German East African Askaris in the late 1880s

Figure 1
Swahili Askari NCO
East Africa c1888

Figure 2
Sudanese Askari
Cairo 1889

Figure 3
Sudanese Askari  NCO
Cairo 1889

Figure 4
Zulu Askari
Bagamoyo 1889


The first East African askaris in German service (those of the German East Africa Company and the Wissmanntruppe) came from several different sources as did their uniforms. Although uniforms were issued to most askaris not all were dressed according to standards. One eyewitness described some of the the Wissmanntruppe as, "(they) couldn't have looked less military, with one man in a caftan, another in an Arab robe, yet another with the remains of an earlier European uniform hanging off him, all in front line service" (as quoted by R Schmidt in "German Schutztruppe in East Africa 1889-1911" by E Nigmann, see Book Reviews Page). By 1890 some form of uniformity was achieved when all askaris wore the khaki uniform of the Sudanese troops (see East African Askaris in the Early 1890s)

Swahili Askaris of the German East Africa Company
In the late 1880s the German East Africa Company had recruited a small number of Swahili askaris to protect their interests on the coast of German East Africa. Upon the formation of the Wissmanntruppe these askari were enrolled as the Swahili Company.

The Swahili askaris wore a short sleeved white naval style uniform. It had a broad square naval collar edged in the imperial colours. They wore matching white trousers but no boots or puttees. Their headdress was a red fez with a blue/black tassel.

  Figure1 is based on a photograph of a Swahili Askari NCO taken in about 1888. During the late 1880's the German East Africa Trading Company recruited a small number of askaris from the German colony to protect their trading interests. They wore a white naval style uniform as described above and seen here. These Swahili askaris were then incorporated (with the same uniforms) into the Wissmanntruppe in 1889. This askari wears NCO rank insignia in the from of a single blue inverted chevron on the upper left arm and carries an entrenching tool in addition to his large box ammunition pouch. Even in the early German colonial campaigns, entrenching was an important part of the siege warfare that evolved. This askari carries a Mauser 71 carbine.  

Sudanese Askaris of the Wissmanntruppe
The Sudanese askaris still wore their old uniforms from previous service in the Anglo-Egyptian army. The tunics were khaki with a stand a fall collar, plain shoulder straps, plain cuffs, no pockets and five brass buttons fastening the front. They wore matching khaki trousers and dark blue/grey puttees with brown leather boots. Their headdress consisted of a red fez. Askaris of the Anglo-Egyptian army had previously worn white cloths tied around their fezzes as a form of cover from the sun. Photographs of the askaris newly recruited into German service (and period illustrations of them) show a grey turban wrapped around the fez. This turban is illustrated by Knötel (see Illustrated Plates Page) as having a brass imperial eagle on the front.

These Anglo-Egyptian khaki uniforms became the basis of the standard design for all future uniforms of the Schutztruppe askaris in German East Africa.

  Figure 2 is based on a photograph of a Sudanese Askari of the Wissmanntruppe taken in Cairo, Egypt 1889 during their recruitment by Leutnant Theremin. He wears the Anglo-Egyptian khaki uniform with grey turban, dark/blue grey puttees and brown boots as described above. This askari's turban does not seem to have the brass imperial eagle on the front. It is possible that this was a later addition to the uniform.

His equipment consists only of a brown leather belt with a plain brass buckle. The Wissmanntruppe were supplied with the Jägerbüchse 71 rifle but this askari is still armed with his old Remington Rolling Block Rifle (Recommended External Link - Remington Rolling Block Page at Military Surplus Guns) as previously used by the Anglo-Egyptian army. It is not known if these rifles were still in use by the time these askaris reached East Africa or whether they had all been replaced by the Jägerbüchse 71.

This askari also sports scarred cheeks, a traditional decoration among certain Sudanese tribes. Such scars became the mark of the elite Sudanese later in the Schutztruppe's history and were later sometimes copied by non-Sudanese askaris.

