A hundred years later, echoes of World War I linger

Taveta war cemetery during commemoration of world war one on 24 November 2018 at Taita Taveta. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Which is the best way to spend a weekend outside Nairobi? Many will give a quick answer, visit a national park or your parents or grandparents in the countryside.

Many Nairobians long to let off emotional steam outside the economic boiler that Nairobi and other cities are.

The vast majority spend their weekends indoors resting but most likely doing household chores such as cleaning. It’s much cheaper anyway as travelling has become expensive.

This pent-up emotional steam is what drives Christmas travels, with hotels and entertainment centres raising their charges as the demand rises. Last weekend was different. It was 100 years since the end of World War I (WWI).

While the war ended on November 11, 1918, in Europe, it only ended on November 25 in East Africa. We never had the modern communication systems we take for granted.

The commemoration or better yet, the remembrance was taking place in Taita Taveta, the epicenter of WWI in East Africa. 

It’s in this hot county that the British confronted Germans who controlled Tanzania. The Anglo-German treaty of 1886 had given Tanzania to Germany, then called Tanganyika.

Jewel on the crown

Tanganyika was the jewel on the German crown just as India was to Britain. A visit to Taita Taveta gave us some insights into this great war. I will try and share the insights with you, not as a military strategist, but a keen observer and an innocent citizen.

First, how did we get there? Anne Samson, a historian on WW1 had invited me earlier in the year to contribute to a chapter in the book on WW1 in Africa.

In my research, I found one of my grandfathers had participated in that war - most likely as a carrier. His son fought in WWII, gaining logistic skills that gave him a job at CMC motors.

My father’s brother fought in Burma, but that did not stop him from going to detention during Mau Mau. My contribution to the book chapter led to the invite to this remembrance at Taita Taveta. The book is out now,” World War 1 in Africa, a commemorative book.”

On Friday, November 23, in groups of five, we drove from Nairobi to Taita Taveta. Our driver was Tom Lawrence, a mzungu of British extraction and a history enthusiast.

The other two, Kevin Patience and a friend had flown from the United Kingdom. At Machakos, we used the Wote route to avoid trucks.

We stopped for tea at Machakos where I was fascinated by a menu that read “sweet potatoes or arrow roots served with sour porridge.” It was out of stock that day.

The trip from Machakos to Wote is breathtaking with hills and valleys. Makueni, it seems to me, is a leader in terracing. Well, terraced hills look like Manchu Picchu in Peru.

Has anyone enticed Nairobians to drive that 136 km for site seeing only? Wote in Makueni County is a vibrant town, too vibrant for its size.

That vibrancy goes beyond being the seat of Makueni government. Its location mimics Nairobi, on the border between well-watered highlands and the plains. The town even has a “Junction Mall.”

From there we drove through Kathonzweni to Makindu and then the very familiar route to Voi Commonwealth War Graves where the German ambassador and British high commissioner led in laying the wreaths.

This was so symbolic; the two countries were the key combatants in WW1. Soldiers who died in World Wars serving the British empire are buried in Commonwealth graves scattered all over the globe.

There could be Kenyans buried in far-flung places like Burma. A gala dinner at Taita Hills lodge closed the long hot day.

An exhibition at Taita Hills Lodge on WW 1 caught my attention. The artifacts ranged from shell fragments to spent cartridges and uniforms from the Great War.

One photo of a young girl recruited into carrier corps was quite moving. Who was she? Where did she come from? Did she return home? Did she marry and have a family? Was she paid? Where is her family today?

I did not know women were in carrier corps, who far outnumbered the soldiers. That was there respected contributed to the war. How many were in carrier corps?

The exhibition also shows the nationalities involved in the Great War. India sent three expeditionary forces A, B, and C. We are told Indians built the railway but rarely told they helped save Kenya from becoming a German colony. Even Chinese helped in the great war in Tanzania.

