Kenyan heroes who died in First World War mere footnotes

Updated Saturday, July 20th 2013 at 19:14 GMT +3
By Amos Kareithi

When an Austria-Hungary monarch, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated 99 years ago in Sarajevo, it appeared like a remote act of no consequence. In Africa, the killing of the couple in June of 1914 meant very little. At the time, the mode of communication was still rudimentary and consisted of runners with spiked sticks in case of official communication.

The beating of drums to announce some social event was a popular mode of communication then. However, all this changed dramatically in Taita Taveta, which was sucked in a global conflict precipitated by the Serbia killings and the resultant World War 1.

Deadly conflict

True to the Swahili saying, that when two bulls fight the grass which is not party to the disagreement also suffers, Taita Taveta was transformed into a key theatre of the deadly global conflict.

In East Africa, the Africans, just like the Germans and Britons resident in East Africa took no heed as the First World War started and later escalated, drawing in many allies united against Germany.

The buildup of the conflict in East Africa is vividly retold by Dr Wolfgang H Thome in an article, Battlefield East Africa: 98 years and counting: at first both Germans and Britons were fraternising and appeared to be the best of friends, united against Africans, who they were trying to subdue.

However, all this changed when Germany realised it had to fight for survival and discretely dispatched war ship, Koenigsberg and her supply ship to Dar es Salaam, while Graf von Goetzen and her supply ship were dispatched to Lake Tanganyika.

Thome explains, “The Koenigsberg slipped away on August 3 1914, as war was officially declared the next day and subsequently caused trouble for the allied naval forces.”

The ship are credited with inflicting huge loses as far as Aden, on Zanzibar, and many parts of the African coast line.

Reigned terror

The same was replicated by Graf von Goetzen in Lake Tanganyika where the ship reigned terror for a while before her guns were later silenced. Before the war, Germans residing in Tanganyika, then known as German East Africa had a force of 5,000 professional soldiers. These soldiers were under the iron hand of Paul von Lettow Vorbeck, who was a strict disciplinarian, master guerilla fighter and strategist. Another writer, Hew Stratchan, in The First World War in Africa, says that German soldiers who disobeyed orders were subjected to 15 lashes of the horsewhip. According to Stratchan, almost a month before the war broke out in East Africa, German’s military consisted of 218 Europeans and 2542 askaris divided in 14 companies of 150 men each.

On the other hand, statistics from the British side indicate that Kenya African Rifles had 70 British Officers, three non- British Commissioned Officers and 2325 Africans.

However, by the end of the war in 1918, the numbers had swollen to 1193 British Officers, 1,497 British non-commissioned Officers and over 30,000 Africans.

Despite the Allies’ apparent numerical strength that at one time stood at 160,000, men served by a million carriers, when it came to the real battle, the Germans had the upper hand as demonstrated by the incursions they had in Taita Taveta.

The Kenya Uganda Railway was an irresistible target to the Germans who plotted night and day to bomb it out of existence so as to defeat the Allies.

One of the most memorable battles in the region took place on September 29 1914, when an attack by the Germans was repulsed with devastating effects.

The invading troops got a hiding as 30 African askaris on the German side were annihilated. At the same time, three German officers were killed in a mission, which resulted into a spectacular failure.

It was the intention of the Germans to blow up the railway and severe the movement of the British and other allied troops through Mombasa into the greater part of East Africa.Had this mission succeeded, Kenya’s first corridor would have been devastated.

Major attack

A major attack was launched in the area on September 29 1914 at what has been called both Mile 27, as well as Bridge 27. At first the Germans appeared overwhelmed as they were throughly whipped. They lost three of their officers as well as 30 African askaris in but the tides later turned in Britain’s favour.

The Germans mounted a spirited battle and successfully fought off attempts by some reinforcements to disembark the train. On July 14 1915, the Germans launched a major onslaught at Mbuyuni as they tried to capture Taita Taveta.

According to Thome, The German’s main thrust was however repulsed on February 12 1916 during the battle of Salaita Hill .

