to strike the German HQ at Neu Moshi.

To the absolute shock and horror of the British HQ in Nairobi, both the Tanga and Kilimanjaro expeditions failed spectacularly.  Even though the British forces outnumbered the Germans 8:1 at Tanga and 4:1 near Kilimanjaro, they severely underestimated the abilities of the opposition.  The spectacle was described as one of “the most notable failures in British military history.”

The British spent 1915, licking their wounds, while Lettow-Vorbeck went on the offensive.  He orchestrated as series of daring raids deep into British territory in Kenya and Uganda.  This seemed to have the effect of paralyzing the British, compelling them to stay within their fortified bases, while they lost control over their own countryside.  By late 1915, the Schutztruppe was making regular raids upon the treasured Uganda Railway, which had the effect of cutting off all communication between Nairobi and Uganda.  This, more than anything, angered Whitehall, and extreme measures were henceforth taken in an effort to take Lettow-Vorbeck out – once and for all!

General Jan Smuts (1870 – 1950), himself a former Afrikaner guerilla fighter, was appointed the new commander of the British East Africa HQ.  He was given an army of 73,000 met with a mandate to hunt down and destroy the Schutztruppe.  As shown on the present map, in March 1916, Smuts invaded German East Africa.  This time, Britain’s overwhelming force quickly succeeded in taking much of the country.  However, what the British did not yet realize is that this was all proceeding to Lettow-Vorbeck’s plan.

The wily German commander progressively withdrew his forces further and further south into German territory, all the while conducting small, lightening raids upon British positions.  While these attacks were small in scale, they had the effect of terrifying the opposition, while stealing much needed stores and ammunition.  As the British were drawn ever deeper south, they required ever more men to guard their supply lines.  While the British had seized the Mittelbahn (the Central Railway), the jewel of Germany’s African infrastructure that ran from Dar es Salaam across the colony, protecting it seemed more of burden than an asset.

In January 1917, the British effort in East Africa suffered a self-inflicted blow, when the competent Smuts left the scene to serve in the Imperial War Cabinet in London.  He was replaced by less vigorous leadership.  While the British and Belgians, heavily relying on NORORCE, actually continued to gain territory at the Germans’ expense, they were still being drawn ever deeper into Lettow-Vorbeck’s trap.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s next target was to take his army into Portuguese Mozambique.  There the land was lush and Portuguese forces were thought to be far less competent than their British allies.  There, the Schutztruppe commander hoped to be able to re-supply his army, while forcing the British to enter Mozambique, thus stretching their supply lines, hopefully, beyond their breaking point.  Moreover, this would be perfectly legal, as Portugal and Germany had formally declared war upon each other in March 1916.

The British high command anticipated that Mozambique would be the Schutztruppe’s desired destination, and the main objective of the British was to stop Lettow-Vorbeck from crossing the Romuva River (the British East Africa-Mozambique boundary).  In the summer of 1917, the Germans split their force into two parts, one under Lettow-Vorbeck and the other under Major Theodor Tafel, in an effort to force the British to play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

However, the British plans to stop the Germans from entering Mozambique were crushed when Lettow-Vorbeck’s force of 1,500 men defeated a British force of 4,900 at the Battle of Mahiwa (October 15-8, 1917).  Yet, the battle had completely depleted Lettow-Vorbeck’s munitions and food rations, such that the move to Mozambique became an urgent necessity, as opposed to an elective option.  If the Germans could not capture a large cache of weapons and supplies within the next month or so, they would have to surrender.

The war in Mozambique only lasted nine months (November 1917 to August 1918); however, it included some of the fiercest guerilla-style fighting ever seen in Africa and was arguably Lettow-Vorbeck’s most impressive turn of the entire conflict.  In essence, Lettow-Vorbeck’s army moved constantly, preying upon the ill-prepared Portuguese outposts, while the British unsuccessfully pursued them.  In the words of a German soldier, the Schutztruppe’s time in Mozambique can be reduced to, “We chase the Portuguese, and the English chase us”.  This was truly amazing, as Lettow-Vorbeck had barely 2,000 men at his disposal, while he was opposed by an Anglo-Portuguese force that in theory could muster 100,000 men!

Returning to the military action, in late November 1917, as Lettow-Vorbeck prepared to invade Mozambique, he made the decision to ‘go lean’, travelling with only 2,000 of his best troops (including 300 Germans, 1,700 Askaris, supported by 3,000 native porters).  He knew that he would have to be quick and nimble to survive.  He hoped that his companion force, under Theodor Tafel, would also be able to make it into Mozambique, such that they could join forces.

