Battle of Lugalo: African Tribesmen Wipe Out German Force ("Zelewski's Last Stand")

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Battle of Lugalo: African Tribesmen Wipe Out German Force ("Zelewski's Last Stand")

"Destruction of a German Expedition in Africa"
From the French magazine Le Petit Journal #45, October, 3 1891
[The artist obviously had done no research on uniforms, weapons, etc.]
(Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 17, 1891

As many of you may know, I am an avid miniature wargamer. My two favorite periods are the Dark Ages (hence my many posts about the Vikings); the other is the 19th century colonial campaigns of the major European powers. Today's history story is concerned with the attempts by Germany – then newly-unified and looking to start its own colonial empire – to defeat a native revolt in 1891.


With the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (also known as the Franco-German War), a "German Empire" was declared, with most of the provinces of what is now modern-day Germany following the lead of Prussian military and political causes. With the new empire's industrial capacity needing overseas markets, the Germans began seeking colonies. However, as France, Great Britain, and Portugal had gobbled up the majority of productive lands in Africa and Asia, the German Empire was left to sift through the leftovers. In Asia, German colonies popped up in northeastern New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Marshal. Islands. In Africa, the Germans established colonies in Togo, the Cameroons, German Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia), and German East Africa (Tanzania).

German colonies, 1880-1918 (Boundaries shown are c. 1900)
German colonies, 1880-1918 (Boundaries shown are c. 1900)

In East Africa, Germany took control of land hemmed in by the British to the north (Kenya and Uganda) and southwest (Zambia), the Portuguese to the south (Mozambique), and the Belgians to the west (Zaire). They established trade routes which they defended with utmost zeal. The Germans had taken over trade routes formerly under the control of the Sultan of Zanzibar. One of the major commodities of these routes had been slaves, many of whom were shipped to nearby Arabia. In 1888 a local Arab revolt took place (named the Abushiri Rebellion), which was put down by 1890.

Almost as soon as this insurrection was quelled, local native tribes in the south of the colony began their own attacks on German trading posts and routes. The main antagonists were the Hehe [pronounced "Hey Hey") tribe (the name derived from their battle cry; more on that later). The Hehe were in fact expanding their territory from their stone-walled fortress of Iringa towards the German held coast. They had gone from being a small loosely-based tribal grouping in the 1850s and expanded by conquest during the reign of Chief Munyigumbe. Under his son Chief Mkwawa (who came to throne in 1880), they had united over a hundred clans and became the dominant force in the area. In the summer of 1891, the local German administrators decided it was time to put the Hehe in their place. To that end German officer Emil von Zelewski began to organize an expeditionary force to march inland and confront the enemy.

Emil von Zelewski (1854-1891), Commandeur (Photograph courtesy of Frankfurt University Archives via Wiki Commons)
Emil von Zelewski (1854-1891), Commandeur
(Photograph courtesy of Frankfurt University Archives via Wiki Commons)

Zelewski had been in the regular German army until 1886, when he was transferred to the jurisdiction of the German East Africa Company. He served during the Abushiri Rebellion and led several independent commands during the insurrection. When the commander of the German military forces in German East Africa retired, Zelewski was promoted to command them.

German Force

Zelewski commanded the Kaiserliche Schutztruppe, a collection of native troops – known throughout Africa as askaris – who were recruited from neighboring countries, such as Sudan. Each askari company consisted of 90 soldiers, a German officer and a German NCO. In addition, each company also had an Ottoman Turkish officer, termed an effendi, who dispensed orders to the common soldiers in their own language.

Mauser Jägerbüchse 1871 single-shot rifle, used by German askaris at battle of Lugalo
Mauser Jägerbüchse 1871 single-shot rifle, used by German askaris at battle of Lugalo

Zelewski's force consisted of three companies of askaris – two Sudanese and one Zulu – totaling 90 men each, 14 officers and NCOs, three effendi, 170 native bearers, 27 donkeys, 20 cows, and a herd of 60 sheep and goats. Also accompanying the column was an artillery section, described as having 1 artillery piece – probably the 78.5 mm Krupp model 1873 – and two Maxim machine guns, all were manned by askaris. They also had a number (not stated) of native African scouts who went slightly ahead of the column to locate any Hehe. The askaris and German NCOs were armed with the single-shot Mauser Jägerbüchse 1871 rifle and probably the S71 long bayonet. The officers and effendi carried pistols, some possibly privately bought. The German officers also were likely still carrying swords into the field.