The next day was spent visiting the battlefield sites marked with plaques. At Mwashoti, off Voi - Taveta road, overlooking Taita Hills to the East and Pare and Kilimanjaro mountains to the west, trenches are still visible as Britons prepared to advance. 

Wreaths laid

Further on, on the way to Tanzania border is Maktau where Indian soldiers are buried and where the first flight took place in Kenya in 1915. Like in Voi cemetery, wreaths were laid with a representative from Kenya‘s department of culture in attendance.

Driving through Tsavo West National Park, we arrived at Salaita Hill, the last battlefield before Germans withdrew to Tanzania.

The hill was contested by both parties till South African’s reinforcement came to help the British. Our connection to South Africa is long and unexploited.

Surprisingly, today, a 100 years later, the hill is contested by a private investor, county government and KWS. James Willson led us in the visits. He is the writer of “Guerrillas of the Tsavo.“

Kevin Patience, formerly of Royal Air Force, UK, joined in explaining how guns retrieved from two ships; HMS Pegasus owned by British and German Königsberg were used again in Taita Taveta battlefield.

Pegasus was sunk by Königsberg which Britons sank in Rufiji Delta. One of the Pegasus guns sits outside Fort Jesus. Check it out next time. In the Salaita audience were several Maasai warriors in their traditional regalia.

Our last destination was Taveta near the Tanzania border. Here another laying of the wreath took place with a welcome by Maasai dancers. Speeches by the two ambassadors closed the day with a hearty handshake.

This cemetery despite being labeled commonwealth seems to suggest the handshake came earlier, there are German soldiers buried there.

Throughout the ceremonies, Australian high commission was represented. Australians and New Zealanders took part in World War One suffering heavy casualties.

They led the assault at Gallipoli, trying to capture Turkey, by then called the “sick man of Europe.” Led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish put up unexpected resistance. That is how Turkey survived as a nation, it probably would have been chopped up into smaller countries.

There was a surprise at Taveta cemetery. Three South African black men are buried there. They include Tsenge Jim, Mkwekwe Josiah and Wilson Ikaneng, all were working at South Africa Railways Coy.

One hopes their families are aware. We then visited the old DC house at Taveta and a German observation post at Mahoo. As we drove back in sweltering heat, I kept wondering how the war was fought in such terrain and heat.

The intricacies of war started to emerge. The German attack came through this area for geographical reasons. It is the “weakest point” on the border between Pare and Kilimanjaro Mountains. The rail and road to Tanzania go through this gap.

After breaching through the gap, the Germans had one strategic objective; blow up the Uganda railway. The weakest link in this rail was the Tsavo river bridge, famous for man-eaters.

If Germans blew up this bridge, the tide of war would have shifted. I could probably be writing this article in German or Deutsch. The German war in East Africa had another strategic objective, draw British attention from European theatre. It never worked.

To stop the Germans, Britons build forts along the Tsavo River. They did something else too, they extended the railway towards Taveta to bring supplies. They brought the war to Germans.

That railway line to Taveta is very different from the others, there are few bridges and follows the contours to save time.

One of the key supplies was water! So critical was water that Britons built pipes to bring water to Maktau from Bura to the east. That water still flows, a 100 years later.

The rail to Taveta, although sadly in disuse, runs parallel to the old road that goes to the Tanzania border. Unbelievably, this was the old Mombasa - Nairobi road. You had to drive to Arusha then Nairobi. The new road through Makindu was only built in 1926.


With the major events of the commemoration over, I sat outside my room at Lion Bluff resort overlooking the Pare, Kilimanjaro Mountains and the plain therein before sunset and reflected on the Great War that ended 100 years ago, the year my dad was born.

That war was not fun, and 100 years later, we still hear the reverberations. Men and women died and the course of history was changed. Some of the victims might have been your relatives.

The emotional consequence of the war was well put by John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958) in an epitaph, “When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow, we gave our today.” Next week, we look at the economic consequences of World War 1.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.  

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