During the decisive battle, German was kicked out and Taita Taveta hurled out of the East African Protectorate, or what we know today as Kenya. At one point, Germany had subdued British and other allied forces in Taita Taveta and established some administrative posts.

Nevertheless, the most decisive was the battle of the Salaita Hill that took place on February 12 1916. There were more confrontations in March, 1916 in Latema and Reata Hills that saw Germans forced to withdraw from Taita Taveta.

Heavy bombings

Despite fighting fiercely, the Germans were humiltated and kicked out Kenya, although the scars of the battle are still evident in Salaita.

These scars, occasioned by heavy bombings are still evident, a century later in form of shrapnel fragments at the top of the hill.
After being rooted out of Taita Taveta and Kenya in general, the Germans retreated into Tanganyika.

This did not mean the end of the war as the commanders leading the troops, Lettow-Vorbeck’s and South African’s Lt Gen Jan Smuts who was leading the allied side still engaged in a battle of wits.

Historians observe that although some Germans surrendered, majority of the troops outfoxed the allied soldiers. They escaped to present day Tanzania and fled all the way to Mozambique, then referred to Portuguese East Africa.From Mozambique, the Germans sneaked back to Tanganyika briefly and attempted to stage a comeback but they were driven to Northern Rhodesia, today known as Zambia.

This brought relief in Taita Taveta and Kisii, the two areas where Germans had persistently harassed British troops in East Africa when the First World War finally came to an end on July 25.

The war had devastating effects on both sides who had to contend with heavy casualties. The Africans were not spared either. Most Africans drafted as carriers who acted as ambulances and taxis in the war zones, carrying weapons and food, as well as those killed or injured in the war.

The grim statistics are captured by Maina Kiarie in an article penned for National Musuems of Kenya publication, Enzi. The author states that the First World War fought between 1914 and 1918 led to the deaths of 24,000 Kenyans.

This tallies with the figure of 23,869 given by R Mugo Gatheru in Kenya, in his book, From colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970.

Mugo further estimated that there was more fatalitity among the 163,000 Africans who served as carriers.

There are reports that as many as 76 per cent of the carriers died from influenza, translating to 124,000 deaths. It would appear that Africans fared badly in the war as many of the carriers died not from the super powers’ bullets or bombs but from diseases.To the carriers forcefuly conscripted specifically for the First World War, this was a death sentence. The African carriers felled by enemy fire at the battle fronts was 4,300 compared to the staggering 42,318 who were decimated by diseases.

Some of these Africans died while defending the British positions and military installations in Taita Taveta that the Germans were keen on capturing.

The passage of time has deadened the pain suffered in the course of the war but most of those felled are interred in well manicured war cementries in Taita Taveta.

Although the colour of those killed in the war no longer matters in death, in their graves they are seperated according to their races.

The unsung heroes who died fighing the white men’s war are stashed in segregated graveyards and their roles dismissed as mere footnotes of history. Many of their descendants cannot afford to visit their graves which are now within the confines of the Sarova Taita Hills resort.


eTurboNews (eTN)
Published on eTurboNews (eTN) (
Battlefield East Africa: 98 years and counting

By Linda
Created Jun 24 2012 - 11:36am
Visiting WWI battlefields in Taita Taveta area of Kenya
Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Uganda

Dr. Thome at the Taveta Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Taveta
(eTN) - Little did Africa know, neither of, nor about, the outcome of the notorious Berlin Conference, when the greats of the world, or those who thought of themselves as greats at the time, grabbed an entire continent and divided it among themselves - Great Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, and Germany taking the lion share, with no regard to the people of Africa nor their existing kingdoms, chiefdoms, and tribal boundaries. This is a fact which continues to haunt Africa until today, as national borders on independence cut across tribal landscapes and divided what had grown organically within but was from without dismissed as inconsequential, not worth a thought.

