Parting shots...

Every historian knows that the Great War (1914-1919) didn't officially end until the peace treaty negotiated in Paris was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on 28th June 1919.

What few people realise is that the Armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the previous year did not mark the end of hostilities. The Great War began with a gun fired in Sarajevo. But the final shots were fired long after the Armistice in 1918.

The last German army unit of  30 officers, 125 NCOs and 1168 troops didn't formally surrender until November 25th 1918. Their commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was the only German to have invaded British territory during the course of the war. On his return home, he alone was accorded the singular honour of marching his troops through the Brandenburg Gate.

His unit had waged a guerrilla war in Africa throughout the years 1914-1918. Indeed, he and his men had been so successful - and were regarded with such high esteem by their enemies - that several British army officers contributed to Lettow-Vorbeck's pension when the general fell on hard times in the 1930s.

It's a remarkable story. Lettow-Vorbeck is in many ways a German 'Lawrence of Arabia', constantly harrying the Empire troops and preventing them from defeating a crafty and persistent enemy. The final shots fired by his unit were discharged against a small settlement of what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), defended only by a small contingent of civilian officials together with eleven men of the North Rhodesia Police.

While the 'battle' raged (there were, thankfully, no casualties) word came through to Hector Croad, the local district commissioner, that an important telegram containing news that 'the war in Germany was over' was about to arrive.

Then, in a scene reminiscent of an early episode of Dad's Army, the small contingent 'grabbed table napkins' and 'ordered the natives' to tie them on sticks. Meanwhile, a table cloth was fastened to a pole and sent with another native 'up to the roof' to be tied to the chimney.

Under cover of their white-flags, the British approached Lettow-Vorbeck's unit with a copy of the telegram. On reading it, the German's laid down their weapons. But the nearest British troops to officially receive their surrender were 150 miles away in what was then called Abercorn, but is now Mbala. So the Germans began their final march, arriving in Abercorn on 25th November 1918 and thus becoming the final German army unit to surrender.

And so the Great War ended. Almost ten million dead, the end of empires and the sowing of the seeds of destruction that were to become the Second World War twenty years later fizzled out like a damp November 5th firework. The site is marked today by a small cairn in the middle of a roundabout.

But although hostilities had ended, war work hadn't. The British Army remained in France and Flanders for another three years, clearing the battlefields and burying the dead. Which is where the story of this blog - and book - began.

Thanks for reading!


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