Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914 because Germany refused to remove its troops from Belgium. The resulting conflict spread across the globe to the European Empires’ furthest outposts. The first shots fired in the war happened on a lake in Africa. Here is an account of that true event.
Naval Victory on Lake Nyasa
On the 13th August 1914, on Lake Nyasa, East Africa, two European gun-boats, the only ships in the landlocked country of Nyasaland, floated about half a mile apart. The lake itself is huge, around the same area as that of Belgium, and is, in parts, several miles deep. It is has no tributary to the sea and is of little obvious strategical importance to any Western army. It was a quiet night, as are most nights on the waters of Lake Nyasa, but the deep mooing of hippopotamuses could be heard from somewhere off in the dark distance. The calm of the night was broken however by the lights of the small German vessel, the Hermann Von Wissmann, and the high laughter of the two white men within.
“Dark red. Vin Français de Provence. Shall we open another bottle? Please, won’t you take another glass?”
“Why, of course,” Captain Rhoades, the Englishman, said with a smile. “It isn’t every day one indulges in the pleasures of civilisation out here. Such delicate wine could not have been easy to acquire.”
Kapitan Klein, the German, laughed. His English was excellent: “Indeed not. When the last cargo of arms arrived, I almost thought the crate I sent for had disappeared! It so often happens on this bloody continent, even when the most extortionate bribery is implemented. I lifted the final machine gun from the bottom of the crate to find nothing else but hay. You cannot imagine my dismay! Luckily, my boy dug a little deeper and whipped out the bottles for which I had given up all hope! Five in all; not a bad haul. Saves us from drinking that local trash!”
“Vile stuff! That cold, milky, porridge. But alcoholic nonetheless, eh!”
The two Europeans laughed at this and helped themselves to another glass of the French wine. Their servers, the Ngoni man, Innocent, and the Chewan, Richard, were dressed in tails and were a little unsure as to the manner by which they should conduct themselves at this floating dinner-party. Both these African men had come under the employment of the Europeans and both had come from similar circumstances. Their fathers had worked for the Presbyterian Church in Nyasaland and as a result had learned English; a knowledge they passed down to their respective sons. This linguistic knowledge had volunteered their sons for work as manservants to local colonial officials - in this case, the only navy men on Lake Nyasa, the wineloving Captains, Rhoades and Klein. Richard and Innocent came from similar circumstances, but they did not know each other and knew little of the other’s culture; indeed they did not speak each other’s native language, and communicated when necessary in English. Kapitan Klein, when he could be bothered, had been teaching Innocent a little German, of which Innocent had learned eagerly; however, the lessons were few and far between, mostly due to the fact that Klein was often drunk or, if not, then hungover.
Several other African servants sat or squatted around the dining area. But these young men spoke only Chichewa with little or no English; they were mainly employed as cooks or labourers and they were all tired and dusty from that afternoon’s football match. A few sported cuts and bruises around their faces and arms from an incident during the game when, John, the oldest servant and village hardman, had decided the sport was far too tame for his liking and so had introduced a long wooden stick to the proceedings. They had all enjoyed the sport, but most agreed that John’s intervention was necessary. These white men had such silly customs. How can kicking a ball prepare one for battle?
“Ah, French wine! Ah, France! A beautiful country, would you not agree, Rhoades? Such fine literature - Hugo, Stendhal, Rabellais! A literature almost as fine as German music, would you not agree, Rhoades?”
“Literature? I had no idea the French had such a thing, old boy!” Captain Rhoades laughed merrily. “No, forgive me, my knowledge of French is, as you know, woeful, and I am aware that you would have preferred to converse in that Latin tongue, but your English, my friend, is quite superb, whereas my French, German, Latin, Greek, and Italiano, are all rather non-existent! Don’t get me wrong, however, I would love to learn your wonderful tongue, Deutsch - as fine a language as any, I say!”
“Well, I learned my English from my mother, who was half-English herself, so for me it comes natural. But I agree the Deutsch tongue is as fine a language as any. We Germans are as fine a race of football players too!” Klein laughed. “We sure gave you a beating earlier today, no!?”
The Englishman frowned. “As you know, we British do not care much for that so-called sport. It is merely the hobby of hooligans and the lower-classes. Had you challenged me to a round of cricket or tennis, I know my lot would have triumphed.”