Lettow-Vorbeck needed a big score that would give him a large re-supply of ammunition, food and medical supplies – and he needed it immediately.  He would thus enter Mozambique with a bang.

The Portuguese army maintained a large fortress at Ngomano, guarding the German border where the Romuva is met by the Lujenda River.  Ngomano had a garrison of 900, commanded by the Africa veteran Major João Teixeira Pinto.  More importantly, the fortress was stocked with an unusually large arsenal, as well as massive stores of food and medicine.  Pinto, while warned by the British of a possible attack, foolishly prepared only for a frontal assault from the Romuva side.  On November 25, 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck used up his remaining artillery to mount diversionary display from across the Romuva, while his force stealthily crossed the river upstream, attacking Ngomano from the rear.  The Portuguese were caught totally off-guard, and Pinto and most of his top staff were killed, while the fortress was captured with no damage to its stores.  Lettow-Vorbeck captured sufficient arms, food, clothing and medicine to last him for the rest of the war!

Ngomano overshadowed the fact that on November 27, 1917, General Jacob van Deventer, the supreme British commander in East Africa, defeated and secured the surrender of Tafel’s force, thus ensuring that Lettow-Vorbeck’s 2,000-man force would have to fight on alone.

The onset of the rainy season in the region, which ran from December 1917 to March 1918, ensured that major conflict ceased, while Lettow-Vorbeck chose a base in the Namuno Region, located between Montepuez and the Lurio River (in modern Cabo Delgado Province).  Meanwhile, the British sought to regroup following the disasters of Mahiwa and Ngomano.

As soon as the rains receded in March 1918, the British began deployed massive reinforcements into Northern Mozambique, much of it entering the interior by way of Porto Amélia (Pemba).  The British set up a forward base at Miute (modern Napula Province), on the Lurio River.  The British then mounted a multi-pronged offensive into the Namuno Region in effort to corral and defeat Lettow-Vorbeck.  These efforts intensified through April, yet the wily German commander managed to avoid being pinned down, leading the British on a wild goose chase though malaria and yellow fever infested jungles.  By mid-May, Lettow-Vorbeck had safely moved his base of operations westwards to Nanungu.

Northey was by this point frustrated, as while his subordinates had pressed the Schutztruppe hard from the west, this seemingly yielded no results.  The British supply lines were also dangerously long, while sickness and fatigue befell many of the British troops.  Meanwhile, the Portuguese were sitting on the sidelines, hoping that the British would do their job for them.

In early June 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck moved further to the southwest, easily taking the Portuguese outpost of Malema.  Next, the Germans mounted a daring attack far to the south of the established theatre, attacking an Anglo-Portuguese post at the railway station in Namacurra, just to the north of Quelimane.  The defenders were caught totally unawares and the Schutztuppe scored a complete victory, unsettling the Anglo-Portuguese forces, and sending the message that the Allies ‘were not safe anywhere’.  Oddly, the presumed hunters now felt like the prey.

Further north, Lettow-Vorbeck checked a much larger British force from his new base at Alto Molócuè, before scoring another victory at Namirruè, throwing the entire British effort into chaos.

In August 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck realized that he had exhausted his resources and options in Mozambique, so decided to move the theatre westwards towards British territory.  While his forces barely survived a confrontation with the King’s African Rifles at the Battle of Lioma (August 30-31, 1918), fought just west of Malema, the Germans proceeded to invade Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), inflicting havoc across a land that was ill-prepared for a guerrilla onslaught.

Fearing the arrival of Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces, the British evacuated the key base of Kasama, Northern Rhodesia, on 13 November, only a couple days after the technical end of World War I (the parties in the region had not yet received the news of Germany’s surrender).  The following day, the German commander gained word of the armistice while crossing the Chambezi River.  While Lettow-Vorbeck was undefeated, and had consistently actually bettered his opponents, he was compelled to surrender to the British at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia (today, Mbala, Zambia), on November 25, 1918.

Due to his astounding feats, even Lettow-Vorbeck’s opponents referred to him as the ‘Lion of Africa’, and in spite of history’s amnesia, he remains one of the greatest frontier fighters of all time.  Britain, while technically victorious, and gaining Tanganyika (Mainland Tanzania) as a war prize, found the East Africa Campaign a bitter pill.  Whitehall was deeply embarrassed by the number of men and resources it had expended, and the Exchequer was horrified that the campaign had cost the equivalent of over £13 Billion in today’s money!

References: N/A – Map seemingly unrecorded.  Cf. [re: 1915 Pretoria ed.]: Bodleian Library (Oxford University): 754.11 t.1 (36); [re. 1916 War Office ed.]: British Library: Cartographic Items Maps 66430.(50.) / OCLC: 557512391 / 497585629.


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