Great Britain declared war on Germany on 5 August 1914, but it was not until seven o’clock on the morning of 22nd August that Corporal Ernest Thomas of ‘C’ Squadron, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, riding with a mounted patrol near the village of Casteau, Belgium, fired the British Expeditionary Force’s first shot of the war. Soon after on the same day Captain Charles B Hornby of the same regiment plunged his sabre into the breast of a German uhlan. Today a bronze plaque in English and French memorializes these actions. Contrary to popular belief, however, Corporal Thomas’s was not the first British bullet fired in anger in the war. That shot had been fired at least a week earlier a few miles north of Lomé in remote Togoland, a country larger than Ireland but unknown to most Britons. It was fired by an unidentified black African wearing a British uniform. No memorial marks the spot.
Togoland (somewhat larger than present day Togo) was then a German protectorate in West Africa sandwiched uncomfortably between the British colony of Gold Coast (Ghana) and the French colony of Dahomey (Benin). Its thirty-two miles of seaboard on the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea formed part of what was often called the Slave Coast, for Togoland lay in that area which supplied most of the slaves sent to the New World between 1560 and 1860. Although only 130 miles wide on average, it extended nearly 400 miles from the Gulf of Guinea to the plains of southern Gourma. In 1914 it had perhaps a million inhabitants.
The region was acquired by Germany in 1844, although its hinterland was largely unexplored and its frontiers were not fixed until 1899. In less than forty years the Germans managed to build a model little colony with a stable government and a reasonably prosperous economy. Agriculture-primarily the growing of yams, maize and cotton-was fostered and a handful of efficient government officials exhibited a more careful consideration for the well-being of the inhabitants than was shown by Europeans in most African colonies. By 1914 it had become the only German colony that was financially independent from the Fatherland.
Given the bellicose nature of the Kaiser’s Imperial Germany, it is curious that Togoland was the only colony on the West Coast of Africa without a standing army. There existed only a paramilitary police force, the Polizeitruppe, which consisted of two regular officers seconded from the German Army, six German Polizeimeisters and 560 African non-commissioned officers and men. Most of this force was scattered about the colony in small posts; it was clearly designed for internal security and police work.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the governor of this tiny colony, Duke Adolf Friedrich zu Mechlenberg, pressed closely on both side by his country’ s enemies, was not eager for war. He proposed to his hostile neighbours that “in the interests of the natives and to show the unity of culture of the white race,”, they keep the peace in West Africa and let the big boys fight the war in Europe.
In support of this position the German diplomatists called attention to the convention signed by Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany at the Berlin Conference on African Affairs in 1885 in which a “conventional basin of the Congo” was defined as a vast area which included almost all of Central Africa in a wide belt from coast to coast. Provision was made for powers owning territories in this area to proclaim their neutrality in time of war and for all “to refrain from carrying out hostilities in the neutralized territories and from using them as bases for warlike operations”. About one third of Togoland fell within the conventional basin of the Congo, but the British and French found little difficulty in ignoring such an inconvenient agreement.
The Belgians had believed at first that they could keep the Belgian Congo (Zaire) out of the war, but when the Germans began sinking their ships on Lake Tanganyika, they soon saw that their interests would be best served by going along with their European allies, and the Belgian colonial minister declared that a Germany which regarded the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality as a mere chiffon de papier could not blame the Allies for disregarding the international agreement on the neutrality of the Congo basin.
Even before the war British diplomatists had realized that it would not be in the best interests of the British Empire to abide by the promises made concerning African territories and that Britain should regard the neutrality clauses as facultative rather than obligatory. JD Chancellor, secretary of Britain’s Colonial Defence Committee, bluntly declared on the 24th of January 1911: “In a war with France or Germany observance of Articles X and XI of the Berlin Act of 1885 [the neutrality clauses] would be in the interest of France or Germany. Consequently, Britain does not intend to abide by it.”
The Germans, with three of their four African colonies within the conventional basin of the Congo, persisted in their efforts to have the neutral status of their colonies recognised. On the 23rd of August 1914 the German government approached the United States through the American ambassador in Berlin in an effort to induce the Americans to persuade the Allies to live up to their agreements and not to extend hostilities into the African colonies. Initially, the Americans refused to do anything, but finally transmitted the German message without comment. The Allies rejected the plea. By this time blood had been spilt in Togoland. It was time for the diplomatists to retire from the scene.
The French and particularly the British had good reasons for wishing to extend the war to Togoland and the other German possessions. The newly completed wireless station at Kamina (Atakpane) in Togoland was reputed to be one of the most powerful in existence, providing direct communications with Germany and by cable connections to South America. Almost as powerful were other wireless stations at Dar-Es-Salaam in German East Africa, at Windhoek in German South-West Africa, and at Douala in the Cameroons. Each of these, and this was the special concern of the British Admiralty, was capable of communicating with ships in the Atlantic or Indian Oceans-seas in which the Germans had or could have men-of-war, cruising barracuda in a shoal of merchant ships. The British Admiralty very much wanted these wireless stations put out of action.
