The German Colonies and their Armed Forces


A Map of the the Colonial World 1905 - The German Colonies are marked in Blue
Picture from Bibliothek allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens für Militäranwärter Band I / WikiCommons

Germany, only having been unified in 1871 was a late-comer to the colonial race. There had been various German trading posts and missionary centres in Africa since the 17th Century and more so in the early 19th Century but the idea of colonies was opposed initially by the German Chancellor, Bismarck. It was only as late as 1884 that Bismarck changed his mind.

In that year Germany laid claims to protectorates around existing German trading bases in South West Africa (modern Namibia), East Africa (modern Tanzania), Togo, Cameroon and New Guinea. Kiaochow with the port of Tsingtao was leased from China in 1897, while a further colony was established in Samoa in 1899. In a very short space of time Germany had become a major colonial power.

The colonies were a source of national pride for the new German Empire but were rarely profit-making during their short existence. Between the formation of the German Empire in 1871 and its ultimate collapse as a result of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the German Imperial army fought no European wars but in that time the German Imperial navy and colonial forces fought many bloody overseas campaigns.
Recommended External Link -
Deutsche Schutzgebiete

Feld-Kompangie of the Cameroon Schutztruppe on Parade
Photo © Mark Skurka see For Sale page for details


Campaigns in the German Colonies

Establishment of the Colonies
The establishment of each of the colonies was relatively peaceful and did not involve large numbers of troops. Usually simple treaties were signed by German entrepreneurs with local tribal chiefs guaranteeing German protection in return for certain trading rights and a flag was raised. The only armed forces involved were often a small naval gunboat with a company of sailors. The only opposition to the initial claims to the territories usually came from the other European powers and were settled by treaties and conventions signed thousands of miles from the actual lands being taken over.

Expeditions into the Interior
Initially German settlements were only situated along the coastlines of the colonies but as German expeditions ventured into the interior of the territories agreed as theirs that they began to encounter armed resistance from the local population. These expeditions often had to be accompanied by small forces of the local Schutztruppe and Polizeitruppe and small skirmishes were common. Even by 1914 the interiors of some colonies remained uncharted territory.

Colonial rule was harsh on the local populations and taxation, changes to local traditions and abuses of power all brought about rebellion in the colonies. Small isolated rebellions were common and were usually put down by the local Polizeitruppe or Schutztruppe, larger rebellions required additional reinforcements from Germany. Rebellions were ruthlessly put down, often with extremely harsh reprisals taken against the rebellious peoples sometimes resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

The First World War
The German colonies were unprepared for a war against their neighbouring colonies. The general way of thinking was that the war would be won or lost in Europe and that any colonies lost would be instantly re-gained after a German victory on the Western Front. The only strategic aims of the colonies in the event of a war were therefore to try to protect their radio transmitters for the benefit of the Imperial navy and to possibly draw away enemy troops and resources from the European theatre of war.

When war broke out in the Summer of 1914 the colonies were left to their own meagre devices to defend themselves with no hope of such reinforcements from Germany due the to blockade enforced by the Entente navies. One by one, most of the colonies surrendered to vastly superior Entente forces- Togo, New Guinea, Tsingtao and Samoa in 1914, German South West Africa in 1915 and Cameroon in 1916. It was only the Schutztruppe of German East Africa that were still fighting at the time of the Armistice in November 1918.

German East African Schutztruppe Askaris on the March during the First World War c1914-16
Photo by Walther Dobbertin, Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia


Forces in the German Colonies

Unlike Britain and France, Germany never stationed regular army units in the their colonies nor did they build up large colonial armies for use abroad. The forces they did have were relatively small (even by comparison with those of the Belgian and Portuguese colonies), and were intended only for police work and quelling local rebellions. In the case of large rebellions, additional reinforcements were sent from Germany or nearby warships. The military forces available to each colony came from several potential sources described below. Each of these sources will be discussed in more detail in each colony's own introduction.

The larger German colonies (German South West Africa, German East Africa and Cameroon) had their own regular colonial troops known as "Schutztruppe". A colony was referred to in German as a "Schutzgebiet" (or literally a Protectorate), so the soldiers stationed there were referred to as "Schutztruppe" (literally meaning Protection-troop). The Schutztruppe were the backbone of defence and counter-rebellion forces of the three main African colonies. In German East Africa and Cameroon the Schutztruppe consisted of German Officers and NCOs with African other ranks. The Schutztruppe of German South West Africa consisted exclusively of German officers and other ranks.

The Schutztruppe of all three colonies were trained up to high standards. The German officers and NCOs in them usually having volunteered for overseas service and already having previously served in the regular German army or navy. The African soldiers in the Schutztruppe of German East Africa and Cameroon were also drilled and trained up to regular German army standards. They were amongst the best African troops on the continent being well armed, highly motivated and with relatively good pay (as compared with other European colonial armies). These African troops were usually recruited from outside the territory or area in which they served. This made them less likely to side with the local people in the event of a rebellion. The Schutztruppe of all three colonies were formed into company sized formations, stationed in small forts spread across each colony.

