The conflicts on the Western and Eastern Fronts may have been the primary theatres of the First World War, but, as we shall now see, the war was truly global in its reach. From Africa to the Middle East, and the Pacific Ocean to the South Atlantic, other powers, and the dominions of the European empires, were soon to play their part.
The Ottoman Empire
On 2 August, Germany and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret alliance but for now, at least, Turkey wished to remain neutral. When on 11 August two German ships, the Goeben and Breslau, were being pursued by the British Navy, Enver Pasha, Turkey’s pro-German minister for war and the sultan’s nephew by marriage, allowed them access to its waters in the Dardanelles and sanctuary within the harbour of Turkey’s capital, Constantinople. However, as a proactive action, this would have brought Turkey into war, hence Germany ‘sold’ the ships to the Turks and changed their names to Turkish ones. The German crews, now donning fezzes, sailed their ships under the Turkish flag along the Dardanelles.
France and Britain’s attempts to keep Turkey out of the war came to nothing when, on 29 October, the Goeben and Breslau bombarded the Russian Black Sea ports of Odessa and Sevastopol. Consequently, Russia declared war on Turkey on 2 November and France and Britain followed suit on 5 November. In return, on 11 November the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed V, declared jihad on the Allies.
A British Indian force, concerned for the supply of oil in the Middle East, advanced on the city of Basra, now part of Iraq but in 1914 part of the Ottoman Empire. After a few skirmishes on the approach to the city, the Turks abandoned Basra, allowing the Anglo-Indian force to capture it unopposed on 22 November.
The Far East
The war began to take on the dimensions of a global conflict when, on 23 August, Japan declared war on Germany and, two days later, on Austria-Hungary. Japan had been Britain’s ally since 1902, and was keen to seize Germany’s Pacific territories. Meeting limited resistance, Japan soon captured a number of islands in the Pacific that Germany had acquired in the late nineteenth century as part of its efforts to build a colonial empire. On 2 September, Japanese forces landed on China’s Shandong Province with the intention of capturing the German port of Tsingtao. They were soon joined by a small contingent of British troops. The Japanese advanced on the port and from 31 October laid siege to it. The Kaiser, concerned for Tsingtao, said, ‘It would shame me more to surrender Tsingtao to the Japanese than Berlin to the Russians.’ But, on 7 November, surrender they did. From Tsingtao, the Japanese captured numerous German islands in the North Pacific, including the Marianas, Carolines and the Marshall Islands.
The British Empire at War
With Britain’s entry into the war on 4 August, its dominions were, technically, also at war. None demurred. India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa all committed themselves to the motherland’s conflict.
In August 1914, Britain asked New Zealand to capture the island of Samoa in the South Pacific, thereby providing Great Britain a ‘great and urgent Imperial service’. New Zealand complied and on 30 August took the island without resistance.
The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force embarking for New Guinea
Australia’s prime minister, Joseph Cook, declared, ‘Remember that when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war.’ His successor, Andrew Fisher, in September, offered a similar message, stating, ‘Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend Britain to our last man and our last shilling.’ On 21 September 1914, the newly formed Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) seized the German island colony of New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea, suffering six dead and four wounded – the first Australian casualties of the war – before going on to capture German New Guinea.
The War in Africa
Germany had, in the latter years of the nineteenth century, acquired a number of African colonies. With the outbreak of war in 1914, and Germany’s commitment to a war on two fronts, the colonies knew not to expect German help. The British and its dominions now sought to dismantle the German African empire colony by colony.
The West African colony of Togoland (a territory now split between Togo and part of Ghana) was invaded by an Anglo-French force on 6 August and surrendered on 26 August. The German colony of Cameroon was also attacked on 6 August and much of it fell within a few weeks, although pockets of resistance continued until February 1916.
On 13 September 1914, South African troops attacked German South West Africa (now Namibia). The defeat of the colony might have happened more quickly had there not been a rebellion among some of the South African officers who saw an opportunity to revenge their defeat by Britain during the Boer War twelve years earlier. Having suppressed the rebellion, German South West Africa fell to the Allies in July 1915 with the loss of only 113 casualties.
General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the ‘Lion of Africa’
But it was the colony of German East Africa (now Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) that caused the Allies the biggest difficulty. Commanded by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the ‘Lion of Africa’, with only 3,000 German and about 11,000 native, ‘Askari’, troops, the colony held out for the entire duration of the war. The British sent various armies, sometimes numbering up to 40,000 men, to try to defeat the maverick general. The first confrontation of the East African war, the Battle of Tanga, or the ‘the Battle of the Bees’, took place between 3 and 5 November 1914. Both sides were attacked by swarms of angry bees, hence the name. (The British believed the bees to be an elaborate German ploy.) The British and colonial armies, despite vastly superior numbers, were beaten back. Following the battle, the opposing commanders met under a white flag and shared a bottle of brandy.
Throughout the war, Britain’s high command received much criticism for expending such effort and manpower into what was no more than a side issue. (Von Lettow-Vorbeck only surrendered on 25 November 1918, a whole two weeks after the end of the war.)
While most of Germany’s campaigns in Africa were defensive, they did attack Portuguese-controlled Angola. Although Germany did not officially declare war on Portugal until 1916, skirmishes took place in Angola from October 1914 until July 1915 when the Germans surrendered.