One of the results of the Berlin Conference held in the German capital between November 1884 and February 1885 saw Imperial Germany’s Tanganyika, aka German East Africa, border British interests across the border in Kenya, where legend has it Queen Victoria gifted Mt. Kilimanjaro to her relative in Berlin, so that he, too, would have a decent mountain to call his own, a possible explanation why
the current boundaries between Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania are not drawn straight as with a ruler but around the mountain, as in an afterthought – not that this would matter in the least today.

The two colonial powers, soon to be turning enemies on the battlefields of Europe and mainly in France, of course, coexisted for some time in East Africa, with Tanganyika being German controlled all the way to what today are Rwanda and Burundi, from there bordering the Belgian Congo across lakes Kivu and Tanganyika, while Kenya and Uganda were under the British yoke, one as a colony and the other as a protectorate, by and large a semantic difference as history showed since the Union Jack flew over both territories.

While in Europe, an arms race took place to establish naval and territorial superiority and protect supply routes. Life in East Africa went on almost like normal, although Germany did cunningly dispatch the Imperial Cruiser Koenigsberg and her supply ships to the port of Dar es Salaam, while re-assembling the Graf von Goetzen and her supply and support vessels on Lake Tanganyika, probably already looking ahead to defend the soft underbelly from any possible invasion from the Belgian Congo across the lake at the time – a fear only too real as it turned out to be when war had broken out – while attempting to play cat and mouse with the Brits in the Indian Ocean, drawing valuable resources away after the land battles and the war of attrition had commenced in Europe proper.

A complicated structure of alliances and allegiances in Europe was cemented with a range of bilateral and multilateral mutual defense pacts, those being put into place, as it became apparent that not only an arms race was underway by the main powers of Europe at the time, but also a race for global resources, a race to control the sea lanes to and from the rich colonies and the source countries in
Africa and beyond. What seemed to make sense at the time, to keep perceived and potential enemies in check, turned out to trigger a chain of events, sucking first Europe and then America into the Great War of 1914-1918, later to be called the First World War, when a second one had broken out in 1939, just 21 years or a generation after the guns had fallen silent, following the Armistice in November 1918.

The countdown stage to war was reached when in June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo. With Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, this drew in Russia on the side of the Serbs and as Imperial Germany was by treaty aligned to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, they felt compelled to declare war on Russia when it became apparent
that the Imperial Russian Army was going into a full mobilization. France, being Russia’s ally, then in turn declared war on Germany, and when they launched their attack against France in a classic flanking action through Belgium, that in turn brought Britain into the war on the side of Belgium and France.

What happened in Europe we will leave to the historians and war buffs, and turn our attention to East Africa, where at the eve of war breaking out in Europe, swords were sharpened, too, on all three sides of the divide between Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda, and the Belgian Congo.

The Koenigsberg slipped away under the sleepy eyes of the Brits on August 3, 1914, as war was officially declared the next day and subsequently caused all sorts of trouble for the Allied naval forces, when giving the British a bloody nose and inflicting considerable losses of ships and supplies as far as Aden, on Zanzibar, and beyond, before eventually she was cornered in the Rufiji delta and sunk in 1915.

The Graf von Goetzen ruled Lake Tanganyika for a while, but eventually succumbed to combined action from British and Belgian forces, which managed to take out her supply vessels first before the crew of the Koenigsberg then had to scuttle the ship to avoid her falling into enemy hands, later to be refloated by the British and today still operating as MV Liema.

Yet, the main focus here is on the land battles, which ensued between British and allied troops from as far as Australia, Rhodesia - as Zimbabwe was known then - and South Africa, but also from India and the Caribbean. Notably, General Jan Smuts from South Africa was eventually appointed as in charge of the East African war theatre. Portuguese forces were also eventually committed into the war
efforts in East Africa, as what is today Mozambique also bordered the German colony.