“Look, my friend, it was hard enough teaching these beasts,” - Klein gestured towards the African servants, most of whom were sitting cross-legged on the floor, bored - "the rudiments of football, never mind any of your British Empire’s so-called ‘games’ which require so much equipment as to make them impossible to play out here or, indeed, anywhere, I should imagine.”
“Well, you are much younger than I am, Klein. Could you not go easy on an old man? And, besides, my lot were a useless bunch anyway, don’t know their hands from their feet,” Rhoades said with a wry smile.
“Yes, like monkeys! Silly niggers hadn’t a hope!”
“Haha! Yes. True, true that. But you shouldn’t call them ‘niggers’. I dislike the term. I prefer ‘boys’; a much more humanising term for them. ‘Niggers’ lacks class; a word for common sailors. We are, are we not, captains of our great countries’ navies. We should set an example to others who look up to us, not least to these boys here,” Rhoades gestured to Innocent and Richard who had apparently lost interest in the white men’s conversation a while ago. They were no longer standing to attention and had taken to looking over the dark waters of the lake to the starlike lights in the distance; the canoes of the Yao fishermen.
“You are quite right Englishman!” Kapitan Klein said, and took another healthy gulp of wine. “Stand up straight, boys!”
Richard and Innocent immediately obeyed.
For a while, the European Captains went over the ins and outs of the football game they had played that afternoon, goading each other, teasing and insulting as good friends do. Soon, with a laugh and a heavy sigh they fell silent and took to inspecting drunkenly their blood-red wine-glasses; silence pervaded the German ship and with it the sounds of the wild night; the cicadas and mosquitoes and the secret buzzers and clandestine croakers and the occasional splash! in the black waters around them.
And then with a crash of cutlery the Englishman banged his fist down sharply on the uncleared table causing the wine to splash red onto the white cloth.
“I almost bloody forgot!” he shouted. “I almost bloody forgot!”
“What man?” the German replied. “What have you forgotten?"
“I’ve got a surprise for you, old boy, a fine surprise,” said Rhoades with a smile. “I’d been saving it up this long that I plum forgot!”
“Well, spit it out Englishman!”
“Richard!” Rhoades yelled. “Fetch the catch, won’t you boy!”
“Yes, boss.” And, ordering a few of the other servants to come with him, he rushed off down the jetty and into the darkness surrounding the merrily glowing gunboat.
Captain Rhoades, pulled a cigarette from his cigarette-case, offered one to Kapitan Klein, which was kindly accepted, and they both lit up, puffing contentedly and leaning back on their chairs. A satisfied grin grew on Rhoades’ face between luxuriant puffs from his long white cigarette. “You’ll like this,” he said.
The sound of scampering feet upon the wooden jetty signalled the return of the servants. With a heave they boarded the ship and burst through the cabin door. There were six servants straining, three on each side, and between their bodies was the corpse of a gigantic Nile crocodile, its snaggletoothed head caked in dry blood and grinning. Its crocodile eyes, golden and serpentian, stared livingly at the captains’ table. Its powerful greenbrown-scale tail hung heavily behind, dragging on the floor. From somewhere in its midbulk, a wound had reopened and blood began to drop thick onto the wet wood. And, although dead, its reptilian stillness remained ready to grip in claws and leap; ready to snap and crush with its leviathan jaws.
“What do you make of that beauty!” yelled the English captain, delighted. “Isn’t it a beast!”
Half terrified, but laughing, the Germanic captain exclaimed in his near-perfect English accent, “I say!”
“Shot him from the boat this morning. The boys finished him off with their spears. I can give you his head as a gift if you like? I have already several.”
“Most kind of you.”
“I planned on bagging you a hippopotamus, but they are bloody hard to kill. Fired five shots at one the other day. The water was soaked in blood, but the damn thing barely flinched. Tried to get the boys to row over and stab at him, but they downright refused. The old beggars! They seem rather cowardly when it comes to those water cows. But, to be fair, brave as a Briton when it comes to much else!”
“Clearly your fondness is for beasts, my friend. And great are the beasts on this wild continent, and great are you for hunting them,” said Kapitan Klein diplomatically. “But I have taken a more scientific interest in the fish one finds in this sea-like lake. There really are hundreds of species down there. I have become quite the Aristotelian in my researches. And I tell you, most of these fishes are rather delectable too.”
