So, with the 100th anniversary of WW1 just around the corner, it’s become a fashionable thing to talk about. And one of the Things Everybody Says about the First World War is that the African campaigns are so little-known. There are two bits about the African campaign that always come up in this discussion: the first is the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, which was headed up on the British side by an eccentric named Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson, and the second is the remarkable career of Germany’s commander in Africa, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. You can read about Spicer-Simson in Giles Foden’s Mimi and Toutou Go Forth, and about the war in Africa more generally in Edward Paice’s Tip and Run.
Today I’m just going to talk briefly about a lesser-known figure of the campaign, a guy called Kurt Wahle. Wahle holds the record for being the oldest combatant in any army in WW1. He had joined the German — well, perhaps the Saxon — army in 1867 (I make him 12 at the time, which is a bit young, even for 1867, surely) and risen to the rank of Major-General before retiring. One of his sons was a settler in a German colony in Africa, and Wahle was visiting him when the war broke out. He quickly joined up — along with his son — and served for the next four years, leading a force consisting mainly of native askaris and allied Ruga-ruga tribesmen. Although the senior German officer in the region, he had the good sense to leave the leadership to Von Lettow-Vorbeck, one of the best German generals of the era.
Interestingly, Paice says that Wahle received the Pour le Merite for his service, but I can’t find his name on any list of recipients. A helpful stranger on the internet suggests that Von Lettow-Vorbeck recommended Wahle for the Blue Max, but he didn’t actually get it. I wonder if he’s the same Major-General Wahle whose son served as an officer in the German army in WWII. That Wahle was also a Saxon, but his name seems to have been Otto. Not sure.
Anyway, my main point is the unpredictability of history there. Long-retired, you take the steamship out to Africa to see how your son is getting on as one of the inheritors of Germany’s colonial empire. Four years later, you’re being taken to a hospital by the British — double hernia, the poor old devil — and there is no German colonial empire. And your son’s in a POW camp.
I mean, there are old generals, but Wahle wasn’t some guy sending out telegrams from a comfortable HQ building, he was trekking through the wilderness with a couple of companies’ worth of askaris — a job for some captain in the prime of his life, not a retired general.
Not an interesting character so much as a very strange and interesting situation.