In Tanganyika, or German East Africa, a standing protection force of some 5,000 well-trained men under the command of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was ready when war was declared, posing an instant threat to the British across the border in Kenya, who found no answer to the Colonel’s guile and guerilla warfare tactics of hit and run, inflicting damage and withdrawing, although in the Taita
Taveta area of Kenya, the Germans actually established fortified outposts inside Kenya, attempting to disrupt the main Mombasa to Nairobi railway line and with it bring down the British supply chain. In subsequent years, the German figure of men under arms rose more than threefold, plus thousands or more as porters or “carriers,” while the allies had a numerical advantage of over 160,000 men
plus up to a million porters or “carriers” over the war years, of whom over 100,000 reportedly died.

In spite of the numbers, British forces failed miserably in their attempt to take the German port of Tanga, but in turn suffered regular incursions as far as the Kenyan highlands in Kisii, without any territorial gain, however, for the attackers. While British and allied forces eventually took much of Tanganyika under their control, they never did manage to contain the regular troops, which
often slipped away as far as what is now Mozambique and even what was then Northern Rhodesia and today is Zambia, right till the end of the war, showing how mobile war fare managed to outfox a numerically superior force, which probably was too rigid in its command
structure to react on the trot and act as their enemies did.

Back to the Taita Taveta area though, the main focus of this article. When the war started, it seems that the Germans were first out of the starting blocks as within two weeks, Taveta had been occupied and outposts been established including a major fortification on the towering Salaita Hill. The British rushed to advance a branch line towards Taveta of the main Mombasa to Nairobi railway at Voi,
a juicy target for the Germans as were British troop encampments at Maktau Hill and the Mashoti Camp. And to no surprise, the wider area was an immediate battle ground with repeated attacks and counter attacks on each others’ positions, with reported engagements as early as September 3 and 4 of 1914. It was on the 3rd that Australian-born Lieutenant William Thomas Dartnell was killed in action
but was posthumously awarded the Victorian Cross, one of only four during the war in East Africa. Notably, here was the later recommendation for another such award, due to go to Subedan Ghulam Haidar, who commanded the 130th Baluchis, for his bravery to save General Malleson on May 5, 1915 at the expense of his own life “overlooked” and never ratified, since then a badge of shame for many
on the British Armed Forces to have so blatantly shafted aside Haidar’s sacrifice, long suspected to be entirely due to his origin and nothing at all to do with his bravery.

A major attack was launched in the area on September 29, 1914 at what has been called both Mile 27, as well as Bridge 27, in narrated and written records. While the Germans were first at the receiving end, losing about 30 of their African askaris alongside 3 German soldiers, the British then got decimated themselves, and the relief party called in, arriving by train, failed to get off the 
carriages in time and were quite severely shot up. The Germans, in the face of superior numbers, made a tactical withdrawal, having bloodied their enemy, but failed to blow up the railway line - a crucial mistake as the line then moved on and served as a main supply route for the troops deployed in the area.

That first engagement between the two sides was ringing in a series of additional skirmishes as available records from the War Office Library in London explain, and much of it will be published in a book by Mr. James G. Willson Esq., due to hit the book shops in July this year. James, a former General Manager at the Taita Hills Lodge, has during his years when working for Hilton Hotels, got about as much information about these battlegrounds as any living human being has, and his book is much anticipated by many to read his gathered facts and interpretations of what took place and where and why. It is largely to his credit that much of the information found, catalogued, and available today at the lodge and with Willie, has been unearthed, and I am deeply grateful to him and hasten
to acknowledge his research and effort.

From those records seen while at the Taita Hills Lodge, kept by local battlefield encyclopedia Willie Mwadilo, in his professional career, the General Manager of Sarova Hotels Taita Hills and Salt Lick Lodges, a major battle ensued on July 14, 1915 at Mbuyuni, preceded by a German forces build-up starting as early as June 3. Skirmishes and raids continued in the wider area, but it was not
until the battle of the Salaita Hill on February 12, 1916 that the Germans were eventually pushed back towards the border, when in the face of a far superior land forces and intense artillery bombardments – shrapnel fragments were in fact found by this correspondent after climbing up Salaita Hill to see the fortifications and appreciate the commanding view the German troops had enjoyed since the outbreak of the war in August 1914 – they decided to call it quits and escaped in almost full strength and with
much of their supplies towards the Tanganyika border at Taveta.