The Schutztruppe came under the control of the Imperial Colonial Ministry ("Reichskolonialamt") in Berlin rather than the Ministry of War and therefore did not always follow the same procedure or uniform regulations that governed the regular German army although similarities did exist. The Schutztruppe for each colony were formed separately from each other between the late 1880's and early 1890's and for a while no uniformity existed between them. Between 1894-96 an element of cohesive organisation was introduced especially in areas of  training, uniforms and cross posting of German officers and NCOs. Each colony's troops however, still retained differences based on local conditions.
Recommended External Link -

The Kaiser Inspects the South West African Schutztruppe, Potsdam 1894
Photo © Frankfurt University Koloniales Bildarchiv

Each colony had police troops ("Polizeitruppe") officered by Germans with the rank and file usually recruited from the local populace (the exception was German South West Africa which instead had a state police force or "Landespolizei", made up mainly of German officers and other ranks). The Germans in the colonial police were usually recruited from police forces in Germany rather than from the army. They did not necessarily have military training and were classed as officials ("Beamte") rather than military personnel. The African or Pacific Islander other ranks were however regarded as military personnel ("Polizei-Soldaten"). Although they were not trained up to full Schutztruppe or German army standards, the Polizeitruppe did recieve some military training and were fully armed with rifles and machine guns.

These colonial police were used to collect taxes, quell minor rebellions and keep law and order in peacetime. On some Pacific Islands they also doubled as postmen. When the First World War broke out the police forces in East Africa, South West Africa and Cameroon were incorporated into the Schutztruppe, while the police forces in Togo and New Guinea formed the main part of the German defences.
Recommended External Link - Polizeigeschichte

New Guinea Polizeitruppe on Parade
Photo © Frankfurt University Koloniales Bildarchiv

Imperial Navy
One of the main strategic uses of the colonies was as bases for the Imperial German navy ("Kaiserliche Marine") with vital coaling depots and large radio stations capable of communicating with their ships across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. As such all the colonies received regular visits from German warships which also at times of rebellion could provide artillery support and landing parties.
Recommended External Link - Kaiserliche Marine

The German-leased territory of Kiaochow in China was unique as a colony in that it was governed and defended by the navy and naval troops (rather than the colonial office and the Schutztruppe). The port of Tsingtao served as the base of the German East Asian fleet.
Recommended External Link - Tsingtau Info

Some colonies also had their own non-military ships, separate from the Imperial navy. These vessels came under the control of the colonial governors and were officered by Germans with locally recruited crews. They were not intended for military use although they could be used to ferry supplies and troops in times of war.
Recommend External Link - Axis History Forum Discussion on the Nachtigal

Naval Landing Party SMS Königsberg, East Africa 1914
Photo © Frankfurt University Koloniales Bildarchiv


Marine Infantry
The German marine infantry battalions ("Seebataillone") were part of the Imperial navy but were trained and uniformed in the style of the Imperial army (but with additional training at sea). The I. and II. Seebataillone were based in Germany but were ready to be shipped out to the colonies to assist in times of major rebellions (such as the Dahomey Slaves Rebellion in Cameroon in 1893, the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, the Herero Rebellion in South West Africa 1904 and the Maji-Maji Rebellion in East Africa in 1905). The III. Seebataillon was permanently based in Tsingtao along with a Marine Field Artillery Battery.
Recommended External Link - Marine Infanterie

Marine Field Battery on the beach at Tsingtao
Photograph from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

Prussian civilians had been liable for conscription since the Napoleonic Wars. From 1893 the periods set for service in the home army were two years with the full time regular army (or navy) followed by five with the reserve (or naval reserve). After service in the reserve, German civilians served twelve years with the Landwehr and another six with the Landsturm until they were 45 years old. From 1912 onwards German civilians living in the colonies came under the same reservist call-up laws as in Germany.

In practice most Germans living in the colonies had already served their two years in the regular army. Service and training in the Reserve (and Landwehr and Landsturm) was not full time like in the regular army and usually only required a small amount of time spent training or on exercise each year. In the colonies this was rarely put into practice except in times of serious rebellion or war. Reservists were called up during the Herero Rebellion in South West Africa, the Maji-Maji Rebellion in German East Africa and during the Boxer Rebellion in China German civilians formed an 800 strong "Kommando" Detachment.

When the First World War broke out each of the German colonies, therefore had numbers of farmers, traders and other colonists, most with some military training available for action. The Schutztruppe and colonial governments also had administrative personnel such as governor's staff, garrison officers, depot staff, paymasters, train crews, boat crews, vets, doctors, hospital staff and in the case of German South West Africa, a camel stud farm staff. These were either kept in their useful jobs in wartime or transferred to reservist units. Many Germans even travelled vast distances across Africa or China to get to the nearest colony to volunteer their services.