German Sudanese 'askari', c. 1891 (Image courtesy of
German Sudanese askari, c. 1891
(Image courtesy of

Hehe Force

The Hehe tribesmen which Zelewski wished to chastise had gained experience fighting neighboring tribes. They wore leather belts with hide strips or animal pelts (for modesty's sake, shall we say), or occasionally they entered battle completely naked. Their primary weapons were several throwing spears and a shorter, broad-bladed stabbing spear. Some Hehe carried short swords and axes. Contemporary reports also indicate that some Hehe carried outdated muzzle-loading trade muskets (which did not have any effect on the upcoming battle). In addition the Hehe carried large oval shields, with various designs to distinguish regiments (one regiment is known to have carried all white shields). They sometimes wore headdresses consisting of bird feathers, colored pom-poms, or decorations of animal fur. Period photographs also show them with either white-painted faces or masks.

Prelude to the Battle

Zelewski's column left from the Indian Ocean town of Kilwa on July 22, 1891, following a circuitous trade route toward the Hehe fortress of Iringa. It travelled through Mafiti territory to Kisaki and onto Myombo (near Kilossa), reaching the Lugalo region by August 16. As the column got closer to Hehe lands, they began administering a "scorched earth" policy on the rebellious tribesmen. The askaris burned a number of villages and farms as they marched.

[One German military critic stated that Zelewski would have fared better if he had put his troops aboard ships and sailed closer to the Hehe lands. He could then have sought assistance from other local tribes, principally the Masai, to help him in his expedition.]

As they marched deeper into Hehe territory, they often saw numbers of armed Hehe en route; however, these had always retreated as soon as shots were fired at them. Zelewski refrained from the use of reconnaissance patrols, which might have given the column some warning, continuing to depend only on his native scouts. Unknown to the column, an estimated 3000 Hehe warriors, under command of Mpangire the Hehe chief's brother, were preparing an ambush for the arrogant Germans.

A dry riverbed in the vicinity of the Lugalo battlefield, Tanzania (Image courtesty of
A dry riverbed in the vicinity of the Lugalo battlefield, Tanzania
(Image courtesty of

The German column arrived at the village of Ilula, about 12 miles east of Iringa on the evening of August 16, and Zelewski order his men to pitch their tents for the night. The next morning at about 6:30 am, the expeditionary force broke camp and continued on its way, following a fairly narrow trail. The terrain was hilly, covered in dry grass with thickets of dense bush and large rocks strewn about. In addition a large ridge loomed to the right of the intended route of von Zelewski's force.

Battle of Lugalo

By 7:00 am, Zelewski's command was marching below the large ridge (mentioned above) in single-file column, again with no flank guards. The order of march was:

  • African scouts with 10 Zulu askaris of the 7th Company;
  • Commander von Zelewski and Dr. Buschow (the expedition's physician), both riding donkeys;
  • Lieutenant von Pirch with the bulk of the 7th Company including Corporal Schmidt and Büchsenmacher [Gunsmith] Hengelhaupt;
  • The artillery detachment including Lieutenant von Heydebreck and Corporals Thiedemann, Herrich and Wutzer;
  • Lieutenant von Zitzewitz with the 5th Company including Corporal von Tiedewitz and Combat Medic Hemprich;
  • Sergeant Kay with 40 Sudanese askaris of the 6th Company;
  • The native porters and the expedition's luggage;
  • Lieutenant von Tettenborn with another 20 Sudanese askaris of the 6th Company;
  • The cattle, sheep and goats; and,
  • The remaining 12 Sudanese askaris of the 6th Company, acting as a rearguard.


As the German force marched past the ridge sheltering the Hehe ambush, a German officer or NCO (no one seems to know who) sighted a flock of birds flying overhead. Hoping to bag some fresh meat, the German fired at the birds. Unfortunately, this unknown soldier had mistakenly given the signal for which the Hehe were waiting. Upon hearing this errant gunshot, the Hehe warriors swarmed over the brow of the ridge and descended upon the invaders. They shouted their war chant, "Hee Twahumite, Hee Twahumite! He, he, he, heeeeee" (Hey, we have come out! Hey, hey, hey, hey!).