“O, your right there, old boy, quite delectable indeed,” said the Englishman, looking over the fishbones and fishheads on the table. He took a large gulp of wine, emptying his glass, and while refilling, he yelled at the African servants. “Right, that’s enough! You can drop the damn thing. That’s right, just drop it there. We’ll cut him up tomorrow.”
Exhausted by the weight of the mighty lizard, the servants let the massive corpse thud onto the floor of the cabin. The crocodile lay there on its belly, staring intensely at the captains at their table. The blood dripping from its midriff had once again clotted and, like the waft of raw meat in a butcher’s shop, the stale smell of flesh lingered in the cabin.
“Alright, you can go now,” sighed Klein to the awkwardly waiting servants. “Go, all of you. Not you, Innocent. See that this is all cleared up by tomorrow morning.” He gestured to the mess on the table.
The captains listened listlessly to the servants chatting quietly in Chichewa, their feet pattering down the jetty homewards. Innocent and Richard waited behind, clearly tired from the long day’s work - they would have an early start tomorrow too.
After another glass of wine or two, and with the crocodile watching over proceedings, the conversation soon turned to the war.
“You don’t suppose France will actually mobilise in support of Russia?” cried Captain Rhoades. “What would be the bloody point!”
“Yes, I doubt it. But I have heard word of a possible invasion of Belgium. My hopes are that this will lead to the acquisition of the Belgian Congo by Germany. Lord knows that the Belgian administration there is a disaster! We Germans would soon put that to rights!”
“I daresay you would, old chap! Well, here’s to a Germanic Congo!” laughed Rhoades, raising his glass. “You Europeans could use another war anyhow. The last decent fight was when your lot licked the frogs about fifty odd years ago! Too long a time without a slice of conflict to mix things up a little; stretch out the fortitude of the new generations; weed out the weakling races and put valour to the test!”
They cheered to this. “And what’s more, while you lot are at it, Britain will sit back and watch her Empire grow stronger. All the while, you hotblooded continentals are squabbling over the death of some unknown, unimportant, and unlucky Archduke! I must say I find the whole business laughable. And if Britain does somehow get involved in the whole thing, I’m sure we’ll give you all a good kicking, and put you upstarts back in your places!” Rhoades laughed heartily at his speech and so did Klein.
“Ah, the everlusty British!” sighed Klein. “The whole affair may not concern you much, but my own love and fiancée lives now in Brussels. I would hate to see her in anyway troubled by the nasty business.” He lowered his tone a little and looked at the crocodile’s grinning head. “We are to be married when I finish my tour out here in the periphery of civilisation. I will return to Germany with her and there we can start a family. I will take a land-based post at Hamburg. But that is all some years away yet.”
“Ah yes, old sport,” said the Englishman. “I feel your sorrow too. My wife is in London, and there she will stay for a while yet. She is being treated for snail disease. She caught it out here, swimming in the lake. I told her not to. Told her that the waters of Africa can never be trusted. But she is incorrigible! Her skin turned all over yellow! It was most repugnant. But they say she can be cured and that when she’s better she will return to me here on Lake Nyasa. I’m sure she can’t wait to start up her mission again.”
“She had a Christian mission out here, did she?”
“O yes, and quite a little success it was too. Converting the buggers from their low-down ways. Not without its hiccoughs of course. One of the village chiefs challenged her authority with a little rebellion. We soon quashed it of course. Hunted down the rebels and executed them, and kept the villagers in a little concentration camp for a while, until it all blew over.”
“Quite right,” said the German.
“Yes. A nasty business over all, but we will get through to these brutes and start bettering them, eventually. In fact, if you ask me, all it requires is a little more cooperation between the white races, especially those of the Germanic tribes, Anglo-Saxons included.”
“Here, here. I’ll drink to that!” Klein agreed, swallowing his wine.
Rhoades, too, downed his drink and rose from his chair awkwardly, leaning on the table and the wall for balance. He staggered drunkenly out the door, leaving it open behind him, to the railings. Here he leaned whilst he took a long piss over the side of the ship. It tinkled in the water below. “I really must be getting back to the David Livingstone, old chap,” he said. “I am terribly tight.”
“As am I, Rhoades. Sozzled. Drunk as a lord, as you British say!”
“That’s right, we are two drunken lords. Drunk on a boat in Africa!” Rhoades and Klein laughed merrily at this.