Figure 3 is based on a photograph of a Sudanese Askari Effendi (African Officer) of the Wissmanntruppe taken in Cairo, 1889. He wears the same uniform as the previous figure from the same photograph. His rank as an officer is implied by his carrying of a sword (Senior African NCOs in the Wissmanntruppe were entitled to carry a sword like an officer would. By the 1890's this practice was abandoned for askari NCOs) and his chevron cuff insignia the colours or detail of which cannot be easily made out in the original photograph, though they may be a remnant of French influence on the Anglo-Egyptian army.

Likewise, any shoulder strap insignia (if there was any) is also not clear in the original photograph upon which this illustration is based. African officers, Effendis, in the Wissmanntruppe usually wore from one to three five-pointed metal stars on their shoulder straps (see German East African Effendi Uniforms Page). Numbers of junior officers were recruited in Egypt to accompany the Sudanese askaris. These officers were from the same remnants of the Anglo-Egyptian army as the other ranks. As well as Sudanese they included various nationalities from across the Ottoman world such as Egypt, Turkey, Armenia and Greece. While these officers were useful in the short term to help smooth the passage to German service they were eventually deemed unnecessary and were gradually phased out.

Photo © Frankfurt University Koloniales Bildarchiv

The photographs above and below were taken in Cairo, Egypt in February 1889. They show some of the first Sudanese askaris recruited from the Anglo-Egyptian army.

The askaris wear the Anglo-Egyptian army khaki uniform with grey turban, dark/blue grey puttees and brown boots. Their equipment consists only of a brown leather belt with a plain brass buckle. They are armed with the Remington Rolling Block Rifle from their former service. On the right of the photograph is an Effendi (African Officer). His rank as an officer is shown with looped chevrons on the cuffs. He carries a sword rather than a rifle.

The German officers are identified in the caption to the photograph as von Wissmann and Oberleutnant Schaffer being seated in civilian clothes and Hauptmann von Böhlau and Hauptmann B(?) standing behind in uniform. Their ranks are presumably those from their home units, as the Wissmanntruppe did not use the rank of Oberleutnant or Hauptmann. Instead both officers show the Wissmanntruppe rank of Leutnant with two band of lace in the Imperial colours on each cuff.

Photo © Frankfurt University Koloniales Bildarchiv

Zulu Askaris of the Wissmanntruppe
The Ngoni Zulu askaris recruited in Portuguese East Africa were issued a naval style uniform with a square collar edged in the imperial colours very similar to the Swahili askaris except in blue for parade and one of similar design in khaki for active service. Again they wore a red fez with blue/black tassel, trousers matching their tunics and no boots or puttees.

A Danish planter, Christian Lautherborn, made the following observations of the Zulu Askaris: "The uniforms consisted of trousers with short legs and shirts with short sleeves; this must have been the most difficult type of work they had ever had. It took more than an hour to learn how use these two pieces of clothing. Some tried to use the shirt as trousers, others the trousers as a shirt and some even carried shirts and trousers back to front" (see full transcription below).

  Figure 4 is based on a photograph of a Zulu Askari of the Wissmanntruppe taken in about 1889. He wears the blue naval style uniform worn by Zulu askaris of the Wissmanntruppe on parade. Although it may have been worn in action on occasion it was usually replaced on active service by a khaki uniform of similar cut. It has the same square collar edged in the imperial colours as the Swahili askaris white uniform but in period photographs, four buttons fastening the front can clearly be made out. The red fez worn by this askari is of a more conical shape than usually seen. The shape, height and style of fezzes varied considerably. This askari also wears a white shirt under his naval top.

Zulu Askaris of the Wissmanntruppe c1889
Photo by
W. Janke © Frankfurt University Koloniales Bildarchiv


Rank Insignia
Askari NCOs wore one to four inverted chevrons to display their rank (see NCO Rank Insignia Page). Wissmanntruppe askaris used Ottoman NCO titles, another tradition dating back to the previous service of many Sudanese askaris in the Anglo-Egyptian army. Their titles were- Ombasha/Gefrieter (with one stripe), Schausch/Unteroffizier (with two stripes), Bet-Schausch/Sergeant (with three stripes) and Sol/Feldwebel (with four stripes).

