Mapping the Campaign

From Hugh McNair

I have for some time been impressed by the achievements of Von Lettow-Vorbeck and his schutztruppen in East Africa during the Great War.  It is an extraordinary tale of perseverance, military skill and leadership.  It is also confusing.  It is hard to follow and understand how Von Lettow-Vorbeck commanded and organised his disparate force, brought them together with substantial hostile forces pursing and attempting to surround them, yet time and again evaded those forces in the course of an epic journey.

I have, therefore, an aspiration to produce a comprehensive and interactive digital map and moving display that can be used to portray the whole campaign.  Such a map would have the following features:

  • It can be viewed at any scale, giving an overview of the whole campaign, but zoomable to reveal the detail of particular battles.
  • It moves over time.  It should be capable of being set to play automatically and to be manually shifted to find and display particular dates and periods.
  • It is interrogable.  Selecting units/formations on the map exposes details of the composition of that unit/formation.

The end result would be a software programme and data package that could be used on a tablet/laptop and used to illustrate key features of the campaign and their context.  I see it being usable in the field as well as indoors, and of value to tour operators, tourists and researchers.  It should be capable of producing paper maps, as well as being viewable on a screen, directly or projected.

The required elements of the project are:

  • Mapping.  The map would consist of a base topographic map showing the geographic features and places, holding both modern and early 20thC names.  Overlaid on this would be layers of two types: one layer would deal with time (one per day ideally), the other with detail.  The time layer would be manually navigable or capable of being played automatically at user-selected speeds.  The detail layer would allow greater detail of units to be visible as users zoom in, with only large independent units/formations visible at the smallest scales, but sub-units identified at larger scales.
  • A relational database.  I envisage a data base with two main elements:  One side that maps the organisation of both Allied and German forces against dates.  This would include details of individuals, definitely of leaders, but possibly could include broader nominal rolls where available.  The other side of the database would link map entries to units/formations and dates. This needs designing and data input.
  • Data.  This needs extensive historical research to plot the location and command relationships of individuals, units and formations over time.

I presently am equipped with Map Maker Pro and Global Mapper, and am quite capable of building the base topographic map.  However, neither have a built in system to play successive maps as a moving display.  While one could create images of maps, which can be brought into a moving display, this would lose the interrogability and zoomability of a digital map.  Does anyone know of some software that might be suitable for this?  Can ARC GIS do it?  Once a technological solution is found, then a substantial amount of work will be required to physically plot the action.  Is there anyone who might be prepared to help in this task?

Does anyone have the expertise to help design and build a suitable database?  And to help populate it with data?

Is there anyone who is well placed and willing to research and produce the data for input into the map and database?

Does anyone have any other bright suggestions on how this project might best be taken forward?


The attached article contains information on German and askari uniforms from East Africa. It was compiled by Matthias Schneider as part of an nvestigation into the possibility of a battle re-enactment at the request of Howard. The conclusion of the investigation/discussion is that a re-enactment at this time is inappropriate.

Cost and availability of Askari Uniform

Other places to look for information on uniforms (thanks to Leon):
“The German Colonial Troops,1889-1918″by Kraus and Mueller

Great War East Africa Conference, 14 July 2012: Abstracts and confirmed speakers


Dear all

Please find attached the GWEA Conference Registration and GWEA Programme for the Great War in East Africa Conference to be held on 14 July 2012 at The National Archives, Kew, London. We have received some funding for the event from and so are able to offer a few concessions to students paying their own way and to those over 60. Please contact me for further information.

For more information on the papers, please see the Abstracts.

If you would like a book, publication or tour related to the campaign promoted, please let me have the details so I can make the necessary arrangements.

Please do get in touch at if there’s anything more you’d like to know and pass the info onto others who may be interested. I can be contacted at

All the best