The use of spotter planes was also vital in that particular engagement, as it gave the Allies valuable information about locations and troop strength of the German defenders, while at the same time warning them, of course, that something quite big was coming their way and giving them time to hatch their escape plan. Further major engagements ensued on March 11-12, 1916 between Latema and Reata Hills in the Taveta area, and again Lettow-Vorbeck’s men escaped from the dragnet South African Lt. Gen. Jan Smuts, now in charge of the East African campaign, which had been laid for them, though he did retake Taveta and gave the Allied forces some pride back by finally having cleared the enemy out of Kenya.

Engagements in Tanganyika continued and a two-front war effort, from the Kenyan side and also from the South, eventually cut German East Africa first into half, seeing a significant number of the German troops cornered and surrendering, but the bulk of them in their usual fashion, outfoxed the pursuers once again and got away into first Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, and then returning briefly into Tanganyika before moving into Northern Rhodesia, today known as Zambia. There, the news of the armistice reached them nearly two weeks after the event in Europe, finally making them surrender on November 25 at Abercorn. That brought the war in East Africa to a formal end, leaving not just Europe but East Africa to count their losses, and have survivors try to rebuild their lives.

Many anecdotes were told during the two-day visit to the Taita Taveta area, including the tale of a German lady sniper supposedly hidden in a hollow Baobab tree, out to avenge her husband, which then became a target for the British and survived as the most-shot-at tree during World War One, and has the bullet holes still to show 98 years later.

Many of those fallen in these battles, far away from their homes in Europe or South Africa, are now interred at the Voi Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery and the one in Taveta, where they lay side by side, united by the cruel hand of death, many not even 20 years old, courtesy of Kaiser, Tsar and Queen, Vaterland, and Motherland. When visiting those, by the way, extremely
well-maintained cemeteries, all credit to the CWGC and their volunteers, I stood in silence, head bowed, and knew instinctively, that there was nothing noble or heroic in the death of those buried here. Their death was rarely quick, mostly painful, often long drawn-out agonies in the absence of medical attention, for many far away from home, surely very frightening for the young boys not even of voting age, but old enough to die in battle.

It was a war in which, often forgotten or evaded in history books, tens of thousands of Africans died, on behalf of their colonial masters, used as bait and cannon fodder and then, like Haidar who gave his life to protect his General Malleson, they were buried far apart, so that even in death the racial segregation would be perpetuated. With that, and more, I wholeheartedly disagree, as it was as much racism then as it remains an open sore to see today, having to visit the separate burial sites for the Europeans and the Asians and yet not to find one for those who died in the largest numbers - the Africans.

Where are they buried I wonder, hastily thrown into ditches or put into shallow pits? Fodder for thought for sure, as they, too, deserve their recognition beyond the few commemorative statues erected for members of the King’s African Rifles in Nairobi, Mombasa, Tanga, and Dar es Salaam – one wants to know, one should know, where they are buried and honor them there, too, as has happened with
their other fallen comrades in arms.

The visit to the war graves for the whites in Voi, in Maktau where the Indians are buried and in Taveta, where again the cemetery for the “muzungus” is well placed and visible and the one of the Asians tucked away quite some distance, gave me a valuable lesson and insight in what should and what should not be. I concluded that there was not one iota of generosity or respect even in death to let
allow them rest side by side as they died side by side, but prejudice and racial discrimination continued unabated, inflicted even upon the corpses it seems.

What the Taita Taveta area has to offer, beyond the wildlife in the Taita Hills Sanctuary, Tsavo West National Park, lakes Chala and Jipe, and the sights of imposing Mt. Kilimanjaro and its two peaks, are significant battle sites of the days of World War I between August 1914 and March 1916. Those are worth seeing and restoring, in fact, as tourism attractions ahead of the 100th anniversary of that ominous day 98 years ago, when Europe went to war and brought their battle for superiority to East Africa and to a people who may never before have heard of Serbia, Russia, or any other of the war powers except for the one ruling their own country and forcing them into a conflict not of their making.