Temporary Brigadier General CM Dobell, inspector general of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), who was in London when war erupted, sided with the Admiralty. Called on to advise politicians and senior officers, he urged the destruction of the German wireless stations in both Togoland and the Cameroons. Dobell was not the only official away from his post at the crucial moment. The governors of both the Gold Coast and Nigeria were absent, as was the Duke of Mecklenburg on the German side. Throughout the area junior officers and officials were minding the store.
On the Gold Coast, 35-year old Frederick Carkeet Bryant, who had been left in charge of the WAFF, sprang into action. Without waiting for orders, he despatched Captain E Barker, adjutant to the Gold Coast Regiment, under a white flag to Lomé, Togoland’s capital and chief port only fifteen miles from the Gold Coast-Togoland frontier, to demand the surrender of the colony. The Germans asked for time to consider and a 24 hour truce was granted, but when Barker returned for an answer, he found that the police and most of the government officials had fled, leaving behind a minor official, the district commander, to make a curious proposal. He was authorised, he said, to surrender only the colony’s coast as far inland as an imaginary line 120 kilometres north of Lomé. As Kamina and its wireless station were 170 kilometres inland, Bryant regarded this proposal as a risible absurdity.
The energetic Captain Bryant wasted no time in gathering up two companies of the Gold Coast Regiment, some machine guns, a couple of field guns with their crews, and swarm of native carriers, and embarking them on the handiest ships in Accra’s harbour. On the 12th of August he landed at Lomé without opposition.
The French had already invaded Togoland from Dahomey on the 6th of August, seizing Little Popo (Anecho), just across the border on the coast. This was the first occupation of German territory by any Allied army. Bryant’s invasion force numbered only 57 European officers and NCOs, 535 African soldiers and some 200 carriers. The French force was even smaller: 8 Frenchmen and 150 Senegalese tirailleurs (African infantry officered by Frenchmen).
A narrow-gauge railway and a single road had been punched through the dense jungle north of Lomé and up these Bryant swiftly pushed patrols. On the 12th of August contact with the Germans was made by a patrol of the Gold Coast Regiment and shots were fired-the first rifle shots to be fired by a British soldier at Germans on any front in the Great War. On the 18th of August Bryant’s little army was joined by the French invaders from Dahomey. Bryant was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel and put in charge of both the French and British troops in southern Togoland.
On the 22nd of August, the same day that Corporal Thomas fired Britain’s first shot in Europe, Bryant’s Anglo-French force found German police and volunteers entrenched on the north bank of the Chra river just north of Nuatja. There ensued a confused battle; the fighting took place in dense bush and the attacking British and French columns lost contact with each other and failed to dislodge the Germans. Bryant’s troops dug in for the night and plans were made to renew the attack at first light, but dawn found the Germans gone. German losses had been slight, but the Allied force suffered 73 casualties, including 23 killed a loss of 17% of the force engaged.
The hottest fighting had taken place on the left flank of the German line, where the French had managed to work their way to within fifty yards of the German trenches before being forced back. It was in the fighting on this flank that Lieutenant GM Thompson of the Gold Coast Regiment (seconded from the Royal Scots), who had been given command of a company of Senegalese tirailleurs, who found dead. Around him lay thirteen African soldiers who had died in his defence. They were buried in a circle around Thompson’s grave.
On the night of the 24th and the 25th of August the Germans blew up their wireless station at Kamina and on the morning of the 25th a German officer was sent to the British lines to ask for terms.
Bryant informed him that only unconditional surrender would be acceptable. Meanwhile, another British force had invaded Togoland from northern Gold Coast and another French force from Dahomey. Neither encountered serious opposition. The German position was obviously untenable, so on the 26th of August 1914 Major von Döring, the acting German governor, surrendered unconditionally, thus ending the shortest and least bloody of the African campaigns.
It had been a smartly conducted little war from the British viewpoint, and the Admiralty was so pleased with Bryant’s performance that in a rare gesture it sent a letter of appreciation to the Colonial Office. The War Office, equally pleased, promoted him substantive major. The King graciously made him a companion of the order of St Michael and St George and the French awarded him the Legion of Honour. Bryant, one of Britain’s first heroes of the war, took leave in England to bask in his brief glory and to marry Miss Rosamund Hope. Two years later he added a Distinguished Service order to his laurels.
Togoland’s commercial life was only slightly disrupted by the brief campaign and in a few weeks trade was being carried on as smoothly as if there had been no interruption. No one asked the African inhabitants their reaction to the change of rulers; it would have seemed bizarre to have suggested such a thing.
The majority of the information about the Togoland campaign came from Byron Farwell’s excellent book “The Great War in Africa (1914-1918)”, WW Norton & Company, NY, 1989, pp.382, which has excellent coverage of the various battles and campaigns in both West Africa and East Africa.