These chevrons were worn in blue on the upper left arm, although little standardisation seems apparent in period photographs with some NCOs wearing their chevrons on the lower or right arms and some possibly using red chevrons as had the Anglo-Egyptian army. In 1890 all chevrons were officially changed to red.

Photographs of Sudanese askaris in Cairo show one of them wearing some form of looped cuff lace to indicate his rank. This may be a left over from earlier French influence on the Anglo-Egyptian army.

Personal equipment usually consisted of a Prussian army large ammunition box at the front of a brown leather belt, sometimes worn with a matching pouch at the back. Some Sudanese askaris not wearing the central ammunition pouch can be seen in period photographs to be wearing a plain brass oblong belt buckle (again probably the same ones as used by the Anglo-Egyptian army). Askaris would also have carried water bottles, bread bags and blankets, although I have no information as to their sources.

The majority of the Wissmanntruppe were armed with the Jägerbüchse 71 rifle and the S71/84 bayonet. Photographs taken of the Sudanese askaris in Cairo shortly after their recruitment show them still carrying their old Remington Rolling Block rifles (and matching bayonets, similar to the French Chassepot model) from the Anglo-Egyptian army and some may have made their way to East Africa. Other askaris of this period have been photographed with Mauser 71 carbines and older obsolete firearms. Bayonet knots were not worn by askaris.

An Eyewitness Account of the Wissmanntruppe Zulu Askaris and Their Uniforms

A Danish planter, Christian Lautherborn (1), made the following observations of the Zulu Askaris employed for service in German East Africa by Hermann von Wissmann in a letter to his sister back in Denmark on 4th July 1889 (2).

“Among Wissmann’s native soldiers, I am most interested in the Zulus. When they arrived here they knew absolutely nothing about being a soldier or Civilisation for that matter. Their clothing was like our forefathers’ after the Fall of Man, the only difference being that the Zulus have replaced the fig leaves around the waist with a piece of nicely cut skin, with fringes.

Their ears had large wholes which were used to carry small, but vital items. In one ear they carried their snuff inside a dry leaf, and in the other they had a toothbrush. Not of the same type we civilized people use, but a short piece of a green twig from some tough tree; one end was chewed up in fine threads, almost like a paintbrush, and they use their toothbrushes after each meal.

As for their long, almost wool-like hair, they have plaited it with grass (similar to what we do when plaiting a horse’s mane with straw), thus leaving the plaits bristling in all directions, almost like the spines of a hedgehog.

We had the most fun when the Zulus received their uniforms. The uniforms consisted of trousers with short legs and shirts with short sleeves (3); this must have been the most difficult type of work they had ever had. It took more than an hour to learn how use these two pieces of clothing. Some tried to use the shirt as trousers, others the trousers as a shirt and some even carried shirts and trousers back to front.

When they finally were properly dressed, they had to learn to wear the red caps, and this was almost as difficult as learning to wear the uniform. It was almost impossible to squeeze in their bristling plaits under the cap; and when they finally succeeded, only a slight movement made the plaits come out again, thus leaving the cap balancing on the top of the plaits for a few seconds before it fell to the ground. However, they wanted to look like the other native soldiers, so the next day they sat around in the town, cutting off each others plaits.

The Zulus’ first time on the shooting range was almost as funny; most of the men may have been used to bows and arrows, but when aiming their rifles they were terrified of what would happen when they pulled the trigger. This happened the first day only, and now they are no worse than other native soldiers.

Each day the Zulus get more civilized. When they leave for guard duty, they have replaced the snuff and toothbrushes in their ears with a cigar in one ear and a cartridge in the other, because, as they say, taking a cartridge from the ear is much quicker than taking it from the ammunition pouch, and if Buschiri (4) should come by, they want to be ready.