THE base of course to explore the area is needless to mention the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge, itself resembling an old fort, as it is there that not only Willie Mwadilo is able to give his expert explanations and interpretations but also his two “lieutenants” Donart Mwakio, the Assistant Warden of the Taita Hills Game Sanctuary, and William Mkala, a ranger. Both of them are very well trained as guides specifically on the various locations and the history of the places and are extremely knowledgeable, as are three more guides from the local nearby community in Maktau. They all can be retained for a day, several days or longer to take visitors to the sites of Mile 27, the fortifications near Maktau, the Mashoti encampment, Mbuyuni and Salaita, Latema and Reata, and, of course, the fabled Baobab tree, where back then bullets and artillery shells flew but today only the rich birdlife frequents the space above the ground. Take a picture there of the carved figure 1914, close your eyes, and teleport yourself back a hundred years – the landscapes, the scents, and sounds have not changed except that the guns have fallen silent.

I had in decades long ago regularly passed through the area, visiting nearby lakes Jipe and Chala several times, but never bothered to even stop at the war cemeteries until more recently when my keen and growing interest in the history of pre-independent East Africa gave me the focus to remember and wanting to explore. When at a chance meeting with Sarova’s top managers in Nairobi a few weeks ago I mentioned my interest in the Taita Taveta area and the battlegrounds, I immediately got full support from both Mohammed Hersi, Regional General Manager for Sarova Hotels responsible for the Sarova Whitesands and the two lodges and from Willie Mwadilo, recognized at the occasion as a long lost acquaintance from my early and second tour of duty in Mombasa. True to their word, when
opportunity arose to come to the Kenyan coast for a writing assignment for RwandAir’s inflight magazine INZOZI, I also used the chance to spend a few days at the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge from where two full days were dedicated to explore and walk across the sites where 98 years ago several of the World War One battles were fought on African soil.

Few people know now, and fewer if any are left, to remember in person those days, but with the centenary of the outbreak of that war coming up in just over two years, it is hoped that Kenya Tourism or Magical Kenya as the Kenya Tourist Board is also known, hand in hand with the lodges in the area and Kenya Wildlife Service – some of the sites are now inside the national park such as the famous
Baobab tree – make an effort to restore some of the fortifications to their original state. What it takes is to clean out the trenches and gun positions of grass and other debris, restore some of the defensive walls and mark the area with stakes, so that visitors, and I can see many, streaming to the Taita Taveta areas between 2014 and 2018 if properly promoted, can see close up what things were like back then. It would create a legacy, a memorial, and a new tourism attraction, befitting for all the Kenyan and Tanzanian lives lost in that campaign, thought to be over 150,000.

The introduction of an itinerary, using the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge as a base for a couple of days to visit these places, will definitely turn the spotlight on some of the pre-independence history of Kenya, enriching a big game safari to no end by introducing the historical background of the Taita Taveta area.

In closing, Willie and his colleagues appear to have found a significant amount of shell casings and other remnants of battle in the trenches and along the encampments, which will perhaps one day be displayed at the lodge, maybe in a small dedicated room serving as a museum, to remind tourists what historically important area they are visiting when they stay at the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge or the
Sarova Salt Lick Lodge.

And as promised, I will share my experience with the Kenya Tourist Board and the relevant tourism associations in Kenya so that they may take my insights on board and see what can be done, with still enough time at hand before the anniversary bell tolls on August 4, 2014, ringing in the centenary of the Great War. Better still, let them consult with Willie Mwadilo and James G. Willson (James G.
Willson is a member of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, Kenya Battlefield Guides, The Great War in East Africa Association.), who are the true experts in this field, myself only being an interested novice and scribe to tell the story to a wider audience.

My thanks and appreciation to Sarova Hotels and in particular, once again, to the one and only Willie Mwadilo, without whose astonishing knowledge and catalogued documents, my mission would not nearly have been as successful as it turned out to be. #TembeaKenya anyone – plenty of new places to discover now.

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