Rhoades, pulling up his briefs, steadied himself, took his hat from Richard, and said, “I bid you farewell, good friend. I hope we can do this another night. It has been very, very good fun!”
"I return the sentiment, dear friend. And thank you ever so much for the crocodile. Its head will look simply splendid on the cabin wall!”
“You’re bloody right it will! ... Richard! Ready the dingy!” Rhoades shouted loudly, not realising that Richard was standing right next to him.
“Aye sir, the dingy is ready for departure,” spoke Richard calmly.
And so, miraculously managing not to fall into the lake, Captain Rhoades boarded his dingy and, waving his friend farewell, headed off through the dark to his gunboat anchored nearby, Richard rowing and Rhoades singing some old ballad tunelessly.
When they reached the HMS David Livingstone, Captain Rhoades clambered on deck, humming to himself all the while. He was heading directly to his bed chamber when the little beepbeeping of the telegram machine caught his ear. He stopped humming. The little red light was flashing on-off in the dark cabin. Irritated, he fumbled while lighting the lamp and stumbled over to see, pressing the button heavily with his drunken thumb. With a whirr of machinery, a hum and click, the message printed off into his hands. It read:
FOR THE EYES OF CAPTAIN RHOADES
OF HMS DAVID LIVINGSTONE, LAKE NYASA
WAR DECLARED ON GERMANY
SINK, BURN, OR DESTROY THE SS HERMANN VON WISSMAN
BY ORDER OF THE ROYAL BRITISH ADMIRALTY
Rhoades reread the message several times, squinting his eyes through the drunkenness and the dark. He stood in silence for a moment and then, putting the lamp on the table, sat down in his chair, the telegraph in his lap. He took a cigarette from his silver cigarette case, lit it with a match, and inhaled the smoke at intervals. He sat there smoking until the cigarette was finished and sat a little longer. He then poured himself a small glass of whisky, drank it down, took his pistol from a drawer in the desk, and checked that it was loaded. He climbed back into the dingy alone, lit another cigarette, and began rowing back towards the ship he had dined on not long before, his pistol in his belt. The buzzing and croaking in the night quietened and the moonlight was obscured by cloud. The captain’s oars plashed lightly in the black lake’s waters and the tiny red light from his cigarette tip glowed.
He reached the German boat, tied his dingy to the railings, and climbed aboard gracelessly, pulling himself on deck via his belly. Looking about him he tugged his gun from its holster and entered the cabin. A low lamplight still burned in the room, glowing off of the red-stained wineglasses and the yellow fishbones on the uncleared dishes. The crocodile lay there, still on the floor, its massive jaws opened wide and its gold eyes staring. Slumped over the table, head in his arms, slept Klein, breathing heavily, an empty bottle by his side. Rhoades walked over to him slowly and put his pistol to the sleeping man’s head.
He stood there a while observing the whole scene. He cocked his pistol but knew that he would not fire. He could not kill a man in cold blood, especially not this man, his friend - his only real friend out here on this black and strange-starred lake! No, he would not kill him, but wake him, and arrest him, purely for formality’s sake, and take him to his own ship where they could live together a while until further orders were sent. He laughed to himself over the ridiculousness of the situation.
And then, the crocodile that he had slain only half a day ago, caught his eye. It was dead, but reptiles, because of their stillness in life, do seem eerily living in death, long after they have beaten their final cold-booded heartbeat. He stared into its glassy eye; its slit pupil almost seemed to contract and widen in the flickering lamplight.
And then something happened. Tucked away somewhere behind the crocodile’s monstrous head, evolved into creation in an age of dinosaurs, a muscle that had tightened in death, levering the jagged jaw open, slackened suddenly. The jaw of the crocodile snapped shut. In his hand, the pistol of Captain Rhoades released a bullet with a sharp crack into the sleeping German’s cranium. Blood and bone splattered across the room.
Utterly shocked, Rhoades took a step back, his face dripping in blood and brain matter. Innocent, who had been cleaning in another room, heard the racket and rushed forth. Rhoades turned to face him; they faced each other. And, crack!, another bullet was released from the chamber and into the black man’s heart. He fell to the floor, dead.
The small room stunk of smoke and gore. Rhoades dropped his pistol to the floor. Blood soaked the deck: black, white, and crocodilian. Blood dripped into the black lake. The hippopotamuses mooed in the night.