Instantly, the German column was engulfed by chaos. Many, if not all of the askaris marched with unloaded rifles and barely had time to load let alone form up defensive squares before the Hehe were upon them. The askaris presumably had little time to discard their full marching equipment (water bottle, bread bag, backpack and tent section wrapped around the backpack or over the shoulder) before finding themselves in hand to hand combat.

The design of the newly-issued cartridge pouches was not familiar to the askaris and vital seconds were lost before they could open fire. Even then only one or two volleys were fired which did little to stem the Hehe tide. There was no time to put the artillery into action. Pack animals and porters fled, and the artillery donkeys stampeded into the 5th Company ranks. Many askaris simply ran for their lives.

Modern reconstruction of the battle of Lugalo, using Google Earth image (Image courtesty of
Modern reconstruction of the battle of Lugalo, using Google Earth image
(Image courtesty of

The hordes of Hehe warriors engulfed the invading column within minutes, spearing men in a battle frenzy. Commander von Zelewski and Dr. Buschow were stabbed while still on their mounts. Other German officers and NCOs died just as quickly. The 5th and 7th Companies, the artillery section, and the largest part of the 6th Company were slaughtered where they stood. One survivor states that one of the machine guns managed to be deployed for action, and it took down dozens of Hehe at the very beginning of the fight.

However, Lieutenant von Tettenborn's rearguard narrowly escaped the initial onslaught of the Hehe because of the premature signal. They maneuvered up a steep slope and found a hill which they occupied and set up an outpost. Tettenborn ordered a German flag flown, and a bugle sounded to attract any survivors.

At about 7:15 am, a group of about 20 askaris, along with Lieutenant von Heydebreck and Corporal Wutzer from the artillery section, found their way to Tettenborn's outpost. Also among them were a number of the native porters, attracted by the bugle calls. By this point, the column was essentially wiped out. The Hehe were at this pointed chasing the survivors, killing the wounded, and looting the supplies. They also began picking up the askaris' rifles and their ammunition. In an attempt to smoke out any other survivors, the native warriors also set fire to the grass, sowing further confusion.

German national flag, 1871-1918
German national flag, 1871-1918

Over the next 8 ½ hours, a number of German NCO's, native porters and askaris made their way to the hilltop redoubt through the confusion and smoke of the aftermath of the attack. At about 4:00 pm Lieutenant von Tettenborn decided that no more members of the column would be coming. As a result, he ordered a withdrawal east, before their escape route could be cut off, from the direction of their original march. At nightfall, they camped next to a river east of their campsite of the previous night. Counting noses, Tettenborn found that he now commanded 2 officers (1 wounded), 3 German NCOs (one died during the night), 2 effendi, 62 askaris and their NCOs (11 wounded), 74 porters (7 wounded), and 7 donkeys. The survivors marched over the next 11 days – mostly by night – and reached the town of Myombo on August 29.


German casualties were heavy: 4 officers, 6 NCO's, 1 effendi, 256 askaris and their NCOs, and 96 porters. In addition, about 300 modern firearms fell into the hands of the Hehe. Native losses are problematic; estimates range from 260 to 1000, with Lt. Tettenborn estimating 700. Despite their win, the Hehe did not have sufficient forces to sustain the revolt.

Footnote #1: The Hehe uprising simmered for several years, before it was finally put down in 1894. Chief Mkwawa and a small group of followers continued a guerrilla war for another four years, until they were trapped and the chief committed suicide. Mkwawa's head was sent back to Germany, where it languished until it was returned to Tanzania in 1954.

Footnote #2: After their rebellion was snuffed out, the Hehe remained close allies of the Germans, even providing troops to put down the Maji-Maji Rebellion of 1905-1907.

Footnote #3: Several years after the battle, a monument was erected to honor the German officers, NCOs and askaris who were killed at this battle. It is located just south of the nearby A7 Tanzam Highway. A similar monument to the Hehe who fell at the battle is nearby, north of the highway.

German memorial to their dead at the battle of Lugalo (Image courtesy of
German memorial to their dead at the battle of Lugalo
(Image courtesy of

Footnote #4: A nephew of the deceased German commander at Lugalo, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, was an SS general in the Second World War. He was responsible for anti-partisan activities in much of Europe – especially Russia – and the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. It is speculated by Bach-Zelewski's biographer that his uncle's death at the hands of "inferior" Africans engendered a huge sense of shame in the family. This probably spurred Bach-Zelewski to commit these atrocities against the Russians and Poles.

SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1899-1972)
SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1899-1972)

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