Native Irregulars
All the colonies recruited irregulars as scouts, guides and light infantry from the local populations. Often in Africa, the Germans would encourage friendly tribes to serve alongside them against their rebellious neighbours. Local civilians were also employed by the Schutztruppe and colonial forces as servants, cooks, transport drivers and for many other tasks including working as aircraft ground crews. The African colonies (especially German East Africa, Cameroon and Togo) also relied heavily on large numbers of native porters for transportation.

African Warriors in German Service
Photo by Paul Hoffmann from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

Expeditionary Corps
If the need for overseas action called for more than the local Schutztruppe or Polizeitruppe could contain then naval help and the Seebataillone were called upon. If the perceived need outweighed these forces then expeditions were formed in Germany from regular army personnel for service overseas. Prior to the First World War these troops were formed into newly established units rather than sending existing army units overseas as the other European powers did. The main reason for this was that the peacetime command of the German armies lay with the different kingdoms that made up the German Empire and that they would then have to have the approval not only of the Reichstag parliament in Berlin but also of the individual kingdoms and their respective war ministries leading to time consuming debates. These newly formed Expeditions therefore came under direct imperial command as did the Schutztruppe, Seebataillone and imperial navy.

In 1900 the East Asian Expeditionary Corps was formed from volunteers from the regular imperial army and sent to China to quell the Boxer Rebellion. It arrived too late to seen the main actions of the campaign but elements of it remained in occupation until 1909. In 1904 another expeditionary corps was formed for service in the Herero Rebellion. It was made up of volunteers and conscripts from the regular Imperial army in Germany formed into new Schutztruppe units.

During the First World War two expeditionary forces, entitled Pascha I and II (the latter also known as the "Asienkorps") were formed from regular army units to assist the Ottoman army in Sinai and Palestine. A further expeditionary corps was sent to Georgia in 1918 to secure the newly declared republic and its oilfields.

Heavy Artillery of the East Asian Expeditionary Corps to China in 1900
Photo © Peter Klein

Air Power
The first use of aircraft in German colonial warfare was the Schutztruppe's limited use of balloon mounted aerials for telegraphic communications during the Herero Rebellion. Manned aircraft were not used in combat in the colonies until the First World War. German South West Africa, German East Africa and Tsingtao each had one or two aeroplanes. They were mainly used for reconnaissance and in all cases were out of action by mid 1915.
Recommended External Link - Axis History Forum Discussion on Airpower in the Colonies



Overview of German Colonialism
As with most European colonial systems, early German rule was extremely harsh on the local populations, most notably in the African colonies where tens of thousands died in the aftermath of epidemics, famines and crushed rebellions.
The largest of these rebellions (the Herero and Second Nama Rebellions in South West Africa and the Maji-Maji Rebellion in East Africa) all occurred at about the same time, 1904-1908. German retribution was severe and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of the people, men women and children. The Herero particularly were the victims of a policy of genocide that resulted in up to 80% of their population being exterminated by murder, starvation or hard labour in concentration camps.

This behaviour was of course not uniquely German. All the European colonial powers behaved barbarously. From the sixteenth century the navies of Spain, Portugal, Britain, Holland and France had raped, murdered and pillaged their way across Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. When compared to other acts of nineteenth century colonialism (such as King Leopold II of Belgium's plundering of the Congo, the British hunting to complete extinction of the Tasmanian people or episodes like the Central African Expedition of 1899, when a French colonial officer embarked on a spree of massacres and tortures across hundreds of miles until he was finally killed by his own men) it should be said that Germany was little better or worse than any of the other colonising powers.

Reports in the German press of the massacre of thousands of Africans during the Herero Rebellion and of other abuses of power in Cameroon and Togo along with the rising cost to the German tax payer for running the colonies led to fierce debate about their future in the German parliament, the "Reichstag". In 1907 a new colonial secretary, Bernhard Dernburg, was appointed to carry out radical reforms. He replaced military governors with civilian ones, clamped down on abuses towards Africans and placed the new emphasis for the colonies on making them economically viable. This all led to a lessening of the harshness of colonial rule.

On a positive note, the Germans brought schools, medicines, railways, harbours and building skills to their colonies. It should however be stressed that these benefits were usually only brought into effect for the profit of the colonisers and not for broadly philanthropic reasons. Harbours could export more cheap raw materials, railways could bring them from inland, healthier Africans could work longer hours in the fields, education meant that Africans could be employed for minor official tasks at a fraction of the cost of Europeans.

Colonialism always worked only for the benefit of the coloniser to the detriment of the colonised.

After Germany's defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 stripped Germany of all her colonies and overseas possessions. The former German colonies were declared as Mandates under the League of Nations but in effect they were divided as spoils of war amongst the victorious Entente powers as new colonies of their own.



Please contact me here if you have more information or photos on this topic. 

Back to Main Menu for German Colonial Uniforms