A compact history of a little-known WWI battle that inspired a well-known film.
The battle for Lake Tanganyika may not be as thoroughly covered by historians as the battle of Verdun, but seizing control of the lake was strategically important to Great Britain, as Foden (the Whitbread Award–winning The Last King of Scotland, 1998, etc.) shows in this meticulous, engaging and gracefully written account. In control of Lake Tanganyika, the Germans were poised to overrun the Belgians, who had entered the war as allies of Britain. As Britain’s great naval leaders were otherwise engaged, the Admiralty decided in 1915 to dispatch the clumsy, eccentric and egomaniacal Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson to rout the Germans. Desperate to become a hero—but practical enough to wear a skirt in the African jungle heat—Spicer-Simson led a motley crew that hauled two 40-foot mahogany gunboats (the Mimi and the Toutou) overland, then sailed them up the darkest Congo. Battling disease-carrying insects, boat-rattling hippopotami and natives craving “food that once talked,” the men witnessed an Africa that no longer exists, a forbidding and enticing place Foden describes in vivid detail. Eventually, the boats destroyed the Graf von Götzen, the mighty German ship commanding the lake. Spicer-Simson backed off from challenging one other German ship, but that didn’t preclude his rising to mythical status when he returned home. If threads of this adventure sound familiar, it’s because they eventually became the woof of C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel and John Huston’s 1951 film The African Queen. In an epilogue, Foden follows the story’s journey to the depths of the Congo.
Pleasant and engaging—as historical document, travel journal and film footnote.