By the way, the Zulus are very brave and most ambitious. They say: ‘We may be savages and have never known about soldiering, but it will not take long before we are as good as the others,’ and they really do their best to learn, and over time they will be fine soldiers.” (5)

Notes on this Account

(1) Christian Lautherborn (1860-1906) went to Texas in November 1879 and worked at various cotton plantations around Columbus, Galveston and Oyster Creek until late 1887, when he was offered a job as planter in German East Africa arriving at Zanzibar on 16th May 1888. From here he went to his plantation, owned by the German East Africa Company, near Pangani. When the Arab Uprising began in August 1888, he escaped from Pangani which was taken by the rebels. From Pangani he went to Bagamoyo where he joined the local defence forces. Despite having no prior military training himself, he was given command of a native unit (probably Swahilli Askaris of the German East Africa Company) which became rather good at shooting as well as marching. On 5th December 1888 and 3rd March 1889 he took part in the defence of Bagamoyo against attacks from Abushiri's rebel forces. When Commissioner Hermann von Wissmann arrived in German East Africa with his expeditionary force in May 1889, Christian Lautherborn left the military. He then took part in rebuilding Bagamoyo serving as an engineer as well as master builder. He had hoped to be able join the Emin Pasha Expedition in 1890, but too much work in Bagamoyo made this impossible. Early 1891 he went back to the plantation in Pangani which had been completely destroyed during the Uprising and had to be rebuilt. Later he was put in charge of two further plantations at Kikogwe and Mwera, where he worked until his death at Kikogwe on 10th December 1906.

(2) Sources- This and other letters were first published as "A faithful Servant - Letters from Christian Lautherborn" in the book "Those who left home" by Karl Larsen, Gyldendalske Boghandel Nordisk Forlag, 2nd Edition, Copenhagen 1914. The Danish text of this book is made available online by the Archive of Danish Literature; see De, der tog hjemmefra. This translation of the letter and the accompanying notes were done by Per Finsted (of the Chakoten Danish Military History Website) who kindly forwarded them to this website. Further information on Christian Lautherborn, including a number of interesting photos can be found at Christian Lautherborn at the Vendsyssel Historical Museum, based on the fine work done by Ms Anna Marie Knudsen, who is a B.A. in history from Aalborg University 1998.

(3) Uniforms- This description fits perfectly with out knowledge of the Wissmanntruppe Zulu Askari uniforms (as described at the top of this page), it unfortunately does not mention whether these uniforms were blue or khaki service dress.

(4) Abushiri ibn Salim al-Harthi (18..-1889), the leader of the Abushiri Rebellion, otherwise known as the Arab Revolt (1888-90).

(5) Other Reports of the Early Zulu Recruits- The observations seen here can be read as a supplement to those by Hauptmann Georg Richelmann on the first drill exercises by the Zulus, as referred to on P5 of "German Schutztruppe in East Africa 1889-1911" by Ernst Nigmann (see Book Reviews Page).

Special thanks for help on this page is due to M Reid (and his colleagues at the Gentlemen's Military Interest Club) for information on the uniforms of the Anglo-Egyptian army, and to Per Finsted (of the Chakoten Danish Military History Website) for the Eyewitness Account of the Wissmanntruppe Zulu Askaris. 

Recommended External Links-

Abushiri and the Wissmanntruppe by Rudy Scott Nelson at the
Die Wißmann-Truppe by Horst Hübner at
Hermann von Wissmann by Thomas Morlang at
German Colonial Wars by Paul Beck at Savage and

Recommended Published Sources-

"German Schutztruppe in East Africa 1889-1911" by Ernst Nigmann translated by Robert E Dohrenwend (Published by Battery Press)
"Die Kaiserliche Schutz- und Polizeitruppe für Afrika" by Reinhard Schneider (Published by Druffel & Vorwinkel-Verlag)
"The German Colonial Troops 1889-1918" by
Jürgen Kraus and Thomas Müller (Published by Verlag in English or German)
"Askari und Fitafita - Farbiger Söldner in den deutschen Kolonien" by Thomas Morlang (Published by CH Links)
"Die Deutsche Schutztruppe 1889/1918" by Werner Haupt (Published by Dörfler)

"German Schutztruppe
in East Africa 1889-1911"
Ernst Nigmann
Available from Battery Press



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