When the lamps went out: How the Standard covered the First World War

The Standard newspaper, then a weekly edition, announces the start of the World War 1. [George Mulala]
A hundred and four years today, on the Saturday of August 8, 1914, The East African Standard carried a banner headline in bold, black ink reading, THE WAR.

Under this headline were a series of subheadings, simply stating that Britain was involved in the war, and there was general mobilisation after Germany attacked Russia and France

The screaming headline was followed by a statement from Sir Edward Grey, the then British Foreign Secretary:

“Last week closed with Europe in a state of extreme disquiet and uncertainty. As the cable news began to filter through on Sunday and Monday, it became evident that Germany had kindled the blaze by invading Russian and French territory…”

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Three days earlier on August 5, the East African Standard, alongside the only other paper of the day, The Leader of East Africa, published a ‘special official gazette from the colonial British government. Henry Belfield, the then governor and commander in chief, East African Protectorate, declared that war had broken out between England and Germany.

It is a War that had been sparked in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot dead by the Serbian Gavrilo Princip. On July 28, 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, starting a world war as nations allied to each of this country came to their aid; Germany, Austria- Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, collectively known as the central powers fought against the Allied Powers, Italy, Russia, Romania, Japan and the US.

Thus Kenya, then known as British East Africa, came to learn about the First War World from the newspaper that you today know as The Standard. The newspaper was not only circulated in Kenya, but to the other British East Africa territories, Congo, the Nile Provinces and to the neighbouring German East Africa, today’s Tanzania. The Paper had been started by a super-rich Indian, Alibhai Jeevanjee, in November 15, 1902 in Mombasa, then the commercial and administrative headquarters of BEA. He later sold it to an Anderson and Mayer who renamed it from The African Standard to the East African Standard.

Grey, the man who held British’s foreign policy docket during this period the empire was embarking on African colonization, was witness to the start of the bloody and senseless war. He would famously write in his memoir that a friend remembered them standing at the window of his foreign office at dusk where he had remarked; “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time…”

Grave stone at the Commonwealth war cemetery in Voi Town. Britain lost hundreds of its sons in WW11 in Taita as they repulsed German troops keen on crossing into Voi and blowing up the Railway line to Uganda. Taita Taveta County is showing its scars of the World War 11 as it marks 100 years since it started in 1914. [George Mulala]
Unwittingly, the foreign secretary predicted the gloomy nature the war would take for the next four years, despite many people thinking that the global feud wouldn’t ‘last until Christmas.’

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Back to August 8 and the East African Standard there was another story titled, Precautions at the Coast. Germans placed under arrest. Arrivals of KARS (King African Rifles).

And in August 22; “Due to the declaration of war with Austria, all Austrian nationals are to be arrested and interned at the Westplant compound…” it went on to say that two frontiersmen at Shimoni intercepted and captured one such Austrian trying to flee to German East Africa from Mombasa…

The coverage around that time seems to be purely patriotic and biased towards the British, who even with a well put out large army “superior quantity of men and equipment” as one Major Kenneth Adgie put it, would soon be outwitted by a smaller German army but apparently more aggressive and cunning led by a guerrilla warfare ‘expert’, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

The East African Standard continued to tell the story of the War, with James G Wilson writing in his book, The Guerrillas of Tsavo, that however, the stories, with accompanying photos and even war diagrams were published several weeks after the actual events.

“Many letters to the editor indicate that residents complained about lack of information from time to time,” he writes, “the fact that strict censorship was in force may have delayed the release of the news,” he further observers.

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The Newspaper would continue to carry supplements with maps and pictures from the different war fronts in the British colony, mostly in Taita Taveta.

As the war raged, British volunteers enlisted in droves mostly fuelled by a macho poster showing a commander in uniform and a prominent moustache, index finger pointing directly to the reader and declaring; Britons, Join your Country’s Army! God Save the King!

Another one read; The Empire needs men; Helped by the YOUNG LIONS the OLD LION defies his Foes. ENLIST NOW.

It was the era of macho, adventure and patriotism. Wilson writes that volunteer settlers converged in Nairobi in large numbers, and with the consent of the Legislative Council and Governor Sir Henry Belfield, they were taken in regardless of age and the fact that some possessed “mature and rotund waistlines.”

But it was not a walk in the park on the War front, as Wilson quotes one soldier; “Ah, I wish to hell I was in France! There one lives like a gentleman and dies like a man; here one lives like a pig and dies like a dog!”

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For those who did not join the front, they contributed in kind, a fact recorded by the East African Standard with a column beginning October 3, 1914. The column shows gifts of fruits to tobacco and cigarettes sent by individuals and businesses from Nairobi and other major towns.

Sample this one from September 3, 1914: “For our Troops at the Front.

We are advised that the following additional gifts have been received for and on behalf of our troops at present in the field:

Sir Ralph and Lady Williams, 1 bag of limes and lemons; Muthaiga Country Club, wines, spirits and newspapers; Mrs. LJ Tarlton 1 b.g of lemons and 100 ‘punches’

Messrs. McKinnon Bros, 200 tins cigarettes…” and it went on in the same vein.

Kings African Rifles soldiers march in Nairobi in the early 1900s. [Courtesy]
The column also published a record of cash donated towards the effort complete with the names and the amounts each gave.

On Saturday October 17, 1914, it published a long and detailed account of one of the bloody encounters between the British and the German forces at the Tsavo River.

As the days wore on in the thick shrubs of Taita Taveta, so was the body count. The East African Standard published the number of casualties from August 5, to September 13, 1914:

On the British side, it showed eight King African Rifles officers had been killed, with Africans and Indians grouped together as 22 dead. Two KAR officers were wounded in the same period and 28 Indians and Africans and one motorcyclist. It indicates three motorcyclists were captured. The German side also had suffered war, with 14 Europeans dead. An overwhelming number of Africans, 59 had died in the same period, three wounded alongside four Europeans.

But the reporting wasn’t all gloom. In early January 1916, a piece appeared in the East African Standard praising the ‘valour and candid simplicity of our Indian Babu’ who ‘was about the most laconic, competent, deadly earnest stationmaster and marksman combined that ever lived.’ This flowery description wa elicited by a telegram the Indian Babu wired to the front; “100 Germans about to attack the station. Send one rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition.”

You can imagine how such information would inspire and reinvigorate the tired, dirty and hungry soldiers in the front lines, as we have seen that people donated newspapers to them. Of course, there were no phones then, and communication was strictly with telegrams and heliographs, which used light and mirrors to send messages through the Morse code. A newspaper article, no matter how old and torn, would be like receiving a pint of water in this rugged landscape of Taita Taveta.

This, as Willie Mwadilo, the general manager of the Sarova Taita Hills and the Salt Lick Lodges, who are documenting and archiving artefacts from the war besides marking and preserving the battlefields, cements the Standard Group as an important chapter in Kenya’s history.

“The Standard will always be a reference, one of the few reference points in the history of this country, from the making of the Railway line, to the First World War to our present times.”

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